Udi's Robin Baron dishes on her new Boulder restaurant, the perfect pizza and why eight inches is the ideal size
This is part one of my interview with Robin Baron, executive chef of Udi's Pizza Bar, Udi's Bread Cafe and the soon-to-be-open Pickled Lemon in Boulder. Part two of my interview with Baron will run in this space tomorrow.
Robin Baron may fly completely under the radar, but the 32-year-old chef has already opened four Udi's Bread Cafes across the Front Range, as well as Udi's Pizza Cafe Bar in Arvada -- and in mid-June, she'll expand her kitchen sorcery to Boulder, where Pickled Lemon, a fast-casual Middle Eastern restaurant, will unlock its doors on the Hill.
Robin, the daughter of Udi Baron, Denver's unofficial bread head, began cooking as a teenager, working for her dad at a sandwich, European-style pastry and espresso kiosk at the long-gone Northglenn Mall. "I'd come in after school and do the night shift, making sandwiches and then closing it up," remembers Baron, who admits that, at the time, she -- and her father -- were amateurs. "Back then, our sandwiches weren't that good, and we still had a lot to learn about bread, but Udi made lots of specialty Viennese desserts from his youth, and those cakes and pastries definitely made their mark, instilling in me what good sweets should taste like."
Still, Robin says, it wasn't until she left the United States and moved to Israel, where she had relatives, that she realized cooking was her calling. "I loved the independence of making money while working for my dad, but I only realized that I wanted to cook professionally once I moved to Israel and worked for my uncle, spent time cooking with friends, their aunts and mothers and whoever else would let me into their kitchen," she explains. She stayed in Israel for three years, living with her grandmother, who also gets credit for pushing her toward a culinary career. "Her dishes are absolutely perfect, and most of my quality time with her was spent side by side, helping her prepare meals, but she always kept a sharp eye on me to keep me on track, lest I mess up one of her dishes by adding cilantro or some crazy spice like cumin," Robin jokes.
When she moved back to Denver -- "I missed my mom and dad and brother," Robin says -- she was eighteen and well-versed in the kitchen, but she wanted to walk the line of a high-volume restaurant, and the now-defunct Roy's Cherry Creek was hiring. She landed a gig there and, later, at Bloom, where she was one of the opening cooks. "It was while I was at Bloom that I really started to realize that I wanted to take the plunge -- that I wanted to take the next serious step," she remembers.
So she did what thousands of chefs before her have done: She packed up her knives and took a stab at the Big Apple, doing time with Bobby Flay, whose style, she admits, was a "little too flashy" for her tastes. But while she was cooking for Flay, she made a few connections, including a well-known artist who was opening a restaurant in the East Village. "He brought in an Israeli chef, Ido Ben-Shmuel, who had been cooking in France and just moved to New York, and he was a chef who I really wanted to work with," says Robin. She cooked alongside Ben-Shmuel, who took her "under his wing and taught me so much about being a line cook on the hot line," she recalls, for a year, until he left.
Robin wasn't done with New York, however, and before she eventually moved back to Denver to open the first Udi's Bread Cafe, in Stapleton, she kicked around the kitchens of Casa Mono and Thomas Keller's Per Se, restaurants that helped prepare her to run her own spot.