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.

Then things shifted in my soul.
Because one day, I woke up realizing that I could not carry them anymore.
My boys.
My 2 giants had grown so much, that physically, I could not lift them anymore.
A sharp reality started torturing me then:
How could I protect them from what I know could be lurking if I could not lift them physically?What if I needed to protect them from the extreme again in a way that would require an emergency exit such as the one we took in May 2008?

And after all, isn’t life a succession of small & big emergency exits?

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The physicality of my boys being at a tender in-between age & my realization of my incapacity at lifting them to a safe place was of course a subtle allegory to their emotional development.
At age 5 & 7 I had taken a conscious executive decision to protect them from a danger that I had been able to identify. Now pre-teens, I could not carry them physically & not entirely emotionally either.
At the same time my business was growing back some roots, and results of my intense work were starting to show, but I was still needed most of the time. Like my children, all was seemingly going in the right direction, yet the path seemed endless & the outcome still completely uncertain.

There was a day then, when I collapsed in my therapist's office.
Down on my knees, I was sobbing, exhausted by what I had accomplished already & drained by the mere thought of the road ahead, the length, the responsibility of raising those boys alone, of carrying this restaurant that was our livelihood but that seemed to be consuming so much of my life & energy.
I was feeling sorry for myself & just plain tired.
Tout ça pour quoi?
All this for what?
I felt like I had been walking in a tunnel of endless darkness.
As I was hiccoughing my sorrow, my therapist snapped at me:
“You are tired Catherine?
Get used to it!
And start running.
Run everyday if you can.
Run like you are training for a f..king marathon."
She paused.
I was startled.
I was waiting for the rest & already, something was shifting inside me.
With a soft & compassionate voice, she continued, her bright blue eyes submerging all the darkness in mine:
"Catherine, what you have started for yourself, for your children, for your business is not a race.
It is a marathon.
It is a project of a lifetime with milestones.
No, you will not stay exhausted like this forever.
And no, you are not stuck.
You are marching on the right path and you have a lot to do.
You are not used to that modus operandi & it will take time to grow new muscles & to embrace your reality.
But here is the good news: the hardest part is over.
You are going up now.
And know that there will be many occasions for joy & celebrations along the way, until you get out of this tunnel for good".

So right here and then, I picked myself up again & stopped running for my life & started jogging.
In the streets of Brooklyn, at the gym, in the park, in my business, with my boys.
No time to feel sorry.

The plan in the end was simple.
If I could not carry my boys anymore, I just needed to teach them how to carry themselves, as I was doing it.
And at the same time, I shifted the way I approached my business: I started dreaming about what I could express through it to support a larger vision that could feed my soul & have a higher purpose than a simple restaurant. ICI was not a final destination anymore but a way to propel myself further.

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Well, easier said than done:
Because all of that required from me blind trust.
Not in myself, but in my children & in my vision.
The way  I wanted to raise my boys for themselves, not for me, I wanted to create a business that would be larger than me, and not just for me.
In the meantime, and while I was working on all that,  I would need to carry what I still could, with the boys & the business and trust what I didn't know yet.

And then this summer, it happened.
The end of the tunnel.
It all started manifesting itself as my older son took his first emergency exit by himself.
It will stay forever a defining moment in my older son’s life & in his brother’s who witnessed it all.

There was no doubt: I watched him going through an incredibly emotionally challenging situation and landing on the other side of the mirror.
He did not need me to achieve it. He had carried himself out.

By himself.
For himself.

With grace, integrity, strength inside & out, with so much beauty, radiating light in the mist of a huge sorrow, as one does at times upon by realizing the magnitude of the shadow that needs to be faced in order to harness a deeper wisdom.

The morning after that episode, I woke up a new woman.
And I have no doubt, he woke up a new young man.
I was swimming in a new reality that took hold of me immediately.
An incredible load & so many fears had been washed away.
I was not afraid anymore to not be able to carry them physically anymore.
Because I did not have to carry them emotionally anymore in that same intense capacity.

The sky looked endless that day as I sat on my deck.

That same week, I walked into a staff meeting & after 2 hours of talking with my entire crew, I realized that the brand new team that I had been carrying for the past year since I had launched Maison May, was not brand new anymore (I lost gradually my entire Front of the House team as I open my 2nd business & transitioned into removing tipping from both locations).
During that meeting I saw that I had rebuild not only a strong team of professional individuals, but one who are caring & truly appreciative of the work they were doing & in it for the vision that I started to manifest forwardly.
I was not lifting anyone anymore. We were all in it together, invested.

That day I realized that I could start let go of that grip, of that tight fist that I had to maintain in order to keep it all running.
For the past year.
And for the past 8 years before that.
I could now fully explore my vision in my daily work rather than managing a business.

The possibilities are endless now & for me to choose from.
Feeling strong in a different place.
As if the muscles I had grown to get here are now moving inside me to be re-dispersed for other functions.

And I am smiling.
Remembering that biodynamic winemaker I met long ago who got pregnant during the winter.
And it happened that it was during the harvests that she delivered her baby boy, in full harmony with the universe she had created for herself.
She had planted, cultivated & was then harvesting what had grown inside & outside of her.

My cycle feels similar.
I am aligned & at peace.

And starting the harvest season right on time...

Merci mes garçons


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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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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Our Family Weekly Cooking Strategy

I had a good laugh the other day when a friend told me that some people have this super glamorous vision of my family life when it comes down to food. They envision me eating at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) almost every night, with my perfectly mannered children—aren’t we French, after all?—just relaxing the night away over delicious food. On the rare nights we’re not there, I become a domestic goddess in the kitchen at home, whipping up something spectacular with ease.

This is as far as you can possibly get from our reality. The boys almost never eat at ICI and while, yes, I can cook, it’s nothing too elaborate. I focus on what I can pull off with one main goal: make something taste delicious efficiently and ethically. In short, we’re a regular family. And in that sense I face the same challenge every head of household does: how do you come up with three meals a day for three (or however many) individuals with incredibly different tastes and needs, in the most nutritious, empowering, and caring way?

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