Rick Sebak's new shows celebrate pies, bakeries
For award-winning WQED producer Rick Sebak, the time always seems right for pies and bakeries.
His two latest PBS documentaries — “A Few Good Pie Places” and “A Few Great Bakeries” — take viewers on a sweet journey from Martha's Vineyard to Juneau, Alaska, and many stops along the way, including, for the first time, Montana. The programs will debut at 8 and 9 p.m. Aug. 25.
The shows feature businesses throughout the country and two in the Pittsburgh area. Sebak serves up vicarious tastes of the famous pies crafted by Frank Ruzomberka, 82, at Grant Bar & Restaurant in Millvale, and a tasty sampling of the fare at the family-operated Minerva Bakery in McKeesport, which opened in 1923.
“I always like to find examples of things that people think may have passed their day,” Sebak says. “It's not by design, but I realize, when I look at my programs through the years, they are all about small, family-owned businesses. It's always time to do shows celebrating them.
“You get to know them a little bit. It's fun to watch them and see how they express themselves. Mr. Ruzomberka at Grant Bar & Restaurant is one of the most memorable in the show.”
Sebak talks to people about what they make and what they are proud of, what makes their place distinctive.
“We're not out to fry anybody. We are there to celebrate and share. We want them to surprise us,” he says.
And, time after time, they did.
“I have moments I really love in each story sometimes just weird little things,” says Sebak, such as meeting someone like Julianne Vanderhoop, owner of Orange Peel Bakery in the Martha's Vineyard town of Aquinnah, Mass. The former commercial pilot is a member of the Wampanoag tribe and learned pie-making from a medicine man.
“It was so unusual. Rain or shine, she bakes in an outdoor, wood-fired oven in the side yard of her house, year-round,” Sebak says.
Discovering the Columbus Baking Co., in Syracuse, N.Y., was “another major moment delight,” Sebak says.
“They've been there since 1895. They just make Italian bread, but people all over that part of the state come there. When you walk in the front door, the ovens are right in front of you. The bread was stupendous, really wonderful,” he says. “I remember that day. I think it was the first bakery we shot. I said to myself, ‘This show will be OK.' ”
He and his small crew agreed that they would eagerly return to the Norwegian-style village of Poulsbo, Wash., a ferry ride across the sound from Seattle, to Sluys Bakery for the “Viking Cup,” a soft, cinnamon roll cooked in caramel, dipped in custard glaze “and a big glob of cream cheese on top.”
His new documentaries, he says, are “just as much a travelogue as a food show. We bounce all around America. I knew if I allowed myself a little time and did some digging, I might find some jewels.”
He didn't have to look very far.
“Minerva's in McKeesport is a gem,” he says. “It has incredible variety. I bought the cinnamon raisin bread there. I never thought to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with it, as someone at WQED recommended. It's excellent. I ate it in the car on the way to work one morning.”
Even as many mom-and-pop, bakeries and independent pie shops have closed across the nation, Sebak says, “the whole new interest in food caused new ones to open. I think there are more pie places in the Pittsburgh area than there used to be. We had no trouble finding enough pie shops across the country.”
And there are places like Minerva's that have remained in business for more than 90 years. “Something allowed them to survive,” he says.
It's because of “good, quality products and friendly clerks,” says longtime employee Louise Lindberg, a manager at Minerva's, who expects to be “extra busy” after the documentary airs.
“We have new customers come in from other places saying they don't have bakeries like this anymore,” says Kate Monezis, 22, who has worked in her family's business since she was 14. “It's exciting for us to be on a national show for sure.”
The key to remaining competitive as an independent shop is “constantly making sure we have great product and everything is fresh,” Monezis says. “Customers know it is homemade, as opposed to coming in a package.”
Grant Bar & Restaurant in Millvale opened in 1933. A few decades ago, principal owner Frank Ruzomberka decided “we needed something different on the menu,” and he began making homemade pies.
“I don't think anybody has the time I have to make them,” he says. Fashioning seven or eight from scratch can easily consume three to four hours.
Coconut cream, chocolate cream, banana cream, fresh peach, apple, pumpkin — the pie list goes on. “Always fresh,” he says. “I make good tapioca from scratch. I make egg-custard pie you don't see anymore.”
“The pies are really great, just simple, well-made pies, no artificial flavoring, great texture,” Sebak says.
People ask Ruzomberka why he is still working at 82, and he insists, “I'm not working; this is my hobby, what I love to do.”
He says it is “an honor” to be selected for the PBS documentary. “I know we will be busy. I'll have to make a lot more pies,” he says, laughing.
He, his staff and patrons were quite impressed with Sebak when he taped there.
“He's a super guy. It's like talking to a brother. He's so down-to-earth and respectful,” Ruzomberka says. “He must have spent five hours in the dining room with people. He didn't miss one person. He sat down at every table. Everybody loves him.”
“I always think I am so lucky to get to do this,” Sebak says. “I did not set out to find the best of anything. What we tasted everywhere was really great. How can anyone possibly know what the best of anything is, unless they spend their whole life doing this, and there are so many factors? What I am saying is, ‘Here are a few good ones,' and I want people to know there are more places like this, and I hope they go look for others.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.