24 September, 2018
The History of Farm-to-Table at Maison May
What farm-to-table means, and why cooking this way is important to Maison May’s owner and head chef
Maison May has undergone quite an evolution since its origins as a full-service farm-to-table restaurant in the Brownstone under a different name, an evolution which many of its loyal customers and neighbors have witnessed and welcomed. Now a full-time café at Vanderbilt and private event space for weddings, bridal showers, birthday parties and everything in between at the Brownstone on Dekalb, it remains a farm-to-table establishment across the board.
In order to give you a well-rounded perspective on what exactly that means, we have decided to interview two people at Maison May about what farm-to-table means to them and why it is important. Catherine, Maison May’s owner, and Armando, Maison May’s chef, both have deep roots in eating and making food that comes straight from the farm – seasonal, local, natural – and they together create the menu at Maison May, sourcing food from local farms.
– Catherine –
What was your introduction to eating locally and seasonally?
C: The way I had grown up was to eat food that was in season and local: My grandmother had a field where she would grow all of her vegetables, and all of the local food stores were selling things that were in season – it would not have crossed my mind to do anything differently, so opening the restaurant in 2004 was just simply going back to my roots. Not inventing something or joining a movement, but more going back to what food meant for me and how I grew up.
Was it hard to find pathways to farms to source from at that point? Was there a system for those types of relationships already in place?
C: Yes. It was totally hard. 14 years later it’s almost hard to imagine what it took to put everything together. In 2004 there were really only two places within Brooklyn where you could find local, seasonal food – the Food Coop in Park Slope and the farmer’s market. The farmer’s markets 14 years ago were not the size they are now. They were vibrant, they were great, they were well-run; but they were not the size they are now – Union Square was probably a third of the size that it is now. I was a member of the Food Coop, which gave me access to a lot of resources and farmers. That’s how I found a farmer who could deliver chicken. Because finding a farm upstate was not an issue – I could have traveled, taken a road trip, and found farms. But the issue was: how could they get the stuff into the city? You could vacation in the Catskills and fall in love with your little strawberry producer, but it doesn’t mean that it makes any sense for him or her to bring them down into the city. So that’s why I started tapping into farmers who already had a way to bring food into the city – I went to the Food Coop, and I went to the green market, and was like, ‘Hey, on your way down into the city..’ – it was just adding an extra stop instead of imposing for people to change their entire way of work.
I had to piece a lot of things together, and then, a farmer is a farmer, sometimes you will have someone saying their truck broke down and they can’t come this week and you’re like “Oh, my god, you have three hundred eggs for me, what am I going to do?” So there was definitely a lot of work. Once a lot more farms starting doing this for restaurants, it helped. The more the merrier with this.
At Maison May, what was a game changer was that we changed the way we operated on a daily basis – the majority of our food service is now events, so that aside from the café we know exactly what people are going to consume. Armando talks to the farmers every week, so I don’t have to talk to the farms directly anymore. I don’t have to watch over his shoulder, because he knows what he’s doing. But, so we know that in three weeks we’re going to have asparagus and such-and-such dish and so he organizes that accordingly on a spreadsheet.
What makes it worth all of this effort to you?
C: There are many, many reasons. The one reason that I always say first is that, when you pick up the phone and you place your order, you talk to a human being, and you actually are treated like a human being, rather than being like “yesm this is Maison May, account number 2651, for tomorrow we would like blah blah blah…”. So there is an actual exchange of energy with a real person who actually cares about your business. It feels more like a partnership because we’re all in it together. You know, let’s say there is a change of plan and we don’t need as much of something – I don’t think we would ever cancel something from a farm, because we know the consequences. There is an actual exchange of energy.
Then there is the obvious ecological point of view – using local food, you reduce the carbon footprint. You actually know the person who produces it, you know how it works, you know if it’s safe to put in your body. Is it spread with 600 chemicals or not?
You participate in keeping the soil healthy, and ultimately I think it’s better for your body – you should be eating what is in season and around you, because that matches the temperature, that matches the light. You don’t eat strawberries in December because they contain vitamins that you don’t necessarily need. People before weren’t eating that – now, of course they were dying a lot younger, one could say; they had a lot more diseases [laughing]. But there are many things that we consume that we don’t need in certain months.
How would you suggest people ascribe to this and change their habits?
C: What I think is important is for people to pick whatever speaks to them. Maybe it’s the fact that they want to participate in regenerating the planet, because local, sustainable farming regenerates the planet and doesn’t deplete it. Or you decide that it’s really good for your body because, as Alice Waters used to say, ‘you are what you eat.’ So if you eat, are you a processed bread full of chemicals or are you a fresh strawberry? What is going to bring you the most nutrients? What is going to make you glow from the inside out? And then it’s very hard to change everything, and indeed it’s the paradox, because local food is more expensive than crappy, processed food – don’t ask me why because that is beyond my brain, but somebody along the way is making money out of us. So then a good way to transition to this is – it’s impossible to be perfect – is to just start by changing one meal a week. If you’re lucky enough to be able to make the decision to change what you’re putting in your body three times a week, that’s 12 times a month, over a hundred times a year. It’s enormous. And then once you get into the rhythm, your health will improve, your energy will improve.
When I fell off the wagon of making my children lunchboxes every day, I said, ‘alright, I will start with one lunchbox a week.’ And I gradually, not to overwhelm myself – I was like I’m not wonder woman, stop beating yourself up, just do one a week – when that started to be really good, I kept going up, and then quickly enough I was back to five. But I think the thing is to be generous with yourself and to play with it and to see how it brings you joy. Because it should. That’s the beauty of switching to natural and local. Food feeds more than just your body.
Food is sickening our people, is sickening our country. I see the number of allergies going through the roof. That makes me incredibly sad. And I really feel like it is so much linked to the food. I am wanting more and more to make Maison May’s food cleaner – what can we eliminate? How can we really purify and get rid of white flours, white sugar? To really work with the best possible ingredients in order to make food that is cleaner – you can come to Maison May and feel safe. Which is insane when you think about it, because we should not have to double guess that, but that really is what it’s coming down to.
– Armando –
What was your introduction to eating locally and seasonally?
A: When I was growing up, where I come from, we picked greens from the earth, and we washed them and ate them, so that’s why I feel that eating this way is important.
How do you come up with the recipes for Maison May – is it dependent on what’s available?
A: I am in touch with the farmers every week – they send me a list of what they have, and then we figure out what we need or what we can work with.
Do you sometimes find yourself working with something totally new that you haven’t used before?
A: Honestly, I see something and I try it and see how it works – I have the spirit, you know? In my mind I see how to do a dish, and I practice with it and I season it. I work very well with Catherine because she has the palette – taste and everything – so I use her palette. I cook, and I give it to her to try, and she decides whether she likes it. It’s very fun when we cook together.
How does that process with Catherine look?
A: I always ask Catherine, what do you want to eat? And she tells me items – vegetables, plates – and I practice and make a dish for her. I combine those items and I give what I’ve made to her to try, and sometimes she likes it, sometimes not, sometimes we exchange some things. So we work together to make the menu evolve.
What are people missing who don’t do farm to table?
A: All of those farmers, they grow very good vegetables and feel happy, and I in turn feel happy when I make a dish with their food. I feel so happy when I see our customers and team feeling happy when they eat the food that I’ve made.