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.

And something puzzling appeared as the years rolled on in front of my eyes:
2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

Not so many pictures of me during those years.
And when some would emerge, they were striking.
I looked at the texture of my hair, at the way I carried my shoulders, at my eyes, at the way my hand held a glass, at my smile.
At my gaze.

Often, I have a hard time recognizing myself:
“Is it me sitting there in the corner?”
“What year was that? I look so tired..."

And then, something snaps.
Or actually, something settles in.  
And the rhythm of the years seems to shift:
2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.
I can see how the story line evolves, I see it on my face, I see it on the curve of my neck, I see it on my smile, on the way I carry my shoulder, I see it in my eyes.
It looks like a soft metamorphosis.  
The thin thread of my own story, barely visible on the earlier years, gains power.
I stand again, I let my hair down, I emerge, I breath. Again.

And then I leap.

The last picture of me in 2016 comes like a seal for me a 10 year journey.
I look bolder. Taller. Much Older. And I don’t think I ever looked better.


The pictures are swirling on my iPad, in my head.
I pause to take it all in.
The email comes back to mind.
Nothing has been easy.
Yet, so much has been beautiful.
I have learnt how it can be both.

I never knew where I would land, and I did not even realize that I was even marching up until 2013, probably, and even then, I had no idea where I was going.
But now, in these pictures, I see now clearly the underlining story and somehow I can trace back the focus & purpose I had all those years.

I did not have a precise image of what it would look like, but rather a deep sense of what it should feel like, and I was guided by the values that I rooted down at every level of my life: integrity, honesty, humanity, love & respect— for myself, my children, and the people around me.

And it took me 10 years to finally own it all for myself & acknowledge my strength & power to manifest it all & the impact that I have had on people’s life.
10 years to own it all & realize how true to them I had been.

And as I am sitting retracing my steps I realize that the last piece of that 10 year initiatic puzzle fell into its place in early December.

I spent the month of November being sick.
Really sick.
Sicker than I had been in a decade. 
Physically & emotionally I was drowning.
Very close people in my life got in jeopardy at that time: A life threatening sickness for one, and an incredibly dangerous life situation for another. 

On top of the domestic & international turmoil, I collapsed.

“86”, as we say in restaurant business- I was done.

I went all the way spiraling down, until I felt numb, until tears came pouring out uncontrollably.
Theo found me on my sofa on a rainy Wednesday afternoon early December.
I was wailing.
And right then my 16 year-old son gave me an important & decisive gift. 
He did not try to comfort me. He simply talked to me gently looking at me straight in the eyes, with no fear.
That day I saw in my son’s gaze the absolute certainty that his mother could handle whatever pain that was raging inside her.

His look was clean, strong & loving.
No fear, no anxiety, no pity, no judgment.
Just love & trust.

At that precise moment, Theo held for me and for a few minutes, with much humanity & compassion— a mirror so I could be reminded what I was worth,who I was & what I was able to do.
And with that, I felt that I could lean in a bit further. I could trust to spiral down a bit further to let it all out.
His gaze reminded me that I could trust myself to get back up, and most likely land a bit higher.
And it clearly showed me that I had taught him to do that, because I hold that mirror for him.
And for his brother.
And for any of my friends who dare to look into it.
And for my employees.

And for all who stand by me.

What a decade.

It has been that deep work in the end that got me here today, deep work that I now own, that have harnessed, work that now allow me to love, build, impact, grow, change, shake, reshape a business, change the rules, have integrity, go after change, not be scared.

And this deeply personal process feels incredibly relevant now in the light of this year that begins. And crucial for our common destiny.

I feel now ready, ready to accomplish collectively what I discovered & harnessed individually.

 I am not wishing you a good 2017.
No.
It is too reductive.
I want to wish you a good rest of your life:

I wish for you to find the path to tap into your own peace, respect, integrity & just pure basic humanity so then together we can love, build, impact, grow, shake & change the rules.

And march together with no fear. See you there, on that path.

With much love,

Catherine. 

Coming up next month – how this translates in my business Maison May.
“The Story of a $6 Scone.”

THE NEXT (R)EVOLUTION

For HS & her daughter O.

Gratuity Free on Our Front Doors

Gratuity Free on Our Front Doors

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.

By removing tipping,  I am shaking the dominant structure of how a restaurant is run, impacting all major poles: its employees, its customers (looking at pricing including service & grasping the reality of what has not been talked about) & its financial balance & impact on individuals.


I know this is the right decision and yet it has been anything but easy so far.
And like a few other major decisions I've made in my life, now that I have come to a certain realization of what is fair & needs to happen, there is no turning back.

Looking back at what I achieved 12 years ago upon opening Maison May Dekalb (formerly called ICI),  as one of the first farm to table restaurant in Brooklyn, I can see some similarities with what I am doing now.


The process then was genuine, and truly motivated by the sheer desire to serve food that was ethical, in season, locally produced, whose origins could be traced. 
It was incredibly avant-garde & yet absolutely naïve.

Avant-garde because very few restaurants in New York were doing it and even less in Brooklyn. 

And naïve, because it was truly not motivated by anything other than a deep re-awakening of ancestral instincts for me.  I was returning to my roots, having being fed real, fresh, local food all my youth, I wasn’t even aware that I was at the helm of a revolution, ahead of the curve, a fer de lance.
The success and the hardship that came with that decision are now history and to see how much people’s perception, understanding and acceptance has changed is simply mind-blowing. I recall countless conversations with customers around seasonality of food, local versus global, sustainable agriculture, organic versus local, etc. over the years.
Then, I was in it with zero perspective, a sense of excitement but no consciousness of the implications & my position in the huge puzzle of this movement. I did not even grasp what the the impact could be.

And this year, once again,  it is by re-connecting with something deeper & very personal around leadership and what it truly means to be an entrepreneur, not just from a creative or business, point of view, but from a deeply human one, that I embarked into yet another revolution.
And this time around, I realize fully how avant-garde I am once again & how incredibly personal & intimate my motivation for this change is. There is nothing naive anymore about it.

There was not a real outside factor that triggered it but a sheer evolution & an epiphany one morning (yes, I know, another epiphany- I am definitely not a linear person).  It took shape with a very simple notion: how could I have been so focused on sourcing the right food, produced the right way by the right people to feed my customers and be oblivious to the fact that half of my employees were depending on people’s good will, and not my investment, for their salary? How could I care more about grass-fed beef than one of my workers. Some people say they do not trust people who don’t care about animals. I would like to state that I do not trust people who care more about animals than people, and by extension, the ones who actually care about a radish more than a person.

So here I am sitting in my office a couple weeks ago, preparing a staff meeting where I aim to anchor that process for my staff. How could I convey what it means to me, to them, and how could I have them embark in the (r)evolution with me?

I visualize them. I see their faces. 

Five short months after the opening, there is just one, just one person left from the original team of servers I had before the opening on April 23rd.

Only one who came through the transition from ICI to Maison May, from tipping to no tipping.

Picturing them sitting in the café, all of them, from 7 months to 7 days on my payroll, there is only one word that comes to my head to initiate that meeting: impact.

What will come to their mind in 2 years, 10, 15, 30 when they will think about their time at Maison May?
Will anything come at all? 
Will they remember their time here?
And if so, what will they remember?
And if they don’t, what does it mean to me?

Lunch Meeting Perks

Lunch Meeting Perks

And why do I even care about what my employees could possibly think about Maison May in 30 years?

Is that vanity?

A desire of legacy for myself, my name?
I honestly do not think so.

It comes from a place where, after 8 years of an always ever evolving leadership, I can see how I can impact someone's life by the work that I create for them & how I care about doing that.
A bit like the way I look at my children & raise them, not for me, but for them, and letting that process feeds my soul.

But how do you foster that for your servers?

How can you possibly foster that if you do not put the first dollar on the table?

Isn’t it up to the employer to model behavior? 

It became very obvious in the past months that by removing the tips I am once again digging into something that is deeply engrained in me and that I had somehow, not completely explored: I care about people. I care about nurturing, feeding, growing and empowering people.

In my team, my beloved executive chef started with me 10 years ago as a dishwasher & my event manager who was for a long time my operation manager before she went back to school, started off as a coffee girl 8 years ago. So even though I think I am doing pretty well, I realized I had left part of the team (the servers) dependent on the customers generosity, never questioning the actual system, ignoring the precarity it involves. 


I was not raised like this. I was born in a family that ran a small company in the 70’s and although they were not an absolute model of compassion for their employees, the fact that it was in France meant there was already a structure of laws that was framing the process around what an employer could allow himself to do with an employee.  There was a sense of accountability, a sense of responsibility, a sense of duty. And certainly not a sense that the workers were actual disposable commodities.

Though I wasn’t raised socialist at all, by French standards, it is funny to me to think that in the light of the year 2016 in America, some of my views could have me put on a modern McCarthy list...

My understanding of entrepreneurship & its duties were shaped in a culture that was different, the way my approach to food was rooted there as well. 
By removing the tipping, I am bridging a gap, extending the care that I have had for the back of the house to the front, and reconnecting with them all. 
And what I realized was that this act in essence is very simple.
But in all practicality from a business point of view, incredibly challenging, financially utterly dangerous & no matter what, freaking expensive. 

From a social point of view, it is a complete revolution for the workers, and like any revolution, it involves changes. And who likes changes, really, when you could be cruising along, even if the ship is sinking.


And from the customer point of view, it involves a sticker shock that shines light on the realities they have then to face to acknowledge the broken reality of labor value in our country…

But most importantly, from an entrepreneur point of view, by removing tipping & giving them a salary,  I came to realize how it allows me to be more fully engaged with my people & giving them something beyond a salary, because I invest in them at a very different level.


And how do you define that?

As always, my business is my life. My life is my business.
And everything is intertwined. And my boys come to mind to help me shape what that could mean.

I am raising two beautiful, strapping teenage boys.
It is a constant pull of pain & joy.  A pain of seeing them experience incredible hard realities of life, seeing them understand prejudice, experience distorted love, getting burned with toxic relationships, and facing deep, messy ugliness of human behavior. Each of those episodes are heart breaking, leaving me breathless, with a such an incredible physical pain in my heart but as well with a wave of incredible joy to see them picking themselves up, figuring out, trying, grabbing a tool that I carefully built along the years with them, seeing them experiencing grief & managing it, seeing them figuring their shit out with me simply holding on tight not to them, but next to them so they know that if they fall, they will land somewhere and not in the waste of an empty world.


And somehow what the act of removing the tips enlarged for me is the connection to the people who are truly building the business with me & in a way, allowing me to apply the same principles around basic life values for my employees. This is what I am marching towards. This is what motivates me to jump out of bed every morning. This is what makes me excited to sit to yet in another interview with a potential employee, it is what feeds me. I am building something and I am not doing it alone. I need every single one of my employees, and I feed them as they feed me back and this is why I am paying every single one of them.

Not you.

Me.

Catherine with Executive Chef Armando

Catherine with Executive Chef Armando

We are building something together & I wish that in that process all of them will find something that they can carry beyond the walls of Maison May & into their life, the way my boys will when they leave my house.  Something that will make each of them stronger, or happier, or healthier, or simply safer, and if nothing else, something that they will make them feel valued for what they are doing for Maison May & therefore with me for my children, for the community we cater to, and for the world we live in.


There are no parameters to measure such value.
On top of that, it has to be a selfless act because there is no guarantee. There is no guarantee that anything that I will give to any of them will bounce back at me or at my business with the magnitude that one could wish for. Or should I say that one would want to gauge with the measuring stick of success or wealth.
How can one define happiness or growth or success for someone else?

And this is why upon sitting into that meeting, I will think about that: What Maison May will have meant in each of my employee’s life when they will look back at it in a couple of decades?

And if they can each find something good alongside a steady salary, I will feel that I will have succeeded.
And I am ready to accept that I might never know.
Because, in the end, it is not about me.

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.”

It’s a calling she aims to realize through both her convivial dinners and deeply personal events at iCi (recently rebranded Maison May Dekalb) and–perhaps her truest expression of self yet–Maison May Vanderbilt, a wholesome all-day café and harmonious gathering space. “By creating an atmosphere of home between my two places, I want people to feel anchored, no matter what else life throws at them,” May said. “And since I’ve already been in this community for 12 years and I have 14 years left on my lease, believe me, we’re not going anywhere.”

We also spoke with May about her intricately linked (and often conflicted) relationship with her businesses, the irony of orchestrating weddings in the wake of a painful divorce, and why Maison May Vanderbilt patrons are kindly requested to leave their laptops at home.

iCi had been a Brooklyn staple for over a decade. Why expand, and essentially, rebrand all this years later?

The life of iCi is like the life of a woman: it goes up, it goes down. And the story of iCi is tied to mine–I opened it 12 years ago with my husband, I eventually kicked him out because of his drug addiction, and then I spent the next six years raising my two boys on my own and building and rebuilding the business. iCi became a reflection of my journey to take back my life, and the next step of that was to push further and open a second business, one that I didn’t have such a love/hate relationship with.

I’m actually surprised you didn’t do it sooner. Talk about irony: you’re stuck with a business that you’d created with your ex-husband, which quickly ends up becoming one of Brooklyn’s premiere wedding destinations!

2008 was the year of my divorce, the year that everything collapsed and I felt everything was switching around. But it also happened to be when we truly began to transform into an event space, and I remember standing in the garden at iCi doing wedding after wedding after wedding and just bawling. Not from envy, but because I was deeply hurt and mourning and every bride was activating this gush of blood. But in the end, it helped me to keep my sense of humor and my composure, and yes, my faith in love too, because it wasn’t about me. And I was able to find happiness just being able to share in all of these joyful moments.

So how did you end up finding the space for Maison May Vanderbilt, and how did it inform the evolution of both restaurants?

I looked for a space everywhere in Brooklyn, with no luck at all. And just as I had given up, on November 11th of this past year, boom, this space opened! It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. But since it was so close to my original business I could only see it as an extension, rather than a separate entity entirely. It’s a house getting bigger. It made me realize the thirst I had to create something with deep roots and a foundation. I was looking for the name and everyone I knew suggested something that built on the name “iCi.” And for some reason I couldn’t see it. Instead, I thought of “Maison,” which means home, and “May,” which is my last name, and realized that it couldn’t be a situation of the big brother leading the way, but the little brother, the newer entity, changing course. All of my male friends told me I was crazy, that iCi is the entity, iCi is a brand. And my marketing friends were horrified. But I followed my instincts and I’m glad I did it.

Are you concerned at all about alienating old customers or confusing new ones with the identity switch?

When it comes to Maison May Vanderbilt, I think most people understand that there’s a story there, that it’s more than just a second location, but a manifestation of myself. It literally looks and feels like me. People have been incredibly moved by the honestly and vulnerability I’ve put on the table. But since Maison May Dekalb had been iCi for 12 years, sure, we’ve had a few customers that would prefer to stay stuck in the past–they don’t want any change. Of course it’s not change, it’s evolution. It’s about the strength to be able to reinvent oneself and keep going.

How has Maison May Dekalb transformed, exactly, besides the name of course?

For the most part, nothing has changed, the team is the same. But what is becoming more obvious is that iCi — now Maison May Dekalb — is largely an event space. So the major switch is that we’re favoring those events more and more, restructuring the dining room with communal tables that can seat two people or 100. If you’re looking for a space to dine with 16 people on a Friday night, this is the place for you. Because what I’ve always liked about the restaurant world is being part of something bigger than dinner. It’s an incredible honor to have people tell me that they want to get married in my house. It’s such a show of trust. Whether it’s a wedding, a bridal shower, a baby’s welcoming, your mother’s 60th birthday, your uncle’s funeral, we’re here to celebrate and honor, and I’m good at making sure that everything’s done in the most gentle, ethical, respectful way.

So tell me a bit more about your strict “no laptops policy” at Maison May Vanderbilt!

You can order a single cup of coffee and stay all day–it’s not about kicking anybody out. I want everyone to think of this as his or her home. But I also want people to come in and connect. Why go to a public space, otherwise? Every once in a while someone will unknowingly open their laptop, and talk about a shift of energy. The minute that happens everything changes. So I’ll go over very gently and remind them of our rule, and I would say that 9 people out of 10 are so happy and relieved, as if I was giving them the permission to let everything go.

In addition to being a formative local food restaurateur, you also describe yourself as a sustainable lifestyle entrepreneur. What, precisely, is a sustainable lifestyle entrepreneur?

In this country, we don’t value longevity enough. And that’s what sustainability is: being able to hold something for a long time. Lifestyle means a style of life. I’m talking about my life here–I’m building Maison May and I will continue to build it for the next 14 years if I’m lucky. That kind of longevity allows you to think past the short term, past making a quick profit. If instead, you focus on providing quality and making people happy, success comes as a collateral damage. So I make people happy and I know where I’m going and that I’m feeding my guests and my employees and my boys, and I think this is what matters, this kind of lifestyle.

Tell me about your blog, which is where you first began dropping rather poetically phrased hints that changes were a-brewing at iCi. There are two sections: one focused on wellness and recipes and the other titled “Female Form.” What was the inspiration and mission behind starting a blog for you?

It came super unexpectedly. The only career plan I ever had in my life was being a journalist when I was a teenager. And a few years ago as I was making an attempt to save iCi and just emerging from that, a friend suggested I write a blog in order to share all of my stories: about raising two boys, about saving a business in Brooklyn, about kicking out a husband that was a cocaine addict, and it was all just the tip of the iceberg. So I started jotting down a few things, and I found so much joy in it. It’s helped me articulate where I’m at: every post is the image of what’s happening in my life at that moment. And once I write it down, I find myself able to own it. I’m able to set it to rest and move further. Then once I put it out in the public, all it takes is one person to react and my day is made. Since I’m so intimate with what I write, people have a very intimate response in return, and then it takes me right back to what we were talking about before, we’re able to forge a connection. And that fills me.

Maison May Dekalb: 246 Dekalb Ave., (718) 789-2778

Maison May Vanderbilt: 270 Vanderbilt Ave., (718) 789-2778

Maison May: Redefining Success

It is 10am on a Tuesday.

catherinewindow.jpg

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…

Max zooms passed on his scooter.  His helmet, not totally securely attached, is dangling on the right side of his head. He has a huge grin on his face. I count to 3 slowly and Letesha appears, running and screaming: "Wait up, Max!"

Nicolas walks in, I have not seen him in 3 weeks—he was traveling. He had been among our early regulars when we opened. The first time he came, he had sat & ordered a latte, and then, opening his bag, he had pulled out a computer to proceed to start working. I had walked slowly to him & said “You are welcome to stay for as long as you wish, consider this my living room.  But I do not allow laptops here. It blurs the energy, energy that I have intentionally & carefully created.”
Surprised at first, he had argued for 5 minutes, seemingly simply for the sake of a good argumentation. We then had spent another 45 minutes talking about connections, community & how what we do on this side of the planet impact the other side. And ever since, like many others, he has been coming to Maison May regularly with a book, a pen and his moleskin, or a friend or two. To work, talk, dream & write. Without a laptop.

By now, it is 11am on this idyllic Tuesday: Joseph & Linda stroll in for their morning date. They come once a week for breakfast. I smile seeing them because like me, they are not afraid to order a consommé for breakfast: we joked the 1st time, “It is peasant food!”. I told them how it makes me feel like a farmer, gulping a bowl of raw energy to start the day:  a clear beef (or lamb or chicken) broth with a poached egg & a scoop of spicy miso. Linda had laughed & agreed, and since then telling me how energized & clean she feels every time she has breakfast at Maison May.

By now, a gentle lunch crowd starts to roll in.

Two women burst in & go straight to the shelves where I stock objects for the house for purchase: tea towel, bowls, cups & accessories.
I smile again because they touch everything.  They bury their hands in the luscious linen of a tablecloth, grab the pottery to hold the piece tight and turn it around, they softly brush the pieces hanging from Mquan, an amazed look on their faces, they marvel at the wood of the carefully carved boards.
I smile because with every gesture, they capture a bit of what I have put on those shelves: the raw energy of skilled, passionate craftspeople. 

The phone rings:  another request for a private event.  Brit smiles and congratulates the woman on the phone on her upcoming wedding & promises that we will send her information to review options for both of our Maisons for her private event.

There is beauty in opening a business where people want to be.

And when I say be, I mean really just be.

I am not in the restaurant industry, just selling food & hosting private events.

Instead Maison May is a way for me to bring people together: to connect people, to gather, to feed and to have a platform to empower, change, inspire, create, work.
With the opening of Maison May, amazingly, I found an outlet for those deep yearnings & desires, a way to unleash them, yearnings & desires that were censored for years and then simply contrived.
This is really my home, and not only in the physical sense of it but because it allows me to simply live.

I pause. It is 2pm now.

Does what I am doing here right now count as working?

I am sitting watching life swirling around Maison May, in and out.

Maybe it is not work right there at this moment but this is the result of my work and this is what I need to sit & appreciate from time to time to never loose the focus on that picture. 

I need to never forget why I am building Maison May

I need to carry that morning to the nights when I wake up torn by anxiety & stress- the bucolic picture I painted is true to form but it doesn’t mean that the coin only has one side: no mud, no lotus- when the pressure of running a successful business (I mean 2) grabs me at my core, throwing me in the arms of doubt, when I am tempted to take shortcuts.  Shortcuts that would destroy the very essence of what I am all about & turn me back into just another restaurateur.

So I will take that Tuesday morning, full of light, full of smiles & simple stories.
I will let Maison May feed me so I can always feed it back with integrity.

And then right then & there I smile (yes, again) and think that I have managed to redefine success for myself & for my businesses.
A new voice has emerged in my head lately, powerful enough to quiet the darker ones:

“Catherine, you nailed it. You totally did. Trust it. Keep going.”

 

Stay tuned as Maison May Dekalb, our restaurant is going through some more evolution. 
The name change was just the beginning....

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

home.jpg

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.

Maison May
Maison - Home
May - My name & my birth month.

I am looking at the new space where construction has not yet started & I smile.
And then my eyes fall on ICI. 
Between the two I have my life spread in front of me:
my past & my future, my roots & my vision.

In a flash, it all settles down very clearly.

Maison May embodies my journey, my personality, my mission. 
It is not a name, it is a manifesto. 
This is what I have been building: une maison. A home for myself, for my children, for the community, for anyone who comes in contact with it.
The name, ICI, doesn’t carry any of the story that I have been writing. 
On the eve of stretching my wings further, it became very clear to me that ICI’s identity,
not the physical space itself, not the business in itself, but its name simply has to go.

ICI means “here” in French and was named at a time when a husband & wife wanted to express their ambitions, desires, and vision-- which was to be one of the first farm to table restaurants in Brooklyn. And even more simply to claim that we were here, using local products. (Choosing a name that was meaningful yet absolutely un-pronounceable for anyone who doesn’t speak French — which is a good 99.9% of the population – let’s call it a beginner’s mistake.  It will take me some years to recover from the countless times I heard it mispronounced – icy, itchy, i-c-i…).
But then shortly after its birth, ICI became the main instrument for one of its owners to sustain his addiction.

Upon taking back control over my life in 2008, I was left with a business on its knees, and a terribly complicated & ambivalent relationship with it. 
It was the one thing I had to give my all to in order to stay in this country and feed my kids. 
But, at the same time, it embodied the most painful 4 years of my life.

About 5 years later, in the winter of 2013, I started to understand that I was building something and not just swimming through mud and picking up the slack. 
It was during the holiday season.
I went to ABC Carpet Home in Union Square.
I like to go up & down the 5 stories of the store to feel the abundance of it all, especially during the holidays.
That day, I stumbled into an exhibit on the mezzanine: on the wall, in beautiful calligraphy were quotes of Thich Nhat Hanh. The atmosphere was really quiet, the light really subtle.  I was alone during those holidays, and was going through a rollercoaster of emotions: happiness for the quiet I could have for once, and the sort of emptiness that came with it which was mostly generated by the incredible social pressure of fitting into normalcy rather than reality.  I was walking on a thin line.
With all that, I stepped into the room unaware of what was about to hit me.
I had come to please my eyes & in fact I was due to leave with something much bigger. In beautiful bold letters, quietly sprawling above a deliciously fluffy pink sofa, there it was:

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

I am not sure what forces kept me from sliding down on my knees, from curling into a ball & sobbing. (Well, I do know, actually. I am a New Yorker after all-- one who knows how to keep her cool in any circumstance in public no matter what crazy things happen, inside or outside…)
But inside,
I was sobbing,
I was screaming.
I was grunting.
I was on my knees…

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

I had lost it all in the past years.
The divorce & tragic story that lead to it had revealed to me that I had been estranged not only in my own marriage, but in my own family.  And, consequently in a lot of other parts of my life that I had built leaning on those models that were actually just a parody of integrity.
Home was something that I mourned and longed for, which I knew I could not go back to because the only manifestation that I ever had of it had been a mere illusion.  I was mourning the idea of it, remembering at times when I was in the coma and thinking that I had that shelter. The process, spread over the past years, had seen me go through phases of depletion, grief, anger and now I was just feeling empty, sad & tired.

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

And then with that, something shifted: there was no way back, this I knew. And right there, for the 1st time, I started owning the deep process I had been going through.  Now I was ready to move beyond it.  There was no longing to have; I was building my home. I had been all along, in the mud and all. I was building it at every level, metaphoric or not, for myself, my boys, my business.
A Home.
Une Maison.
It took me another 3 years to stand at the corner of Dekalb & Vanderbilt, to take the final step, and to have the courage to go through that transition that clearly embodies the success of my journey. And, to fully live my manifesto:  Maison May. 

In a few days, the sign in front of ICI will be taken down & Maison May Dekalb will rise.
This has been a home for many already, and in the past years the space has been recharged with the energy of all the happy celebrations, weddings, dinners and showers.

Around the corner, Maison May Vanderbilt will swing its door open for the 1st time. 
That already makes me smile because I was able to build it as it was meant to be since day one: my home, a maison where I can welcome you all.
It will be an incredibly bright café, during the day, a quaint room for private dinners in the evenings, and many more things that you will need to come and discover for yourself.

A dear friend recently asked me how I will know I have succeeded with Maison May.
Well, Holly, I think I know now: I already have with Maison May Dekalb.
And if only 1 person shows up on the 1st day at Maison May Vanderbilt and they feel at home, then it will be complete.

Opening date & more details TBA very soon. 

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

tsunami

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.”

Again, without quite thinking about anything beyond that moment, I stared at him and said softly: "Done? Like done, done? Done enough to close?"

He answered immediately, and was articulating his thoughts as our discussion was unfolding. “Yes, I am done, enough to leave,” he said.

We just stared at each other for an eternity of several seconds. My head was spinning and I could see his was too. That day, the simple, “You look tired” observation opened the door for my neighbor to actually rest for a second, and realize that he was done—and that standing in front of him could be the person to help him get out the overwhelming spiral.

As for me, I was just as stunned to have opened a door to what in the end was what I had given up even looking for, after searching high and low.

Four weeks later, I had the keys to his shop.

I had managed to lead an effective negotiation not only on a restricted time frame but in an utterly uplifting way. We all hugged around the table—the shop owner, the landlord and myself—happy, fed, and satisfied by a discussion led with integrity and respect for one another, for the work that one had done, with consideration for the work that one was about to do, and framed by a landlord who could appreciate and value it all.

And with that, I had set up the physical foundation for my second location, a foundation that by its essence I truly believe will prosper in the same manner of integrity from which it was born, and in the spirit of the business that will grow there.

I woke up on January 1st, 2016 with a second location that served as a clean slate to start anything—or, should I say, everything that I wanted—to start putting my vision into action.

December had been a frenzy of negotiations, business plans, and mood boards. From the minute I had talked to my neighbor, things poured out of me: the concept was right there, and I put down on paper the manifestation of my vision in five days, from the color of the walls, to the size of the teaspoon. I had carried it for so long, and searched it in so many places, that the ease with which everything was coming out confirmed that it was the right place—nothing felt uneasy, nothing felt forced, and everything was flowing out of me, at last.

Everything but one major thing, surprisingly: the name.

How could that even be? How could it be with such an amazing force moving me through that project I felt stuck there?

I was drawing a blank.

Nothing was coming.

Most of my friends suggested a variation of ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb), to incorporate it as the big brother into one equation. After all, the second location is right behind  ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) and its back windows overlook  ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) garden. But this is not just a second location, this is an extension:  ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) stretching its wings further. Everything that I am planning takes root in  ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb) and overflows to its little brother.

Or so I thought.

I am reformatting everything and thinking about how my existing house is going to almost double in size. On every front, it is fluid, as I tear down old systems, dreaming about new ones. Everything is moving forward, so once again I had decided to just march forth, and hope that before I would swing the doors open, I would come up with something.

I let the name conundrum go, remembering that after all if the right place had come to me, its name would come too, and probably not in the form of anything I could come up with from a brainstorm.

I had my two feet on the ground, moving towards my goal, confident that I had figured out 90%, and that the name would just be a beautiful finish on the tall wall I was building.

And then indeed, it came.

In a friend’s dream in late February.

Once again, everything tilted. It was like a tsunami washed over me. That morning, I stood at the corner of Dekalb and Vanderbilt, so I could see both of my businesses. I let it all sink in to make sense of what was rising deep inside me. And right there as I was walking toward Maison May Dekalb, I started crying. Something deep washed over me, like a gentle yet powerful wave, a force that I recognized right away: grief, a sense of loss.

But the tears were soft and liberating, not sharp or painful—the kind of tears that are necessary for growing, like when you see your kid riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. It is natural, it is beautiful, and you say good-bye to a part of your life when he needed you to hold his back to stay balanced.

I thought that finding the physical space was what mattered, that I had taken that enormous step, and that the rest, if not easy, would just flow with hard work. But in fact, the true revelation came with finding the name. It brought together the past eight years of my life, not only at work, but on a very deep personal level.

I looked at ICI, dear old friend, and understood that something had shifted there.

He was not the big brother that would lead the way in my expansion: the birth of the second location was propelling me further than  ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb), and  ICI  was not leading the way, ICI had folded into that plan. I was leading the way, with ICI under my belt. I had deeply changed,  and ICI along with me.

I had run my business with my heart and soul, and shed a lot of layers to unearth my deep core. I am not the woman who came to NYC 20 years ago with a small amount of money in her pocket and big dreams. I am not even the same woman who opened a small farm to table restaurant 12 years ago in the middle of nowhere (Fort Greene, Brooklyn). I grew, I evolved, learned that I had wings, and then learned that I could spread them far. ICI had been my platform, my work, and my way of finding expression for it all. Both of our identities had changed along the way.

So another layer needs to be shed, another thing has to be let go to make room for something bigger and truer to reflect the expression of not only its evolution, but of mine.

More news in April on how it will all unfold -stay tuned.- 

 

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 rentsigns 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?

And more importantly, what does it really mean for those living in Brooklyn, and then, for those beyond this microcosm?

And why does it matter to me that much?

Let me talk about what I see happening and the potential consequences, and what I aspire to do in this context.

The increasing number of vacant properties standing on the once-vibrant Smith Street is the result of two things that seem to have come up as a sort of chicken-and-egg situation.

On one hand, most landlords are asking for a ludicrous amount of money for those commercial spaces. It is one thing that individuals are willing to spend $5 million or more for a brownstone in Cobble Hill. But lets be clear here: that does not transform Smith Street into Fifth Avenue or Les Champs Elysées. To think that any business can sustain a rent of $80 per square feet, per year, for a short term lease (10 years max) is, well, nonsense. There is not the density, the foot traffic, or the history that Manhattan has for a small business to sustain such rent in Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.

Unless, of course, you are a bank, a pharmacy or a chain store. One must wonder if every single landlord on Smith Street is actually expecting to sign one of those. If so, that will morph our borough into, well, a strip mall. (And we thought we could get away from that sort of thing by not living in Manhattan)

On the other hand, you have the commercial brokers whose goal is to get the highest possible rent on a vacant property. For most of them, a vision of durability and sustainability is absolutely non-existent. Talking to a dozen or so brokers in the past year, I learned quickly that they’re mostly unable to comprehend a realistic business plan, and their math skills are limited to how to calculate their fees.

In this context, it is quite striking to think that the entire world envies our life in Brooklyn right now.

Because in short, we build, we consume, and then we throw it all away and we start again.

What we are projecting and promoting is, in fact, a snowballing succession of unsustainable trends.

From an ecological standpoint, it feels absolutely revolting to me. What is even more distressing is that we are, in essence, responsible for a good chunk of the planet’s disarray, and for promoting its continuing destruction.

The real estate reality, combined with this way of setting up businesses whose very essence is just to jump on trends, promotes short-term decisions aimed to achieve big, fast financial returns. The result is complete oblivion to fundamental ethical human principles: paying employees properly, sourcing goods ethically (would it be food, or other goods), worrying about the consequences of each action on the planet and on other human beings, and building something with a vision that it will last more than a decade, more than a lifetime, sustainable in its fundamental structure for the generations to come.

The other “collateral damage” to such entrepreneurship is the total lack of a sense of respect for the community in which these businesses are being built: they are making Brooklyn “happen” by destroying its very essence: real people, in real communities, with once-real businesses.

That’s a quick overview of the big picture. I could probably talk about 100 more layers of destruction inherent to that dynamic.

For me, every time I read disastrous news (so, pretty much every day), I feel the connection of what we are doing right here in Brooklyn, the vacant commercial spaces serving as a powerful visual, and what is happening all over the globe: the way we do business here helps fuel the pandemics of climate change, of wars triggered by a race to oil, of refugees, of ecological disasters.

Here in Brooklyn, all we are doing is busying ourselves with building the next trendy thing.

Louis XV said, “Et après nous, le deluge”, which essentially means, who cares what happens next.

4 centuries later, it sadly describes our way of life pretty accurately.

This has to stop.

The most basic thing to understand is that we can change the way things are going by seeing the connection that we all have, realizing the impact that our decisions have on others.

Then, we need to decide not if we care, but if we care enough to take action.

I struggled for the past few years to find the right path, going back and forth in my soul-searching between non-for-profit action and ethical entrepreneurship. I came to the conclusion that I could have the most impact by anchoring a certain type of business development.

The business model that I have in mind goes back to our roots, so that more businesses are based on longevity rather than what’s on-trend. (A trend, by definition, comes from an outside source, and tends to be force-fed to a population with a good marketing strategy).


The principles and applications of this business model will be built on a foundation that will carry results beyond the current lifespan, and stay for generations to come as a reference point, an anchor in a neighborhood, and in a community. In essence it will be timeless, not trendy, and selfless, not limited to the success of one entrepreneur, yet profitable.

What it can accomplish then, should have a ripple effect, first reversing some of the destruction. Every decision in that business will be made taking to heart the long-term impact on people and the planet.

The dynamic is meant to heal, rather than deplete.

To build, rather than destroy.

To nurture, rather than oppress.

To invest in the community, rather than sucking its roots dry, so that eventually, it is fostering a community for like-minded individuals who share the same vision for themselves, their community, the town where they live.

Such a place then becomes not only a landmark by its physical presence but by its essence of longevity and integrity, creating a true anchor where one can be inspired, nurtured, and fed.

A home.

One way to achieve all of this in our crazy economic situation is to buy real estate with the aim of longevity, past 10 or 20 years. It is to set up a landmark for a lifetime and for the generations to come, both in the structure and its applications (click here for actual applications)

The time is not to decide anymore if you should buy organic versus conventional apples.

The time is to decide where you spend your money and understand how it affects us all.

The time is to decide what you want your borough to look like in 10, 20, 30 years, after our lifetime.

The time is to decide if you want to be part of the reconstruction of our ecosystem.

The time is not to decide if you care, it is the time to decide if you care enough to take the actions that are needed.

You might find yourself a bit less breathless running after something you can never have (everything), but then you finally find just the essentials: integrity, a sense of belonging, a safe and clean environment, and the ability to redirect the fragile future of the borough you love and call it home