It’s been a long time since I’ve written a piece for this space. It’s one thing to be vulnerable when your project is viewed by the eyes of those you already know; when there is some sense of safety, security, and acceptance built in. It is a wholly other thing to open yourself up once the gaze widens, taken in by strange faces and strange names you don’t actually know, and who know nothing of you. Humbly offering the one thing you have in pocket, the one thing that gives as much as it takes. Often times we are told what does and does not fit within the coveted box of Professionalism. Professionalism does not curate spaces for tenderness, does not allow you the experience of cracking into the reserves that fuel the very passion you are sharing; shown off in the raw, unfinished, grime filled way that most often spurs someone into forward motion.

Curating a business has been one of the strangest games to play as an individual yet. The push and pull of what is too much, not enough, and just right, for pulling people in. Every day finding yourself in a mental head space of a cutting room, looking at all the parts of yourself that make up your art, and deciding what are the most appealing for mass consumption, then slicing through the rest. Finding the blandest parts that will suit any palate. At the end of the day, it’s about the money.

Right?

Isn’t it about the money?

Sure, of course it is. Money is how we make it happen, but it isn’t what it’s about. If it were, this whole thing would have been in the trash literally years ago. In Whites has always lived in a limbo land of one-part personal catharsis, one part trendy food business. The past year has proven that we can make it as the business part, in ways never imagined before. We’ve adapted and changed, the story-telling dinners have had to take a rest for the time being, but we’ve opened ourselves to such a wider audience through our new offerings. Building a base of people who are truly excited by the food we make, who want more, and support us in ways I’ve only ever hoped for.

 There-in lies a deep splintering point for me: how does one coincide what used to be, the deeply personal, and if we’re honest, selfish, motives of intensely creative, imaginative, story-telling food verse, with something that’s just downright approachable damn it?

Because I want us to be approachable. I want people to recognize that food is so much more than just sustenance for the body. It ties all of your senses together in a way that I struggle to relate to anything else in life. It is memories, moments, culture, aspirations, comfort, and more, all of it consumable. Isn’t that in and of itself incredible? All of these overwhelmingly connective ties that you can physically consume and pull into yourself. It’s more than magic, because it’s visceral, and real.

So many times this past year we have been told that people are grateful for the food we put out because they miss it from here, there, and elsewhere. It takes them back to cities they miss and love, moments they’re missing, people they can’t sit at a table with right now but they CAN eat the same food and remember. That’s what it is about. It’s about that damn table, with never ending chairs to add. There are always more to seats to add, more conversations to have, more ties to bind, and more hands to pass the food between. That is what this whole project is about, and the never-ending search to do it better.

Art Installation created by local artist Erin Cromley

Recently, we had the opportunity to try and convey even a portion of what we are about through a branding photoshoot with local photographer Emily Kane. To be frank, when first approached about the idea, I had little to no idea what a branding shoot should involve. How do I show what I desperately want people to associate with us in just a few photos? Then the answer slid into place instantly – show the people who have made it happen. Friends, now family, who have been there since the beginning, or joined along the way, who have spurred this whole thing forward simply by saying “yeah, I’ll be there, I’ll do whatever you need”. Cooking, serving, washing dishes, working insane hours for scraps of food and pizza, entertaining insane dinner production ideas, photographing, hyping up, sharing, pushing, and motivating. They are the energy and the spirit behind In Whites – family, connection, creation, and support.

That’s the goal behind everything we do, create, and push out into our community. To create a sense of inclusiveness, love, and comfort. If nothing else, when you eat the food, I hope you feel the heart behind it; the hours spent desperately trying to get it right, trying to do something new and different for the area not just for the sake of that excitement, but because for someone out there, that’s the food they grew up with. That’s the food they are craving, that will make them feel satiated in more ways than one for even just a moment.

I hope you’ll enjoy this peak into the heart of what we are, as much as we did creating it all. Never ending thanks and gratitude to Emily Kane for not only capturing it all, but understanding the story and purpose behind it all. For being able to translate things that I can’t say into beautiful images. Special thanks to Clearstory Space for letting us take over for a day and basically just play with friends.

Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you to every last one of you that support us. I promise that every day we are searching for ways to do more, and give more.

//Colleen Masteller [Owner/Founder of IN WHITES]

meadows of flora and fern

tell me in whispers,

dew covered anecdotes

of what could and should be

a beauty not meant to survive away from the stems support

or roots strong sustenance

In Roman mythology Flora, the twin of Fauna, was the goddess of all blooming and flowering plants. Though a minor goddess, she was held in high esteem, with an entire festival dedicated to her. Floralia was held on April 27th during the Republican era, and was one of the few festivals that was open to the general public, instead of exclusively to the ruling classes.

Goddess Flora, Luca Giordano 1697

Floralia lasted for six days, full of food, games, and celebration of new springtime growth. It was dedicated to a goddess that ruled all the things that slowly unfurl their petals to the sun, and stretch their leaves wide to the warm, gentle rains of Spring. The delicate beings that take root into the Earth, and embrace their gentleness, while retaining just enough of a bitter bite to remain protected.

No matter howling winds, or pelting rain, scorching sun or belligerent pests, the petite beings find a way to stay upright. To bloom again, and to rejoice in the pleasant days that follow grueling winters.

I think that as I have grown and developed into my food style as an individual, I’ve gravitated towards feminine and floral inspired plates for this reason. For so long I have attempted to harden my edges and sharpen into angles, in order to keep up with what are perceived industry standards. To become someone that is bold and unrelenting, an imposing figure, a character itself.

This past year has taught me that there is no value in that, for me. If anything, it gives me anxiety to imagine upholding that image. Food has always, always, been a way for me to find center again. To find the gravity that so often escapes me, and leaves me floating without direction or focus, desperately reaching for a hold. I am a nervous person, a worrier, a brain with too big ideas and even bigger anxiety that holds me back from going after what I want. Why would the pressure of building up a persona that is not truth make anything better?

With the many upheavals that happened from the middle to end of 2019, I have learned to lean into what I am. Emotional, soft, sentimental, and indulgent of histrionics at worst. There is a comfort in metaphors, and the balance of reality and whimsy. Rose colored glasses are not the worst thing in the world, sometimes they just allow you to look at the glare of life with a bit of protection. An allowance of time to process, observe, and grow.

“On Flowers” by Amy Merrick

Flora and Feast, the dinner, is about embracing all these things. The beauty and aid of flowers, both aesthetically and internally, along with the sometimes acerbic taste of those velvety petals. For many dinners I would literally rip the delicate petals from their stalks and unceremoniously throw them onto plates; wanting to blanket things in a beauty that I did not fully appreciate.

The stalks that uphold those blossoms are not always the sweetest, but they are strong. The bulbs and roots are far from beautiful, but they are the foundation of what is. This menu is about realizing that beauty is inherently rooted in that which is not – the humble beginnings, and the raggedness of being vulnerable. The acceptance of all sides to life and it’s beings.

The most valuable parts of me are the ones that have stemmed from those before me – Carol, Lilah, Nancy, Kyle, Gloria, Florence…the list goes. The tender parts that grew strong from remaining loving, even in pain. The parts that were bruised and cut, but healed with forgiveness, and strong hearts. These are things that I have inherited, and have found peace in.

I aim to make food that is delicate. With tender and soft flavors, and a backbone of strength and intensity. One that does not sit forward, and is not braggadocios. Food that is comforting, and playful. Maybe not the wildest, but is kind in nature. A plate of sustenance for mind, eye, and stomach.

It is a great privilege to have the opportunities to share this kind of personal journey and growth with my little corner of the world. Thank you all for letting me create something tangible to share, and then for telling me to keep going.

If you are interested in joining the table for dinner at Flora and Feast, please purchase tickets below:

A dinner party, coffee, tea,
Sandwich, or supper, all may be
In their way pleasant. But to me
Not one of these deserves the praise
That welcomer of new-born days,
A breakfast, merits;

The greatest gift that the past year has given me, was the knowledge that impressing was more of a happy compliment to things, and not an ultimate goal. What a comforting embrace that thought is; to know that at the end of the day, the most pleasant thing I can conjure up is a warmly lit table. Wrinkled linen and patinaed silverware included. One covered in what is nourishing for more than just eyes and palate alone.

The goal now, beyond garnishment and theatrics, is to make sure what I love most about this job grows. The warmth, the connection, fostered and cared for in ways that allow it to tendril itself lightly around the area I call home. To create a crackling record of that beautiful, tinkling track made of glasses and laughter in harmony. In finding recent inspiration through female chefs who are focused on a more homely and snug perspective of food, I have found myself searching for more ways to practice the same kind of cookery. There is a true heart beat behind the act of creating in order to give back.

An encompassing goal of mine for this year has been to find avenues for IN WHITES to give back to it’s immediate community. Williamsport has endless seeds of potential hibernating within it. Through collective imagination and support, I believe it can surpass any and all constraints in front of it. Slowly, deep roots are forming of rejuvenation; music, art, food, and more. All of the vital ingredients are already here, sprouting up and out from the surface.

In an effort to try and do what little part is mine, I decided to utilize a skill I have been blessed to have plenty of training in. That humble, non-braggadocios meal of waking up, and giving thanks. Breakfast. Not quite buttoned up enough for the dining room, but so very cheery, and plenty reason to gather around a table set with care.

ever giving
Cheerful notice we are living
Another day refreshed by sleep,
When its festival we keep.

Since the beginning of IN WHITES, I have dreamed of doing an event in the Pajama Factory. Wide open spaces, tall breezy windows, echoes of conversation and laughter, and the chance to bring so many people together. When I was approached by the Williamsport Community Kitchen, I could by no means turn down the opportunity.

Table to Community is a sweet and soft love note, from me to the area and people that have already given me so much support and aid. This journey of food I have taken so far has been a true adventure, with so much personal reward. It is a real treat, and honor, to have an event come about that allows me to bring it back around. Truly fitting for the month of February.

Sunday the 16th will be overflowing with little treasures I hold dear; vintage serving ware, still warm baked goods, local foods and ingredients, communal tables. A dream.

When in the breakfast-room we meet,
At the social table round,
Listening to the lively sound
Of those notes which never tire,
Of urn, or kettle on the fire.

If you find yourself wishing for sugared scone crusts, creamy and fluffy rounds of frittatas, the scent of griddle cakes freshly brought to a table, and the chance to say hello to neighbors, old and new friends, please join us for brunch.

Poem excerpts from Breakfast, by Mary Lamb

Menu and pertinent information is at the events facebook page, here:

Community to Table WCK Fundraiser Brunch

All of the proceeds will be given directly to the Williamsport Community Kitchen, to aid them in better equipping the space for future food entrepreneurs.

I Worried, the poem, by beautiful Mary Oliver, is a heart-achingly reminiscent depiction of the past year for me.

I worried a lot. will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the Earth run as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?

It began so light, delicate, ethereal. Mounds of whipped meringue, dustings of sugar; I began the year by filling my mouth with flowers. Greedily hugging all the beautiful, velvety things close to me.

flowers that were dried into edible confetti

I have realized that what I’d been searching for through all these menus, put together with equal parts gravitas and whimsical naivety, all the daydreams poorly scribbled in cursive wallpapering my mind, was self assurance. It is such an elusive thing for all of us, but there seems to be a certain ache for it when you are young and trying so very hard not to be anymore. There was a craving for all things silken, feathery, and tender. A craving to indulge the vastness of sentimentality, that dusty-rose hued perspective. There are not many things I find comfort or solace in, but food has always been delightfully willing to fill the quota. It makes sense that whatever is happening confidentially inside, finds its way into smudged plate sketches, wisps of smoke, and the scattering of petals.

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an equinox party overflowing with love, food, and embers that stayed lit (almost) all night

Somewhere along the way of 2019, a dam broke. Ravenously, I began devouring texts of femme like they were holy word. Alice Waters, Dominique Crenn, M.F. K., Julia, Ruth Rogers and Reichl. I wanted to eat at my mothers table again, feel nourished in the ways I did as a little girl, being fed with warmth and care in mind. Unknowingly, I was searching for what it meant to make beautiful food, not just pretty food.

I wanted to know what it would be like to embrace the parts of myself that until now, had seemed like a hindrance and an obstacle to success in my career. How would my perception, and therefore execution, of these tender ingredients evolve if I let the same happen to myself? If I allowed myself to search and reach into those uniquely feminine, wholly unhardened parts of my mind, creativity, and heart…what could come out of it?

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time in my grandmothers, now mothers, garden

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well,

hopeless.

I began to search for more and more tactile forms of delving into this self-discovery, hoping to discover “my food” along the way. Feeling like an imposter and fraud is so tiring. You become desperate for legitimacy, for validation that you are real, and worthy, in what you do and how you do it. Sometimes so much so that the waters become a bit murky, and the tides of insecurity rise higher and higher. Am I only as good as my surroundings? Can I survive out there on my own? She asked anxiously, very much on the younger side of being 20-something.

As the year carried on, the road became bumpier, unknown, and darker. Though not perfect, 2018 had been mostly up, up, up, reaching effervescent clouds. Life has to be about balance, and 2019 served it as a gloriously mocking buffet. To find myself in an unfamiliar place, without dear faces by my side day in and day out, or the comfort of routine, the shifts during those 52 weeks had me stumbling and falling. Who could care to waste time worrying about food during times like these?

Is my eyesight fading, or am I just imagining it,

am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?

After months of pushing, pulling, stomping and stamping, it was time to rest. Time to throw my hands up to the sky and admit that I had no idea where my next footsteps should lead me, or what was expected of me. It was time to stop running up a hill, when I could just take the path around it.

No longer could I stomach the idea of stuffing blossoms between my lips, or carefully sketching out plates of food based on fairy tale and daydream. My hands craved to ache from kneading bread, and my mind to take rest in stirring stews.

Simple things. Real things. Nothing to snap into permanent memory for all to see, only the things that could be shared between hearts and hands over the table in my home.

Slowly, slowly, the eyelids flutter open, and the hands reach for a pen again. That golden, amber lit space between what is raw and what is beautiful is peeking out again. I am taking my time, and enjoying the gentle footfalls it takes to get there.

Now we are here, at this new place in a new year. It may not be where I was hoping, or expecting to be, but it is solid. Firm beneath foot, and bright overhead. In losing parts of what I held most dearly in 2018, I have learned how to craft them by my own hands, from the bottom of my heart, up. There is much being carefully built, behind the scenes and in hushed tones for now, that I look forward to sharing soon.

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And I gave it up.

And took my old body and went out into the morning

and sang.

In Whites, and Colleen the woman (hello!), have grown quite a bit in the last year. It is with a fresh, and deep, breath that we wake up to this next part of the journey.

Happy new year to you all!

When January 1st arrives, and sweeps cooling winds throughout the way, there’s a shift that is uniquely shared outside of any other time. The air smells crisp like stark citrus, cleansing and refreshing. There’s a special pocket of time where invigoration condenses like clouds across the sky, new with each sunrise. This is the time of year where anything is possible, and doubt has been chased away by swirling flakes.

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lavender skies

The start of the year is dear to my heart, but only because fresh starts in general are. Finding peace in clean slates creates a similar feeling as opening a new journal. Primed for endless creativity, and ready to humbly accept the best version of these rampant thoughts and ideas.

This past year was overflowing with delightfully hard work; between the day job, personal endeavors, In Whites, and quiet, hopeful planning for the future, there was little time to r e s t. As the book began to close, this protagonist was incredibly proud, as well as exhausted. Among all of that bright, sparking, explosive creativity, there was also an omnipresent cloud of self-critiquing. Fraught with a constant voice yelling to do more, try harder, take on more, say yes more, there was another one saying to be harder, toughen up, grow a callous, deal with shit. Next to that voice, was the mental checklist waving in the winds of those demanding breaths, with unmarked boxes of previously determined goals.

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Bitterly elegant endive

I’m not one for resolutions – they give the impression that there was a problem requiring a harsh fixing. A total tear down and rebuilding. After 24 years, I would rather accept the foundation and tools that I have, and make better. In that vein, intentions feel a bit..more comfortable. A little softer around the edges, like me.

I would not describe myself as “tough”. The complete opposite, I’m like an over-ripe peach. Fuzzy, soft, and prone to going bad if not caught at *just* the right moment. For the longest time, I longed to grow into something harder. Refined and polished into a razor sharp point, I wanted to be someone that could handle the harshest of criticism, could let any small issue bounce off…a coconut? I wanted to be a coconut. Rough, hard, pretty indestructible from the outside.

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Veins.

Alas, I am still just a small peach. Sounds cute, probably smells good, but soft and mushy.

While there are still aspects of this personality that I would like to gently mold into something stronger and more durable, I’ve reached a point of embrace. Instead of ignoring the obvious, willing something into existence that just will not be, I want to fully learn and enjoy those soft, squishy, over-sentimental parts of myself.

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Since food has never been just a source of income for me, any fluctuation in life and mental/emotional fortitude has an effect on the product I create. Dulcet Daydreams is meant to be a much more open and honest reflection of that. (Yes, I choose the most obnoxious names I can – they’re my dinners, I can do what I want.)

dul·cet
/ˈdəlsət/
adjective
  1. (especially of sound) sweet and soothing
    synonyms : sweet, soothing, mellow, honeyed.

Honeyed…doesn’t that sound nice? Floral and delicate, perfumed, unctuously slow and in the moment.  That is a tone worth striving for.

day·dream
/ˈdāˌdrēm/
noun
  1. a series of pleasant thoughts that distract one’s attention from the present.

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While it doesn’t pay off to dwell in such fantasies, part of me truly believes that it is healthy to indulge a slight drifting towards a plane of wishful, higher thinking. It helps broaden the mind towards what could be. When those daydreams are wandering their way towards a brighter, healthier, more balanced existence, I stand by it even more.

I suppose a large part of this dinners theme finds itself settled among the self-care/self-love trend that has taken over. If 2018 was filled with goal-setting, and “hustling” towards a more evolved career space, 2019 is meant to be about balance. Having the desires of an accomplished career meet in the middle with that of a slow, fully enjoyed life outside of work.

Softer, slower, nurturing to body and heart. That’s the theme.

In less vague terms, I want every course of this meal to leave one part sense of wonder, and one part sense of fulfillment. A balance of the practical and whimsical, self-care through the basics of more caring food, and delight of the senses.

l

By February we will be heading towards the end of winter. It will be time to gently wake up from a deep slumber, encased in blankets of snow and chill. Thawing, awakening, stirring, all helped by the aid of seasonal, local foods doing the same.

Regardless of whether you decide to join us for dinner come February, I truly hope everyone finds what they are searching for this New Year. Remember that even when January ends, and there is no longer that crisp, fresh smell of newness, you can make any day, any moment, your fresh start. If, however, you would like to know more about the dinner, and how to attend, please subscribe to my newsletter here:

https://mailchi.mp/7b8042faa10a/get-in-the-know

In the next week you will get a menu release, along with information on how to purchase a ticket, and what else to expect with this pop-up.

Until next time,

Colleen // In Whites

Do you know how difficult it is to start one of these things? It’s a perfect representation of how I feel about anything I do; if it doesn’t begin perfectly, it won’t end perfectly, and if that’s the case, what’s the point? Why begin at all, why stress about it? Just trash it before it hits the starting line and stay put. It’s safer that way, far less of a chance of humiliation, and discovery of utter idiocy.

That’s how it’s gotten to be about five months since I’ve put any effort into this blog period, and much longer than I originally intended to start work on another pop up dinner. Here’s the thing, my dinners started out as a form of desperate, much needed expression. I love my job whole heartedly, but I’m not ashamed to say that my heart lies in traditional dinner service, with pretentiously plated tiny courses, and lots of unnecessary tweezer work. So when I began these dinners, they sort of…poured out of me, an unstoppable spigot of creativity, passion, exuberance, and imagination. The technique was definitely flawed, and left a lot to be desired, but at least I had that little thing called heart, right?

As they went on, the technique and performance aspect definitely became the focus, and rightly so. They went from being an exercise in creative liberty, to an intensive HIIT workout of trial and error technique. I’m unimaginably grateful for this; I was gifted an entire handful of dream job opportunities all bundled into one – a day job doing what I love, with people I love, learning more than you would ever expect to from flipping omelets; a “side-hustle” (if you will), to sprint across the field of flashy and invigorating fine cuisine, all based in my home town, surrounded by family and friends, with the chance to enrich the community I grew up in.

Don’t worry, I pinch myself a lot.

Somehow, the dinners gained some traction. I’m not entirely sure how, but I don’t think there has been a year past where I’ve squealed quite so much in excitement and happiness. Unfortunately, I’m a fully fledged perfectionist, so once something becomes more than just a fantasy inside my little food obsessed brain, I become hyper critical of everything, but most intensely of myself. Every action that I put out now, in regards to In Whites, has to be curated. Pruned, polished, and covered in a professionally photographed veneer. What started out as a blog in which I wanted to connect, and share experiences of a “20-something cook figuring out what it means to be a chef” became a marketing tool for me to bring in the 26-45 year old market.

Even when the concepts behind each dinner are acutely personal, and stem from a place of deep emotion, there was no longer any real sharing happening. As a creature that thrives off of human to human connection, sentimentality, and empathy, that became draining. But I kept going, doing more dinners, finding more enthusiasm for food than I’ve ever experienced, and becoming intoxicated by the idea of putting more and more of myself out there on a plate and giving it to the people who wanted it. By the end of it, it sometimes felt like I was literally cutting a part of myself out little by little and throwing it out for consumption and observation.

Fast forward a little bit, and here we are. All of the above, settled into the atmosphere of a mid-20’s girl, with no idea where she’s supposed to go next, feeling behind the curve career wise, and a sprinkling of every bill you can think of, and we have me. A girl tearing her hair out, driving her beloved long term boyfriend probably insane, and just in general going a little bit crazy.

Or a lot. A lot crazy. There’s lots of very dramatic, emotional scream-singing in my car in the middle of target parking lots (not proud of it, but also highly recommend as a cathartic practice).

Slowly, as I regain hearing after said car sessions, I am becoming aware of where I really am. A mid-20’s girl, with no idea where she’s supposed to go next, but surrounded by support for wherever that next is. I’m also becoming aware of the fact that even if I never get a sterling, shiny job in a big city, with a fancy restaurant that cares about stars, as long as I have connection, and food, I will be ok. I will be more than ok, I’ll be happy.

So, as the new year approaches (how very appropriately cliche for this self-describing basic b) I want to return to the OG motive behind all of the chaotic …stuff, I’ve put out as In Whites. Less perfect, less pressure, more pursuing. People and places and experiences and chances to give what I have.

If you’re reading this, I have no idea why, but thank you. I really do hope you’ll stay with me for a while, share some good food and better wine, and maybe we’ll all come out ok in the end.

 

See you on the Line

-Colleen

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Sometimes, in order to move forward and find progress within ourselves, we have to resist jumping into the deep end. Instead, there needs to be some wading back towards home, towards stability and equilibrium. For Her was my humble attempt to do so.

My dinner before hand, VERT-IGO, was not what I would personally deem a success. I pray that every diner had an enjoyable time, and found happiness in their food, but compared to what I had hoped to pull off, it fell short. Riding the cresting wave of a dinner that went off without a hitch before VERT-IGO, I found myself becoming a little too high above the sea, and ultimately crashing. That night revealed that there was a bit of an omen behind the title of the dinner, as somewhere among the courses I could feel the pulsing, deafening rhythm of too much. Too many expectations, too many variables, and too much unfocused energy.

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Slowly waking up the week after, mouth full of bitter, briney aftertaste, I reconciled with myself. There was clearly a need to refocus, and zero in on what the point of doing these exhausting, debilitating, sometimes financially irresponsible, nights were for. Sure, part of it is a selfish endeavor; I feed off the energy of a working kitchen. A cavern of hectic, chaotic, delectable adrenaline, ready to boil over at any point and put out the fire, it’s pure fuel. More so though, it’s the bigger, overly romanticized picture of “community”. It’s cringey and overly used, but the idea of building a community aware of the valuables surrounding them, in tune with the seasons, and fields above and beneath their feet, is undeniably enticing.

If that’s what I am really after though, how do I share it? The same way it was given to me: simply, and out of necessity and care. Growing up in a valley between the mountains of Central Pennsylvania, where going to elementary school meant meeting the sons and daughters of farmers, tradesmen, foragers, and hunters, I wasn’t taught about seasonality, locavore lifestyles, or sustainability, it was just life. You ate what was outside because it was there, it was cheap, and it was good in all the ways that food is meant to be.

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The women of my life are salt of the earth people; caretakers and homemakers, the perpetuaters of common sense and warmth. My mother, mommom, aunts, and great aunts, didn’t look for thanks or recognition, but in my exercise of looking back to move forward, I saw that they were owed a debt of gratitudem more than anyone else in my life.

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This is how For Her began, I just wanted to say thank you.

The menu was the easiest thing I’ve ever had the privilege of curating. The dishes were things that I grew up eating, in one form or another. I just made them tinier, and perhaps a bit fancier. The point wasn’t to create a multi-dimensional tasting menu, full of whimsy and flash. The point was to teach myself about skillful simplicity; the type of skills often overlooked nowadays, when it is easy to get caught up in molecular this, and concentrated that (all of which I fully embrace and love).

Instead, there were mother sauces, 18-hour brodos made of marrow bones, crespelle made of slowly sieved ricotta, and paves made from 4 pounds of paper thin potato shavings. I’ve never felt so personally satisfied.

Amid the weeks, of testing and tasting, there seemed to be this soft, amber lit bubble forming around the menu. A telling that something special was happening, whether it would be recognized by the guests or not, it was there, and it was mine. A tiny little light going off, saying “This is it. This is what you’re supposed to be doing. Keep going.”

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So I did, I kept going. I found home in those plates of food, and every single one that went out to the table was overflowing with nostalgia, sentiment, and heart from me. It was probably the most open and honest I’ve ever been with my food.

There have been plenty of times where I’ve wanted to just all out ball after a dinner, release the pent up adrenaline, emotional load of weeks on end, but somehow didn’t need to, once all was said and done. I had to at the end of this one.

The ugliest, snottiest, chest-heaving of sobs was had and it was glorious. I doubt there will be another like it for a very long time.

I don’t particularly know what path I’m on, or what it has in store. Every time I try to figure it out, find peace with it, or change it, it’s quickly shown to me that I have zero control over it all. What I do know, is that moving forward for me means an endless pursuit of familial warmth through food. Chasing that amber light, and catching just enough glimmers of it to share with others. I hope you’ll all continue to join me.

 

P.S. – Every pop-up dinner I create a packet of info and backstory for my amazing troupe of friends; For Her definitely had the most intense one yet. If you’re curious about what some of the story is behind the plates, take a look at a few of the pages from said packet, below. See you at the table next time,

-Colleen.

FOR HER – A Plan

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The pop up dinners take weeks of work, and said work usually begins as soon as the previous dinner concludes. It’s a labor of love and passion, but ultimately takes up a significant portion of my life. It all begins with a concept; not necessarily a theme, though that has happened 50% of the time now. A concept has more to do with what the final goal of the meal is – is it to teach? To share an experience? To expand my abilities? Whatever it is, that informs the main arc of the meal as a whole.

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The first dinner for example, was more about the experience of a pop up dinner, rather than anything particularly ambitious food wise. I stuck primarily with things I knew would work, and wouldn’t need much testing. There wouldn’t be time for that, since I had to figure out how to put everything else together.

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For Terrains of Autumn however, the concept was nostalgia, through and through. I wanted to create a menu that was deeply personal, and sentimental. It was an exploration of both sensory and story based flavor combinations. What could I use flavor and process wise, to evoke a certain mood? The eggplant course, with the deeply charred flavors, the smoke, the moody sweetness of the figs paired with the pepper, it was all meant to create this foggy scene of forests and autumnal twilight.

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7PLATES was meant to be more giving towards the guest. There are few times when people pay a price like the dinner tickets to go out, it shouldn’t be like something available any other night of the week. This meant that each dish had to have some little twinkle about it, something that made it stand out either in taste, or presentation. Engagement was something at the forefront of my mind, how I create it and utilize it. The smoke course was, I believe, a favorite of mine and the guests. It was a plate that had flavors that easily wove in and out of each other, as well as a presentation that created a real sense of “play”. Which is what small plate, tasting menus should really have at the heart of it, in my opinion. This style of food is more about the creative, thought-provoking angle, than a sustenance one. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should be embraced for what it is.

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So, we have concept. After that comes…usually a lot of scribbled out notes, ripped up papers, and sticky notes over every surface of my apartment (so I don’t forget what an amazing idea dry ice – frozen – candied rose petals would be, DUH). A list of seasonal goods and flavors is the usual starting ground. Some of the list is hard and fast options that are without a doubt, Spring (think peas). Some of it is more about evocation, things that make me think, feel, smell, and taste it (floral elements). I’ll then go down through the list, and see if I can find seven stand outs. Items that would be anchors to a plate, that I can build around. Each of those stand out elements is used as a jumping off point to find depth, layers, and intensity (or subtlety).

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This is where the individual dishes come from. Each plate is usually developed over the course of two weeks, ish, and goes through numerous iterations. Sometimes the final product is no where near the original thought. Still, this dish is at it’s barely dressed form. Garnishes are more than just pretty little bits, they should add to it. If it doesn’t, what is the point of having it? Once the skeleton of the dish is made, and the garnishes idealized, the plate sketch comes into view, along with “touch points”. A touch point is anything that will need to be physically touched to be put on the plate; they add up quickly, as does the overall time they take to place. This is how I transition into the next step of the dinner planning: Schedules.

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Schedules are more than my best friend for the dinners, they are my literal lifeline. I am a teeny, tiny, packet of explosive anxiety when it comes to these (only after a big, bumbling, pack of excitement!!) for so many reasons:

-What if I can’t pull it off?

-What if no one buys tickets?

-What if people buy tickets but don’t come??

-What if people buy tickets, and DO come???

-WHAT IF I FAIL MISERABLY??????

You get the idea.

But schedules help curb the vast majority of that anxiety, so I create a plethora of them. There is a schedule for me personally, about deadlines and due dates. Menu done by this date, dinner date published online by this one, team gathered by this one, etc. Then there is the prep schedule, for myself and the two lovely women who help me cook (Hi Angie, and Kendra), to follow for the week of the dinner. This includes all the pre-prep that will happen Sunday through Wednesday evening. There are two schedules for the night of the actual dinner; a general rundown of events for everyone to follow (show up here, do this, go home here), and a very detailed one discussing every little bit of the evening. It has a plan of attach for essentially every fifteen minutes, from 4PM until about 11PM, when we all go home.

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That “we” part is also an essential part of the planning; while I openly admit to a lot of naive confidence in my abilities, there is no way these dinners would have EVER come to fruition without the help of the amazing friends who volunteer. From Nick who takes beautiful photographs, to Andrew who graciously washes dishes (….and whines about it), gathering everyone together towards this goal is a genuinely fulfilling aspect. It’s the part I love most actually. The dinners wouldn’t be what they are for me, if they weren’t done with a group of loved ones.

 

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There are other little parts that have to occur too, planning out the set up of the dining room, ordering flowers, creating promotional graphics for social media, building a playlist, ordering menu cards, etc. Everything is done with the intention of setting a specific mood, vibe, whatever you wish to call it.

After all of that…comes the doing. Around Tuesday, maybe at 7PM, it comes. That intense buzzing at the back of my head, the swirling knot in my stomach, the too warm feeling of nerves falling over me. None of it is particularly bad, in fact I kind of look forward to it now. There’s a sense of relief, of realness, that comes with it. “I’m doing this”, for lack of a better phrase. That’s when the real fun begins, that’s when I clock out of work on Thursday at two, and come back at three, to blast some terrible prep music (I’m thinking Good Charlotte for this round), and humbly flip a dining room around.

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Will you join me?

Tickets are still available for VERT –  IGO, a 7 course tasting menu of Spring. Go here to grab a seat!

Buy Tickets!

[All photography is by the talented Nicholas Occhino]

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If you have ever wondered how I create my menus, let me explain.

It starts out with anxiety. A steady leak of comparison drips through my mental barriers, and slithers down to smolder inside my chest. Fueled by the scrolling of Instagram posts and Facebook feeds lead by my peers, it thickens like a tar. Smoke fills the cavity of each rib, making it feel as though I can’t catch my breath. The anxiety grows in the form of sweating palms, sleepless nights, and snapping at those around me. I fall behind at work, I make stupid mistakes, I get trapped inside my brain. It feels as if I need to purge some sort of toxin from my blood.

Am I good enough? Is what I’m doing valid? Is it right to stay here? Am I failing? Am I valid? Is this “purpose” I’ve found really true at all?

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Then a pen is grasped, and paper is found, a napkin, back of the grocery list, anything, and sketching begins. It may not even start as a real idea, just a few lines and some shading, from there I can discern what it is. Flavors, textures, nuances begin to take form, all melding into a cohesive dish. It isn’t necessarily done in the correct order, in the proper form, but I find it eventually – the message behind the chaotic lines.

The pulsing and pounding that lives behind my eyes so often starts to soften, the rushing inside the ears dims, and the hazy smoke seeps out from my fingertips. There is clarity in the chaos for a few precious moments, and it doesn’t matter if it is good enough in the grand scheme of things, because it is salvation, and peace, and purpose internally.

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Another sketch, another moment. Another sketch, another message. Originality isn’t the focus, nor are any of the rules of what constitutes “correct” cooking. I am not a chef, nor have I ever claimed to be (unless you count the required line on my business card), because I know I never will be. I will never give particular care to whether or not my knife cuts are precise enough, if my soubise is done in the classical form. I have never been in this industry because I love it, or revere it, I am in it because I use it. I use it as a way to selfishly find my way back to me, through food. I do not claim that to be right, or worthy of respect, simply true.

From each sketch comes a certain focus, there is something that I can successfully work on, edit, and polish. Not perfect. Perfection is unattainable, but emotion is. Connection is, storytelling is, creating an atmosphere, an extension of myself, sharing the goddamn narrative is. Those things I can reach for, and grab.

 

This is not a flowery metaphor about menu making, it’s honest. The three dinners I have put together thus far have been fueled by equal parts anxiety, worry about whether I can fool people into believing I know what I’m doing, and an insatiable need to create. An indescribable, unending desire to imagine, build, and share something of myself to others, to show them something new in the process. There is so much more to food and eating, than just food and eating.

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There is a story behind every farm that contributes to a plate, every cook that prepares the meal, every hand that serves, every voice that weaves the night together. There is an entire troupe of human hearts trying to find their way, their passion, and their bigger purpose in life, putting these nights together. When I design a menu, all of that is pushing and pulling it’s weight inside me. There is a certain responsibility I put on myself to create something worthy of the time, and effort, everyone so humbly puts into these things; these things that are a very part of me, that they all show up for, support, and give themselves to. They may not even love food, cooking, or hospitality, but they show up. So it has to be right, it has to.

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There is also a need to be different, not for the mere sake of it, but to showcase to the audience that I have, what is possible. There isn’t a bone in this body that believes what I do is unique, or special, but it is different for where I am. That is important. That is needed. Pushing the boundaries of an area in the one way I can is something I feel a call to do.

There’s a rivulet of one hundred emotions coursing through myself, from pen and paper, test plate to completed course; There are countless edits, and revisions, all encompassing an inner monologue. I wish I could accurately explain. I struggle daily to find the right ways to turn what happens internally, outward. There is shouting and screaming, anger and excitement, hope and frustration, all running rampant in my brain and heart. There is no moment of real rest, except for the times I’m planning and performing these dinners.

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When I create a menu, I am desperately trying to curate a small piece of my journey, in order to give it to someone who may be going through similar moments. A small reflection turned into connection, that is the goal. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the diner simply enjoyed a lovely meal, because they’ve also shown up. Something about the menu pulled them into the dining room, made them decide to partake in the night at hand. They decided to join the troupe, to become apart of the menagerie for one evening.

That means something to me.

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I wish someone had told me earlier that if what you want isn’t out in the world, you can make it. If the job you’re working makes you miserable, quit it. If the expectations you aren’t living up to make create anxiety and unease,  throw them away and find new ones. I wish I had listened sooner when people did start telling me this. Not wasted so much time convincing myself that I was fine where I was at. Telling myself that I had to “grind” and that meant dealing with a passionless scenario, that left me feeling bankrupt of energy, luster, and excitement.

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Once your eyes are opened to the fact that you can do what you want, where you want, when you want, it’s impossible to turn around. There is no more looking back, finding your way to the place of false contentment that once felt so true. The moment you recognize, and more importantly own, that what you want isn’t necessarily in line with the majority, there is no lying anymore; to yourself, friends, etc. No longer does it satisfy the soul to clock in, clock out, come home, repeat. There’s too much to do, to create, envision, bring to life, and share with everyone around you. The feeling is intoxicating, perfumery and smoke entangling itself around you. Without much choice, you have to delve deep into the process of creation and sharing.

There was a distinct moment during the first dinner I held, when amidst the steam, smoke, and sizzling that surrounded my senses, I looked through the pass window, and saw people engrossed in their meal. Fully engaged with the food, smelling, tasting, touching and questioning. They were experiencing the flavors, sharing thoughts with each other.  It filled me with a kind of warmth that went beyond a sense of validation, towards purpose. I saw a chance to do something more than fulfill my own desire of making a career out of what I love; I could share what drives me, what I know and believe in, in a way that influenced people. There was an opening, and the tingling, prickling of hairs on my neck told me that it was meant to be taken by me.

 

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At the second dinner, it happened again, when speaking with guests post-meal. Hearing the discussions concerning the menu concept, individuals connecting with what I was trying (and very clearly struggling to convey verbally) to share, lit an internal fuse. match, strike, fire. That menu was so thoroughly saturated with nostalgic ties, and sewn together with emotional vulnerability, that to have people “get it” was indescribable. It also made me inexplicably aware of …the gap.

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The gap that exists between my mind/heart and the plate. The gap that encompasses the connection I want to attain with diners, farmers, fellow creators, mentors, teachers, etc. I can create dishes, sketch plate designs, make detailed production schedules, I can do it. The paperwork is easy. The creating is fun. Finding that cord that swings back and forth between me, the gap, and the landing strip of everyone else, that’s the hard part. That’s what I’m grasping for now.

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I want these dinners to be more than an opportunity for me to learn how to build a personal brand, maybe even a legitimate business in the future.  I want them to be my chance to add to the culture of the area I grew up in, and love. I want them to be my way of utilizing what has always felt like such a selfish endeavor. There is still learning, growing, and developing into my skin as a someday chef, to do. There’s passion though, I will own that and boast it proudly. It is painful and wrong to try and imagine my life without food, without experimentation, creation, sharing, eating…all of it. I am selfish enough to grip that with my very life source and not let go, except for the rare opportunities I receive to place it another’s hands, to literally serve it on a platter.

I wish I could properly articulate what it feels like to be fully immersed in the process of making up a menu, testing it, and seeing it come to fruition. It is being in the middle of a concert crowd, surrounded by bass, undulating voices, drum beats mingling with heart beats. It is the adrenaline of surpassing the hard part of a run, and hitting the primal part that’s just feet pounding pavement. It feels like having too much inside your soul and wanting to scream to the world that you are more than just skin and bones. Is that too much though? The brain butts in. Will it be seen as obnoxious, over-bearing?

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Where is the line (ha), between fully embracing what makes you feel alive and sharing it with everyone around you, and becoming an archetype of silliness? Slowly, there comes the realization it shouldn’t matter.  Curation will come with time, the pruning and buffing of an overly excited young cook into a sophisticated and articulate chef. It isn’t the main concern right now, nor should it be for you.

You, who has a specific passion, something of your own, deep inside and bubbling with an effervescent excitement. Do you take ownership of it? Do you ride off into the sunset with it? Not that it’s easy. It means working your regular job until you clock out, then going home and working on your “personal” job. The one that may not pay in real money yet. Working on it for hours, falling asleep at your desk, struggling to remain convinced that you should even try (how long has it been since a blog post?). It becomes worth it though, in the small moments. The moments that suddenly pull you out of the tunnel vision; seeing the people you care about most in life sacrificing time to support you. Meeting the people who participate in what you’re trying to do. So if you haven’t grabbed a hold yet, do it. And hold on tight.

blog & private dinners