Courtesy Ali Spahr
Mar 28, 2023
Breadwinner: Meet the pastry wizard at Winner, the hit cafe and butcher shop
As Winner expands its mini-empire, one thing remains constant: The excellence of Ali Spahr’s pastries
Several months ago when I first met Ali Spahr, executive pastry chef of Winner and its multiple offshoot locations, I mentioned how much I loved the bakery-cafe’s granola. Spahr, who is most used to hearing praise for her sourdough croissants, lit up. “That’s one of my favorite things we make,” she said, smiling. “At least a tenth of every batch goes to my snacking.”
At the time, Spahr was waiting to move from Winner’s original location — a cramped basement space on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope — to her new production facility on Fifth Avenue, next to the new Winner Butcher, which also serves Spahr’s Brooklyn-famous pastries, including chocolate croissants that don’t skimp on the star ingredient.
These days, the 32-year-old pastry chef oversees a team of five — a sous chef, three pastry cooks, and an extern from the Institute of Culinary Education. Together, they are responsible for making pastries for the expanding Winnerverse: The flagship Winner Bakery, an outpost in Prospect Park, Winner on Franklin, and Winner Butcher, as well as a weekly plated dessert for Runner Up, the tasting-menu restaurant adjacent to Winner Bakery.
Since opening in 2020, Winner has gone from a lone corner takeout window to a mini-empire. But Spahr says there’s still plenty left for the team to figure out. “As we start to lean into the expansion and have all of the venues open seven days a week, if we bring in more people, what does that look like?” she asks.
It’s not a bad problem to have.
Spahr, who grew up in the Philadelphia region, has fond memories of the Amish-made apple fritters sold at the city’s public market. “Everyone talks about [Philly] cheese steak but the apple fritters at Reading Terminal is where it’s at,” says Sphar. She was inspired to make her own fritters when Winner opened in 2020. And for a time, Spahr’s weekly pastry drop, announced on Instagram the day before their 3 p.m. Saturday arrival, seasonal fritters — apple, strawberry rhubarb, apricot — had pastry lovers lining up 11th Street.
Saturdays were a chance for Spahr to experiment, enlist the help of seasonal ingredients such as blood orange and Meyer lemons, and often, lean into the nostalgia element of baking and enjoying baked goods.
These specialty items, which Chef Daniel Eddy, owner of Winner and restaurant Runner Up, describes as “whimsical, delicious, and ever changing,” demonstrated to him that “she could exist and be creative, while still maintaining the core of what allowed for this other thing to grow.”
Eddy first met Spahr at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Cafe, where she became his pastry sous chef in 2017. The two stayed in touch after Spahr moved to New York, and teamed up again when Eddy himself arrived to open his own place. “I knew how lucky I was to have her joining the team based on the work we did together in Philadelphia,” Eddy says, adding that “a great deal of Winner’s success is attributed to Ali’s quality of work and her attention to detail.”
Croissants, her way
Spahr says the croissants are “a constant work in progress” — one she could tinker on for another 20 years and still find ways to improve, even if no one else would be able to detect her minuscule tweaks. Since opening, Winner’s morning offerings have included a cinnamon roll, coffee coffee cake, pain au chocolat, raisin bran scone, and a seasonal loaf cake that’s always vegan. All of them are made to sell out and eliminate waste by the time sandwiches become available at 11 a.m. And sell out they do. (A ham and cheese croissant is available starting at 9:45 a.m. Monday through Friday at the Seventh Avenue spot, and it tends to go quickly, too.)
“I feel it’s important to have at least one gluten-free item and one vegan item on the menu. Food allergies and dietary restrictions are something I always try to accommodate to the best of my ability,” Spahr says.
The much-lauded croissants are what Spahr’s sous chef Andrew Yeeles was tasked with making the day he trailed (industry jargon for “auditioned”) at Winner late last summer. “I spent a whole day making her very good croissants,” Yeeles says. “She spent a good five hours showing me how she does her process.” Yeeles wasn’t new to making the classic French pastry, but he admitted it had been a while and hadn’t been accustomed to making the item in such a way as to eliminate waste, a trademark of Spahr’s.
At the end of the day of staging, Yeeles got the job.
“You know what you’re doing,” Spahr told him and brought him on to join her team of smiling, engaged pastry cooks. Yeeles said it was clear off the bat how much Spahr valued her team and the importance of teamwork as well as work-life balance, something the sous chef said isn’t exactly a given in his experiences within the industry. “I have not seen a boss in history that cares so much about her team and fights for them.”
Spahr also “encourages everyone to have a little bit of creativity,” says Yeeles, who noted that it’s not just the two of them coming up with flavor profiles.
For his part, Eddy gives her a wide berth. “I provide guidance when it’s requested, or pose questions when something feels astray. She has taken ownership of her department, the creative, the training, the scheduling, and accountability of it all.”
Ali in Paris
Spahr’s passion for classic French pastries was born when she studied French in college at the University of South Carolina. Like everyone who has ever studied in Paris, she ate a lot of croissants. Unlike everyone who has ever studied abroad, though, she decided to pursue pastry after college, thanks in large part to an internship with a chef who gave her private cooking classes. Her mentor told her about Ferrandi, one of France’s leading culinary schools, where she ultimately ended up studying the fine art of pastry.
Spahr interned at Gérard Mulot, an upscale patisserie in Paris, after her time at Ferrandi, and back in the States she put her newly minted French pastry skills to work at Walnut Street Cafe. Under Melissa Weller, a James Beard nominated baker, whom Spahr worked with at Walnut Street Cafe, Spahr found another mentor. “She taught me everything she knew,” Spahr says.
Pain au pandemic
Winner opened right before the pandemic arrived in the city. Spahr, who moved to New York a couple years earlier in 2018, says the timing was actually fortuitous. Situated on a corner in a bustling part of Park Slope, the pandemic-era take-out only window was an oasis in a stressful moment — and it didn’t hurt that the pastries (and Eddy’s Instagram-viral chicken dinner) were damn good.
Indeed, the excitement over quality food, along with a growing understanding that good ingredients cost money, has helped catapult Winner to notoriety in the neighborhood and beyond. If a single donut or fritter costs $7 or $8, it’s because Spahr is spending anywhere between $120-$140 for eight pints of strawberries to make about 100 Harry’s Berries donuts. Her choice of butter comes from Normandy, and it too contributes to the sometimes sticker-shock-inducing prices at Winner. (“She knows her butter,” says Yeeles.)
In addition to using quality ingredients, Spahr says they “put a lot of technique and love into things, and that does come at a bit of a premium.”
Now that Spahr has a bigger, brighter bakery on Fifth Avenue next to Winner Butcher’s retail shop (she and her team had previously been working in the basement, with the bread being baked on the main floor), the plan is to take advantage of the seasonal produce as well as butcher-inspired items like the smoked vanilla ice cream dessert that was part of a recent four-course Runner Up menu.
Yeeles is particularly excited about a recent off-menu item at the Fifth Avenue location: The pecan pie twice-baked croissant, a creation of one of their new hires, “tasted like Thanksgiving and was delicious,” Yeeles says.
This recent Saturday addition wasn’t advertised on Instagram as previous drops had been, and Spahr thinks the special additions will continue in this less structured way. She says it’ll be more, “Oh, we have a little bit of extra of this. Let’s run a special for a bit” — a “bit” being about as long as it takes for the neighborhood to get wind of a get-it-while-you-can item. And just like the drop that helped catapult Spahr and her team to the top of Brooklyn’s bakery scene, it won’t be available long.
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