Why Mary Is Marvelous: An Interview With Mary Schoenlein

by Joseph Russell · June 5, 2008

[Image via Hamptons.com]

On Amagansett's Main Street, there's a little white shop with a red door and a sign which proclaims, in flowing letters, "Mary's Marvelous." Inside, there's that pleasant bustle that accompanies beloved neighborhood institutions, and a beyond pleasant array of baked goods and take-away. Intrigued by the alliteration and the crowds attesting to it, we caught up with owner Mary Schoenlein, a former pastry chef at Gotham Bar and Grill and the current muffin mama for what seems to be half of the south shore, to discuss cookbooks, gardens, and what happens when the muffins run out......

First of all, I love the name. Who is Mary and why is she marvelous? Or what does she have that is so marvelous? Seems people love a mystery, especially if the answer delivers... The name was coined by a friend, about 10 years ago when I was the chef at the Red Horse Market and started a small granola company. I carried on with the product all these years (which was eventually distributed throughout NY and NJ.) and still feature it in our store. When I started thinking of a name for the store...my entire support system insisted on using Mary's Marvelous. Customers seem to respond to the name. I have to admit being nervous using it as I felt an enormous responsibility to live up to!!! One of my motivations for opening Mary's Marvelous was to feed people uncomplicated, well made everyday food. One part of our mission statement at Mary's Marvelous is great food. For us that means we start with quality ingredients (meaning seasonal,fresh, local and/or organic when we can) to make food that is straightforward and delicious. Also, my personal philosophy is reflected in the business by making what we sell. I do feel certain that we attract business based on that. As a friend of mine says..."it's hard to get a good meal!" So I would say that is, hopefully, how we live up to our name.

Did you start baking as a child? I actually did start baking as a child. Being a product of a single parent home, we children had responsiblities, one of which was the cooking. I did a fair amount of it and remember making alot of cookies! My interest in cooking stayed with me as I grew.

When did you decide you wanted to become a professional baker and why? My cooking life began in a hotel restaurant, as part of the "hot line" team. (Baking came later on.) As a twenty-something, I was looking for a work life that resonated with me. As an alternative to my day job at that time, I was freelance cooking for a caterer and having alot of fun. I decided to follow an "inner nudge" and find a job in the restaurant business. I knew I wanted to be in a serious environment and a quality driven kitchen. Turns out, this was a defining moment in my life. I walked into the best restaurant in my neighborhood and asked the chef for a job. I knew it was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing, right away. The chef had been trained in France, followed Escoffier, and ran an exacting kitchen. I sank myself into the job and after a year, and with his pushing, moved to NYC to pursue a food career. I eventually landed at The Gotham Bar and Grill and my last year there was spent in the pastry department. Each kitchen I was in after that I spent some time doing pastry and always enjoyed the difference between that and cooking. I just connected with it.

How many of the recipes are originals? Are some passed down? Some of the recipes are passed down...our bran muffins are from a college roomates' mom, our banana mocha cupcakes are from my husband's Grandma Cullley (hers was in cake form), the sour cream coffee cake and the orange muffin is from my friend Rita who ran a very special bed and breakfast in East Hampton (and a great cook herself). Some of the receipes are from my work history, maybe in a different form, from collegues. Some of what we do we invent...or is collaborative, some things are straight out of a cookbook. (I love cookbooks...buying them, reading them...)

Are there any secret ingredients? Secret ingredients??? hmmmm...more than a secret ingredient...I would say is our method of baking. Baking ,to me, requires a different sensibility than cooking. It is how you cream the butter and sugar, how much to beat the eggs, when to add the liquid,what temperature your liquids should be. Even how you measure your ingredients, how you fold in your flour...what kind of flour you use..how long you bake something. How you handle your pastry dough when you are making a tart or a pie. It is an awareness, I think. Being consistent with our products is one of our challenges at Mary's Marvelous and also a key to our success, I believe, so when two different people are involved in preparation of our baked items we have to really pay attention as two people can have two different results.

What is the most popular order? Which is your favorite? Believe it or not, our top selling baked item is the blueberry muffin. I can't believe it myself but it is true. In the summer we use fresh blues and people go crazy. Grill one of those up with a little butter...yummie! We make blueberry scones too and they sell like crazy. Our Mary O's are a huge seller too-our almond croissants are really popular too, as are the chocolate sour cream muffins. My favorites --I have a few, are the Oatmeal Currant scone, the apricot scone, the Raspberry almond torte,the zucchini, hazelnut, and ginger muffin, the vanilla pound cake and our linzer cookies. Oh, and the chocolate ginger cookies and the chocolate sables! It is really hard to choose.

Are tantrums thrown when the muffins run out? Yes, we run out of things, and as much as we plan for "enough" it does happen, people can be so upset. I think it is part of peoples' ritual...you know, you look forward to something and you can imagine yourself eating it...when it isn't there..what do you do? We do have alot of variety though so usually there is another choice. I do rotate some of our baked items, through the seasons..I have had to console many customers when we stop making the Orange Currant muffin or the Peach muffin...

How many of your customers are regulars? We are a seasonal community here so in the summer months the percentage of "regulars" is outnumbered. I would say in the other months though, 60-70% of our customers are regulars. And for a business to survive out here, I believe, you need that. We have and still do, work hard to attract and maintain our regular and local customers. One thing I have come to value and love about Mary's Marvelous is our regulars. I love getting to know them, their orders, their families...it brings me alot of pleasure and is fun and interesting. What do you like to cook for yourself, or order at restaurants? In terms of cooking for myself, I do less of it with the store than before I had a store. I eat at the store alot because I like the food! We make a limited menu of lunch food and dinner food...always a vegetable and a grain or a bean so I will eat that.I love to cook and eat greens like kale, swiss chard, broccoli. I make a sauteed kale with hot pepper, garlic, shallots and edamame. I like variety and I cook and eat simply at home. One of my favorite meals is a poached egg on some polenta and maybe some pancetta on top and some parmesean. I love soup too. I know that you pride yourself on cooking from scratch --does this include bread, or cheese? Would you like it to, to own a farm or a large bakery? I love bread! I love to eat it, and still do and I used to love to make it. I made bread as part of my job at a couple of restaurants and always loved doing it. I love everything about it...the ingredients, the smell, the feel of the dough...the chemistry. I didn't invest enough time in learning to make bread with the skill and confidence excellent bread requires. I think it is a business unto itself and at this time I don't have the space or the skill needed for it. Cheese.... I buy good cheese and appreciate it but I haven't had any cheesemaking experience. Mary's Marvelous supports several local farmers here...buying their vegetables in season. have never farmed myself, but have had gardens. Mary's Marvelous is starting an organic garden this year. So excited about it-so we will have our own produce. Have you ever thought about doing a Mary's Marvelous cookbook? Yes, I want to write a cookbook. I think about it all the time; I have started working on one!!!!