Julian Plyter is a challenge to professionally define: he’s a pastry chef, a voracious reader, a writer, a musician, an avid baker, and an entrepreneur. He and his business partner, Kareem Hamady, started Melt in the summer of 2010, renting kitchen space where they could and selling their ice cream sandwiches out of portable carts at the Hester Street Fair and other events. With a focus on locally sourced ingredients and seasonal flavors, they became known for their innovative and delicious spin on a traditional staple. Now they have their own storefront, Melt Bakery, nestled among the specialty food shops and old school discount clothing stores on Orchard Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Having worked in the pastry kitchens of some of New York City’s finest restaurants — Le Bernardin, Del Posto, Lever House, the Crosby Street Hotel — Plyter is surprisingly unpretentious, relishing his past experience but truly embracing the simplicity of the ice cream sandwich, bringing innovation and creativity to a childhood favorite. His warmth, intelligence, and charisma — not to mention his joyful approach to baking and running a business — result in an hour-long interview which was excruciating to cut down, only because there wasn’t a dull moment to be found. When he does publish his first book, this reader will be buying it the day of its release.
Chefs Connection (CC): I have my questions divided by before Melt, Melt, and beyond Melt.
“Excellent. That’s the same way I have my life, divided, actually, so it’s perfect.”
CC: Let’s start with your career as a pastry chef.
“I went to the Institute of Culinary Education. I really loved the faculty there. So I enrolled there while I was still working in my former career … ”
CC: Which was …
“I worked for an orchestra as their personnel manager for almost a decade. And I just really wanted to bake. So I finished my studies at ICE and I was fortunate enough to land the stage at Le Bernardin, where I worked with Michael Laiskonis and I mean, it’s still an indelible and amazing … tremendously fortunate experience I’ve had, and certainly an eye-popper, when I applied for a job anywhere else.”
CC: What was the atmosphere like in the kitchen there?
“Well, pastry had its own kitchen, so in that sense I was really isolated from the hustle and bustle of the main kitchen, but we certainly had our own hustle and bustle. But I found it to be very polite and very quiet, as kitchens go. Because it was so extremely well organized, everything was done with great precision and great care, and that’s what enabled them to deliver the experience they’re so famous for. But intense focus, is I would say what I took away from that. Because … think about scooping ice cream, think about your Baskin-Robbins guy. You probably would not characterize him as intensely focused when scooping your ice cream.”
CC: Not the ones that I remember!
“[Laughs] Every single scoop of ice cream or powder or whatever, every single garnish, every single piece of every dessert plated there was made with exacting focus and care. So that really taught me the value of paying attention to every little detail, even if you’ve done it 300 times. And that’s a skill I can apply to making cookies, to running a business, to hiring, to training, to every aspect of Melt. So that’s a huge takeaway. And what a blessing to be working with Michael Laiskonis for any length of time. I mean, he’s this father of us all who manages somehow to do everything, and to do everything so well. I have great respect for him.”
CC: What came after that?
“I applied for a job based on a listing I got from the ICE website, which I almost was sure was Nicole Kaplan at Del Posto, because it said, ‘ICE alum’ – and I knew they were looking, you know – ‘ICE alum seeks pastry cooks in a 3-star restaurant.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, it’s probably Del Posto.’ And I had trailed there and I really enjoyed Nicole and I really loved the kitchen.
“[But] it turned out that it was Deb Snyder over at Lever House restaurant. I loved the sort of market cuisine, I loved the ‘new American’ thing, it really spoke to my roots; it’s obviously a big divergence from what I had been doing at Le Bernardin and studying there with Michael. But I got along famously with Deb, and I really enjoyed my time there.
“I was at Veritas, after Lever House closed, as the pastry chef for about 45 minutes. It was sort of not really my scene.”
CC: How come?
“I … you know … it was a little finicky for me, doing little tiny composed pieces. It’s funny because when I did a tasting in consideration for the post, I did something I thought was very reflective of my tastes. I did something very American. I did nothing sculptured, nothing big and showy, I did simple baked things, and that won me the job. But when I got there, it became clear that they didn’t want anything quite so humble, they wanted stuff more like modern French … really designed. And I had learned quite a bit of that from Michael; it just wasn’t what I wanted to say in food. So I respectfully stepped away, and I was then invited to be the opening pastry chef at the Crosby Street Hotel, in Soho.
“That was a really tremendous experience for me. I really got to do baked goods; I was using recipes from the 1800s. There was one called Parkin Gingerbread from the 1890s that was this really hearty oat-based gingerbread cake. And I was using my great-grandmother’s recipes, I was using my grandmother’s recipes, and especially my mother’s recipes, and that kind of stuff really gave voice to what I wanted to say in food.
“I also learned inventory controls, and food cost management, and kitchen management. And I worked the line, and I expedited, and I really got to really refine my kitchen management skills. So I was doing that, it was great, I was working a lot, of course, as we tend to. And I really felt ready. I wanted to open my own business.
“My plan originally was to do a full service bakery up in Inwood. I’ve lived in Inwood for 15 years, and I recognized this need people just had for good muffins. There was no place to get a good coffee. There are a couple of great coffee spots up there, but they’re not on the way to the train for most people.
“So I was sort of consulting with this friend of mine who was very into food. He’s got a brilliant business mind and he was just offering me advice on my food-based business plan. He said, ‘This is a great plan, but what about this one line in here about doing ice cream sandwiches? ‘Cause you could have a bakery up in Inwood, and it would be great, and you’d be the village baker of Inwood, and everybody would love it. But where do you want to go with food, what do you want to do with food? You’re not going to make a destination in Inwood, realistically.’
“So we became business partners. And we started Melt.
“It’s funny, because a lot of people, early on, said, ‘Oh this is an awesome concept, no one is doing this. You’re totally right, let me invest.’ And my tendency would be to say, ‘Sure, sure! My name is Julian, j-u-l-i-a-n, write it down and give me a check.’ And Kareem [his business partner] said to me, ‘You know, what do you need money for?’ And I said, ‘Well, we have to have money to buy a cart … oh, I guess we have money to buy a cart. Well we have to have money to rent the kitchen next … oh, we guess we made enough money selling ice cream sandwiches to rent the kitchen next week.’ So he taught me that we didn’t need the money, and the value of equity. And now that we’re four and a half years in, just about, I see what I’ve done for my equity. And the amounts of money now that I think would be required to get equity away from me are a lot more than they would have been back then, certainly, and not just because we’ve gained a foothold as a business, but also because I understand the value now, really, of sweat equity and really just putting your whole being into something and making it happen.”
CC: What were the first flavors that you started with?
“Our very first day, our flavors were: Classic, which is chocolate chip walnut cookies and vanilla ice cream; Seduction, which is double chocolate cookies and espresso ice cream, and really espresso ice cream too, not coffee ice cream. And we leave grounds in the ice cream, so you can really eat the grounds, it’s a very earthy experience for me. And then Bold, which is salted peanut cookies, and at the time we were using Guinness ice cream, and now we’re using Sixpoint Brownstone ale to make that ice cream, sort of a peanuts and beer.
“So for me it was very representative of our main tenet of approachability and excitement, because we wanted to offer something very basic: chocolate chip walnut cookies and vanilla ice cream. And everybody says, ‘Do you make those without walnuts?’ And we really don’t. The reason that we don’t is because we both feel like … well first of all, primarily, we both feel like it’s better with walnuts. We like the texture, we like the crunch, we like the flavor. But, we also feel like, you can get a chocolate chip cookie with vanilla ice cream anywhere. It’s at every corner deli in New York, right? Even if it’s not a handmade one, even if it’s not the same quality of real butter instead of hydrogenated whatever, it just seemed like a very basic thing and we wanted to just put a little stamp on it.
“And then Seduction is sort of for somebody who’s maybe a little bit more adventurous, but it’s also not a far-out concept: chocolate and coffee. And then it’s a Bold, which is a very adventurous flavor, and I made that for like the dudes, I thought guys would love that. And it’s so funny, because guys would come up and they’d say, ‘Wow, peanuts and beer? That’s awesome! Can I have a chocolate chip?’ You know, guys don’t like to be adventurous eaters, I’ve found, in comparison to women, especially at least as it concerns that flavor. I would say 85% of that has been women that purchased it.”
CC: So when you were a little kid, did you have any vision that you wanted to be baking, that this was what you wanted to do when you grew up?
“I think the first thing I wanted to be was a bobby pin maker, and I realized there was probably a limited runway for bobby pin makers. I was fascinated by bobby pins. But even then, I can remember wrapping my mind around the romance of being the village baker. Like, how cool is this, to provide for your community. And to me, that’s what it’s about. That’s the warmth, that’s the hearth. Now that’s baking, to me.
“I wanted to be a ballet dancer for a little while too, but cookies prevented that.”
CC: [Laughs] Baking and ballet dancing are mutually exclusive.
“[Laughs] Baking really found its own way to take over, yeah. But it wasn’t something that I ever seriously wanted to do. However, I did it as a hobby relentlessly, I baked with my mother.
“I was making pies in high school. I loved to cook, I loved to bake. If you want to know about how I loved to cook, just ask my parents about the homemade potato chip experiment. That was a pretty infamous one. We don’t make those at home anymore. If we want potato chips, we’ll buy them like the rest of America.”
CC: Were you a big ice cream sandwich guy?
“Well, cookies. More so than ice cream or ice cream sandwiches. My mom – I baked at her elbow, you know. I have pictures of me baking from when I was two.
“Cookies have always been a thing for me. I like our ice creams and I feel like our ice cream is getting consistently better, but I’m really, really proud of our cookies.
“It’s funny, too, ‘cause Kareem … so he comes from the business world, where — this is really unfair of me, but I’m going to say it anyway — if it can’t be quantified on a spreadsheet, it doesn’t exist. So he [was] asking me why the cookies weren’t consistent from one week to the next. And I said, ‘Well first of all, I don’t want them to be particularly consistent. I’m not making Chips Ahoy, I’m making handmade cookies.’ He said, ‘Okay, but if you mix them for the same amount of time and you bake them at the same temperature and the ingredients are the same temperature to start with, they should come out the same.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s where baking goes off the grid.’ Literally off, the spreadsheet grid. It doesn’t always happen that way. And he couldn’t wrap his mind around it.
“So I was hugely gratified when I met Dorie Greenspan. Two things: she knew who I was, or at least she had the grace to pretend she did, which was awesome, I’ll take it. No, she was familiar with Melt, she knew who we were. And second, she said right in front of Kareem, ‘So tell me about what you’re doing.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you know, cookies, we’re working on consistency,’ And she goes, ‘Oh! Aren’t cookies just the biggest pain? They never come out the same way twice no matter what you do.’ And I’m like, ‘Thank you Dorie!! Thank you very much!’ It was this very, very gratifying moment of ‘See? Some things you can’t put in Excel, you know?’”
CC: There’s a little magic in cookies …
“I think that’s baking in general. Take bread, you’ve got flour, water, and salt: three days later you have sourdough. Like, who, how? How did people even figure this out? It’s like coffee. How do you figure out that this little seed in this plant, that it needs to be roasted and cured and all these things … or vanilla. Give me a break! Chocolate. How do people figure this stuff out?”
CC: So then how did you get into the music management thing?
“Well, that was the other thing that was sort of a family thing. My grandmother, she’s been an organist at our church for 55 years, and she was my first piano teacher. My dad went to school for music and was a music teacher in my hometown, my mom played flute, so I played piano all growing up. And I had gone to orientation at SUNY-Fredonia as a journalism major, and I got there, and I heard music, and saw music people, and I’m like, ‘You know what, why am I kidding myself?’
“So [after that] I was living in Rochester for a bit, a friend of mine from school was working at the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and she said, ‘Hey, there’s this job here.’ I moved here for the interview, landed the job, started working a week later, [and] worked there for eight years, eight months, and eight days, exactly. When I was in my last seven or eight months there, I went through the culinary school in the evenings, and I trailed where I could. I finished my job there, dovetailing with my internship at Le Bernardin, and then landed at Lever House, and then said goodbye to salary, and to all my friends. [Laughs].”
CC: And to having any free time.
“Yeah. You start over. And that was okay, I was really passionate about it.
“I really wanted to write food. I was reading voraciously, food writing, and thinking, ‘This is not very good. This person does not know what chanterelles are if they think they should taste this way,’ or ‘This person doesn’t know this stuff.’ So I found a lot of it to be just really uninformed, and really insipid. And I don’t mean any disrespect to the prominent food writers who are writing today, because I’m not talking about them. So I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to do some time in the trenches if I’m going to write food. So I’m going to really cook. I’m gonna go learn, I’m going to work with great chefs.’ And I had so much fun doing it that I sort of forgot. I actually had a moment of epiphany after three or four years working in food, I’m like, ‘Oh, I wanted to write.’
“When I went to culinary school, I was writing. I would work at the morning at the orchestra, I would go to school at night and I would get home, and write a blog entry about what we made that day … for me it was really a fun way to sort of keep track of what I was doing and to work on my writing chops. Because I have a very, very eccentric, very esoteric way of writing, I’m very weird.
“I have an agent right now, actually, a very good agent, Angela Miller, who’s working on getting a book out there for me. I wrote a proposal, and she can’t really sell it. It’s because I write very weirdly. I kind of write like I speak. I do a lot of parentheticals … ”
CC: Have you seen the Robicellis’ cookbook? Because their writing is like that, it’s witty and funny and he chimes in with commentary. You can read it as a book even if you’re not going to make any of their cupcakes.
“Yeah, that’s what I really want. I think I straddled the line a little too … I think I fell over a little bit to the cooking side, so the eccentric character from my writing voice doesn’t come out enough for what I want to do, but comes out too much for like, this is how to make cookies. It’s too much of a narrative, right? Recipes are like, ‘So, open a window near your cooking space, you’ll find the air refreshing.’”
CC: That’s why I read blogs instead of cookbooks, because I’m more interested in the person making it. You know … ‘And then I dropped this on the floor..’
“Yeah! I want it to be a little more narrative.”
CC: So now back to Melt. Was this the neighborhood that you wanted to be in? How did you end up on Orchard Street?
“You know, we were born on the Lower East Side. Our first outlet was the Hester Street Fair. And I felt a real connection with the Lower East Side. We sort of all recognized that the neighborhood was turning a corner. We noticed the emergence of all these small food places, and that there was this emerging culture. Plus I feel like the Lower East Side is the most ‘locals’ neighborhood of any place in New York. And I feel like they love their neighborhood, and they love to see what their neighborhood is bringing them daily and weekly and monthly. Plus it’s right around the corner from where I live, Inwood, so … [Laughs]”
CC: Yes, so easy for you to commute!
“[Laughs] Couldn’t be more convenient. Couldn’t actually still be in Manhattan and be any farther, yeah.
“But no, I actually enjoy my commute time. That’s where I’ve done a lot of my learning, because I still read so voraciously. I read “On Food and Cooking” as if it were a novel. I read it twice, you know? And I read “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” the two-volume set, on my commute.
“I wanted to learn about preserving, I wanted to learn about slaughter, I wanted to learn about animals, so I have this giant – I really, I will admit, bought this book more for irony than anything else – this giant book called “The Encyclopedia of Country Living.” And I’m sitting with my legs crossed, on my A train, drinking my iced coffee, reading “The Encyclopedia of Country Living.” But I learned about animal slaughter, and animal husbandry, I learned about food preserving. So … I don’t mind the commute.
“But I saw this place—I actually heard from a realtor that it was going to close, it was a leather jacket store, unsurprisingly. And I looked in, and of course you couldn’t really see much, it was all leather jackets, I mean, there was an aisle 17 inches wide to walk through. But I saw the length of the space, and the width, and I thought, ‘This could turn into a kitchen, you know.’
“So we ended up speaking to the brokers, and … we built it ourselves. They gave us an empty box and we got everything either at auction, we got a lot of stuff at bankruptcy sales. Our giant kitchen sink I think I dragged through an empty supermarket in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I put it in a van and drove it here; I did the same thing with our mixer. Our ovens, we got from this guy who was getting rid of them from his restaurant. We didn’t count on anybody to do it for us, and we didn’t spend, but we spent in labor instead of spending money and we had the time. We put up the plastic and the steel on the walls.”
CC: You should write a book about that, too.
“Yeah, oh my goodness. I learned a lot, I’ll tell you that. I think foremostly, I’ve learned that if you can do it yourself, you should. We really did as much as we possibly could. We didn’t do any plumbing or tiling. We could have done tiling, maybe, but we didn’t do any plumbing.
“I would like to say that we didn’t do any electrical … [laughs] … we’re both still alive. To the extent that we did any electrical ourselves, everything is fine. Now. [Laughs.] Of course we had licensed electricians do the actual electric work for us. But for some reason, Kareem is really fond of standing on ladders and zapping himself with various wiring projects.”
CC: Once you guys opened and had a storefront, how long did it take to get people coming in?
“Well, it’s one of those things … some people know us, and they will come to find us. Some people of course, there’s neighborhood traffic. But the crowd that comes down here for the old bargain district stuff, the tube socks and the leather jackets, that’s not the same crowd that comes down here for four dollar ice cream sandwiches, and I get that.
“It’s not our busiest location. The High Line is our busiest location. Or when we do Madison Square Eats.”
CC: And the High Line is just this flood of people.
“Yeah, well give me six million people to walk by my shop a year and I’ll probably do really well here, too.
“But the only thing I don’t like about our space here is that it’s not well-suited to hosting events, because it’s so narrow. Part of our original business model was teaching, and we taught food start-up. I took those eighteen months of research and work we’d done toward getting this open, and said, ‘Kareem, we can package this into a two and a half hour class and people will pay us money and it will be, for them, money well spent.’ It’s a wealth of knowledge of all this stuff that took us over a year to figure out. So we were teaching classes.
“And every once in a while, people still inquire, ‘Hey, do you guys still teach classes?’ And we can’t really do that here, it’s not really set up for it.
“But I love the Lower East Side, and I love Orchard Street, and I love to see where it’s going. I feel like I’m in the tide of this emerging sort of cultural thing that’s happening. Russ & Daughters Café, Black Tree across the street, Max Fish, there’s a new pastry shop opening up two doors down. It’s just such a neat time to be here. It’s quite fun. Top Hops, the beer store. Pop Karma, the popcorn store.”
CC: Everything seems to be very … specific.
“The Lower East Side is like old world culture, it’s like old New York. And people are like, ‘Oh well, the new trend in food is niche food, so one person just does this, and one person just does that.’ And I’m like, ‘Well it’s not actually a new trend in food, that’s about the oldest trend in food.’
“If you think about the 18th century: you get your groceries from the greengrocer, or you get your produce from the greengrocer, you get your poultry from the poultryman, you get your fish from the fishmonger, you get your beef from the beef guy. Specialization. That’s the oldest trend in food.”
CC: And you get it when you need it. You don’t get it two weeks in advance.
“And need it to live on your shelf for six months.
“So I find that really fascinating. And now the Lower East Side: granted, it’s not the same thing as getting poultry from the poultryman, getting popcorn from the popcornman, but it’s really exciting to me. I really think that’s very, very cool. I also think it raises the bar, the way a rising tide lifts all boats. Like … somebody that dedicates their life to making popcorn is going to make damned good popcorn. Somebody that dedicates their life to curating a selection of amazing beer is going to have a great selection of beer, so I really appreciate the specialization. I think it raises the bar for everybody.”
CC: Have you had any wacky, weird customers come in here?
“Oh yeah. I had a gentleman who named himself ‘The Bonecrusher’ and said he required 50 cents for bus fare, and he would give me five dollars the next day. And then I told him that I was unable to accommodate such requests. He made some threats and then left. Haven’t seen him again.”
CC: And you do a lot of events too, right?
“Yeah, we do. Events are awesome for us. And actually we’re starting one of our busier event times now, ‘cause … holiday parties. All these big companies have holiday parties and they bring in catering. So we have these mobile carts, it’s a great advantage for us. We just roll ‘em into offices.
“Plus Christmas is like my favorite thing ever. I come from a big Christmassy family. My mom goes … I mean … to say ‘all out’ doesn’t really do it justice, she is like Mrs. Christmas. And not in a commercial way; she gets the holiday, it means a lot to her. But it’s always been a really special time of year for my family. So I start playing Christmas music in the store probably [in] early November, ‘cause I’m that way. Drives my employees insane. I will wait until I see somebody else—if I hear it somewhere else, then I’ll go. ‘They’re already playing it over there, so …’ Then it’s not my fault.”
CC: And you were telling me upstairs [before we started the interview] about the pickle event?
“Yesterday was New York City Pickle Day. I don’t know the number yet, but I’ll bet there were 20 thousand people on Orchard Street, which would be in keeping with what they expected. There’s a tremendously successful event put together by the BID [Business Improvement District], the, of which I am a newly elected board member. So it’s really fun to be involved in that way too. But yeah, we did a pickled pumpkin ice cream with ginger sugar cookies. That was created by Nick Diaz, my sous chef, and sold out in about an hour and 45 minutes. And people were coming back asking for more.
“And people said, ‘How did you do it?’ He got pumpkins, cut them up, pickled them, and then pureed them, and then made them into ice cream by adding custard, and then made these ginger sugar cookies and put it together and it sold out. People were going crazy, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever had and I have to have more!’ I was surprised, because people were like, ‘Is it good?’ And I’m like, ‘Well I’m not going to tell you it’s NOT good! But it tastes exactly like what it is. So proceed with that knowledge.’ And people came back for it.
“And then there was a home pickling contest as well, for people who don’t pickle professionally, to alliterate a bit. [Laughs.] If I may. And Nick did pickled apples and he won first place. I’m so proud!”
CC: That sounds like so much fun!
“It was a ball.
“Well there’s this thing now, I’m thinking too, and I’m talking to other merchants, and I’m talking to the board, as it were. We had a committee meeting last week. But you know, Orchard street is closed between Delancey and Houston on Sundays, it’s closed to vehicular traffic. So I’m like, ‘This needs to be every Sunday, we need to do something.’ Because there were 20 thousand people here. This is crazy. And then you get somebody complaining that they didn’t sell any shirts; it’s like, ‘Well, you also didn’t sell any shirts last Sunday either, so I don’t see how this is hurting you.’
“But Pickle Day is awesome. That’s one of the things I do love about the Lower East Side, is the Business Improvement District. These guys work really hard to make it a beautiful neighborhood and to make it a great place to be a merchant, to be a business owner. And you’re not going to get that in too many places in New York. And I really, really respect what they do. I’m really excited to be on the board, because I think I can work with them to work on great change, and really exciting stuff.”
CC: You are a happy guy, with a good life!
“I do [have a good life]. You know, it’s a long road to hoe, and of course it’s not without its frustrations, daily. But I’m very fortunate, I’m really really blessed. I’m very lucky, I have an immensely supportive partner, both business partner and personal partner, both extremely supportive. And my family, they’re super behind it, super proud, always. [Laughs.] They’re well-fed, always.
“[And] our team is fantastic. I really am happy with [them]. They really work hard, and for the first time this year, my employees are saying, ‘I love working here. This is a great job.’ That is the hugest compliment. To hear that they really dig it, and then that increases my confidence too, to know that they’re out there, loving it … who’s going to sell more ice cream sandwiches? Somebody who loves doing it.”
CC: And also, when you’re making food and you’re happy, it’s actually going to taste better.
“Oh, for sure. I’ve made angry cookies before, and they’re not good. They are not good.”
CC: Yeah, I’ve made stress muffins.
“[Laughs] There should be a recipe, like stress muffins. If you’re stressed, just make these. They’ll be really easy.
“But you know, our mission is very simple. It’s what we state in all of our proposals and everything we write: to create delicious ice cream cookie sandwiches and to deliver them in the context of a great customer experience.”
He has definitely succeeded in his mission: I walk out of there with The Elvis: peanut butter cookies around banana ice cream, and it gets completely devoured before I hit the subway station.
Interview and photographs (except for Plyter family photos) by Laurie Ulster
Read about Julian Plyter’s Deep Dark Secrets
Visit Melt Bakery
Visit Melt Bakery on Facebook