The secret to good rugelach
Smalls grew up in Georgetown County, South Carolina -- the same town where Michelle Obama’s father, Fraser C. Robinson III, grew up, he says, gesturing proudly to a framed picture of the Obamas hanging over the pastry case. After graduating from high school, he moved to Myrtle Beach and spent two years working in fast food, before moving to New York City with his brother and sister in 1962.
Two weeks into becoming a New Yorker, at the age of 20, he secured a job in the kitchen at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “I am the only guy who didn’t cry for the onion,” Smalls recalls. Moving up from vegetable prep, he started greasing pans in the bakery, which, back in the day, made strictly homemade goods for patients. “Everybody had a special thing they made,” Smalls says. “One guy made Danish, one guy made cinnamon buns, one guy made pies, one guy made pudding... We used to make them from scratch then, not like today.”
After practicing at home and shadowing his co-workers, Smalls ended up mastering all of the various kitchen jobs at the hospital. By the time he was ready to leave to start his own bakery, the South Carolina transplant with “no real cooking background” was the head pastry chef at a major hospital.