Fall Survival Kit - Return to Basics

I am not going to lie: Fall is the hardest stretch for me, always.
The boys, work, the transition into cold weather, although I love the Indian Summer in NY, I always find myself breathless, not to say most of the time spinning. And this year is no exception with the intense violence spread in the news everyday (national & international), and the transition from running 2 restaurants instead of 1...
Yet, this time around, I’ve never felt more energized. Probably because more than ever, I grounded myself & went back to the essential. Here are my basics, and how I draw energy, whether it be in work, a run at the park or a glass of red wine..

I think it only struck me last year how my work flow & energy are aligned with the seasons: in the spring I feel a surge of creativity & energy that explodes in an exuberance of creations and work over the warm months. I am restless then, and can work an incredible amount of hours as long as I can lie in the sun here and there.
The fall is when I start to slow down & be more measured in my doing & start to be more expansive in my thinking. I like to say that I start to slow down to only go faster at a different level (because in all honesty, although I am all about slow food, measured progress, sustainable growth, I hate going slow. It takes every cell in my body to actually slow down. Ask my employees, my friends, my kids...).
Fall is the time I change gears, basically to take stock of what the sunny months have brought to me & what I have accomplished.
I start to assess, ponder, and integrate what I have been through at a more cellular level.

As the light decrease, I go inside myself more. I force myself to work with more measure and stop when I am exhausted, not push through as I do most of the time so I never find myself in a stage of complete depletion. It is harder to regenerate when it is dark by 5 & rainy anyway & when one's body is constantly adjusting to different temperatures.
This is such a huge transition that I am careful who I let in at that time: I do not have room for anything or anyone that will suck up energy so I manage my social calendar very conservatively & it can sometimes feel a bit lonely. Not a lot of gatherings or long evenings with friends. I am stocking up the bit of sun left & gearing up for the whirlpool that the holidays will bring no matter what.

Fall is the time to reset as well with my boys: During the summer, we all go our separate ways & to find our rhythm again in the fall after what are always transformative summer months can take a minute. It is not always smooth but we always land somewhere brighter. The boys are the perfect illustration of the impermanence that one should embrace in their life: at my stage as I keep aging, I try to keep that quiet, but for them, growth is exuberant & unpredictable (Theo is the perfect illustration of that symbol, he grew 2 inches in 6 weeks...) and there is always something new: ew school, new sports (and yeah, new shoes, sweater). As a mother, it is crucial for me to not miss that transition that often sets the tone for the rest of the school year.

To feed myself externally in all of those transitions, I have a few things in my routine that are necessary.


The first is to run outside: my dear friend Martha says that there is no such thing as bad weather for a runner, only bad equipment... I guess I am not that fierce; I run inside when it gets very cold so in the fall, for as long as I can, I run outside. I like a quick short 3 miles run in the morning before starting my day. I put on my shoes & the same shorts, t-shirt every single time. It is part of the routine & brings such relief not to have to think about what to wear and why. I jump out of bed & run the minute I am out of the front door. I listen to the same soundtracks weeks in a row. It is part of the routine, I just focus on the road & what streets will have the better sun exposure & I am gone.
The mornings I wake up completely exhausted, overwhelmed & spinning are the mornings I reach for my running shoes no matter what. No excuse unless it is pouring rain. I just have to repeat to myself that it is not about how fast I will run but how far I will go, and with that mantra I ground myself, I pace myself, and by the time I get to Maison May, my head is clearer. I never regret a run.

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The other important part of my fall routine is wine & food, as always...
As my schedule is always packed, I found myself cherishing my simple outing to the green market every Saturday even more, like a day out of town & I make it a non-negotiable time I carve out to care for myself.
I like the simple pleasure of grabbing my huge basket & walking slowly (yes, sloooowly) there. It helps me stay in the rhythm of the season, to stay in tune with my surroundings & to not forget why I do what I do at Maison May. It helps my brain to ease into the change of season to see the vegetables turning from exuberant tomatoes & corn & herbs & berries, to sturdy leafy greens only and roots and apples I also love talking to farmers who are winding down as well and are getting ready for a different kind of work during the winter (As I write that I realize I must have been a farmer in a previous life- but then, haven't we all at some point?)
And the food that I carry home leads me to drink differently: I say ciao to rosé & hello to red (not that I don't drink red during the summer).As I start to cook more hearty food, I reach for deeper wines.
It is a way to draw more energy in. I like my wine to be natural, biodynamanic, in short, alive. There should be no filter between the elements & the wine: I want to feel the sun that shone on the grapes, feel the ocean breeze that brushed the bunches & taste the raspberries that grew on the bush alongside the vineyard. In natural wine, you can taste all that, it encompasses more than grape juice, but a piece of the microcosm, the land where the grapes where grown. There is no pesticides, additives or any other artificial stuff to alter the reality of the vineyard that year.
I like to sit with a glass of red & swirl it in my glass and imagining the piece of land it grew on, packing up sun & energy in a different way.

And with all that & if I keep my routine strong, I ease myself in to the winter slowly & not as painfully as some years past when my summer fire would consume me by mid-October...

 I guess I grew wiser. Or maybe just older.


2 Croissants & 1 Baguette, s’il vous plait!

The year I turned 13, my godmother Françoise, then 22, married a lovely young baker named Thierry. She and I had always been close—she was my cousin, and her becoming my godmother at just nine years old forged a special bond between us. Thierry was a totally dedicated artisan, as well as an entrepreneur at heart, in a very unpretentious way. Eager to unleash his creativity right away, he decided right after their wedding to settle somewhere so they could run their own bakery. They found the perfect spot in a sweet little village called La Louvesc, perched on top of a beautiful little mountain in the heart of the gorgeous and lush Ardèche.

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In the winter, all but about 200 people left the village, and not a lot of people would venture up the treacherous, icy road to the village. But when the beautiful days of spring returned, the town would morph back into a busy hive—the 15 hotels lining the main street would re-open, summer camps would get ready to welcome their flocks, and the summer houses would get dusted off and opened up. Overnight, the population would surge into the thousands for the next few months.

During that busy season, a steady flow of weekenders would drive up from the valley to go see the picturesque St Regis Cathedral in the center of the village, and grab “un pain de seigle” from the bakery that Francoise and Thierry bought, which had the reputation of making the best rye bread in the region for the past 40 years.

The young couple dove in to carry on the incredible rye bread tradition, while Thierry brought his passion for patisserie to life. Soon, the little shop looked like Ali Baba’s cave, filled with pastries, pies, brioches, confections, and ice cream. He had learned all the basic & classic techniques between age 16 & 22 and was then exploring his own creativity.

I spent three summers in a row helping there during the peak of the season, and to this day, it remains one of the most formative work experiences I have had in so many ways (sorry Chef Ducasse).


Thierry was handling all production, starting at 10pm (yes, that’s PM) and working until 11am—going upstairs to sleep at some point during the afternoon, in the little apartment that was right above the boutique. He had a part-time help on weekends but would be the one handling 90% of all the production.

Francoise would run the store and I would help her. Our days started at 6am when she would come and wake me up, knocking gently on my door. I could already hear a smile in her voice as she chirped, “Debout Cathou!”

To this day, I can still smell the croissants being pulled out of the oven in the early morning hours, the air so thick with that smell, I felt I could bite into it. The sun wasn’t up yet, and I would go down in the dark to find Thierry covered in flour, smiling in the bright light of the “labo.” He was a man of a few words, but his demeanor and smile were generous, and his sense of integrity always seemed to shine through in his baking.

By 7:30am, Francoise and I would have set up the store, lining up trays of chaussons aux pommes, baguettes, flutes, and autres miches; before preparing dozens of pre-ordered bags for the hotels to pick up. Then, the day would start.

The doors of the little shop would swing open, and a non-stop flow of customers poured into the store to grab their morning treats, leaving us barely any time to have a quick breakfast ourselves in the kitchen behind the store. The rhythm was intense but the rewards were endless: Françoise was just as excited as I was to be running the store, and every day of work felt like we were two kids again, playing store. “Et voila, Madame, 3 croissants, 2 pains au chocolat, and 2 baguettes? 10 Francs 75 s’il vous plait!” We were working hard and laughing just as hard. Thierry would look at us often in faux dismay, but always with a hint of a smile: we were efficient, and the customers loved us: we were quite the change from the serious, old “Mère Loucel,” who had run the store for the past 40 years.

Thierry created his patisseries following his guts and the vision he always had carried with him.

His idea of what his confections should look like & taste like was crystal clear. And he baked them with whatever he could get his hands on from local farmers and foragers: the butter was bright and yellow, the eggs, once cracked, would reveal a deep orange color that I haven’t seen since then, the milk was as thick as a milkshake, and having a spoonful of honey was like rolling down a hill spread with wildflowers, it was intoxicating.

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I remember a peculiar boy who would come about twice a week. He was a bit younger than me, very skinny, always with a very frightened look on his face. He lived up in the mountains a bit further and I could tell that he had not a lot of human interaction—coming to the Boulangerie Patisserie twice a week was probably his only outing. His hands were a deep purple color to his wrists: he was our wild blueberry picker. He would spend all his days in the mountains looking for the best bushes, combing them carefully and bringing his bounty to Thierry, who would turn them into the most spectacular ice cream, jam, coulis, or pies.

It never felt like Thierry and Françoise were trying to be serious, or following a plan, yet they were very intentional & in the end they were following their hearts. It never felt like an effort for Thierry to source the ingredients the way he was, yet he could have done very differently and the logistics would have been easier. 

With the customers, it always felt like Francoise was sharing a story more than she was selling something, story that was naturally flowing through her words, through her genuine smile and dedication & Thierry’s confections. That story looked simple, simply written with a lot of passion.

Every decision they were taking to run that small yet incredibly successful little boulangerie patisserie was taken from a place of care, heartfelt and with a clear vision to serve the best possible products in the best possible way. There was nothing pretentious or forced, but everything ended up having a assertive effect.

Working with them taught me the value of simple artisanal tasks, mastered to perfection, for no other purpose than doing things right & with integrity to follow one’s dream. The goal was never success- It was integrity. And in the end, they got both.

Blueberries & Sardines

Food is a powerful vessel to connect with the people around us, but also to connect with our actual physical surroundings. The sun, the air and the soil feed the food that we eat—which is why when we eat food produced locally, it gives us a sense of belonging and place. The simple act of eating links us directly back to the earth we are standing on. This is a primal fact that is all too often forgotten in our modern, hyper-processed civilization. We usually don’t know where our food comes from these days, so there is no longer a strong connection with that intimate and visceral understanding. This, by extension, makes it easier for us to forget about caring for that which is feeding us: the planet.

I didn’t know it at the time, but now that I’m an adult, I realize how incredibly lucky I was to grow up in an environment that fostered this understanding. Here is a story that encompasses it all for me.

I am about 10 years old, standing on a beach on the serene Bay of Saint-Tropez, eating grilled sardines…

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Throughout most of my childhood, I spent my summer vacations in a family house that one of my great-uncles bought back in the 1950s on the French Riviera. The little town is called “La Nartelle.” At the time, it was more like a hamlet, with houses spread along the foot of a gentle hill. It was unremarkable by any French standard yet totally charming and, most importantly, right on the tranquil Bay of Saint-Tropez. When I think back on those summers, my five senses are immediately activated all at once. Vivid sensations come rushing back, swirling, juxtaposing against one another like a five-dimensional kaleidoscope: the vibrant blues of the sea and sky; the smell of the lauriers roses (oleander flowers) and pin parasol trees (where pine nuts come from); the sound of the “grillons” (crickets); the touch of the sun burning my skin; the bittersweet taste of grilled sardines.

Our days would pass in rhythm with the sun. We got up early and found our way to the beach before it got too hot. It was not unusual for us to be the first ones there. I would spend my mornings in the water, only coming out to run along the small pier and throw myself back in, or to lay on the wet sand right where the dying waves would gently crash into me. I could never get enough of that water.


Leaving the beach to go back home for lunch, followed by the unavoidable sieste, always felt wrong to me. The sun was at its peak and I actually liked its untenable heat. The sea would become a deeper blue, the burning sand turned a glistering gold. Everything and everybody slowed down. But on some days, my grandmother, Madeleine (we called her Mamo), would say that we could stay on the beach and have lunch at Chez Henry. Those days were the absolute best.

Chez Henry was a little shack right on the water at the end of a plage privée, or private beach, lined with elegant umbrellas and daybeds one could rent for the day.

Henry was running the show. He was this 50-year-old monument of a man who had been in the Résistance during the German occupation. The flag flapping at the entrance of the beach was painted with a huge “Croix de Lorraine”—the symbol of Free France during World War II and the opposition to Nazism. After a few glasses of rosé, Henry would show off the medals he had been given for his merits at the end of the war, and he would tell stories. His personality was so energizing and even though the tales were often tragic, Henry had a sense of humor and joie de vivre that always lifted everyone’s spirit.

At the time I could not grasp all the jokes he cracked (probably for the best) but I didn’t care. Everyone seemed happy and I was here for the grilled sardines. They had been caught the night before and Henry would go to Sainte-Maxime, a larger village three miles away, to talk to the fishermen early in the morning and get the best of their catch. The sardines had been swimming in what, back then, was the crystal-clean water of the Mediterranean. Henry would simply serve them grilled, with a slice of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. I ate them with my fingers so that their aroma would stay with me longer.

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My grandmother would look at me and invariably start laughing uncontrollably, holding on to her belly and covering her mouth as she always did when she would have a crazy laugh. She was enjoying watching me devour my lunch and did not care that I was being so messy. With my toes dunked in the sand, my gaze on the horizon, and my skin wrinkled after a long morning in that same water where the fishes swam the night before, each bite I took encompassed the microcosm where I was standing. I was biting into the sea and engulfing it inside me. Like swimming in its water, I could never get enough.

I spent some time in Upstate New York earlier this month with my two sons, staying in a large sunny house flanked by a small hill overlooking a vibrant stream. Friends came and went as we spent many evenings cooking together. Lucas mastered the barbecue; Theo was in charge of desserts (berry almond crisp is our new favorite). Each guest brought a different style and unique recipes, but we all cooked with the bounty of what we found at the local farms.

As I watched my boys inhaling (most of) the food, I smiled, hoping that they had found their “sardines” this summer and that, via a freshly-shelled pea or a just-picked blueberry, a deep sense of belonging to the land, and responsibility to their surroundings, would be tattooed on their taste buds.

On Building Community

New York is one of the most vibrant cities in the world, but also a social jungle where it is so easy for an individual to get lost. Every morning, just while strolling half-a-block to the subway, I pass more people than I would while sitting on a bench for an entire week in the small town of my native Provence. Yet it is rare that I ever talk to most of these people.

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We are all busy with our own lives, and we live in a day and age where social interactions are often coded in “likes” and “hearts,” making human connections even more difficult to foster. We are more connected than ever before, yet essentially we are alone together. I have been thinking a lot lately about how one can create and maintain a healthy village in the heart of this social jungle. As the first step in building my own village, for the past few months I have been hosting community dinners at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ).

These dinners grew out of what General de Gaulle referred to as the Traversée du Desert—for him, the period after World War II, before he became president, when he stepped back from public life and found his new purpose. For the past seven years I have kept close to home, reserving my energy for raising my boys and rebuilding my business, while relying on my amazing staff and a handful of very close friends who have become like family. Now I feel I have a newfound purpose. Late last year I launched this website as part of my strong desire to lay the foundation for the ecosystem I am now building. Having crossed my own desert, I am now ready to explore new dimensions for my career and my life. As I set out down this exciting new path I am yearning for a larger community. I know it will take a village to build what I have in mind.

So I started reaching out to people who have been a peripheral part of my life all these years—acquaintances, regular customers, friends of friends. Each month I reach out to a diverse array of people from different careers, backgrounds and walks of life. Then I gather them around a table to share food while sharing my hopes and vision. It is not about brainstorming or networking (argh, that may be my least favorite word EVER), but just a chance to come together and see what happens. We are only a few months into the process, but after only a handful of dinners it is already very clear that these evenings present a gentle yet powerful way to weave people together and build community.

I always smile when I have the chance to introduce people who have lived two blocks from each other for a decade, who have both eaten at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) more times than I care to count, yet have never met. From there, I witness conversations spring up as my guests discover shared interests and mutual passions. It is so special for me that ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) can play this vital role in Fort Greene, serving as a place where community grows. This is a diverse, vibrant neighborhood whose residents have been a huge part of shaping my business over the years to what it is now. There are so many people from different horizons living here, and as I set out to expand and open more businesses in Fort Greene soon, my goal is to feed and inspire these people. Seeing these evenings take off feeds my own desire to build a village for myself, and for the people around me who express the same desire.

For the past decade I have been fortunate enough to build a business out of ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb), yet these dinners allow me to fulfill a very different desire: to share food and company with no ulterior motive. After our second community dinner one of my close friends suggested I should really charge people, since food and wine is served in abundance. That really struck me because I had never even considered it. She looked at me bewildered: “But you own a restaurant, Catherine! This is your business!” (Liza, I love you!)

Yes, of course I run a restaurant. And please, do not expect me to waive the bill every time you come in for dinner. But on these particular evenings, I consciously choose not to put money in the middle because it is not about building a business, but fostering a community. Sharing food, sharing laughs, sharing dreams—that is something that cannot be bought. This thought brought me back to the night 11 years ago when ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) first opened. I had built this place (partially with my own hands) and it felt like an extension of my living room. It took me a few days to actually charge the customers coming through the doors. I had never charged anyone I fed at home before, and it felt odd to do so now. Of course I eventually got over that, but I still recognize that sharing food is a very powerful thing. It is more than just feeding people. It is a gift of life, power and clarity— because without food, you have none of those things. These community dinners brought me back to this very primitive relation to food, which is the reason I created ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) in the first place.

By 11:30 pm last Tuesday I had to gently kick everyone out. We all had a long week ahead of us, especially with the busy Mother’s Day weekend coming up at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb). People who were strangers four hours ago were now engaged in vibrant conversation that all of us wished could go on even longer. I smiled again, knowing that it would be a sleepless night for me, so charged was I with the energy that had flown freely through the evening.

“When an individual’s particular kind of soulfulness, which is both instinctual & a spiritual identity, is surrounded by psychic acknowledgment & acceptance,
that person feels life & power as never before”.  
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Finding One's Pack: Belonging as Blessing from Women Who Run With the Wolves

 

 

Leading a Kitchen: Standing at the Pass... Spring Menu (R)Evolution

About three months ago, we decided to do some exploration to streamline the menu at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ), and redefine a few of its parameters. On the evening of the launch of the new menu, I sat down with a dear friend to eat my way through it, and make whatever adjustments might be necessary. By the end of the meal, however, I was overcome with the most intense feelings I’d had in the 11 years of owning my own restaurant—the food was beautiful. Flawless. It felt entirely mine, and I could stand behind it, 100%. It looked like me, and the menu tasted exactly like what I wanted Maison May Dekalb to be. 

I say this despite having not once set foot in the kitchen to peel a potato. I’ve never come up with a composed dish—the truth is, I still mix up the sautee pan with the frying pan. 

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Yet, I can still claim every menu at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb, ) just as much as the chefs de cuisine. It is a team effort, a gentle collaboration, and the menu becomes a fantastic way to express my vision and creativity. 

Let me explain.

Even if I am not the one cooking at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb, ) I still know how to eat. No matter how often I say it, or to whom, when I explain that I am a restaurateur, the sole owner, people will still picture me in the kitchen with an apron on, running the show. I must know how to cook. As I’ve said before, I can certainly feed my boys, and a few friends, but I could not, and will never cook in a professional kitchen. 

But, I have spent the last 20 years of my life eating out, working in restaurants, and ultimately running my own. Along the way, I’ve had my food epiphany, narrowed down the style, aesthetics, and palette to a comprehensive whole. I have repeatedly challenged my taste buds—from my first few years in NYC, as I was exposed to a myriad of new textures, cuisines, and flavors—through the present, and they are like muscles. If you do not exercise them, you do not grow anything new or you actually lose them...

Over the past seven years running the restaurant alone, I have had different chefs in my kitchen—all of them with different strengths and weaknesses. For each new menu item, there was at time required tasting, and 3 or 4 tries before getting the dish to where I needed it to be. I could not go into the kitchen to show the current chef what to do, I couldn't put my hands on it—and, God knows, I’m such a doer—but, try after try, I learn to point out what herb was missing, what underlying taste was too strong, what texture was overpowering. This is how I have learned how to express myself with chefs, with food. 

The next step in running a kitchen is defining the culinary identity by defining the aesthetics and understanding the rhythm of it all, setting up parameters as well.

At ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) we have a clearly defined game plan: we work with what is seasonal, local, and as tasty as possible. The produce, the farmers, the pork—they’re the stars, not, necessarily, the technique. 

To me, the visual is as important as taste—great food must look great, and to me, that means the portions should be generous. I spend a lot of time with my team looking at pictures, browsing through cookbooks, and coming up with mood boards. In the process of doing so we talk about ingredients, dishes, flavors, and all that is exciting to us at a particular time. We bounce ideas at each other, and talk to see where it leads us. Often, the initial dishes don’t land on the menu, but serve as the perfect starting points to figure out what excites us all at the moment, going with the season, and seeing what the farms have available.

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But at the core, none of this will work unless you have the right people in the kitchen—and, there is more to it than the obvious qualities of hiring cooks who know the difference between a sautee and frying pan and have the right sense of leadership.

I have had many good cooks in my kitchen, but only recently did I come across truly well-rounded chefs. 

The most important quality that was often missing, that I finally pinned down to be the core of what we want at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb,) is humility.

Some people confuse humility with weakness, but there is nothing weak about humility—in fact, I find that it’s exactly the opposite. It is a strength to be able to keep the interest of the house first, rather than feeding one’s own ego, and to know when to bow when the wind is going in the other direction, rather than pushing against it. 

It shows a true emotional intelligence that goes hand-in-hand with integrity, work ethic & sustainability.

Professional kitchens can be very macho worlds, they have been modeled after those in the army (we still use a lot of that vocabulary), and, unfortunately, the media doesn’t help to break that image, by spotlighting chefs whose emotional intelligence run akin to a tantrum-prone three-year-old. It took me a while to learn how to put great cooks in charge, those with strong drive and skills, and with the right level of maturity. Not only do they make delicious food, they represent the right identity. 

So there I was, the other night, standing by the kitchen pass, with a role that has morphed into fostering leadership and nurturing growth and creativity & expressing my own.

Things have fallen into place, and the feeling is delicious and empowering. 

Together, we are very powerful, and I am grateful for my team: Armando, Robert, Peter, Cesar, Abel, and Xavier.

Getting married... in Brooklyn!

ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) has grown into much more than a delicious farm-to-table restaurant in the heart of Fort Greene and has, in recent years, become the top destination for thoughtful, intimate boutique weddings in New York City. I’m still in awe over this success, and wanted to share some of the philosophy behind it all.

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I sat down with Lauren Berg, to pick her brain. She is our beloved event coordinator, and a large part of her duties includes ensuring that every wedding held at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb )will exceed expectations.

She started with us six years ago and since then has gradually taken charge of events because of her deep sense of care, empathy & hospitality—essential qualities when working with happy, but sometimes stressed, couples planning their big day. She has booked, designed, and orchestrated hundreds of weddings at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb.)

Here, she gives us a few pointers on how she makes it all work so well.

CMS: What would be your initial advice to a couple who is looking for a wedding venue in NYC?

LB: Breathe!

First, make a list of your priorities with your partner in order to get organized. It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the options out there, especially in New York City, so having a set of core values will help to narrow your search field so you can find your perfect match. These can be super general to start, and you can rate them from highest to lowest: a Brooklyn venue with a garden, focus on local food, brunch vs. dinner, full open bar, etc.

Then, I’d say:

*Coming up with a rough headcount and general budget is important before setting out to view venues. You can always adjust a bit later, but it will keep you from wasting time, or getting excited over places that are, in the end, not the right fit for your budget.

*From there, start to scout places! This is what makes ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) so cool because you can be a “secret shopper”—come and have dinner at the restaurant to get a feel for the atmosphere, food, and service; and get a true and honest sense of who we are without having to reveal that you might potentially book a wedding!

*Stay open and flexible without compromising too much of your core set of priorities. For instance, if your priority is the food, perhaps you could be flexible on the format in which it is served if you love the venue. Maybe you could consider a floating, cocktail style dinner service instead of a formal sit-down.

*If you keep hitting a wall, then reassess your priorities to see what needs to be shifted.

*Be honest with the vendors about your budget: it will save time and energy on both ends!

CMS: What is the best way to make the most of a meeting with an event coordinator at a potential venue?

LB: There are five things:

1.     Make sure that before attending a scheduled meeting, you and your partner have reviewed pricing and basic info so you can come prepared.

2.     Try not to go alone. If your fiancé(e) cannot come, bring a friend or family member. It is always better to have someone to bounce impressions off of, someone who makes you feel comfortable and will help you stay grounded.

3.     Have your list of questions ready, otherwise you will forget them! And be kind with yourself, remember that at this stage, there are no stupid questions, and if the event coordinator is good, they will fill in the general picture for you so that you leave with a good sense of how your wedding could look there.

4.     If you like the location, ask for availability, and if a “soft hold” is possible (meaning penciling you in for a date on their calendar). This lets you hold the venue for a certain amount of time without having to submit a deposit. Calendars move super quickly, and what is available one day can be gone the next.

5.     And if you really like the space, and have a soft hold on a date, don’t hesitate to ask for an estimate. I am often surprised about how seldom I am asked to create an estimate. I am happy to make one, because ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb )is all about transparency. Making expectations crystal clear on either side is one of the main goals for every event- this is one of our secrets to success. At ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) we are super straightforward in our proposals, all pricing is laid out clearly. But a lot of places have hidden fees, and getting an estimate will minimize surprises on your final bill.

CMS: After scouting a few places, how do you know when this is the right place?

LB: You will know, because you will feel comfortable in the space and the atmosphere, and with the people. You will begin to envision your wedding: where your dad will give his speech, where your best friend will be waiting with you upstairs taking deep breaths while your guests are arriving below, how your partner will look sitting next to you at dinner, where your friends will kick off the dance party. And if the price is right, and your priorities are a match, it will be a no-brainer. This feeling will only come if you trust the venue, and the manager or event coordinator. Over the next several months or year, you will build a deep, professional relationship with them in regards to a very personal day in your life!

I can also tell you, you should stay away from places that promise things, or overextend themselves with things they have never done before—like promising you that they can handle 150 people when their maximum capacity is usually 120. The last thing you want to do is take risks with your wedding—you want to make cool, rational decisions with calm, professional people.

CMS: Now onto the celebration itself: to have a wedding cake or not?

LB:  The wedding cake has turned into more of an idea, or a point at which you can let your creativity and personalities take over. In short—yes, of course you must have a wedding cake, but does it have to be a cake? No way!

It is 2015 in Brooklyn—you have endless possibilities. With so many great local artisans, you could have doughnuts, pies, a traditional, three-tiered and piped cake; or a cupcake tower. I've seen a cake made to look like a brownstone, and even one shaped like the family dog. I've seen cake pops, candy bars, ice cream stations, and ornate, teeny-tiny individual wedding cakes made for each guest to have.

“The cake” is really a symbol of tradition, and to give it an unexpected, local twist is fantastic—and really what Brooklyn (and ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb!) ) is all about. Some of the staff's favorites so far came from Baked (always delicious- you can't go wrong!), Nine Cakes because of their delicate and elegant designs, and Dough of course (who would not like a doughnut for their wedding!).

Lauren Berg

Lauren Berg

CMS: What are your thoughts on flowers? How can you achieve the best balance?

LB: With flowers I would suggest keeping it simple. It's easy at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb, )as the space is lovely, and the majesty of the brownstone calls for minimal decoration. But no matter where you book your wedding, simple is best because it can become quite a huge task (and expense). Find a florist (preferably one already familiar with the venue) who will help you in that direction.

I always love it when couples use or create multi-purpose decor. Like little potted plants or terrariums that are also the place cards, and by default become the guest's favor—so when each little pot is placed at each place setting- voila! the table is decorated. It is far more sustainable, and super creative. Stem, Sprout Home & Saffron are among our favorites!

CMS: What do you think makes ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) such a successful and sought-after wedding venue?

LB: I think it is a combination of many things, but is all comes down to two main truths:

First, we—and when I say we, I mean the entire staff—we never, ever forget that these are real-life moments, and not just another “private event.” We listen very carefully in order to deliver what people expect, always going above and beyond, and never falling short, because we never promise anything that we cannot deliver.

Second, we take a tremendous amount of pride in what we are doing. Staff training involves, of course, service techniques and knowledge of the product, but we also put an above-average level of emphasis on hospitality—so much so that a person's emotional intelligence is a big factor in our hiring process. We work hard on each event, and love to see that when we work hard, and work well together, there is nothing but success and happy couples to show for it! That is the reward.

CMS: What do you enjoy most about your job?

LB: I enjoy helping turn a phone call into a wedding, and the fact that I can have such a positive impact on people's lives in doing so. It is a wonderful feeling to know that so many people choose ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) for their wedding because of the trust they put in me, and therefore in the house. It is very humbling, and keeps me grounded.

I love the fact that I can help write a chapter in someone's life story. From the moment first contact is made by phone, until they gather up their gifts and guests at the end of the night—everything in between is a moment where we can shine for these people.

It is wonderful to be an agent in helping couples bring their people together around a table, be convivial, share a delicious ethical feast with their community and family.

 

Cook, Connect, Build & Restore

For Proust, it was a madeleine that revealed the truth of involuntary visceral, sensory memory—for me, it was a tomato I plucked from the back of van coming from a farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

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Eating local food in Brooklyn certainly constitutes something quite different than what I was doing growing up in Provence. Back then, colors were intertwined with smells—the blue of the sky with the fragrance of the Pins Parasols burnt by the bright yellow sun. The chirping song of the grillons would serenade me as a foraged through my grandmother’s vegetable garden, eating straight from the vine. Obviously, it’s impossible to get that same rush at the produce aisle of the supermarket—not even Whole Foods.

However, in navigating the NYC landscape for the past 14 years and learning how to source local food here, I managed to find a similar kaleidoscope of senses, and, more importantly, realize the impacts on our community.

Urban Farming

In NYC, local farming means urban farming. My tomato revelation happened a few years ago when we got our first delivery from Added Value, an urban farm in Red Hook. That day, as one of the farmers unloaded his crates of collard greens, kale, lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, and more, I was blown away by the incredible bounty and couldn’t even resist—I plunged my hands into the crates and started devouring vegetables by the handful. Juicy tomatoes still hot from the sun, crunchy radishes, it had all traveled only three miles after being harvested not even an hour before. With every bite, I could feel my belly dancing—this food was live. 
Besides supplying our restaurant, farms like Added Value or the Brooklyn Grange serve an important role in the communities they serve, with markets, volunteer days, composting, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, youth education and so much more. In other words, they bring people together, around something that everyone can relate to: basic food.

As they serve, and even create, community, these farms raise awareness. By showing people how food is supposed to be grown, and how it has always been grown, it makes it easier to forge a connection to that food. By contrast, the destruction of our food system and planet by industrial agriculture is revealed, and people often realize their deepest instincts on how to relate to the earth and take care of it have been shut down in such a system. My own children often ask me questions that amaze me, because I forget that they weren’t also raised in the countryside, but rather a city that is 70% paved, without the same reflexes around plants and dirt. Urban farms help to bridge that gap.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

I mentioned CSA groups before, which represent another way to connect with food in a very special way. The way they work is simple: you give a certain amount of money to a farm at the beginning of a season (or cycle), and each week, the farm delivers whatever is available to a location in your neighborhood. It’s like a harvest club, if you will. Not only do you get fresh food delivered, but on the abstract level, I like the concept of CSA because it challenges our obsession with control over everything in our lives—to me, there’s a deep quality to not knowing precisely what you will get each week. It’s a true reminder that nature cannot, and should not, be bent to our whims and desires by any means necessary. 

I’m always excited to go pick up my share, and it’s one of my boys’ favorite days as well. The last time I went with Lucas, we were strolling home with armfuls of turnips, apples, kale, onions, eggs, and honey. I asked him why he seemed so happy, and his answer was plain and simple: “I don’t know, Maman, it just feels right.”

Green Markets

I think the best and easiest way for anyone to connect with locally grown food is by visiting a greenmarket. Greenmarkets have popped up more and more around the city, and at the same time, the diversity of the vendors has steadily grown, improving the selection tenfold over the past several years. There are now more than 54 markets supplied by more than 230 family farms and fishermen! 

Not only do you get great local food by buying from your local green market, but by patronizing them you are playing an active role in preserving and boosting local agriculture, and keeping the New York food shed alive and growing. Plus, they really do provide access to good food for the communities that need it the most, in addition to providing youth education programs.

These avenues to obtain and support local food don't just bring the community together, they build community. 

Evolution Rather than Resolutions

At year’s end I always become reflective about what I’ve been through, and, most importantly, what lies ahead. As 2014 drew to a close I began to wonder: in a city that never sleeps, where success is measured in dollars, where everyone runs on an invisible wheel, and where sustainability is often mixed up with being slow, how do I figure out my professional and, in turn, personal progression?

How can I define my ambition in terms of the right way to grow?

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Slow Food, Provençal Style

Mine was a serious cook, in a peasant’s intuitive, self-taught way. I never saw her look at a recipe book unless she was making a dessert, and she had the genius ability to produce an amazing dish out of what anyone else would have considered an empty fridge. I have many fond memories of her cooking, but my absolute favorite dish of hers was her ratatouille.

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Where I Am Now - Possibly Who I Am - For Now

I think we’d all like to think ourselves as more than just the sum of our parts. Take me, for example: you could label me as just a female entrepreneur, or a (single) mother, or a restaurateur. I’m French, I’m a New Yorker. But to me, all of those things are so deeply intertwined to make me, you can’t think about one without the other. If I’m just a female entrepreneur, I’m a bitch. Just seen as French, oh, oui, oui, we get it. A single mother first and foremost? It’s oh, poor you.

It’s taken me a long time to realize what I am as a whole, and to free myself from living solely toward others’, or my own, expectations based on any one part of who I am. I had been conditioned for 40 years, but now, as a middle-aged woman—a point I’ve come to that I wholeheartedly embrace, by the way—I don’t get hung up on who I’m supposed to be today, or right now, but rather, what could possibly be in store for me?

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