The Blue Arrow

"What is next?"
Susan is planted in front of me on the opening night of Maison May in May 2016.
Her question feels to me completely inadequate: the effort & the risks taken to push the doors open have been quite significant. I am exhausted & the hardest part is ahead of me.
Susan obviously has no idea what it takes to open & run a business.
It is like asking a woman who is holding her newborn when she is planning on having another one: Give us a minute here, we are not even sure yet if we can keep the thing alive...
Yet she had, if nothing else, envisioned that my second location was not wrapping up a story but starting one.


It took me 18 months to get over first the sort of postpartum depression that came with that opening & then to catch my breath.
And then one day all the Susans in my head came back, whispering:
"Soooo…. What is next for you now Catherine?".
For the past 6 months, the contemplation of that question has left me a bit disoriented. I have been in a fresh creative process more than once by now, running my own businesses for a while, each year bringing new understanding of things as age & experience lift me up. But recently, it  began to feel like the modus operandi I had been relying on was not working anymore. 
Up until  this time, I had trained myself to watch, wait for the right time & leap into action, often at an incredible speed.
I was coming to the realization that my life had resembled more a succession of blitzkriegs than a stroll in the park...

 

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A memory kept coming back to me. In the past few weeks, it has become  an allegory for my process. 
The scene took place many years ago at the playground of PS11 in Clinton Hill. 
It was a warm spring afternoon & I was walking down Waverly Avenue.
Two  girls were spinning a large rope.
Two groups formed, one standing behind each "spinner".
All were very quiet.
It struck me because in that ocean of screams that an Elementary school recess can produce, this group had created a quiet oasis of intense focus.
I was not sure what they were waiting for as they would spin, spin, and  yet... nothing would happen.
And then, I saw her.
I had not noticed her before, but the minute I spotted her, she was all I could see, and I wondered how I could have not even have noticed her right away.
The Girl was around 10 years old. Her school uniform was impeccable & her high white socks were pulled up above her knees. Braids were wrapped around her head, like a crown.
Her expression was ethereal.
The rhythm of her body is what struck me at first: the rope was brushing the asphalt in cadence with the sway of her torso.
After a few seconds that seemed to stretch for hours, I could feel that her gaze was not on the rope as I originally had thought, but was aimed way past it.
Watching the whole scene was meditative: the ones who were spinning the rope had their cadence totally figured out, tracing perfect ellipses.
The Girl kept swaying.
Gradually, it got more intense, her body arching in a deeper curve.
And then she threw herself in...
Her whole body had leaped: not just her feet -  no, she had propelled her entire self in a perfect way. Her face had not even flinched.
She was tensed with control & focus.
She had flown in the ellipse, landing smoothly to then jump at a frantic pace.
Nobody in the surrounding crowd had blinked, and for a few dozen seconds, all of them formed a perfect ensemble .
It felt like they were all dancing together, oscillating in cadence.
The tableau was striking- a dozen hearts probably beating at the same pace; the rope, the asphalt, the girls all merged into one perfect ribbon of swirling energy.

 

For the past decade, I have often felt like the Girl with the crown of braids; I built a core & learnt to jump into the action relentlessly, building an instinctual understanding of when to jump in & out, using strength, both mental & physical, often at an incredible pace.
I learned to trust myself in my ability to work, live, love & jump in it all....
And yet, for the past 6 months, I have been watching a few ellipses swirl around me, each one a possibility for my next move. And I could not bring myself to jump in.
Not out of fear, or lack of inspiration or ideas: all of these feelings, I visited, inhabited & clearly rejected as valid excuses for what I thought was my inaction.

 

And then the shift came this past week. Almost like a dream or a vision.
Through a process that I will spare you that involved many things but mostly my past 10 years of therapy, I reconnected with a very young version of me.
And I started remembering & picturing the 6-year-old me.
The untamed.
The one who would ride her red bike so fast on the little road by the river behind her house that she would often fall in the ditch.
The one who would love to roll down grassy hills, laughing so hard that she would get the hiccups & then laugh even harder, dizzy by the spin & the thrust of her body with each spasm.
The one at the top of the snowy mountain who would ski downhill so fast, all bundled in her blue  suit, that she was nicknamed, for a time one winter, La Flêche Bleue (The Blue Arrow).
The one who would spend hours crawling in the bushes, looking for her turtle, Sophie, who always seemed to run away so fast...
 

 Catherine, age 6. 

Catherine, age 6. 

She was fearless, yes, but above all, playful.
Play-full.
And that girl, I had forgotten about her….
But she had not gone anywhere
She was still standing in a corner of my soul.
Waiting.
Hoping we could play again.
 

She is what some call my inner child.
The I I was in essence before social, familial, religious constructs & conditionings put a lid on the better part of me.
My feeling of ambivalence on what to do next was not rooted in the actual concretization of any of my ideas, but on how to actually bring them to life.
 

I was done jumping.

 

It was not working for me anymore.
That was not the way I wanted to go about things any longer.
The intense focus, the exertion of physical & mental strength to jump into a situation & then jump, and jump until exhaustion...

 

I am done jumping.

 

Let me roll in the grass instead.
Let me feel the wind tickle my cheeks as I go downhill, mouth open to catch some snowflakes.
Let me run after my turtle.
Let me enjoy the ride.
Wherever it will take me.
As I can trust now, as I have jumped through many ellipses, that I can find my way softly to grow my business, laughing & playing more all the way.

 

Happy Spring.

 

 

Catherine.

 

On Raising Boys, Growing a Vision & Harvesting

In the spring 2008, I took a sharp turn.
It involved first & foremost, to pick up my children & run from home in order for us all to be safe, physically & emotionally.
I will of course never forget that day.
Its color, its texture: it was bright red & orange, like a scream, vibrating from my guts piercing my heart & soul.
But what I remember the most vividly is the actual physicality of it all:
I carried my boys out of the house.
It came as an acute sensation of strength & empowerment as I was able to lift my 2 (giant) boys, age 5 & 7 at the time & run with them.

Almost the same day, I started lifting a business that was on its knees & ready to go bankrupt: ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) had not been spared in the devastation that had stricken my home & family.
I was standing on what felt like smoking ruins of a beautiful edifice after a devastating fire. The walls were still standing but all inside had to be cleaned, organized, sorted through & the wobbly structure needed my constant attention & presence in order to stay up.

So I embarked there & then in that incredible journey of carrying head on 2 young boys & an exhausted business -"à bras le corps".

During the incredibly challenging years that followed, I hanged on quite often to that picture of me & my 2 boys cruising down Gates Avenue as we ran away.
It was a strong image, a manifestation of a new found mental strength, a powerful symbol on my ability to carry.
There was something soothing about it as its pure mechanical quality made it seemingly possible to reproduce at all time. I could carry my boys,  & it had an immediate tangible result, the way I could work at ICI, pull so many hours a week, and clean things up.

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On Entrepreneur's Responsibilities

It is a delicious & warm evening in May.  

It is dark out & the string lights of the garden on Dekalb are gently illuminating the back windows of Maison May Vanderbilt. 
Friends, staff & regulars have gathered to celebrate Maison May 1st anniversary & my 44th Birthday. 
Standing in front of them all, and without having planned on it, I share a story I never quite revealed to many before.  

 
“A few summers ago, I traveled back to Provence.  
It had been a long time since I had spent time where I was born.  
Up to very recently, I had an uneasy & fragmented relationship with my country & my roots.
It was impossible for me to embrace where I came from, with all its beauty & all its darkness.  
That trip was very much initiatic, although I did not label it as such at the time & went headfirst into the lion's den...  

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A Decade Later - What I own.

December 30th 2016: an email hits my inbox at 4.14pm.
It is not as delicious as a Madeleine & far less poetic, but the trigger is the same: I am transported 10 years back.
Its timing was random: the person who sent that message had no knowledge of its potential effect, therefore no agenda.
That day, 10 years ago in December 2006, had been one of an incredible violence & the start of an journey for me.
For many years after, the sheer prospect of simply having that date on the calendar once a year was enough to blur my vision, dry my throat & have cold sweat run down my spine.
That email landing in my inbox on that particular date felt like a malicious whisper: “Do you remember?”

But instead of spiraling down, that day I found myself smiling & feeling extraordinarily composed: there was no sweat & the memory it triggered with all its aftermath was sliding down my brain, my heart, my soul with absolutely nowhere to plant its claws.
At that point, I was not even owning any of what was taking place. I felt like I was floating above that past decade and I ended up that evening on my couch going through pictures.
Looking at them, I was not searching for my kids to remember their cute faces & changing bodies.
No, for once, I was looking at myself.
Or actually, I was looking for myself.

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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..

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THE NEXT (R)EVOLUTION

Upon opening Maison May 5 months ago, I decided to remove tipping from both of my establishments. I know this is the right decision and yet it has been anything but easy so far.

So why did I remove tipping?
For me, as it stands now, the system of not paying servers more than a minimum wage & having them rely on tips, feels utterly broken, unfair, outdated & simply wrong. 
This practice has created a monster of an industry where the employers feel no responsibility for their workers and where workers treat their jobs as disposable. The investment of both parties in the game is biased from the get-go because relying on the traditional structure of tipping and minimum hourly wages means also there can not be pay equity among employees: some (like the servers and the bartenders) make much more per hour than other employee (like the events manager and the dishwasher). In this structure, there can never be steps towards economic justice or equity among staff members.

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Chatting with Catherine May About the Expansion and Evolution of her Fort Greene Farm-to-Table Trailblazer, iCi

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Brooklyn Magazine's Sarah Zorn about the recent expansion and evolution of ICI into Maison May. Read on:

“There is no way home — Home is the way.”

This is the quote (taken from Buddhist activist Thich Nhat Hanh) that helped serve as catalyst for a major shakeup at Fort Greene’s seminal local-seasonal eatery, iCi, after owner Catherine May stumbled upon it back in 2013. “I’m from France, but I don’t have many roots left there. I was literally uprooted. I got married, and that marriage ended. And then I was living in Red Hook when Hurricane Sandy happened,” meditated May. “But what I first began to realize, as I was standing in the street with my two suitcases and two boys, is that I didn’t need anything else. That I AM a home. I’m a home for myself and I’m a home for those boys.”

“And I think the feelings I had then–perfectly articulated by the quote that I discovered later–was a starting point of understanding that I have that in me,” she continued, “the ability to bring people home.”

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Maison May: Redefining Success

It is 10am on a Tuesday.

The early morning crowd has wound down (we open at 8am) and I am sitting at one of the long communal table with a tea pot of Cloud & Mist, the newspaper spread in front of me.

Lhasa is playing in the background and the morning light feels luscious. By the big windows that are overlooking Maison May Dekalb garden, I can see the trees gently rocking.

I turn around just in time to spot Lily strolling down Vanderbilt. She looks up and waves at Brit, our morning server & me.
A few minutes later Jonathan rushes out of the building next door.  He looks tense. I imagine he is (as usual) late for work…

 

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No Way Home – Home is the Way

Picking the story up where I left off
On a cold February Morning, I am standing on the Southwest corner of Dekalb & Vanderbilt.
On my right, ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb,) the restaurant I have run for the past 12 years.
On my left, the spot I took over a few weeks earlier and that I am due to open in the spring. A deep emotion is moving through me. 
The name emerged last night & the words are swirling in my head: 

Maison May

Giving birth to the name has been the hardest part of the process.
But right at that moment, standing in the bitter cold, under a bright winter sun, a weight seemed to be lifted in an incredibly powerful way, as if the name was what was missing in my equation and necessary to propel me further.

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On Letting Go: I Am Opening a 2nd Location!

Early November, I had had enough of it all- I was done searching for a 2nd location -

I walked into my neighbor's coffee shop, just around the corner from my restaurant, to ask him for a small favor.
After a few minutes of small talk, I noticed his face deeply wrinkled, the dark circles around his eyes, and I wondered how old he could be—thinking that his answer would probably surprise me.
And so I paused & just said:

“You look tired”.

Out of sheer and unconscious empathy and concern for someone you get the feeling is not where he should be—and, well, because my friends can tell you that it is impossible for me to keep my mouth shut when I feel something—I looked at him straight in the eye and whispered softly, without really thinking about it, “You look tired.”

He looked back at me, quite puzzled. Time seemed to stop for a solid five seconds and I could feel the energy changing. His face softened, and his answer came pouring out, like a stream of consciousness that had been contained for far too long.

"Yes, I am tired. Tired. I am done. So done.”

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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.

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.

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Brooklyn In 2015: Building, Consuming & Throwing It All Away

Walking down Smith Street last week, I was once again struck by a sight that has become all too common in Brooklyn: between Atlantic Avenue and Union Street, a span of roughly 10 blocks, there are at least two or three empty commercial spaces per block, all with  “for rent” signs in the windows. A lot of these spaces have been vacant for well over a year, because the rents being demanded are unsustainable for any small business.

At the same time, my friends in Paris are going crazy over the latest exhibit at the very “à la modeBon Marché store and gallery. Their theme this month is, of course, Brooklyn. The exhibit confirms once again what we all know: Our borough is the trendiest destination in the world right now.

How can such a dichotomy happen?

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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.

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On Being a Wine Lover (& Not a Wine Snob...)

A couple weeks ago, the wine importer Camille Rivière & myself hosted a wine dinner at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb), pouring biodynamic wines from Jura, a region sandwiched between the Alps & Burgundy. At the end of the evening, several guests commented on what a delicious, unpretentious and eye-opening experience this dinner was. I have been drinking solely natural or biodynamic wines for the past 18 years now, and I truly enjoy introducing them to people who have never before tasted these kind of wines. It’s like watching someone who has only eaten Perdue chicken try a chicken from Violet Hill Farm for the first time. Once they taste the difference, they never go back.

Here is what I think about wine and why I drink what I drink & nothing else.

I did not always think the way I do now about wines. If I’m being honest, I used to be somewhat of a wine snob. But then something happened to make me step down off of that pedestal.

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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.

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 ).

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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. 

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.

 

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Brooklyn Based: What's on Your Kid's Menu?

I was recently featured on Brooklyn Based and I shared a bit more about my process for cooking for my family. Continue on to read their article:

For Catherine May Saillard, owner of the long-standing Fort Greene restaurant, ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) “seasonal” and “local” are not marketing tools, but just part of her French upbringing. In 2004, she opened the brownstone doors of the dining room and airy back patio, which today remain one of the prettiest eating options in Brooklyn. Brunch and menu options change monthly, depending on the availability of seasonal produce, but you can expect simple favorites like smoked pork chops with an apple and turnip salad or housemade ricotta cavatelli sprinkled with chanterelles and kale. At home with her two boys, Theo, 14, and Lucas, 12, Catherine practices what she preaches, planning efficient and delicious meals that come together quickly, but without sacrificing taste–or reaching for unhealthy, pre-packaged choices.

 

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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