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A conversation with Itzik Ozarko, Marzipan bake-masterby simone • October 19 2008
Interview, Food, Shopping
The Marzipan Bakery's uber-chocolaty rugelach have been known to cause traffic jams on Agrippas St. as first-year yeshiva students crowd around to buy the treats for themselves, for their friends, for the people who tolerate them for Shabbat. While the rugelach are the bakery's main draw, especially amongst the Anglo crowd, Marzipan is a Jerusalem institution. Jerusalemite talked with Itzik Ozarko, the man behind the magic at the Marzipan Bakery.
Many proprietors of shops in the shuk are part of families with strong ties to Nachlaot. What's your connection to this neighborhood and what are your feelings on how it has been changing? My father, who moved to Israel from Turkey as a young child, opened Marzipan in Machane Yehuda in 1986 after learning the trade from some of Israel's finest bakers. Today, he's retired and I run the business with my brother. I'm in charge of the baking, and my brother does the business side. Our family also has strong ties in the neighborhood, and I've lived in Nachlaot for many years.
Regarding the changes, I think that both the neighborhood and the shuk are finally getting what they deserve: lots of honor, fame and glory. Nachlaot is famous, and it deserves to be famous. There are artists living there, government people. People used to run away from Nachlaot, and now they're running to it.
Machane Yehuda also deserves its fame. It used to be a simple place, and now it's getting fancy, as it deserves to. The vendors there work hard for their money - they work from early in the morning until late at night. They work on holidays when everyone else has off, they work on Fridays on erev chag (holiday eves) all the time. These people are the salt of earth, and the time has come when Jerusalemites have begun searching out the truth, searching out people like the vendors at Machane Yehuda. We're beginning to value not just the people who work in hi-tech and computers but simple hard workers.
In the English language, many brand names are so strong that they have become synonymous with their product categories over time - Band Aid, Kleenex and Xerox come to mind. Your rugelach are so popular, that many - especially English speakers who don't know what marzipan is - refer to them as marzipan. How do you feel about this? What's a good way to distinguish between actual marzipan and your bakery's rugelach? This sounds funny, but it's true. We used to think Americans called the rugelach marzipan because they thought there was a trace of marzipan in the rugelach. At first, we tried to correct this misunderstanding, but it didn't work, and there's nothing we can do it. Even though most Americans don't even like actual marzipan, they like to call our rugelach marzipan and not rugelach. At least now we know what they are talking about. If someone comes and orders marzipan, we give them rugelach.
Of course, there is no marzipan in the rugelach, and marzipan does not mean rugelach, but we work so hard and this is one of the ways we reap the fruits of our work. We don’t have a lot of branches - we just have one single place, but it's nice to see its fame grow. We now have close to 30 people working here - we're supporting a lot of families, and God has blessed our enterprise.
Although your chalot, berry-filled pastries and cinnamon rolls are no slouches in the taste department, your signature is undoubtedly the chocolate rugelach. How many units would you say you sell per week? How many of those are on Fridays? I'm glad you mentioned the chalot. My father always focused on excellence and wanted all of the bakery's goods to be excellent. We are constantly improving all of the bakery's offerings. There comes a point when you can't improve anymore, but we are always trying to get to that point - not just with the rugelach, but with everything. We're really an international bakery. We sell Moroccan cookies, Syrian pastries, etc. A lot of Israelis buy these products because they remind them of the way their mothers and grandmothers cooked. But the rugelach are the most popular with the Americans.
We definitely sell the most on Fridays. I can't give you exact weights, but we sell as much as 10 other bakeries combined. We sell hundreds of units on Fridays.
What makes your rugalach so distinctive for people? Is it just the undercooked, oily gooeyness, or is there another secret? It's the chocolate they're made from. We use a lot of ingredients. They're very rich. We use lots of cacao, only a bit of oil, some coconut and other natural ingredients. It's the mix of these ingredients that is the secret.
Also, many bakeries try to make their rugelach as quickly as possible. We put a lot of work into our rugelach, and it pays off. Our rugelach have a great taste on the first day you buy them, on the second day and even after two weeks.
You used to ship frozen rugelach internationally over the web? Do you still do that? Yes, we're just starting that up again. The website (marzipanbakery.com) at this point is mostly for caterers, bakeries and stores but may ship to individuals in the future.
How much does volume increase over the holidays? How do you handle the holiday rush? This time of year is the hardest for us. We have holidays beginning in the middle of the week all the time and it's like having two Fridays in one week. This year it's been especially crazy. We're working all the time, but that's just what we have to do. We work long and hard, putting in many extra hours. It's basically non-stop work until the season passes. We just try to do as much as we can.
What are some of your favorite places in Jerusalem to relax after a long day of baking, managing staff and selling to the masses? For the last 20 years, I've taken less than a week of vacation each year. I never get out. I don't. If I have any time, I like to go to the Giraffe Gym off Ben Yehuda St. to work out, but that's about it.
Photos of Itzik by the oven (top), the gooey richness and the scene in the store (bottom) by Adina Polen for Jerusalemite.
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