September 25, 2018

Living the High Life: Ron Silver and His Three Bubbes

I admit to being one of those New Yorkers with a bad attitude toward change. Not only do I dislike change in general, but when it comes to my adopted city, I’m gutted every time I return to find my old neighborhood restaurants have closed, changed hands — or even if they have redecorated. As a chef, I like consistency and simple, sure things, and I’m sensitive to red flags on a menu that I perceive as “hipster” items that threaten my nostalgic feelings about a place.

So imagine how much I expected to hate the Bubby’s “new” location (it opened five years ago) at the entrance to the High Line park in the meatpacking district. How could this imposter Bubby’s possibly live up to the memories I had created 20 years ago at its original Tribeca location, a brunch spot that may as well have been an extension of my living room when I lived downtown? 

But I needn’t have worried because chef, restaurateur and Bubby’s owner Ron Silver and his competent team oversee every aspect of his restaurants and are still at the top of their game. Bubby’s high-end comfort food joints known for nostalgia-inducing American dishes have- been a staple of the brunch scene in New York for 28 years. I met Silver at Bubby’s High Line location to discuss his restaurants and his latest project, a new company, Azuca, which makes edible cannabis-infused sweeteners and syrups. 

While Bubby’s is famous in New York for its old-fashioned fruit pies, pancakes, flaky biscuits and burgers (read hangover food), what sets it apart from the rest of the commercial food chains’ similar menus is the ingredients it chooses. Everything at Bubby’s is locally sourced from purveyors and farms in the area. From the best butter, lard, local fruits and cream for the pies to its farm-fresh eggs and meat, the quality of the ingredients in a Bubby’s meal is noteworthy, even in a city where customers are spoiled by top-notch produce. 

As it turns out, the affable and absurdly creative Silver has led a life punctuated by a series of stranger-than-fiction chapters that have made him into the success he is today, the first of which happened in childhood. When Silver was very young, his father died and his mother remarried. His stepfather’s mother became his third grandmother. Because he was close to all three bubbes growing up and can’t remember a time he wasn’t influenced by them, this served as the inspiration behind the name of his business, which he opened in his Tribeca neighborhood in 1990. Although none of his bubbes is alive anymore, the walls of his restaurants are adorned with old photographs of them at various stages of their lives, and it seems they’ve been watching over him ever since.

Bubby’s owner Ron Silver and his competent team oversee every aspect of his  restaurants and are still at the top of their game.

In 2003, Silver opened a Bubby’s in Dumbo, Brooklyn. The huge waterfront restaurant was, by his admission, a nightmare from the start. It was busy all the time, and Silver had a hard time managing his bustling Tribeca location with the one in Brooklyn.

To make matters worse, after nine years in the same location, the landlord decided to hike the rent to the point where it was untenable to stay. The eatery made an agreement to end its lease in 2012, and Bubby’s had a huge blowout closing party and left its Dumbo location for the final time.

The day after the closing party, Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, inundating businesses and residences with multiple feet of water and leaving damaging debris and broken glass in her wake. Had Silver remained in that location, the losses he incurred may have put a stop to his plans to open his current restaurant, a fantastic location at the entrance of High Line Park and across from the famed Whitney Museum that is frequented by locals and tourists.

Stranger still, Silver once arrived at his restaurant to find a message that some investors were interested in discussing with him a franchise opportunity —  in Japan. Silver recalls telling his manager to call them back and “tell them to blow me.” He wasn’t trying to be mean, he told me — he was trying to be realistic. After all, no one knows better than a restaurateur that it is no small feat to juggle suppliers, eggs that come from three farms, and all the million other details of his farm-to-table restaurant concept, much less in a country such as Japan, a country with limited agricultural space. 

But the Japanese investors wouldn’t relent. Because Silver is at heart a mensch, he agreed to a meeting with the agent and tried to explain to him, to no avail, that he wasn’t trying to be negative but, practically speaking, he felt it was virtually impossible for a Japanese branch of Bubby’s to succeed without his hands-on knowledge and expertise.

It turns out, the Japanese group of investors was Japanese Railways, which was looking to debut the New York favorite as part of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the opening of the port of Yokohama to Western trade. In 2009, through a licensing agreement, Bubby’s opened in Yokohama, the first of six Bubby’s to open in Yokohama and Tokyo. Silver told me he goes to Japan about twice a year and, what’s more, his artwork is on display on the walls of all six restaurants there. 

You would think all this activity and being the father of four boys would keep Silver and his wife, Melissa, busy, but this past May, Silver announced the launch of his new company, Azuca, a line of fast-acting cannabis edibles made from chef-quality ingredients. “There have been three constants in my life,” Silver told me in his loft-style office above the restaurant, decorated with his modernist, Picasso-style paintings, “cooking, cannabis use and art.” 

Through his experiences as a chef and entrepreneur, Silver said he recognized the cannabis industry’s demand for a trustworthy edible product that offers a fast-acting, consistent effect.

“Edibles are notoriously unpredictable in their effects: You can never tell how long it will last, when it will hit and its overall effect,” he said. Silver’s talents — part chef, part creative mind — led him to discover a patent-pending technology that alters the shape of the cannabis molecules and makes them more water-soluble, enabling a more rapid, predictable and controllable effect.

Azuca will launch its THC product line and tinctures in Massachusetts (where marijuana is legal) later this month, and offers its hemp-derived, non-psychoactive Cannabidiol (CBD) products at the Bubby’s restaurants in lemonades, coffees, teas and cocktails.

After our interview, I sat at the bar at Bubby’s and ordered two CBD-infused drinks, one called a black and white and the other a watermelon lemonade, each promising 25-milligram doses of CBD. Both were delicious, although I wouldn’t normally sweeten my drinks to this extent as a matter of personal taste. But within 10 minutes of consuming them, I felt a calm feeling come over me that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. 

There was no “high” to speak of, no rush or buzz, just a very mellow calm that could be described as a post-vigorous exercise (or sex) type endorphin boost.

 Unfortunately, while I waited for my next appointment, I realized that I had a case of the munchies and the fact that everything on the menu looked appealing. It’s at this moment I realized the shrewd business genius of Ron Silver. Maybe it was because I was under the influence of the CBD, or maybe it was the photographs of Silver’s three bubbes staring back at me from the walls, but I’ve never had such a remarkable bowl of chicken soup in any restaurant in New York. No doubt Silver’s bubbes approve.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.