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Eating healthy should still be delicious.
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A llegra McEvedy is the sort of person who has always been famous doubtless, at nursery other kids used to trail after her, hoping for crumbs of attention. I'm sure she dispensed them. She's a generous soul, Allegra.
Guardian readers who follow her weekly columns, and those who have taken part in her regular cookery workshops on our Word of Mouth food blog, will already have a sense of her: encouraging, jolly, noisy and, above all, enthusiastic. In person, she is all these things, and tactile to boot. At a party she will always be at the head of her own little herd, identified by the gales of rude throaty laughter.
In short, McEvedy won't bloody shut up, and nor, thank God, will her food. When she cooks, it's always big-fisted stuff. It's the enemy of prissiness, friend to flavour. Sure, she's done her time at the pass in fancy restaurants she once led the kitchens at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill in New York. She has done stints at the Groucho club - from which she was sacked for being found in the shower with a friend and a bottle - and the famed River Cafe. But it is the role she has now, as the food queen for the nine-strong, quality, seasonal fast-food chain Leon, that suits her best. Its slogan - "food which tastes good and does you good" - speaks to the woman's instinctive need to nurture.
The recipes brought together in the new Leon cookbook, which we begin serialising today, make it obvious that this is a whole lot more than bald, corporate sloganeering. Allegra and her team at Leon mean it. There really is no arguing with her recipes for butterbean and chorizo stew or her butternut and bacon chowder, her chilli con carne made with braised hunks of chuck steak rather than crumbly mince, or her Moroccan chicken tagine, which has been a Leon bestseller for years. And for good reason. It's fantastic, gutsy, Technicolor stuff. Sure, none of her dishes is exactly elegant. Allegra doesn't do elegant, or at least not in the classical sense. (No one who has seen her in her trademark tweed trilby would argue.) But most of the time that's not what we want from dinner. We just need sustenance, stuff that tastes great and makes us feel good about both ourselves, and the fields that supplied the ingredients that fed us. All of that is what McEvedy does best. Enjoy.
Kitchen Q&A: Ronnie Ryan, of Quezel Sorbets
Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
You may not be familiar with the name Quezel, but if you’ve ever had a towering Cleopatra at Cyrano’s, or a Chocolate Martini at Bailey’s, or a tub of Straub’s Peppermint at the holidays, or that raspberry sorbet uber-cone at the Muny, you know Quezel. Ronnie Ryan, a man more colorful than Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat, is the wizard behind that curtain. And you won’t mind when he makes “a short story very long,” because once you stop laughing, he might just treat you to a Ronnie’s Rocky Mountain, a Drumstick as big as a Dan Dierdorf fist. We bet you can eat just one.
Did your family make ice cream as a kid? Why the interest in ice ceram?
Noooo. My father, my brother, my grandfather—they were all physicians.
So why didn’t you become a doctor?
I couldn’t see myself cutting up cadavers.
How did you get into the business?
Back in 1965, I delivered produce to restaurants. My boss asked me if I could drive a truck and I said sure. I was 16 and had never driven a truck in my life. But that’s how I met the local chefs.
A lot can be learned going in a restaurant’s back door.
We delivered to Tony’s, then Al’s. One of the biggest accounts was the Famous Barr cafeterias. It was dark, 5:30 in the morning, we’d pull in our mirrors and head down the alleys: Chapman’s Ice Cream, Pevely Dairy, KC Franz Poultry, the Italo-American noodle truck, us, Allen Foods—I’m just getting warmed up—McHenry Meats, a Smith-Scharff paper truck, all of us in a row. Today that’s all been replaced…by one Sysco truck. And every one of those other companies is out of business.
Consolidation does make things easier, though…
You wanna know who started that? McDonald’s. They were the first to pack all their stuff on one truck and deliver store to store.
Did you ever work there?
Nah. After I graduated from college, I got a $1.25 an hour job washing dishes at the Pasta House. On my day off, I’d go to Musial & Biggies to learn how to break down steer carcasses—for no money--just because I wanted to learn how to do it.
Restaurants were breaking meat down like that back then?
Yep, it came in on a hook. That’s where I learned how to use every scrap of a cow. For ravioli, meatballs, cannelloni…no one wasted anything. So when I got into restaurant management at a little country-French place called Boucaire’s at Le Chateau Village, there was no waste.
So were you a back of the house guy?
I was both. One day I asked Tony Bommarito what he would do if he were me. He said to check out new Ritz in Chicago, that they needed a guy like me. So I did. The Ritz opened a private club there and I became the chef there. When I left St. Louis, we could get fresh trout and fresh filet of sole—in little gold tins--but only on Friday. That’s it. On my first day at the Ritz, I counted 17 varieties of fresh fish in the walk-in, from all over the world.
Did any chefs make ice cream back then?
No, a French chef eventually taught me how to make sorbets and patés. I eventually sold patés all around St. Louis and one day on a whim dropped off some sorbet to one of my accounts--The Epicure Shop in Ladue. The owner called me within minutes and said she’d take all the sorbet I could make.
And the rest, as they say…
If it wasn’t for Mrs. Bierman, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
You’re still making that sorbet. Did the recipe change over the years?
No, same product. But I changed the way I sourced fresh berries—and I used only fresh. After years of research--and having self-picked loads of local berries, I found the perfect berry at a farm in the Pacific Northwest. The raspberries and strawberries up there are by far, by far, the best in the country. The perfume from the Hood variety of strawberry is just intense, but they have a short season and are very perishable.
Don’t you literally need tons of berries to make all the sorbet you make?
Years ago, I found an heirloom variety of raspberry that’s so dark it’s almost purple. I’ve been buying them from this farm in Washington ever since, and even specify a certain brix. It’s the only farm I use and the only berry I use. They are so good they cause me to weep openly.
Shipping from there has to kill you.
I was shipping them here, deseeding them here, and throwing part of them away. So eventually I got smart. The farm now processes them there, freezes them, and ships me the lot, pallets of them. I buy my raspberries one time a year.
How big is your freezer?
Bigger than many restaurants.
What’s your take on all the yogurt places popping up?
Up and down, up and down. Gelato places were hot, now most of them are gone yogurt places are hot now, so we’ll see.
Why don’t you see more ice cream or yogurt shops in malls?
Sell a Rolex, sell a $2 cone, same rent. If that’s all you’re sellin’, you need to be sellin’ something else.
So why did you not get into the restaurant business?
I’m not the richest guy in the world, but you can find me at home at 5 ‘clock on a Friday night. Ask any restaurant guy how huge that statement is.
With all the young chefs doing most everything in house, I would think your business would take a hit.
Most kitchens are either too small, too hot, or too busy to do that effectively. Most restaurants can sell way more than they could make.
What’s the most exciting part of the business?
That the old gray fox has learned enough to help people get what they really want. The reality is we live in a vanilla world. And in a raspberry sorbet world. Those fashion-statement ice cream products serve a narrow purpose. I ask these chefs, are you doing this to garner attention or do you want to sell ice cream day in and day out? Avocado-basil gelato may get you noticed, but how many orders will you sell? Come back next week and it won’t be on his menu. That aspect should at least enter into the conversation.
Where did the name originate?
I liked art glass and was too poor to buy Tiffany, so I collected the less pricey Quezal. Both names are abominations of quetzal, one of the most brightly colored birds in the world. It seemed appropriate for sorbets and ice creams.
Today’s chef-driven ice cream flavors seem to be getting more bizarre.
Most of it is so ephemeral that I sometimes don’t even want to get involved. I’ll make 2 tubs for a guy, sell him one, and the second will be waiting in my freezer for somebody’s grandchildren to try and sell.
Did you start by selling ice cream or sorbet?
Quezel started making sorbet in 1979. We didn’t start making ice cream until ’81. Today, sorbet is steady but is only 15% of our business.
What are the most unusual sorbet flavors that you’ve come up with?
I found some Cubans who had access to tropical fruits we’d never seen here, like guanabana, mamay, and passion fruit. At the time, guys like Bill Cardwell were doing trios of sorbets…this stuff caused him to go wild.
How important is the vanilla used in vanilla ice cream?
Critical. The company I use has been making that flavoring for 75 years. It’s all they do. And to do it right, they cold-tumble the vanilla beans with sugar, alcohol, and water—for weeks--not cook it quickly to extract the flavor.
Is vanilla from Madagascar still the way to go?
Either that or Tahitian. It’s like comparing a Bordeaux to a Burgundy. Madagascar is beefier, fuller-bodied and more pronounced, like Bordeaux Tahitian is more delicate and floral and used for more delicate desserts and custards.
So locavore is not a word ice cream makers use?
We try. The dairies are local, but ingredients like top grade raspberries and vanilla will never be. A lot of this trend is admirable but a lot of it is impractical zealotry. What, are we all going to become canners?
What new ice cream flavor has been requested recently?
Salt caramels are big, so that. But salt doesn’t have the same effect as an add-in as it does on top of a caramel—no one knows if it’s Morton’s or fleur de sel, so I’m recommending that chefs top this dulce de leche ice cream with an exotic salt, like it’s a caramel.
So quality ingredients are important…to a point.
Just to a point, yes. If I make a bourbon butter pecan ice cream, you’ll never know whether I used Jim Beam or Old Forester if I make some vanilla and use a cheap extract, you’ll chuck it right back at me.
How many flavors does Quezel make?
I’m guessing 60-80, most of them in 3 ½ gallon containers.
Do you have a favorite ice cream flavor?
I side with Reuben Mattus, the guy who founded Haagen-Dazs: Coffee. You can’t beat a good coffee ice cream. Vanilla should be my favorite because it sells the best. But I’m not a fan of inclusions.
What’s an inclusion?
Add-ins. Take a regular pistachio nut, then eat one that’s been in the freezer do the same with a Hershey’s Kiss. They’re just better at room temperature. If I want extra flavor, I’ll sprinkle that stuff on top, where I can taste it at its best.
Besides vanilla, what flavor sells well?
Our second best seller is cinnamon. I don’t get it and I never will.
We sell about 10 different kinds of that, so maybe…Chocolate Chipotle, Swiss Chocolate, Chocolate Malt, Chocolate Mojo, Chocolate Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Truffle, a Triple Chocolate for Bailey’s Chocolate Bar…
Is that what goes into their Chocolate Martinis?
Yes. Do you remember that almost-black ice cream that Velvet Freeze used to sell, Gold Coast Chocolate? Same formula.
What’s been Quezel’s most unusual flavor?
One I made for Balaban’s years ago, a Grand Marnier with candied violet petals in it.
That purple touch was wonderful. I’m working on one now with roasted and dried carrots for a chef’s carrot cake, and another with roasted sweet potatoes.
Was there any flavor that just didn’t work?
Passion fruit sorbet may be the best flavor I make and it’s our slowest seller. I have no idea why.
It’s not the name. That works…
It may be the unfamiliarity. How many people know what a passion fruit looks like?
Does Quezel sell any ice cream at retail?
We tried, with a Quezel Glacé line, and failed. Couldn’t afford the grocery store’s slotting fees. The so called smaller producers on shelves now—Haagen-Dazs, Ben and Jerry’s—are owned by the same corporations who own Breyer’s and Edy’s, guys who can afford the primo shelf space.
But you do sell to Straub’s.
We private label all their ice creams. They have been my most loyal customer, right from the very start.
Straub’s is your biggest customer. Who’s your smallest?
Carl’s Drive In, the only place to get a Ronnie’s Rocky Mountain.
…the biggest Drumstick I’ve ever seen. I remember seeing those in pushcarts at fairs.
I was told by professionals that it was the best walk-around product they’d ever seen. When the VP Fair was big, we’d sell $30,000 worth in three days, but running that booth or a cart is harder than it looks. At one time I had 17 carts but gave it all up five years ago. It was a weekend gig, it was hot, and I had already worked all week.
But it got you face to face with your customer.
And that gratification was the best part of it. To meet people as passionate about my products as I was. I never get to see that in a restaurant or grocery store.
Couldn’t you hire some hard working kids to do it?
The hard-working part is a problem, as is asking them to work every weekend of the summer. Kids today all want to make a million dollars working from their computer, but a kid could make a fortune selling those things.
What’s something people don’t know about ice cream?
In many cultures, it’s considered an aphrodisiac. And those are the cultures I love.
I like the simplicity of a fresh, organic ice cream store….four or five flavors, tops. Can you imagine a billboard advertising Ronnie’s, Missouri’s only organic ice creamery? And combine that with Drewes’ concept of seeing it shimmy down a chute? It’d go over better than Grandma’s Homemade Pies.
To make it viable, though, I need an organic farmer who’s nearby and owns a milk separator, and that doesn’t exist here yet. So I wait. But that’s something I know would work.
Any other hobbies? You a wine drinker?
The first nice wine I ever had was a Tavel Rose…and I drank that warm, on a roof of a friend’s house in Webster. But yes, I do drink wine. My current fixation is Italian wines—older vintages, cheap, and powerful—that I find at DiGregorio’s. Drinking most reds today is tantamount to beverage infanticide.
Do you have other aspirations? Did you ever want to be like, I dunno, a bullfighter?
Yeah, but only because I love the outfits. Occasionally I wear that outfit around. Here comes Ronnie Ryan, not only is he full of bull…
Anchovy, roasted red pepper, potato and egg pintxos
My friend Jose Carlos Capel swings his arm around my shoulder. “Welcome to the tapeo of the future,” he shouts, spraying a mojito into his mouth. From a glass atomizer.
In a compulsively social country like Spain, the tapeo -- the act of shuffling from one tapas bar to the next -- is a ritual of near-religious importance. But tonight’s tapas bash is a different story. We are at a cocktail reception thrown by Ferran Adria, the high priest of avant-garde cooking whose tapitas run to stuff like miniature loaf pans of frozen “air” flavored with Parmesan and gossamer cones filled with trout eggs and soy gelee.
Adria embraces his signature mad-genius part -- speech jumbled, gaze so intense that his eyes seem to pop out of their orbits. Crowding the theatrically dim reception hall of Hotel Ritz are press (Capel is restaurant critic for El Pais, Spain’s largest daily), chefs and sundry members of the city’s beau monde, all gasping and gawking at chefs blowtorching quail eggs in order to enclose them in paper-thin squares of caramel colored with gold powder. Adria’s assistant, enveloped in clouds of hissing-cold vapors, immerses balls of pistachio paste into a caldron of liquid nitrogen. The Martian popsicles emerge frozen on the outside and liquid inside.
I could use a cold beer but settle instead for hot-and-cold daiquiris and a glass of rum “spherified” into beads using calcium chloride, with coconut milk, pineapple juice and a flourish of cotton candy. It’s a pina colada.
Of course, away from Adria’s antics, old-school tapas bars still remain happily true to themselves: heart-stoppingly atmospheric dives with jamones (cured hams) hung from the ceiling, walls plastered with bullfighting photos and crowds shouting orders for another round of batter-fried bacalao. Standbys like ensaladilla rusa (a mayonnaise-drenched potato salad), anchovies and potato tortilla seem inescapable.
But beyond basics, the tapa emerges as a truly protean concept. Place a portion of leftover stew in a miniature cazuela and you’ve got a tapa. Order a cana (small beer), chat up your neighbor, and it’s fiesta. Are you surprised that the Spanish prefer hanging out at bars to entertaining at home?
In its original form, the tapa (the word means lid) was a free slice of cheese or jamon topping a glass of sherry -- to protect the drink from flies and dust. The tradition originated in the 19th century in Andalusia, the center of sherry production, where scorching summers make a full meal unthinkable. Today, defined only by function and size -- a bite to accompany drinks -- tapas vary from bar to bar and from region to region.
Galicia is famous for seafood empanadas, Asturias for chorizo braised in hard cider. Andalusians like to nibble on ethereal fried seafood and marinated potatoes, the Basques on a bacalao-stuffed piquillo peppers. In worldly Madrid, Madrilenos are forsaking the meatballs and patatas bravas (potatoes with spicy-smoky tomato sauce) of the old tiled tabernas and moving on to smart faux-rustic bars serving boutique wines by the glass, fancy cold cuts boards and smoked salmon canapes.
The array of choices is so mind-boggling, at times, that the entire country seems like one vast bar theme park: wine bars and cheese bars, the breakfast bars of Seville and the beer bars of Madrid, bars out of central casting and neo-moderne haunts with tapas artfully arranged in shot glasses, skewers and spoons.
Traditionally tapas functioned as appetite-teasers, but in modern Spain the verb tapear can easily imply eating a full meal. You start with an elaborate canape, move on to a martini glass of new-wave gazpacho sorbet, progress to something neo-traditional, say olive-oil poached clams with Iberian ham, and end with tiny dessert tapas, usually foamy mousses or unusual granitas and ice creams.
In a country where it’s de rigueur for young chefs to collaborate with scientists and where the word deconstruction is uttered in kitchens as routinely as it was at philosopher Jacques Derrida’s seminars, a tapeo can also be a ride on the wild side.
“Today’s tapa has come a long way [from] a morsel that came on or with bread and was eaten out of hand standing up,” Capel, the restaurant critic, explains. “First you dropped the bread, then you started eating tapas sitting down with a knife and fork. Suddenly high-minded chefs are abandoning normal portions in favor of degustation menus of tapas-scaled bites.” It was Adria’s progressions of 30-plus tiny tastes at El Bulli that sparked the small-plates revolution in Spain in the ‘90s. In a culture already hooked on grazing, the trend spread like wildfire. The phenomenon has a name: alta cocina en miniatura, or haute cuisine in miniature.
Designer tapas are all the rage here, in Spain’s most cosmopolitan city, even though its region, Catalonia, doesn’t really have an indigenous tapas tradition. The first salvo was fired a few years ago by Estrella de Plata, a minimalist bar in the once-raffish fisherman’s quarter of Barceloneta. “I couldn’t afford a real restaurant but wanted to do serious food,” says chef-owner Didac Lopez. He did. Soon tout Barcelona was at his doorstep, fighting for a taste of his fried shrimp “lollipops” served with shot glasses of Parmesan veloute.
At Santa Maria, an industrial-chic boite in the edgy El Born district, Catalan cuisine meets the world in tapas like frog legs touched with ginger and soy. At Espai Sucre next door, chef Jordi Burton pushes the envelope further, with five-course tasting menus based only on sweets. I will never forget Burton’s sublime spiced milk pudding with lime peel and toffee and a few baby arugula leaves bridging the gap between sweet and savory.
Carles ABELLAN, this city’s star miniaturist, spent nine years at El Bulli with Adria, who always sends clients to Commerc 24, Abellan’s chic, buzzing temple of the nueva tapa. “I couldn’t see making a living cooking intellectual meals that only two diners might understand,” Abellan confesses, somewhat wearily. Instead he applies his own brand of soft-core conceptualism to whimsical bites that reference the vernacular tapas traditions but reconfigure them in new ways. As an homage to the Spanish obsession with gourmet canned seafood, custom-made sardine tins hold raw clams marinated with passion fruit. The ubiquitous mushroom revuleto (scrambled eggs) is also placed in quotation marks: egg foam with truffles spooned into eggshells and nestled in an egg carton. My dessert? A mini bitter chocolate mousse accessorized with peppery olive oil and Maldon salt. It seems utterly Dali-esque, but it actually riffs on a wartime Catalan staple of chocolate-smeared toast eaten with olive oil.
“Young chefs who dream of big restaurants end up opening bars,” says Inaki Gulin, one of the two thirtysomething owners of Cuchara de San Telmo, when I move on to the Basque city of San Sebastian, Spain’s other food capital. Gulin and Alex Montiel, a Basque and a Catalan and both El Bulli alumni, have their own magic formula: restaurant food at bar prices in a narrow, perpetually mobbed space whose most conspicuous decoration is a “Don’t Bush Me” poster.
It’s amazing what one eats here for two bucks. Caramelized foie gras ravioli. Glasses of luxurious chilled crab soup dabbed with tomato marmalade. Stupendous balsamic-glazed pork ribs, slow-cooked, deboned, molded, then flash-grilled in a process that takes two days.
“Barcelona designer bars are elitist and overpriced,” Montiel scoffs. “Ours is a real bar, a populist place where fishermen rub shoulders with Michel Bras and Olivier Roellinger,” he adds, referring to Michelin-starred French heavyweight chefs who take field trips to San Sebastian to see what’s cooking.
In their Basque incarnation, tapas are called pintxos and classically involve bread: baroque canapes decorated with frilly mayonnaise borders, grated eggs sprinkles and colorful pepper confetti, all arrayed on bar counters like edible communion dresses. At Bar Bergara in the affluent Gros district of San Sebastian, so ornate are the pintxos that it takes the owner, Patxi Bergara, and many assistants four hours to assemble the Technicolor counter display. “You should put a ‘Don’t touch’ sign on your pintxos,” I tell Bergara, sad that his Tiffany’s-worthy production will soon be ravaged by hungry mobs. He chuckles and hands me a tartlet with duck gizzards and apples caramelized with Armagnac.
“The pintxo is our most important culinary treasure,” says Juan Mari Arzak, chef-owner of the visionary Michelin three-star restaurant Arzak. He and I are at Alona Berri, a bar near Bergara that pioneered the gourmet pintxo in the ‘80s. The prix fixe small plates degustation here leaves you wondering how it’s possible for a neighborhood joint to serve food that belongs at French Laundry. Like the killingly elegant dish composed of a spoon of grilled eggplant puree, topped by ethereal yogurt mousse, drizzled with aged balsamico and paired on a stark white plate with a shot glass of iridescent-green pea soup.
Arzak eyes a plate of foie gras and candied mango cannelloni. Then he tells me about a dinner he and Adria have just cooked in Madrid for 400 royals who gathered to celebrate the marriage of Prince Felipe, heir to the Spanish throne. I learn that deconstructed jamon sandwiches, rose petal tempura and a mysterious whimsy called Yogurt-Yogurt were among the space-age hors d’oeuvres passed before dinner. And that the cocktail reception had stations where Adria and Arzak demonstrated their latest techniques to stunned monarchs and visiting dignitaries. “Prince Charles, Mandela, Caroline of Monaco -- they couldn’t believe our tapas!” Arzak hoots. So this how the hyper-conservative familia real has chosen to amuse princes and presidents.
Arzak, who has something of a pintxo addiction, slips away from his restaurant often for a bite and a schmooze. And he’s delighted when local pintxo bar owners dispatch their children for a stage at Arzak to pick up avant-garde tricks.
In Spain, haute cuisine and popular traditions collide, and everyone eats at everyone’s restaurants. No doubt half the young chefs in Spain are busy knocking off Adria’s liquid nitrogen bonbons.
Meanwhile, Ferran Adria is probably at his favorite tapas bar, knocking back canas and nibbling on anchovies and jamon.
Tapeo in your own backyard
Admittedly, the Spanish leave the task of preparing tapas to the bars. But lacking one on your street corner, a tapas fiesta is an easy, jazzy way to entertain, especially on a night too hot for a full meal. In addition to the recipes at left, which take you from soup to dessert, serve good olives, roasted Marcona almonds -- warmed in the oven and tossed with some flaky sea salt -- sliced hard Spanish chorizo or imported salami, and Spanish cheeses accompanied by fresh figs or membrillo (quince paste).
If you can get your hands on Serrano ham, so much the better.
Briny, spicy skewers also make a popular tapa. Try alternating rolled up anchovies, manzanilla olives, squares or red bell pepper and small, slender medium-hot green pickled peppers.
Canapes are another favorite -- especially those with smoked salmon or a spread of Cabrales or Roquefort mashed with a little cream and topped with a few toasted walnuts. And not to forget the ubiquitous Catalan pa amb tomaquet, or tomato bread: slices of grilled or toasted country bread, rubbed with a tomato half and drizzled with olive oil.
To drink? Sherry is a natural, but at many bars in Spain, beer seems to be numero uno, either straight or mixed with a little lemon soda and called clara. Add a dash of Sprite or lemon soda to a glass of cheap red wine on ice and you’ve got tinto de verrano (“summer red”), the beloved summer spritzer of Andalusia. (Sangria is for tourists.) Or go with wine, such as a light Rioja, a Navarra rose, an Albarino or cava. In lieu of my favorite Txacoli (a fresh slightly fizzy Basque white, which, alas, doesn’t travel well) I often serve Portuguese vinho verde with tapas.
Artist in Residence
When artist Beau Jones started looking for his first home, he had several must-haves: First, as an artist, a space to use as a working studio was vital. Second, he wanted plenty of walls to display his growing art collection. Lastly, he and his boyfriend, Cody, love to entertain, so rooms that could be versatile functionally were also important. When he found this home on the market, it fit the bill. “It had such good bones, and as I walked through, I could see myself giving it a more modern approach,” he says.
Being a first-time homeowner, Beau knew he would need the help of a professional to transform this house into the stylish abode he imagined. Luckily, someone who knows him well came to mind: his mother, Kim Biggs, interior designer and owner of The Vibe Interiors. “Anywhere I’ve lived, my mom has always been the one to come help me figure it out, and her style has influenced me for sure. Being an artist, she knew I had a vision for this house, and she was able to take me fully there,” he says. “Beau has a good eye and very good taste, and he knows what he likes,” Kim says of her son. “That part made it was easy. He just needed a little help pulling it all together.”
Beau and Kim left the floor plan of the home intact, ensuring plenty of available wall space for pieces by his favorite fellow artists. Behind the house, a converted shed became the perfect studio for his work. “I don’t have a ton of my own art in my house,” he says. “I go to the studio in the backyard almost every day to paint, then I go back to my house and get to look at everyone else’s art. It makes me feel inspired.” And while some rooms may now serve a different purpose—the formal living room is now a “cocktail room,” and a pantry was reimagined as a bar—the house maintains much of its original character.
Marilyn Monroe serves as muse in the home office, where she appears in both a wallpaper motif and a piece of original art created by Jennifer Lashbrook from upcycled paint chips.
A neutral palette carries throughout the house to allow interesting light fixtures and funky accessories—like the golden garden statue head in the living room—to take center stage. “I knew if I was going to stick to neutrals, I had to bring it with texture and interest,” Beau says. “If you like black and white, you have to find those in-between colors, like creams, tans, and off-whites, that give it warmth.” A table and two chairs form a breakfast nook near the glow of a piece of neon art that reads, “Everything you need is inside you.” An abstract painting by fellow Jonesboro artist Sean Shrum hangs over a credenza in the living room. The black and white piece was painted by Beau.
In the dining room, Beau replaced the existing chandelier with a cloud-inspired fixture, then centered the room around a technicolor painting by Nashville artist Gina Julian. “Her use of color is just so vibrant, and I used that piece to figure out the rest of the room,” Beau says. Over one of Ashley Longshore’s “Weezy” portraits, an art lamp elevates the casual dining space to the feeling of a gallery or museum. On the opposite side of the room, a large bar cabinet stores wine glasses and dessert plates for dinner parties.
True to Form
The palette turns darker in the galley kitchen, where black subway tile, a wallpapered ceiling, and brass hardware bring style to the small space. “I like kitchens that are clean, simple, and minimal, but I did want to elevate it to fit the rest of the house and make sure it didn’t feel sterile,” Beau says.
Cheers to Style
Through the kitchen doorway is a space previously used as a breakfast room and a pantry, which Beau transformed into a bar and lounge—one of the largest structural changes he made in renovating the house. Here, a window cut into the wall of what was a pantry opens the space up to the former breakfast room, and the addition of countertops, a mirrored wall of shelving, and barstools make it a fully functional bar. Aesthetically, a graphic wallcovering unites the two spaces.
Beau calls the home’s original formal living room a “cocktail room.” Located at the front of the house and flowing easily into the other communal spaces, it’s a perfect conversation area during parties.
“There’s something to be said about your space looking like you. When it looks good, you feel good. It gives you a positive feeling to be in a space you care about.” —Beau Jones, homeowner
Layers of Comfort
In the master bedroom, tiny windows were more of an eyesore than a focal point. Kim remedied this by installing a wall of automized draperies. “Things like that, I would have never thought to do,” Beau says. “She was instrumental in picking out fabrics and furniture that would fit the spaces well.” In this long, narrow room, the pair chose a curved, upholstered bed in a textured bouclé fabric and large custom nightstands centered against the wall of drapes.
The guest bedroom takes on a retro feel with a deco-inspired headboard, Sputnik-style light, and vintage chairs at the end of the bed. Leather-textured wallpaper provides warmth amid the neutral palette. “Whether it’s wallpaper on the ceiling or an accent wall, Beau loves texture and dimension and layers,” Kim says. “Those are the key things that make a house stand out.”
In the guest bath, a shower featuring black and white oversized tile is a statement-making upgrade from the home’s original built-in bathtub.
Interior design Kim Biggs, The Vibe Interiors Accessories, bedding, fabrics, furniture, hardware, lighting, rugs, wallpaper, and window coverings The Vibe Interiors Appliances Metro Appliances & More Cabinetry, countertops, flooring, and tile (kitchen) Barton’s Lumber Co. Millwork Juan Morales Mirrors Union Glass Company Paint Sherwin-Williams Painting Vinny Mendoza Painting (decorative) Bernie Macha Tile (bathroom) Floor ’N Decor Upholstery Cheryl Graham Windows Window World of Northeast Arkansas
Home sweet gypsy kitchen.
ok. so it’s no secret we kinda like to junk gypsy-fy spaces…and ummmmm….it’s probably also no surprise that we love to cook. (opening a restaurant is pretty much our back-up plan if this junk gypsy thing doesn’t work).
so it was super exciting when WHERE WOMEN COOK called wanting to merge the 2 things we love to do in one beautiful article. this summer, we are like totally stoked about being featured in WHERE WOMEN COOK magazine…a fantabulous print publication that features women in their spaces…and the recipes they love most.
it’s a culinary journey of food, stories, and creative ideas.
the icing on the cake, is that the pictures were taken by the one and only april pizana….which makes this article a feast for your belly and for your eyes.
the one little problemo about this photoshoot was that me, my husband, todd (a.k.a. t-smittY, and our son, cash baker had just moved into our new house a few months prior…anddddd like lots of loco-in-the-head business owners, we tend to put our own needs/spaces as the lowest priority. (i.e. we have decorated everythang in our lives EXCEPT our own houses). that said, the photoshoot was on the calendar and april was headed to round top in just a matter of weeks which put us seriously under the gun…which i always consider a really, really good thang…because mom, amie, & i always work best under pressure.
it took a few truckloads of fleamarket junk, a couple of really tall ladders, and lots of the essential elbow grease…but i think we pulled it together (thank you, mom & amie!…the family that decorates together, stays together)
and although no other room in the house was decorated at this point, at least the kitchen screams JG (which equals love in my book).
april arrived. and it was time to cook…
and of course…we wanted to incorporate the things most important to us. pizza, biscuits, and a real texas flair.
in case you’re new to our story…we grew up in the pizza restaurant business.
thus i present to you our original recipe – fried GREEN tomatillo pizza with goat cheese & basil pesto…a little bit of tex-mex, a little bit of southern, and a little bit of italian.
featuring our homemade, hand-tossed pizza dough…
and of course, we can’t do a cooking segment without including dad’s homemade buttermilk biscuits…
which of course, mom then made into strawberry shortcake with mint julep whipping cream. (honey hush.)
yes, these recipes and so much more (including KoRIE RoBERTSON of duck commander and LynSEy KraMER of YONDER WAY FARM to name just a few) can be found in THIS ISSUE.
which you MUST have. you’ll keep it forever. i promise.
andddd for ALL the pics of my kitchen shoot…check out april’s blog, EAT*JUNK*LOVE, here!
now, let’s talk about those turquoise cabinets…
yes. turquoise cabinets. from the get-go i wanted turquoise cabinets…the only problem with turquoise cabinets was that i had never, EVER seen turquoise cabinets in a kitchen before. so it was a bit risky…i mean, if i committed to turquoise cabinets and then freaked out and hated them, the only fix would be to paint them. which i really, really didn’t want to do. i wanted STAIN, not PAINT. i wanted to see the knots in the wood. to really keep a natural element of rustic in them.
and did i mention that we have commitment issues?
operation turquoise cabinet proved to be a 547 step process…
on possibly the hottest august day in TEXAS in 2013
and just when my biceps couldn’t make another stroke, just when the volume of sweat couldn’t possibly get any greater. just when i thought i was broken. beaten. and defeated….then, and only then… the seas parted, the skies opened…and turquoise glory poured on out…all over my kitchen.
and i, am. in. LOVE. no really, i love those cabinets. they are perfect in every way to me. turquoise. knotty. rustic. and completely JUNK GYPSY.
in fact, i love the whole kitchen. it makes me happy. from my chippy, peely 20 foot restaurant sign i scored at antiques week to the old architectural store counter salvaged from THE PEOPLE’s store in lambertville, new jersey (both bought from mark dooley at EXCESS). from the tractor seat stools to the mason jar lights.
it’s my dream kitchen in every sense of the word and really it’s oh so much more. it’s happy. it is my home sweet gypsy kitchen…full of re-purposed, homemade, and fleamarket goodness.
it’s where we feed our bellies and our souls. god bless that gypsy kitchen o’ mine.
Soviet housing was famously drab. This Ukraine complex is all about color
There’s that moment near the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy’s house is swept away from the black-and-white world of Kansas and lands with a thud in Oz, a wonderland of blinding Technicolor.
You get a similar sense of amazement when you walk into Comfort Town, a massive housing development that has taken shape in recent years in a drab, Soviet-era residential district of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
Comfort Town looms over the landscape like some giant Lego set in the brightest imaginable hues: screaming yellows, bright lime greens, blues and oranges and deep brick reds — all rising into the sky in the form of dozens of blocky, high-rise buildings. Even the grays seem rich with pigmentation. The whole development covers some 115 acres, about 1 1/2 times the size of Disneyland.
The colors would stand out anywhere, but in Kiev, they explode on the senses like fireworks in a gloomy sky, practically mocking the gray cityscape around it.
We’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s talk about Soviet mass housing, because there would be no Comfort Town without it.
On Dec. 7, 1954, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech to a national builders’ conference, calling for an overhaul of Soviet architecture. Khrushchev was the Soviet Communist Party leader at the time, and he proposed that architects focus entirely on unadorned, standardized buildings made of prefabricated, reinforced concrete.
It’s a remarkable speech. Khrushchev at times sounds less like the leader of the international communist movement than he does a construction contractor trying to land a large industrial account. No detail is too small to capture his attention.
“Production of linoleum must be expanded,” he insists. “Floors covered in linoleum are no worse than parquet floors they’re more hygienic and smarter. It is easier to look after such floors than after parquet ones. Everyone knows that parquet floors have to be waxed — which is a complicated business and requires extra expenditure.”
Soon, construction crews all over Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet Union were erecting tens of thousands of identical five-story apartment houses, largely unadorned, that began to ease a massive housing crisis. They were called khrushchevkas in honor of the man who ordered them built.
To understand their significance, it’s important to recall what they replaced: communal apartments in which multiple families were crammed together, one family to a room, and forced to share bathrooms and kitchens.
From 1955 to 1970, roughly half of all urban residents of the Soviet Union moved into new housing, according to Jane Zavisca, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona and author of “Housing the New Russia.”
Later, under Khrushchev’s successors, the five-story buildings gave way to much taller apartment blocks. Every few years, the design would change, but entire districts of cities such as Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev were populated with rows of colorless high-rise buildings that seemed to stretch to the horizon.
It became something of a national joke. One of the most popular of all Soviet movies, “The Irony of Fate,” is a romantic comedy built entirely around the idea that one could not tell the buildings apart (and a man could stumble into a strange woman’s apartment and insist it was his own). The opening credits use animation to tell the history of Soviet housing, as architectural embellishments are stripped from buildings and armies of high-rise towers march into place.
Scholars say housing is one realm where the Soviet Union did what the United States could not: provide cheap, reasonably decent housing for everyone. “They actually did solve the housing question,” said Steven Harris, a historian at the University of Mary Washington and author of “Communism on Tomorrow Street: Mass Housing and Everyday Life After Stalin.” One architectural historian has estimated that 170 million people around the world live in Soviet-style mass housing today.
Now, these buildings — which can be found in virtually every country where Moscow once wielded influence — are acknowledged for their social purpose, but few defend them on aesthetic grounds. “They really do become very drab,” Harris said. Some places, most notably the city of Moscow, have undertaken programs to tear them down.
In Kiev, among many other places, masses of gray 1960s and ’70s buildings have become decrepit with age, surrounded by scruffy, weed- and litter-strewn yards, battered metal sheds and creaky children’s playgrounds.
Red velvet cake
There are so many things I don’t get about red velvet cake: One, that despite all claims of acid plus baking soda reactions to the contrary, that a color created by food dye is considered so exciting. It could just as easily be blue, and oh, it has been. The second thing I don’t get is that it is considered chocolate cake, when a good lot of the better-known recipes hover around one or two tablespoons of cocoa (and never over a half-cup), a barely distinguishable flavor distributed over a three-layer stack. The last thing I don’t get about red velvet cake is, if at least according to my husband, the frosting is the very best part, why that same vaunted cream cheese frosting couldn’t just be put on another cake, one with a distinguishable flavor and absence of egregious amounts of food dye.
Obviously, I am way too analytical and quite probably, no fun at all. Nonetheless, I do know one thing well: People go ape shit over red velvet cake, and I aim to please. Thus, with my friend Jill in town for her birthday this weekend, and this aforementioned ga-ga reaction being the goal, I knew it was time for me to get over my red velvet bewilderment, at least for one night.
I’m really glad I did, though, because this cake was seriously, seriously good. Moist, every so slightly tangy and with a half a cup of good-quality cocoa, I actually recognized the underlying flavor. As for the cream cheese frosting, I have seen recipes with sugar levels ranging from one cup to one pound (I kid you not), but found the three-cup level to have a good balance of classic sweetness but not so much that your teeth feel like they’re about to stage a revolt.
But because I can’t leave well enough alone (ever), I decided that after making seven round birthday cakes in a row, I was bored and busted out the carving knife. Never one to deprive you of your right to make your own flower cake at home, I hope my most recent Microsoft Paint scratching will help you along your way. Pink piping is of course optional, but by the time you’ve painted your cake red and cut it into a flower shape, who are we kidding? The decorations just have to be pink.
It’s My Part-ay! Would you believe that it was but one year ago that I kissed iVillage goodbye and launched this site? Talk about a splendiferous idea! My biggest fear was that I had nothing new to offer the established food blogging genre, and that I’d quickly run out of steam. Frankly, the only thing I’ve run out of is time to blog the recipes I have on layaway, and I’d never have this much steam without you, yes You. So thank you for a fantastic year.
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa (not Dutch process)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups canola oil
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) red food coloring or 1 teaspoon red gel food coloring dissolved in 6 tablespoons of water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place teaspoon of butter in each of 3 round 9-inch layer cake pans and place pans in oven for a few minutes until butter melts. Remove pans from oven, brush interior bottom and sides of each with butter and line bottoms with parchment.
2. Whisk cake flour, cocoa and salt in a bowl.
3. Place oil and sugar in bowl of an electric mixer and beat at medium speed until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. With machine on low, very slowly add red food coloring. (Take care: it may splash.) Add vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in two batches. Scrape down bowl and beat just long enough to combine.
4. Place baking soda in a small dish, stir in vinegar and add to batter with machine running. Beat for 10 seconds.
5. Divide batter among pans, place in oven and bake until a cake tester comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool in pans 20 minutes. Then remove from pans, flip layers over and peel off parchment. Cool completely before frosting.
Cupcake variation: Since this has been published, many readers have written in to express that it adapts well to cupcakes. The yield is approximately 35 cupcakes, with the liners filled only 3/4 of the way, and the baking time should be between 20 to 25 minutes, but check in on them 2/3 of the way through in case your oven gets the job done faster.
- Some red velvet cakes have no cocoa, others have up to half a cup. The less cocoa, the brighter the red, and the less food dye is needed to give it the desired hue. This cake has more cocoa and quite a bit of red dye, but as you cans see from the picture, it is a real stand-out red. Feel free to use less, but make sure you dissolve it in 6 tablespoons of water to compensate for any moisture lost.
- Dutch versus Non-Dutched cocoa: This recipe uses baking soda, so it calls for non-Dutch-Processed cocoa. The reason is that Dutch-Process cocoa is neutral and will not react with baking soda, so it can only be used in 1) recipes with baking powder or 2) recipes with enough other acidic ingredients that will compensate for the lack of acidity. However, you’ll notice that this recipe has both vinegar and buttermilk in it, or quite a bit of acidity, leading me to wonder if either kind of cocoa could be used with success. I had non-Dutch on hand, so I used it, but if you only have Dutch and try this recipe, let us know if it works. Personally, I prefer the Dutched stuff because it usually is of a higher quality with a more delicate chocolate flavor.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from several sources
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter room temperature
3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Place cream cheese and butter in a medium bowl. With a handheld electric mixer, beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and vanilla. Beat, on low speed to combine. If too soft, chill until slightly stiff, about 10 minutes, before using.
The 20 Best Production Design Oscar Winners
It's Oscar season again, and one thing is for certain: Movies are sources of serious design inspiration. So to celebrate 91 years of nominees, we combed through all the winners of the best production design category (which has also been known as best interior decoration and best art direction over the year) to find the looks that make us want to redecorate immediately. One note: The year listed is the year the Oscar ceremony took place.
This film actually is a revue, with no real story, only musical numbers and short comedy set pieces, but the set design on those numbers is still to this day pretty incredible.
A plane crash leads the survivors to Shangri-La in this Frank Capra film. The design of the paradise is over the top in every way.
The classic of tale of Robin Hood robbing the rich to feed the poor never looked better than in this first outing. All lush colors&mdashit was Warner Bros. first technicolor film&mdashthis movie is held up as a the mark that all other swashbuckling adventures were measured against.
No surprise here, this sweeping Civil War epic's design had a profound impact on the country&mdashcurtains became the height of high fashion after all. Plus, the interiors like the infamous staircase (pictured) made everyone want a statement-making entrance.
This story of a teacher who actually teaches a King how to be a better man is timeless. The design of the palace is instantly recognizable&mdashall decked out with Asian influences and over-the-top opulence.
The most expensive movie ever made at the time, Ben-Hur's production design stands the test of time. Beyond the iconic chariot race, the design of the Roman palaces make us long to go big or go home.
Speaking of going big, you'll find no minimalism in this film about a man's experience in Arabia during World War I. Everything is grand to match the wide expanse of desert that Lawrence spends much of the movie in. When he is inside, the interiors' attention to detail stand out even by modern-day standards.
An exercise in excess, Cleopatra is another film on this list that goes for broke with every set. Dramatic fabrics, flowers galore, gold accents everywhere&mdashthis movie is extra in every possible way, and we are HERE for it.
The ice castle in Doctor Zhivago on its own earns its spot on this list, but it's also home to many other memorable sets, as it tells the story of a physician against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian revolution.
After not rewarding the groundbreaking first-installment, the academy had t make good on the possibly even better second part of Francis Ford Coppola's gangster saga. Luckily, the Corleone family has moved to Las Vegas in this film and their house is a a bastion of late-'50s cool. Plus, Michael's trip to Cuba is full of bright colors, cool vintage cars and extravagant interiors.
Different from every movie on this list, the design of Star Wars looks to create something we've never seen before&mdashan entirely new world in a galaxy far, far away. While the design varies widely by planet, we can't ever forget the cool, stark futuristic simplicity of Luke's home on Tatooine (pictured).
While not as insane as some of director Tim Burton's work, this first film take on the caped crusader had some killer design. Bruce Wayne's mansion, the exterior of which was the famous Biltmore mansion, is full of memorable details like this hilarious dining table. Plus, you also have the art deco-influenced design of Vicki Vale's apartment, the severe lines of the Joker's office and obviously, the Batcave.
Even now, when we've seen so many comic book movies, Dick Tracy is still something special. Watching it really makes you feel like you've entered an actual comic strip&mdashwith insane bright colors and influences from both Art Deco and German Expressionism. In fact, director Warren Beatty wanted to emulate the comic so much, he restricted the film to only using the exact same shades of seven colors.
Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Ship hits iceberg. You know the story, but remember the sets?! The recreation of the unsinkable ship was an incredible sight to behold, and Rose's first-class cabin is still incredible inspo for a romantic sitting room or bedroom.
Immersing is us Elizabethan England couldn&rsquot have been easy, but this endlessly charming story about a love affair that inspires Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet makes it look like they filmed in all the real places. Viola&rsquos bedroom, the Globe Theater, the Queen's palace and Shakespeare&rsquos apartment all feel both completely authentic and timeless enough to make you long for the style in your own home.
There&rsquos no other words then Spectacular, Spectacular to describe the decoration in Moulin Rouge. From the glam, India-inspired interior of the Elephant to the popular gothic tower, the movie runs the gamut of styles, and I want to live inside basically all of them. Come what may.
Martin Scorsese&rsquos biopic of magnate Howard Hughes leans way into Hollywood glamour, with lavish interiors in every frame that are filled with rich fabrics and beautiful furnishings. Definitely one movie I&rsquom ready to move into ASAP, except the creepy hermit screening room. Let&rsquos skip that room.
Living like Jay Gatsby in a Baz Luhrmann movie looks pretty fun, if we're being honest. Beyond his incredible home, there's that gorgeous scene in the brightest, most beautiful Plaza Hotel scene we've ever seen. All of the locations look like what a candy-colored Art Deco version of New York should be.
Who doesn't want to check into this glorious hotel? While we see the space go through many phases in the film (some perfection and some artfully dated), the attention to detail that Wes Anderson films bring to the design of their location is always fun to admire.
What La La Lands does for music, the production design does for color. The movie is drenched in it from Emma Stone's character's apartment to the movie musical-inspired finale, it literally will make your eyes dance along with the actors.
Abbi Merriss: The Course Instructor
In early August, diners at Bluebeard had a chance to try the restaurant’s take on Puerto Rican red beans and rice. Their version included chicken quarters that had been marinated in a pique sauce of red Thai chiles and heavy pours of white vinegar and sugar. To serve, chefs added tomato concassé—blanched, skinned, seeded, finely chopped tomatoes—and finished the dish with more pique. If you had a chance to dab a fork into this complex sauce, you would have tasted mangoes, peaches, pineapple, and a fermented chili mash. As you admired the beautiful plating, you might have assumed that Bluebeard’s celebrated chef Abbi Merriss was responsible for the dish. But you would have been wrong.
“I’m just a line cook,” says Marcus Benassi, the 26-year-old novice who came up with the recipe. He first saw a bottle of pique sauce in a San Francisco restaurant. Back home in Indiana, he wanted to re-create it, so Merriss helped the recent Bluebeard hire get it right. She taught him how to conceptualize the end product before the process began, how to bring together salt, acid, and fat in perfect balance.
Today at Bluebeard, Abbi Merriss mentors the next generation of star chefs. Tony Valainis
Benassi knows how lucky he is to be working under Merriss. A perennial James Beard Award semifinalist, she’s one of the city’s top chefs. Merriss has earned mentions in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, Playboy, and USA Today. Perhaps more than anyone other than Milktooth and Beholder chef Jonathan Brooks, she’s responsible for Indy’s heightened profile among foodies in recent years. But the part-owner of Holy Rosary’s most beloved restaurant isn’t interested in putting this town on the map as the Home Of Abbi Merriss. She wants to mentor young chefs, who in turn may create a critical mass of talent to make Indianapolis a true food city.
Early next year, Merriss will take the next step toward that goal. Along with the prolific Battista family (development partners and property owners of Bluebeard, Amelia’s, Milktooth, and King Dough), she plans to open Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie, an arthouse movie theater and restaurant in Windsor Park. Although the menu is still being developed, it’s fair to assume it will offer the kind of adventurous cuisine for which Merriss has become famous. Another safe assumption: Plenty of the dishes won’t be by Merriss at all. They’ll be the product of her young acolytes, drawn to her as much for her unassuming style as her talent.
“I know too many close friends who are very egotistical, and the way I hear chefs talk sometimes is really embarrassing,” Merriss says. “We have to breed a nurturing atmosphere—at Bluebeard and beyond. I like to bring people into my home and give them an opportunity to thrive.”
For a career working in the chaotic world of professional kitchens, Merriss’s childhood was good preparation. Born in Evansville, she moved to Louisville at age 2. That was the year her parents, Ramona Hamilton and Rick Merriss, separated. She lived in Quincy, Illinois, and Daytona, Florida, before she, her mother, brother, and two sisters resettled in Evansville when she was in third grade. Throughout those years, her mom was in multiple relationships. Hamilton and her daughters spent some time in a women’s shelter to make sure the family stayed safe from a man.
Chef Abbi Merriss sits in the dining room of the restaurant, Bluebeard, she helped turn into a dining destination. Tony Valainis
Despite the things that she couldn’t count on, Merriss says she always knew her mother would have linen napkins and nice place settings on the table. There would always be applesauce and cottage cheese. Hamilton would make fried chicken, meatloaf, or tuna casserole, and they would sit down as a family for meals.
As a kid, Merriss made fried bologna or grilled cheese sandwiches for her mom and siblings. When she was about 12, she filmed a video titled “Cooking With Abbi.” Wearing a blue jean skirt and black-and-white striped top, Merriss walked through every detail of baking a cake from a box mix, including how to crack the eggs to ensure there were no shells in the bowl, perhaps an early sign of her passion for teaching others to cook.
Trying to nail down her path in life as a teenager, Merriss was apparently guided by a string of movies. When she was 13, she saw Apollo 13 and wanted to be an astronaut. In high school, she enrolled in CAD classes after seeing Housesitter starring Steve Martin as an architect. On Sundays, the local newspaper published a “Dream Home.” Merriss would pull out some graph paper and draft her own spectacular residences. She gave up on that ambition after her stepfather threw away all of her precisely rolled-up plans. At 15 or 16, after seeing Rocky, she joined a boxing gym. Her coach saw potential. She did a couple exhibition bouts, but after getting knocked out by a friend, she gave that up, too.
It wasn’t until she got a job as a nanny that she first began to think about cooking as a career. The mother of the family, who was Italian-American, made a baked-spaghetti recipe that is still one of Merriss’s favorites. The family brought her along to watch their kids on trips to downtown Chicago, Arizona, and Montana. “She was my mentor when I was a teenager,” Merriss says. “I didn’t realize at the time what that was, but it was nice to have these wonderful people who brought me into their lives like that.”
At 15, Merriss launched her culinary career with a gig busing tables at the Gerst Haus restaurant, where she tasted her first raw oysters. For three summers during high school, she also worked at the local pool. The summer before she graduated, she fell in love with a coworker there. He had plans to move to Portsmouth, Virginia, so as soon as Merriss finished her senior year in 2001, she packed up her Geo Metro and moved there to join him.
While many parents would cringe at the thought of their 18-year-old daughter taking such a risk, it turned out to be a point of pride for Ramona Hamilton. “Abbi wasn’t scared, ever,” she says. “She was making her life out there and doing a good job at it.”
“We have to breed a nurturing atmosphere—at Bluebeard and beyond. I like to bring people into my home and give them an opportunity to thrive.”
In nearby Norfolk, Merriss and her boyfriend would often gravitate to the artsy neighborhood of Ghent, making it a date night with a visit to a laundromat, arcade, and one-screen movie theater. Also in Ghent was a cafe called The Ten Top. Merriss applied for a job there as a counter girl. When she wasn’t punching orders into the register, she was expected to prep food. Mixing up chicken salad turned into making soups from scratch and managing the restaurant. Merriss realized she really liked the work, and she moved on to be a line cook at nearby Cora, which advertised “uptown Southern chow.” Her boss there was a headstrong woman named Nancy Cobb, who once threw a pickle at Merriss and often responded to stressful situations by jumping up and down. “That’s when I started developing my mentality in the kitchen,” Merriss says. “Having tantrums is not a way to fix a problem. You fix a problem by communicating quickly and politely. You can have a tantrum later.”
After four years in Virginia, Merriss had broken up with the boyfriend and decided to move to Indianapolis to be closer to her family. She had no prospects and only a vague notion of what she wanted to do professionally: work in restaurants. As luck would have it, she was about to get a job that would change her life.