Features

The Kitchen Magician

Photographs by Jörg Meyer

Stepping down into the narrow entryway of the East Village’s Red Gate Bakery on a rainy, late October day, I’m immediately hit by the scents of warm sugar, toasted spices and melted chocolate. The tiny space is inviting, cozy — the perfect panacea to the grey drizzle outside. I’m greeted by owner and baker Greg Rales ’12 (with his 12-year-old Goldendoodle, Stella, by his side), his plaid button-down’s sleeves rolled up to reveal the Red Gate logo tattooed on his arm. The self-taught baker took a circuitous path to opening his own store, and despite being a new business owner operating during a tumultuous year no one could have predicted, he is savoring his luck that he gets to do what he loves every day.


Rales has a lifelong love of crafting crazy concoctions. “I was kind of obsessed with magic as a kid,” he says, “and I found my own form of magic in our spice cabinet at home. I loved mixing and creating new things — and bless my mother’s palate, she would taste them!”

He taught himself how to bake by watching culinary shows on PBS and The Food Network and learning family recipes, and discovered that the kitchen was a place where he could keep magic in his everyday life: “I realized I could take all these disparate ingredients, like our, sugar, butter — things that taste pretty gross on their own — and create something entirely new and different,” he says. “It sounds trite, but it’s the aspect of magic in my job that always astounds me.”


RALES AND HIS FOUNDING business partner, Patricia Howard ’13, opened Red Gate in December 2019, and it immediately garnered attention and rave reviews. New York City media like Gothamist and Grub Street fawned over its creative takes on cookies, cakes and other baked goods. “We’re all about American classics with the volume turned up,” Rales says. “The things you baked with your grandma when you were a kid, desserts that are very accessible and familiar, but with one or two things that are turned on their head.”

Rales and Howard met at Reid Hall in Paris, where they connected over their love of food (Howard jokes they “bonded over eating too many macarons”), and kept up that friendship once back on campus; both majored in creative writing.

After graduation, Rales began a master’s at the School of the Arts, but jumped ship soon after he started the program when he received a job offer with the AMC network, in a new department focused on international co-production of television shows. At AMC, his penchant for bringing in homemade treats earned him a reputation as the office baker and, after three years, he realized he was more interested in baking than producing television. (“Little did my coworkers know I was testing recipes on them!” he laughs.) Rales started a catering company, then took jobs at local bakeries to learn the daily grind of a professional baker. He says that his approach was “start from the bottom, baby!” using his experience as “essentially a line cook” to prepare himself for the reality of someday running his own shop.


Meanwhile, Howard was moving up in the NYC foodie world, working as an executive assistant and later operations associate for the hip West Village restaurant The Beatrice Inn. In late 2018, Rales and Howard realized they were both in the right place to launch a business together. They originally planned to cook off-site and stage a series of pop-ups around the city, but in a touch of kismet, Rales walked by the current Red Gate location at 68 1st St. and noticed a “For Lease” sign; the pop-up idea quickly morphed into a brick-and-mortar reality. “I got the keys on my birthday, September 10, which was a lovely 30th birthday present,” he says.

“We’re all about American classics with the volume TURNED UP.”

RALES AND HOWARD built Red Gate with inspiration from Scandinavian, Japanese and New England design aesthetics. Sitting in the space (the former home of Tuck Shop, an Australian meat pie restaurant) with Rales, it’s easy to feel the homey vibe the duo created; wooden pegboards line the crisp white walls, with antique canisters displayed on shelves and baking tools hanging on hooks. “One thing that sets Greg apart is how he sticks to his guns,” Howard says. “He knew he wanted a light, airy room, and he transformed this little meat pie shop into the bakery of his dreams.”

One Smart Cookie
Rales gives us a taste of the Red Gate
life in this video short: college.columbia.edu/cct/latest/
feature-extra/redgate

Rales tells me he named Red Gate after a defunct Nantucket potato farm that his parents bought in the ’90s, where he spent childhood summers. “It’s where I have my fondest childhood memories, where I have all those feelings of safety, warmth and nostalgia that I wanted to create inside in this bakery,” he says. In front of the farm is, unsurprisingly, a big, uniquely shaped red gate. Rales used it as a motif throughout the bakery, in its logo, in the striking red bench that sits outside and in a framed photograph of the farm’s gate in the kitchen, gifted to Rales by his sister during the bakery’s opening week. He says he turns to the photo when he’s stressed — it “serves as a nice escape when I’m having a tougher moment.”

More than a few of those tough moments came sooner than anticipated; Red Gate was only a few months old when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. As the virus swept through the city, Rales closed the doors for a month while he planned how to reopen safely. Fortunately, the space had always been designed for take-away — the ordering area is only 9 ft. by 9 ft. and there’s no interior seating — so it didn’t take Rales long to implement scheduled pickups and socially distanced lines. “We have an incredible customer base that came out to support us in full force the moment we were back, which I’m infinitely grateful for,” he says. “We were able to churn out cookies and make people happy during a time when there wasn’t a lot of stability.”

And what about those cookies? The creatively named treats call out to customers from a giant glass case. The Cannibal features house-made Oreos that are crushed and mixed into a plush brown-sugar cookie; the Choco-Toffee is a fresh take on chocolate- chip, made with brown butter and toffee bits, topped with flaky sea salt; the Kitchen Sinker features oats, chocolate, coconut and, for a salty twist, potato chips. “I like to mess around with big, maximalist flavors,” Rales tells me. “Sometimes they gel, and sometimes they don’t!” He uses his toasted coconut banana bacon cake as an example: “It’s a Frankenstein cake, a mishmash of my grandmother’s carrot cake and my mother’s banana bread and me making brunch one time and using bacon cream cheese frosting — it’s all these crazy things put together to create something delicious.”


After getting Red Gate off the ground, Howard left the bakery last spring to open her own restaurant, Dame, for which Rales was a pop-up contributing chef. Asked why she enjoys working with him, Howard says, “He’s not about the Instagram bait or the trends that are happening in the sugar world. He’s always prioritizing what’s going to taste the best and make you want to have seconds.”

A photographer had been shadowing us for the afternoon, and as we waited for him to pack his equipment, Rales decided to demonstrate his “baking as magic” ethos. He grabbed some Choco-Toffee dough and popped it in the oven; the room soon filled with the delicious smell of warm chocolate. He pulled them out as we were leaving, and the photographer and I walked out with irresistibly fresh treats in our hands. I’d planned to eat half and bring the rest home, but by the time I walked the 300 ft. across Houston Street, the whole cookie had disappeared — just like magic.