The former MeMe’s Diner chef and co-owner explores whimsical recipes in his newsletter that makes cooking fun again
If you were frantically searching through mentions and scrolling past videos of people making “pizza babka” a couple of weekends ago, you weren’t alone. It seems like everyone has suddenly been brushing garlic butter over golden-brown loaves stuffed with cheese and pepperoni: It’s a perfect viral dish, really, an effortless fusion of two comfort favorites, melded together in a way that feels somehow fresh and obvious at the same time.
The concept of pizza babka isn’t new — recipes have existed online for years — but the dish became one of 2021’s true Instagram hits thanks to Bill Clark, the smiling, bearded baker who dropped the dish (not to mention red velvet bread, pull-apart jelly doughnuts, and chile-braised spare ribs) into our homes via his increasingly popular recipe newsletter, A Piece of Cake. Clark is perhaps best known as the co-owner and baker at Brooklyn restaurant MeMe’s Diner, which shuttered following a three-year run in November last year. As a restaurant, MeMe’s quickly established a reputation not just for its eclectic comfort food dishes, but also for its LGBTQ-focused, inclusive approach to hospitality, and for being a place at the forefront of an emerging queer dining culture nationwide.
Much of the spirit of MeMe’s now permeates Clark’s newsletter, and former MeMe’s regulars are sure to pick up a nostalgic thread from some of Clark’s recipes, like the restaurant’s Vietnamese iced coffee cake or beloved pina colada doughnuts. “It was a great reason to keep myself cooking and baking,” says Clark of the newsletter, which he launched along with his fiance, Andrew Spena, a few weeks after MeMe’s closed. A Piece of Cake has since amassed thousands of subscribers and is the subject of growing chatter on social media in part due to Clark’s highly approachable creations. But it’s also because what MeMe’s once stood for is now accessible to people all over the world. “You could see it on Instagram, but if you weren’t in New York you couldn’t eat it,” says Clark of MeMe’s food.
Beyond MeMe’s, Clark’s creations have a magnetic, 1970s retro vibe — an increasingly popular millennial aesthetic — as can be seen in the bright red velvet cake or the gleaming ginger snack topped with tangerine curd and orange slices. But beyond their visual appeal, the instructions are easy to follow, and perhaps most importantly, the ingredients are, for the most part, grocery-store staples. Even the recipes that might seem a little daunting, like the pizza babka, are just approachable enough for a novice baker to tackle on a weekend.
“There were things I wanted to make that clearly weren’t right for a restaurant environment, but that made more sense for a home recipe,” Clark says. He’s relying on his “revolving deck of recipe ideas,” as he describes it, to serve up dishes like pull-apart jelly doughnuts that are baked in a cast-iron skillet instead of the more traditional fry; the hearty creamed spinach chicken bake topped with crispy shallots; and of course that pizza babka, which features shredded mozzarella, pepperoni, and a very generous drizzle of garlic butter. Clark also plans to unveil a new snack cake recipe each month, the most recent one being the red velvet bread topped with a crunchy cocoa crumble and sprinkles. (The very concept of a snack cake is peak Bill Clark.) “A snack cake is something that’s easy to make and fun to have around the house,” he says. “That’s the one free recipe every month.” It’s also the first of Clark’s newsletter recipes to find their way back into a retail setting: the red velvet bread is available at NYC’s Red Gate Bakery throughout February.
Clark is just the latest food industry personality to turn to the recipe newsletter as a source of income, a model that has experienced a major boom in recent years, particularly during the pandemic, as more people are forced to cook at home, and as shrinking media budgets have eliminated some of more traditional outlets for food writing. They range from discourse on climate change and the rise of fascism coupled with cooking recommendations like Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter to detailed recipes paired with personal anecdotes and tips a la former New York Times columnist Alison Roman.
Clark’s version is a mix of deep dives into the origin of dishes, like Hummingbird cake, interspersed with personal stories about dishes he grew up eating, like his chile-braised spare ribs, and tales from his time at MeMe’s — stories and recipes, Clark hopes, people are willing to pay for. With MeMe’s closed, the newsletter is Clark’s main source of income, and right now readers can access A Piece of Cake at $5 a month or $50 for the whole year (or get the one free snack cake recipe a month). True Clark devotees can shell out $200 or more for the chance to test out recipes before Clark posts them online.
Much like with MeMe’s, the newsletter’s popularity has spread through word of mouth — Clark and MeMe’s co-owner Libby Willis never hired a publicist for their restaurant, and as Spena put it, “Bill doesn’t even have a verified Instagram account.” Clark says he has a few events up his sleeve, but won’t be announcing them until it’s safe for everyone to gather together. And surprise — he hasn’t ruled out a cookbook in the future.
“I’m sort of excited to get to the end of the year and have a bulk of, you know, 50 recipes or so,” Clark says. “It just gets easier and easier for me to write these every week.”