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“A running joke in my family is that my mother was a lousy cook, and that’s why I became a chef,” says Neil Kleinberg. “But a lot of it really comes from my dad: He was a postal worker on the Lower East Side back in the ’60s, and after work he’d always bring home food—from the fruit vendor and the chicken guy and the bread guy and the pastrami guy.”
A chef since the ’70s and a Flatbush native, Kleinberg staked his claim on the LES, that land of culinary inspiration, in 2001, when he and co-owner DeDe Lahman opened Clinton St. Baking Company, perfecting a menu of comfort food (and, eventually, some crazy-good, wait-worthy pancakes). Just this past May, he returned to his home borough to unveil a Clinton St. Baking Company outpost at the Time Out Market. We sat down with Kleinberg to chat about NYC movies, kitchen screwups and becoming a subway hero.
Where was your first apartment after you left Flatbush?
With my live-in girlfriend, on 73rd Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. I said to my dad, “Fuck it. I’m moving to the city.” And he said, “You’re crazy, paying $350 in rent! You’re nuts.” I was working 14 hours a day in Manhattan, and the only way to do it was to live in the city.
Dang, 350 bucks.
Oh, a great story from that apartment: There was a heat wave, and on Thanksgiving Day it was, like, 75°F. And I remember, in that small apartment, roasting a turkey and ham and then having over all my friends, wearing Hawaiian shirts. It was fucking brutal. It was November, and we were sweating our balls off.
Do you have a favorite New York movie?
The Godfather, Something’s Gotta Give, You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally.
What do you like about that last one?
There’s a scene in the bookstore that I used to live across the street from; it was called Shakespeare & Co. In that movie, they always walk by these iconic New York landmarks—the back of the museum on Fifth Avenue and 81st Street, Central Park, the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, a coffee shop, whatever. It’s great to identify all the places where you’ve lived.
Do you have a favorite subway line?
Oh my god. Well, I have a favorite subway story.
In college, I had a 6am baking class, making cream puffs and miniature tarts. This one day, right after class, I got high smoking a joint in the cafeteria and then got on the subway. I was this dorky kid with glasses, long hair, a chef coat, a knife bag, a briefcase filled with all my books and a big stack of cake boxes wrapped in string. And I’m sitting by myself stoned out of my mind at, like, Jay Street, and three guys get on the subway and start harassing everybody on the train—and of course they come up to me. One of the guys hit me in the jaw, and I flipped my lid. I went crazy. I said, Fuck this. I’m not taking this shit anymore. So, with an uppercut, I landed the hardest punch I’ve ever thrown at this guy’s jaw. I knocked him back, and his two friends went back. Everyone in the subway car started clapping.
Wow. What a New York moment.
And all of a sudden, my knife kit falls on the ground in the subway car—you can’t make this shit up, right? I pull out my French knife and say to these guys, “If you motherfuckers don’t get off this subway car at the next stop, I’m gonna chop your heads off and leave them on the platform.” And these guys went fucking white as a ghost on me, and they got off at the next stop. I was shaking in my boots. The pastries were all over the place. I was a hero on the subway car.
Any memorable stories from the kitchen?
At a little Italian place on West 68th Street, I was trying out this recipe for an apple charlotte. It’s like an upside-down apple pie. I was using a wineglass to cut out the circles for the mold, but it broke in my hand, and the stem went through my thumb. I was fucking gushing blood. I wrapped my thumb in a kitchen towel, took myself to the hospital, got 14 stitches and came back to finish making the charlotte.
No sick days for you, huh?
It’s like, if I cut myself, if I burn myself, if I spill eggs all over the floor, if there was a fire in the broiler, that’s just, like, kitchen shit for me, you know? Whatever it is, you deal with it, you put the shit out and you start over again.
About Clinton St. Baking Company at Time Out Market New York:
If you didn’t order a stack of fluffy blueberry pancakes, did you really even go? Whatever cure suits ya—egg sandwiches, latke eggs Benedict, brioche French toast—the LES staple’s Time Out Market stall has you covered. For complete menus, more info and editors’ picks, head to timeout.com/newyork/market.