Chimere and I met in April 2012 at the IACP Culinary & Book Expo in SoHo. I saw her sitting alone munching on some of the great eats offered and I asked if I could join her. Immediately we struck up conversation and a bond keeping in touch over the years as Clean Plate Co. has expanded throughout New York City.
This summer I finally got to partake in Chimere's menu and had her (award-winning) Shrimp & Grits at Astoria Flea bringing my friend Frances along. She and I thoroughly enjoyed this dish and if I hadn't already been a fan of Chimere as a person I was utterly smitten with her food as a chef.
Clean Plate Co. came out of wanting to go another direction. What was the impetus for you to pursue a culinary career and also look into an alternate way of eating? Your website notes that you “ditched the unhealthy eating habits” you became used to as a student. How easy was that switch to flip once you decided to start Clean Plate Co.?
I'd say it was fairly easy to change my eating habits. Once anyone proceeds to conquer a goal, the best thing to do is prove to yourself that you can do it. Interestingly, I didn't grasp it as "I need to" or "I better start," those words alone give pressure which makes people give up before they begin. I was young, a newlywed, expecting, laid off, bored, & just wanted to be a healthy mom, while looking to kill time during the day. Visiting farmers markets and trying cookbook recipes turned into having fun, inviting friends & family over to my place and entertaining with food! It was basically about an intimate new life, softened with a newfound interest, preparing for our first child together.
This and last summer Clean Plate Co. was at the LIC Flea (and Astoria Flea) in Queens. And just last month you won the LIC Flea’s Best Vendor Award! Congratulations! What was the dish (or dishes) that you served as part of that contest? Did you notice a trend when it came to what was particularly popular at the LIC/Astoria Fleas?
Thanks a lot! It's our first award and we're still on Cloud 9. We wanted to make vending easy for ourselves, so we like to keep it fun and pretty much "a no brainer" when it came to selection. What do people love to eat? What would they go for on a weekend, looking for grub, during any season? Comfort food of course! But not just any, ours! We've been selling our Smoked Gouda Mac & Cheese since 2010 at Hell's Kitchen Flea, so the recipe is perfected after all these years. Shrimp & Grits has been a favorite in our household for just as long and we'd begun selling it last year at the Ridgewood Market. People love witnessing the preparation, smelling the aroma of Cajun butter hitting the hot skillet in addition to fresh lemon juice and sizzling, marinated wild shrimp. It reels them in and we get a kick out of it. Those two dishes alone helped us win. It's what keep clients coming back and we're proud because we really put a lot of love and time into those dishes.
New York City can be a tough place to distinguish yourself in regards to food. What Clean Plate Co. offers is a nice distinction and even aspects of the gourmet when it comes to dishes that also feel familiar. (Your Shrimp & Grits are dynamite, by the way. Better than ones I’ve had in NYC and in South Carolina.) How much planning and experimentation goes into getting your recipes just right and making sure they stand out as part of Clean Plate’s larger mission?
I personally love color, texture, contrast in temperature, simple presentation, yet extremely attractive. My husband and I make a great team because of the Ying & Yang factor. The balance has to be right. I know what women like and he knows men. It all matters. Our dedication to introducing local produce is crucial. It's what placed us where we are because it hits close to home. Business can be perceived as technical or very cut & dry, definitely intimidating. People aren't comfortable with that. Incorporating seasonal ingredients automatically feels like home to anyone. It's nostalgia. So is building relationships with local purveyors & butchers. I'm a mom first, everyone can relate to that. I'm self-taught, so I'm planning as if I were planning for myself. I'm trying different ideas for the client. I present tastings, which are fun and build a great rapport before the event, so you know what you've paid for. That takes time, but time I'm willing to put in because people are consuming my work. I want them to be excited & extremely satisfied with a Clean Plate Co. experience.
When we first met, Chimere, we had talked about the lack of healthy options in various areas of NYC, particularly the Bronx. And also about how much education is necessary when it comes to low-income families and those not able to afford or be around fresh, natural ingredients without preservatives as well as being able to “ditch” their own unhealthy eating habits. What are some of your recommendations for those who may want to be more active about eating healthier but may not have the resources available to them at the moment?
With experience in Food Bank of New York's Cookshop Program, in addition to their Soup Kitchen & Pantry along with volunteering my time with both children & adults has made me realize how segregated New York City's communities are. Inaccessibility to nourishment shouldn't be possible in one of America’s most resourceful cities. Helping teach kids about the biology and preparation of healthy foods was enlightening. Some were turned off from unfamiliarity, some were excited about the new information, some were actually grateful for me just being there. Being connected to the students, I was angry making my way to and from the school. Corner stores with junk food aligned along the windows, no supermarkets in site, no fruit or vegetable stands. I used to take a cab just to buy groceries, so when there's a will, there's a way. If you want a certain lifestyle, you'll go out of your way to maintain it. For some it's not so easy. Most parents work long hours and feel like they don't have time to skip around looking for the best produce, but without eating healthy, you're actually taking years off of your life. I suggest alternatives & simple coordination. Do it together, have fun with it. There's so much offered and available, we may not be used to making the effort to get what we need because all the things we shouldn't have are so convenient. Instead of soda or sugary drinks, buy mostly water or make lemonade together. Read the contents, the ingredients. We all know salt, sugar, and fat are the most detrimental, yet they’re everywhere. Make the effort to slowly eliminate what you can and when there is time take a trip and shop with your kids. There are year-round markets in some of our communities, just take the initiative & advantage. Take breaks from fast food, set challenges for your family and see the difference in your stamina and brain function! I believe the education is also extremely important, just like any other subject. This fall, I'll be presenting a Health & Beauty Workshop at the Women Mean Business Conference in Harlem, presented by SheChef.org & I'll be doing the same for children and parents at Wee Bee Kidz Day Care Center & Brooklyn.
You don’t only create/offer savory goods. You do sweets as well. You’ve catered for events for Time Out New York and at Lincoln Center, to name a couple. When it comes to sweets what’s part of your criteria for making a good dessert? Do you still try to be healthy or really focus on it being good. For me, good includes a decent amount of butter.
There's plenty of ingredient options in baking, especially now that there's gluten issues climbing & more vegan requests. Adaptation is everything. A vegan client is not willing to sacrifice their diet for a baked good because they don't have to. There are options everywhere, sugar-free desserts, you name it. When I first began catering, it was mostly for baked goods, which meant experimenting & eating a lot of it. I knew I was in for a problem if I didn't offer options, business wise & personally. Consuming fluffy cupcakes or gooey chocolate chip cookies late at night or for lunch every other day, isn't going to help you maintain a sensible diet. Versatility is key. You can indulge once in a blue, but trying a muffin prepared with applesauce & canola oil or a cake made with coconut flour is just as delicious & not so harmful if enjoyed often.
When you do customized parties/private dinners, how do you create the menu? Do new items come about after speaking with those that hired you or do you provide a list/taste of your offerings that may fit in line with the type of event/meal that they want? How much of it is seeing what fits for the client and making it fit for the client?
Customizing and creating menus are my favorite task. I usually "free-style," thinking of taste and colors. What flavors go together, what dishes & seasonal produce are appropriate for the event. Clients may request a dish they've tasted at a market or event. Some like our ideas, usually. We offer a variety, we also have experience in vast cultural cuisine. New items come to us after traveling, shopping around, or simply trying new dishes at home. If possible, I like to meet with the client and check out the season's best together, which is always fun. If it sounds good, clients have enough faith in us to deliver the rest. I'm so happy about that, it makes things easier on both ends.
You’re online (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). Are there other online venues or ways that you can be reached via social media? Are there any additional food fairs/events you’ll be appearing at soon in NYC or nearby?
Yes, I'm also on Tumblr, CaterCow.com, Fiestah.com, Thumbtack.com, I'm working on YouTube cooking segments with my pals over at MelimeL Digital Art Design—called 'Seasonal Comfort' which focuses on comforting meals using local ingredients of the season. We anticipate holiday market vending & are really expanding for catering duties. Growing and getting better is my main goal. I converted from sole proprietor to an LLC and am ready to hire soon! So be on the lookout for all, but in the meantime, let us cater your upcoming events. Small or large, you'll have a newfound perspective on catering for sure!