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Chef Cara Baker and Co-owner Anna D'Agrosa of Bushwick's Cafe Ghia

“I call it the Bushwick Triangle. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle, but in a good way. It’s like this magical place you fall into and might never come back from!  And that’s OK!” – Anna D’Agrosa, co-owner of Bushwick’s Cafe Ghia

While growing up on a farm in Iowa, Anna D’Agrosa cultivated her own fantasy version of New York City. She dreamed of a thriving metropolis full of welcoming, warm creative types who would embrace a country girl looking for an excitement-filled alternative to small town life.

Instead, when she arrived to study acting at NYU, she found herself cowering in the midst of a sleek, cold city seemingly blind to her existence. Until she found Bushwick. In Bushwick, she found that New York she’d dreamed of – a community of wild and crazy creative types who had all seemingly miraculously settled in the same remote corner of the sprawling city.

Falling hard for the neighborhood, Anna decided she wanted to not only live there, but make a life there: To open a spot where people from the neighborhood could hang out, and share good food and drink.

Anna met Scott McGibney, former manager of Northeast Kingdom, and owner of Wyckoff Starr, a coffee shop and neighborhood institution, to seek advice. She found a business partner. They joined forces, found their “kitchen angel” in chef Cara Baker, and together the three opened Café Ghia in April.

We met with Anna and Cara this week at the café to chat about the neighborhood and the café.

So Anna, how did you end up doing this? Opening Cafe Ghia?

Anna: I grew up on a farm in a very rural part of Iowa – in the northwest corner of the state. I loved how beautiful the farm was, and how great the food was. My parents were really into growing organic, making their own…everything – making jams, canning everything, using every vegetable, every fruit, and preserving them to eat in the winter. We raised cattle too, so the meat we ate was raised on the farm. That was a big part of my life that I completely took for granted as a kid. In fact, I kind of took it for granted until we found Cara!

Anyway, life was tough for most of the farmers in that area at that time – in the 80s. That farm crisis hit and it really impacted everyone around me. It impacted my family, and basically all the small farmers in Iowa. Nobody was making any money, and there was just this kind of sense of emotional depression throughout the area. You knew people losing their farms.

And it started to transition to a more corporate thing. Farming throughout the state became much more dominated by big companies. A lot of people who have hung on get approached all the time by companies looking to buy them out. But there’s a real pride around there in holding on to your land.

So I grew up on the farm but I was a really social kid – I always wanted to be around more people.  I wanted to get away from those farm chores. And I always wanted to come to the city. I started doing as many school activities as I could. I was gone from like six in the morning until ten at night because I wanted to hang out with people!

I got really interested in theater, and the only school I wanted to go to was NYU. I was like, “That’s where I’m going. That’s it.” I kind of steamrolled my way in, and I majored in drama at NYU.

I had built up this vision of New York as this magical place filled with all these people who would be just like me. I thought it would be this mecca of wonderful, creative, supportive people that would embrace me with open arms – like, “Finally! Anna D’Agrosa has arrived! We’ve been waiting for you! Welcome to the big city! Come on in!”

And of course, it wasn’t like that at all. It felt like no one would talk to me. I was like this awkward country girl and everyone seemed so sleek and fancy! And mean! I kept getting all paranoid and thinking things like, “Oh no! My hair is terrible! I need new clothes!” Ha ha!

Classic country girl comes to the big city stuff?

Absolutely. Of course, by the time I finished theater school I had this little group of great friends and I was loving it here. We were like this little community within this big school within this big city, and that’s really what I was looking for when I came here.

I started working in theater after school, and I very quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. What I loved about theater was the relationships created between people building something together. And the business of it really isn’t that at all. It’s a cutthroat, backstabbing world!

I worked a series of hideous jobs, and eventually ended up as an office manager at a small trend forecasting agency, which was totally random. My boss said, “I had these MBAs and marketing majors coming in and they were really intense. You came in all beaten down and said, ‘I’ll work really hard. I just need a job!’ So I hired you.” I ended up being there for seven years.

At some point back then, I came to Bushwick for the first time. I had friends who bought a building here. They said, “We love it here! Move out here!” I was living in Bed-Stuy and I was like, “I don’t know. North Brooklyn is so snobby!”

But I came out to visit and they took me to Northeast Kingdom, which at the time was pretty much the only place to go in the neighborhood. We would basically sprint from their place to Northeast Kingdom. And Northeast Kingdom was what sold me on Bushwick.

Back then – about five years ago – you could go in at night and get a seat any time. There were these big communal tables. You’d see the same people there every night. They had amazing food. You could walk in and get an amazing dinner when your parents were in town, or you could walk in by yourself and get a sandwich and end up having a few beers with whoever was hanging out.  The place feels like this cozy lodge in the woods. The staff was super-friendly and you knew all of them. When you walked in a bunch of people would be like, “Hey Anna! What’s up?”

It was just such a comfortable, wonderful, inviting thing. It felt like this little secret that we were all a part of that the rest of the world didn’t know about. Like a clubhouse. One of my friends called it ‘Bushwick’s living room.” It was basically everything I thought New York would be like when I came here from Iowa.

Of course, now the place is packed every night, and you can rarely just walk in, but it still has that same great vibe.

Cafe Ghia occupies the space previously occupied by Carlos Colon's Family Restaurant. The sign remains. (Photo by Travis Dubreuil)

The more time I spent in the neighborhood, the more I realized that it wasn’t just a Northeast Kingdom thing. Every time you’d walk down the street you’d see a bunch of people you knew and say hello. You’d walk into a place and sit down at the bar by yourself and you’d have a conversation with the people sitting next to you! I hadn’t found that sort of thing any other neighborhood in the city. And I had tried!

So I moved here pretty quickly. I call it the Bushwick Triangle. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle, but in a good way. It’s like this magical place you fall into and might never come back from!  And that’s OK!

After seven years at the trend forecasting agency, I felt like I needed a little bit of a change. I was just done with that part of my life. I had bought an apartment out here in Bushwick.  I had started covering Bushwick events for BushwickBK, and I couldn’t believe how many exciting and hilarious and crazy things were happening here. My love for the neighborhood just ballooned. I knew this was where I wanted to be, where I wanted to work. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do.

One of my friends said, “Anna, you should open a coffee shop. It’s the only logical thing for you to do.”

And immediately, I was like, “You’re right. You are right. That’s what I’m going to do.” But I didn’t know how to do it.

There’s a coffee shop that I love near my apartment called Wyckoff Starr. I’d go out of my way every day to stop in there. So I met with the owner, Scott McGibney, to see if he could give me some advice. We knew each other socially from the whole small town Bushwick world. As soon as we sat down and I told him I wanted to open something, he was like, “Oh my god, I’ve got something going that I want you to be involved in.” And it was on! We decided to open Café Ghia together.

We found this spot right away. I usually don’t tell people this, but I was mugged on this corner when I first moved to the neighborhood. So this corner is really special to me in a lot of ways. Ha ha! I feel very much like I was meant to be here. This corner was so scary – Now there’s a light on! It’s not that scary place anymore.

After that we spent a year of our lives miserably toiling away, dealing with every kind of delay possible. Everyone tells you that’ll happen, but when you’re fresh and eager, you don’t care, or you don’t believe it’ll happen to you. There were a lot of dark days. A lot of day drinking! But Scott is really amazing and kept us grounded and moving forward. That process of getting something off the ground could kill you – could kill any kind of partnership. It’s intense.

We had both put everything on the line to open this. There’s just so much love in the place that it was no matter what happened, we were going to open.  We wanted this to be a place where you could come in and hang out and chat with your neighbors, meet the people you pass on the street every morning…

[Cara emerges from the kitchen to join us.]

And we got really lucky by finding Cara. This place wouldn’t be what it is without her. She totally fell into the Bushwick triangle!

Cara: Oh yeah. I got sucked in. And I’m very happy about it.

Anna: We opened in April. In December we started looking for a chef. Neither Scott nor I are chefs or even really that into cooking. We didn’t have a clear direction when it came to the food. We needed to find someone with the vision and balls to do what they wanted, to do it really really well, and to make it happen.

Our friends all knew we were looking for a chef. Cara’s boyfriend PJ was roommates with my friend Deborah. Deborah was like, “You know, PJ’s girlfriend Cara is working on a farm in New Jersey, making cheese and bread. She’s an amazing cook. You would not believe the meals she makes when she visits on weekends. You need to meet her. She wants to move here…”

So we were like, “Hey Cara…”

Our first dinner together was at Deborah’s apartment down the street from here. Cara made a five course meal. We brought over like 800 bottles of wine. As soon as we finished the meal, we were like, “We have to make this happen.”

Cara has such an amazing, fascinating background. She had all the skills and experience when it came to running a kitchen that Scott and I didn’t have.

NONA: So Cara, what is this fascinating background? Do tell?

I’m from the Louisville, Kentucky area. My mom went back to work when I was twelve, so my twin sister and I started making dinner at home. We’d pretend we were on cooking shows, performing for an audience of millions, doing our own commentary while we were cooking…We grew up in the microwave generation, but at our house we made a lot of stuff from scratch.

For some reason I got a degree in advertising in college. I quickly realized I had no desire to pursue a career in advertising. After school I worked office jobs, sitting in front of computers all day for two years, and realized there was no way I was going to sit in front of a computer all day for the rest of my life.

I still loved cooking, and I decided to go to culinary school in Chicago. I said, “This is my way out. Out of Kentucky. Out of these awful jobs. This is something I’m passionate about.”

I got a job in a restaurant called Hot Chocolate in Chicago right after school. At first, I didn’t know whether I’d have the stamina or drive to work on the line in a restaurant. But I when I started doing it I loved it. It’s stressful and crazy, but I totally loved it.

Then I went to help open a small café that was called Vella. It’s now closed, but it was a great experience being involved in something from the beginning. Opening something. I learned a lot.

After that, I moved to D.C. with the plan of taking my time and finding a place I really wanted to work at. A week after I got there, I was like, “I have to get back in a kitchen. Immediately.”

The restaurant Nora was hiring a sous-chef. Nora is a big deal. It was the first certified organic restaurant in the country. They’re very serious about the food. I assumed I probably didn’t have enough experience for them, but I had gotten really into organic and sustainable food, and the politics behind food, so I thought it would be pretty amazing if I could get the job.

I ended up getting it, and I became both a sous-chef and the buyer for the restaurant, which ended up being one of the really formative experiences of my life. Because they were a certified organic restaurant, I had to know everything about every product we brought into the kitchen. I had to know how all the animals were raised, where and how all the fish were caught, who grew the produce and how it was grown. I had to talk to all my purveyors and gather all those details and communicate that to the servers. I did that for a year and a half, and honestly, that’s where it all kind of came together for me.

Part of the job required me to go out to the farms we bought from, to meet the farmers and see how they grew produce and raised animals. And I really enjoyed that. Eventually, I started searching for a way to actually spend time on a farm. To work on a farm. I ended up taking an apprenticeship  at Bobolink Dairy in New Jersey, where they were raising cows and making bread and cheese.

They had a herd of a hundred cows. I milked cows, fed the pigs, made cheese, worked at the farmers markets, mucked out the barn…I did everything.

I also made bread using their amazing heat retention wood-fired oven. It was designed by Alan Scott, who kind of pioneered this renaissance in that completely rustic baking process. You build a fire at night. In the morning you rake out the coals, and as the masonry slowly loses heat you bake different breads at different temperatures.

We baked these skinny little epi breads when the oven was at its hottest, pound and a half loaves when the oven was in the middle temperature range, and big six pound rye loaves when it was cooler – the larger the loaf, the lower the temperature.

So why use that sort of approach? Does it affect flavor? Is it for the art of it?

It is kind of an art. You’re not just dialing in a temperature. You have to time the mixing of the dough so it’s ready when the oven is ready. There are so many variables. It’s kind of addictive. I don’t want to bake again unless it’s in a wood-fired oven.

It’s fascinating, and there’s a very small group of people who bake that way. When you meet someone else who bakes in an Alan Scott oven you’re pretty much going to sit down and talk all night about it.

Roberta’s has one. They started baking bread in their pizza oven, and then they built a legit Alan Scott oven. We use their bread here.

So you met Anna and Scott while you were working there?

Cara: Yes. And we hit it off right away. I knew they had no idea what was going to happen – how to get the kitchen set up. But I knew how to make it happen.

Anna: It would have been a disaster without Cara. The only reason we’re here and we’re making such great food is because Cara has the background she does, and because she’s a fighter who was willing to make it happen.

The dinner scene at Cafe Ghia (photo by Phoebe K. Waterson)

So tell us about the food here.

Anna: Someone referred to us as ‘artisanal American,’ but labels are weird. I never really know how to answer the question, “What kind of food do you make?”

Cara: Me too. I never know what to say. I’m really focused on doing everything from scratch. I’m all about simple food and doing it right. We make all our mustard, aiolis, jams, sauerkraut. All that kind of stuff. With meat and eggs, it’s really important to me to source sustainably and responsibly. We use Arcadian Pastures upstate for our ground beef and some pork. We use the Lancaster Co-op in Pennsylvania for our produce and pastured eggs.

Anna: People go crazy for the eggs.

Cara: Someone asked me recently if there was something wrong with the eggs, because the yolks were so bright. They were like, “Is there food dye or something in here?” I said, “No, that’s just what happens when chickens eat what they want to.”

Anna: We have a core of affordable sandwiches, and Cara builds all kinds of seasonal specials around those. We want friends to be able to come in anytime for a grilled cheese and a beer, but we want to offer more exciting things too.

Our kitchen staff is almost all from the South. That wasn’t intentional. Totally by accident. But for some weird cosmic reason, there’s this huge Southern thing happening in our kitchen. So our specials have had this great Southern focus. At first they were kind of sneaking it in – it was like, “Hello okra!” but now it’s like a full blown assault. Smoked pork, collard greens, biscuits! Fried green tomatoes! Grits!

Cara: It makes the whole kitchen crew happy. They get to smoke a little pork and it makes them feel like they’re right at home.

Anna: We’ve been getting lots of produce locally too. Like, from right here in Bushwick. Cara even has two gardens of her own.

Cara: That was something I really wanted to do here in Bushwick. I have peppers, tomatoes, basil and all kinds of other stuff growing in a plot in the community garden across the street, and I’ve got another garden at a friend of Anna’s place. I grew the seedlings indoors and they needed to be planted right around the time we were opening. It was crazy. I had no idea how I was going to find time to get them in the ground, but I had to do it. I had spent so much time nurturing them.

Anna: They were really cute!

Cara: They’re all grown up now. They’ve turned into these giant seven foot tall tomato plants! It’s been great to be able to use that stuff here.

Anna: There’s been a lot of momentum with gardening in Bushwick in recent years. There are a lot of gardens popping up all over the neighborhood. The same vibe that makes the social and arts scene so great here is really taking hold with gardening.

Cara: There’s a hydroponic garden on top of Bushwick Star. They’re building another one on top of Brooklyn Fireproof right now. There are a lot of them. We’ve been buying produce from Bushwick Campus Farm for the last few weeks. We were their first commercial client. The farmer drops stuff off a few times a week. Beautiful produce.

I love it, but it is a lot of work to keep up with. I can’t just have a standing order with a distributor, I have to call these guys on the phone to find out what they have each week, then come up with dishes to feature those things. It’s more work, but it’s also what keeps cooking fun.

Anna:  To be honest, I was always a little wary of the locavore thing. That show Portlandia captures the ridiculous edge of it. All the talk about it can feel a little precious. But I’ve been converted. Having worked with Cara, and having eaten the food, I get it. It is important.  I guess my mom was right!

Want to stop by Cafe Ghia? Be warned – you might just fall into the “Bushwick Triangle!” You can find the cafe at 24 Irving Avenue, a block from the Jefferson L stop, in Bushwick.

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