In Whites began in 2017, shortly after I had graduated culinary school the year prior. I had a wonderful job at the time, in a now very well-known local café. I was curating my own ethos in relation to food, thanks to tutelage from my two accomplished bosses. I was being quickly pushed into an even more efficient and skilled cook, thanks to the café gathering steam and needing hands that could work quickly and tightly – to call the kitchen small would be generous, but it’s part of it’s magic.
Regardless of all of that, there was an inner struggle to feel heard and seen in an industry that was suddenly shooting off across social media (i.e. Instagram), especially when there was a personal feeling of “being stuck in Williamsport”, though that last sentiment doesn’t ring true anymore. Food wasn’t actually my first plan for a career; as an avid reader since I was young, I have found more comfort and eloquence with written word for many years. I had planned to pursue writing at many points in my life, and decided to try and meld the two loves in an effort to cure some of my stagnant and mute feelings. Thus, In Whites, the blog, was born.
The blog was meant to serve as a conduit; a way to make sense of all the post-college confusion, intimidation, and comparison I was experiencing, all of it filtered through the lens of food. The difficult part of being in this industry as a professional, for me, has always been the fact that I do not consider myself a chef. I still don’t. Food has never been something that first and foremost felt like a career – it has always felt like a life raft, a paint brush, a pen, and a beating heart. It made sense to weave it into my daily life, in the form of a career, to keep it close. To keep me sane.
Shortly after the blog started, and into my time at the café, I was offered the chance to curate my own pop-up dinner. In all honesty, I can’t remember many details from that time, but I do remember the emotions. I was teeming with them. A burdening sense of imposter syndrome, frothing desperation to prove I was just as worthy as my peers who had moved to Philly, Chicago, Manhattan, and Napa, and sheer euphoria over the idea of making ‘my own food’. I never really had a clear definition for what that was, but I knew that I needed to share it, in order to feel myself, and to feel valid.
The second dinner followed, then the third, the fourth, eventually the seventh. Soon it was time to leave the safety and security of the nest that helped nurture me. I had stayed there just a little too long, and grown a little too confident. This was 2019, and I had developed a teeny tiny reputation. Miniscule. It was there though, and it felt very, very good. I carried it to the next job, where I used it to market myself, and very quickly had it pulverized along with my ego.
I recommend a good kick in the ego – bonus points if it comes at, or near, the age of 25. A proper one, that makes you retreat for a bit. Find a quiet space (kitchen) that allows for reflection (self-pitying).
In less than a year, I felt as though everything I had built for myself in regards to my own name had been washed down a drain. An overflowing cup that had been in someone else’s hand this entire time, none of it truly my own. I had just been fortunate to be in a space that served me, with resources someone else had developed and I was lucky enough to be adjacent to. I hadn’t been able to cut it as an actual chef in a dinner establishment, feeling overwhelmed by the stereotypical, excessive demand on my personal and professional time clock. Now I was in a space that felt like the end of the line for me – corporate, or as close as I was going to let myself get to it.
Towards the end of 2019, I was feeling very Eeyore like. Woe is me was the mantra day in and day out of punching an actual time clock, because of course, I was better than that. I had my own pop-ups, had you heard? I was young, and creative. I touted local, seasonal menus. The fact that I could not confidently handle banquet events, caterings over 40, or navigate an excel sheet meant nothing. I didn’t need that, just my passion. Please direct your vomiting to the most convenient vessel.
I will give myself the grace of having willpower, a constant vein running through it all. Whether it be motivated by the fuel of comparison, competition, or a deep seeded need to find my voice. 2020 was going to be the year I pulled myself together. I purchased an LLC, I planned menus, booked venues. I began the year strong, with a sold-out tasting menu and more. It was going to be the building year.
Well, you know what happened next.
Not only was I laid off from that silly little job that I didn’t even really want anyway, I had to cancel everything. The only upside to it was the fact that it was the longest time John and I have had together, consecutively, since we became a couple in 2013.
There were hints of light though, gleaming towards the summer of 2020. Take-out pop-ups, a chance to find the delicate line between “my food” and food that actually captured the attention of the masses. It had to stand out, which meant it had to be bold. Toasted spices, pungent flavors, cuisines that weren’t sold here. Colorful marketing, and constant. We welcomed vegans and gluten free patrons in ways that didn’t feel like an afterthought. It was wildly, intimidatingly, successful.
Somehow, 2020 had become a building year regardless of global shutdown. It was the first time I felt real pride, and a tiny bit of that nagging imposter syndrome fell away. Humbleness for my day job came in tidal waves; suddenly, I needed to understand how to plan, prep, and execute mass amounts, all while communicating succinctly.
2021 rolled in with constant requests for private caterings, more offerings, and extended menus. My chest was perpetually tight with either excitement, or anxiety. They started to fold into one, pulling in and pushing out of my lungs in rapid succession. I found my palm to chest, pressing down as if to physically restrain the breaths, many time a day.
We found a kitchen to rent, and took off. 10-hour days, 12 hours, 15+. I didn’t want sleep if it meant I was missing a chance to push out content, to capture another set of eyes, or pour myself into another menu. I was devouring the time and mashing it between my teeth like it could replace the sustenance I was quickly ignoring more and more. My day job provided for my personal life, so anything concerning the business went back into itself. There was no room to mix the two, too soon, too iffy, too dangerous considering the climate of the world. Anxiety, excitement, breathe in, breathe out.
Amongst all of this, was crippling depression. 2020 was the year I found my own voice within food, but also my own throat. A valuable, if sometimes sacrificing, expression of self. Though a building year for a burgeoning business, it was also the year I felt most abandoned in ways never expected. Every day felt like a distant experience, tethered only by work. If my body was moving, my hands creating, I was still here. I could drag the empty carcass of a house behind me, pretending it wasn’t haunting me every night I went without sleep. I didn’t see that John was lifting half the house behind me, carrying weight I didn’t know existed. That’s who he is though. He cares, but doesn’t want it seen. He carries, and never complains.
Not when I add more late nights, and more events. Not when I forget to be his life companion and love, instead of a business partner. Not when I’m spiraling into a vapid, resentful, angry, shell of a girl who never let her shadows see the light before. Screaming into the cool night air, lit by blinking traffic lights at midnight when we finally head home. Home, that is a mess by the way. A pitstop between day job and small business. A cavern of forgotten laundry, and spoiled produce bought in the hopes of a never made home cooked meal.
2021 brought in the most money In Whites has ever seen, and held the most anguish I have ever felt. The voice I had found felt like a betrayer. Long sought to be spoken truths cost me family, slashing ties like butcher’s twine, leaving me adrift with a beautifully built business and a lost heart. It was time to pull back.
Eventually, when you are so angry and sad in equal measure, you give up. You let it go, fading into the wind, taken away to another beating chest. You are left with a type of exhaustion that cannot be fixed with a good night’s sleep, but perhaps with the decision to at least try sleeping again. So you lay your head down, and stop pressing your palm to your chest. You let your heart push through your ribs, cracking and bleeding until it all leaks out. It’s cleansing in a way.
2022 slipped in, meek and still. We were going to rest. Pull back, do less, focus on us. Still work though! Why wouldn’t we keep going? I mean, we weren’t dead. Maybe it was time to bring the dinners back, doing less, but more intentionally. It would be difficult though, to find the story. Every other time I had created from a place of love, and comfort. Sentimentality cushioned in the petal soft emotions of childhood and nostalgia. Now all I had was bitterness, exhaustion, and confusion.
Do you know how difficult it is to craft an intimate multi-course tasting menu detailing the highs and lows of your almost three decades of life when your half-double neighbors constantly have the cops called on them? Very. Walls thrumming until 4 in the morning with pounding music and screaming arguments in equal share, conveniently ceasing just at the time you have to wake up for the day job that you are now very grateful for because somehow it has become the most stable thing in your life. The most stable, after sleepless nights that is.
With the last little vestiges of energy left, there comes a time where you have to throw your hands in the air and tell the universe that you give it back. All the energy, all the hours, all the turmoil and joy in equidistance. Anxiety and excitement, breathe in, breathe out.
Which brings us to now. We are in the middle of 2022, and things are coming back together, because that is what they do after falling apart. After having the most successful year we could ever hope for with the business, our account is still empty. There are many factors, global and otherwise, to blame for it. In honesty though, I look at it as a blank slate (literally). If there is no money, then we simply cant spend any, which means we have no choice but to rest. In resting, you find opportunities…like a new house.
In a new house, you can find peace. With peace, gentle little currents of tenderness, and romance. The things that had been pushed aside in an effort to “make the dream happen”. My current dream though, is morning coffee in one hand, and his in the other. Sweet perspective glides in on a breeze. None of it was for naught, there are lessons in every movement, whether it be up or down. Still, sometimes the best thing you can do after an adventure, is to simply be. Which is what John and I have decided to do.
There is still so much going on in the background of our personal lives, between family, reconnecting with dear friends we simply haven’t had the time to reach out to, and most importantly recovering our health; mental and physical. We finally have a quiet and calm space to do it all in, and are realizing how little of those two things we’ve experienced over the past two years.
We love all of our customers dearly. It’s what makes the decision to put the business on hiatus so difficult. We are just two people who have learned so many faces and names in these two years, people who have sincerely and without exaggeration made my deepest dreams a reality. I am not a chef, but I love food with all my heart for what it does for people. It brings people together to “share stories, and create conversation”. Food lets me navigate myself, the beautiful and the ugly parts. It allows me to feel not quite as alone.
This is by no means forever. If anything, it is a beginning. From the start, my ultimate goal has been a brick-and-mortar site. Not a bustling restaurant, but a warm space of amber hued comfort, and connection. Small, intimate, intensely congenial. A space that fosters tinkling – and tipsy – laughs, scenes of human-to-human connection over a table overflowing with consumable joy. I’m hoping, willing, that this is the time to create it all. Time, after all, has been the most elusive of resources needed to make it reality.
In the meantime, I would like to share this space more often. It used to be a safe space for my vulnerability, but as things became blurred with the sense of propriety and professionalism, I could no longer find where the line of acceptable to share and not began nor ended. Constantly shuffling my words and emotions into a buffed out neutral tone, digestible for the mass public. That kind of goes against the grain of what I’m going for with all of this though, doesn’t it?
To everyone who has supported me and John, and In Whites as a whole – thank you. Thank you will never be enough, and I plan to repay you all properly, but thank you. I am a nobody from small town Pennsylvania who just happened to find food, instead of a pen or a potter’s wheel, but you have made me feel valid in ways you’ll never understand.
Until we meet again,
Always add another chair to the table
And for the love of fuck do not substitute the butter.
All our love,
Colleen & John (and IW mascot, Tippy Keefer-Masteller)
You are brave beyond words. Much love to wherever your restful journey takes you.