“It was the story behind the recipe — that it had been created by the chefs at this legendary restaurant, and that it took three days to make — that seemed to contribute as much to everyone’s enjoyment as the meal itself.” -Quinn Fitzgerald
Feast Upon founder Quinn Fitzgerald likes to view the dinner party through a panoramic lens. A veteran dinner host, he’s come to believe that the story behind the meal is often as important to the guests’ enjoyment as the food itself: Who developed the recipes? What inspired them? What farmer grew the ingredients? What makes them special? What drama and suspense reared up while putting it all together in the kitchen? To Quinn, the answers to these questions create the narrative behind a good meal.
As a veteran host of dinner parties himself, Quinn commonly heard the same refrain from sated guests, “I don’t know how you do it. I’d love to be able to do this, but I could never pull it off.” The process of choosing recipes, shopping for ingredients, cooking everything and plating it at the right time — a puzzle he had come to love solving — was just too daunting for most.
Motivated by the conviction that dinner parties are important — that sharing good food with friends at home is a uniquely intimate and rewarding experience — he decided to find a way to help dinner party white-belts masquerade as ninjas (and to offer experienced ninjas a helpful shortcut). And to have fun while doing it.
He began by working with local chefs like Palo Santo’s Jacques Gautier, Beer Table’s Justin Phillips, and Flatbush Farm’s Mike Roberts to develop restaurant-quality meals that would be relatively easy to reproduce in a Brooklyn home kitchen. Then he worked with local farmers and producers to secure the highest-quality ingredients for those meals.
With recipes tested and ingredients sourced, he launched Feast Upon and began bundling together all the components of a great home cooked meal for delivery to aspiring dinner hosts across Brooklyn. He measures out all the ingredients for each meal. He’s created an innovative ‘countdown’ approach to the recipes meant to guide dinner party hosts to a smooth plating. And he makes sure he includes all of those details that give a great meal a great story.
We met up with Quinn to find out more about his dinner party obsession and Feast Upon’s mission to make dinner parties easy.
So Quinn, what’s the story behind Feast Upon? How did you get interested in food, and how did that lead to your obsession with dinner parties?
I’m from California – grew up in the Bay Area. My parents were part of the Berkeley food movement in the 60’s. So I grew up eating good food with parents who weren’t always fancy eaters, but who cared a lot about quality.
My father in particular was very curious and creative in the kitchen — frequently overreaching! [laughs] We’d have family dinners and everyone always helped out. He’d say, “Cut the chard.” I’d say, “How big?” He’d say, “Surprise me!” Or he’d say, “Add some wine to that sauce.” I’d say, “How much?” and he’d say, “enough to make it taste better!”
If you’re exposed to that sort of approach growing up, it creates a pretty fantastic foundation for understanding what works and what doesn’t when it comes to cooking.
And you know, Berkeley is a unique place like Brooklyn in that there’s great access to phenomenal produce. One of the best groceries in the country is there – The Berkeley Bowl. It’s enormous. They’ll have like fifteen different kinds of kiwis – ha ha ha. It’s crazy. Just massive.
My parents live up in the Berkeley hills and they’d have dinner parties all the time. It just instilled in me at a very early age the importance of eating well for pleasure’s sake, and the importance of bringing people together to share good food. It’s a really intimate experience.
I was also a voracious eater because I was a big competitive swimmer. I was really serious about it. It dominated my life. I was swimming five hours a day. I’d get out of the pool and just be ravenous – ready to eat massive amounts of food. There’s something about swimming that creates an insane appetite.
I swam all through college. After that, I started working in Silicon Valley at a big angel investment network, working with entrepreneurs. It was fascinating getting that exposure to the entrepreneurial community and all the energy there. It just made me want to be an entrepreneur. It just seemed really fun. It’s a beautiful thing. Small businesses are important for a lot of reasons. If you can find an inefficiency in the market and provide a solution to it, you can make the world a little bit of a better place.
I moved to New York five years ago. I was in Manhattan for a couple of years and moved to Brooklyn about two and a half years ago. I started in Cobble Hill and I’ve been in Park Slope ever since.
I’ve always loved eating out and cooking at home, and I learned quickly that in New York that can be a challenge. I was working for an NGO, not making much money…eating out wasn’t always an option. And I just found that going to grocery stores in New York tended to be a horrid experience. Coming from where I come from it was just appalling! The prices were exorbitant and the quality was awful.
I just realized that for most people in New York, eating well means going out. And that’s great if you can afford it, but most people can’t always afford it.
So dinner parties seemed like a good way to bring friends together to eat well without spending as much as you’d have to at a restaurant. I remember my first dinner party here. I had reconnected with a friend – a woman I had a crush on in college. We met up for coffee to catch up, and I knew halfway through that first cup of coffee that…wow! The crush was still there and I was going to do everything I could to pursue a relationship with her! It had been a while since I’d been in a relationship and I was all excited and nervous.
My mind was spinning. I was like, “OK. What can I do to impress her? What can I do to get together with her again really soon in a non-intimidating, laid back environment?” So I impulsively blurted out, “Hey, I’m having a dinner party on Saturday! Why don’t you come?” She said, “Sure!”
It was Thursday. I had just made the whole thing up and now I had to deliver! I ran home and called a bunch of my friends and said, “I’m having a dinner party. You’re coming. It’s important. And I need you to bring this and this and this…”
And I brilliantly decided to roast a lamb. Like a whole lamb. I had never roasted a lamb before, but she lived in Astoria and we’d had a long talk about all the great food there. I wanted to make something that would tie in with that and impress her. So I spent the next two days trying to figure out how to roast a lamb and put out this elaborate meal.
We ended up sitting down to eat at midnight! I did manage to get eight or nine people together on short notice, and to fit them all in my apartment, both of which are feats in New York City. And it worked – it led to a great relationship!
That’s where I first realized the power of the dinner party as a tool to pursue ulterior motives and hidden agendas! Ha ha ha!
So it worked?
Yeah! After that one I started really getting into it. I started having dinner parties all the time. It got easier when I moved to Brooklyn. I got better at it. The lamb dinner was eventually served at an appropriate hour. The shopping became really fun, as I learned how to time it and where to go for everything. And the cooking became really fun as I got more experience.
The idea for Feast Upon started to take root because at every dinner party, a few people would say something like, “Quinn, this is amazing. I don’t know how you do it. I could never do this myself.”
And I’d ask, “Why? Why do you think you couldn’t do it?” I started paying attention and cataloging the reasons why.
A lot of people said they didn’t know how to pick a recipe. They felt like there was recipe overload out there – so many websites with so many recipes. How do you pick a good one that’s easy enough to actually accomplish but impressive enough not to insult that gourmand friend? And a meal is more than one recipe – how do you pick recipes that will work well together? And once you have your recipes, how do you time everything? How do you organize everything so you get everything done at the right time, in the right order?
Another thing that kept coming up was the challenge of doing the shopping. Are you going to use grass-fed beef? Organic produce? Local, seasonal things? Where do you find all that near your home? You often can’t get it all in one place. How do you get it all back to your apartment?
These are all parts of the process of hosting a dinner party that I’ve grown to love, but if you haven’t done it much it can seem really daunting.
I kept thinking about all these things. A lot of people want to cook. There’s a really big resurgence in interest in home cooking. And dinner parties are unique experiences – sharing great food that you’ve made yourself is a great way to have a fun intimate experience with friends without spending all the money you’d have to going out. People just found the process of putting a dinner party together to be intimidating, so I wanted to find a way to help make it easier without sacrificing the quality of the food or of the experience.
I had a dinner party about six months ago and I wanted to make duck. I’d never cooked a whole duck before. I actually got a duck delivered to me, which was fantastic. I looked up all these duck recipes and found this really involved one called ‘Four Seasons Duck,’ created by the chef at The Four Seasons. It involved creating this marinade with soy sauce, orange rind, ginger and other stuff, letting that sit all day, then marinating the duck and leaving it uncovered for a day, marinating it again the next day, and the day after that until the duck has basically absorbed all the marinade over the course of a few days.
Ridiculously complicated, but absolutely delicious. Instant classic. And what was interesting, is that the thing that really seemed to grab all my friends wasn’t necessarily the duck itself. It was the story behind the recipe – that it had been created by the chefs at the legendary restaurant, and that it took three days to make – that seemed to be as much a topic of conversation as the food itself. The story behind the meal seemed to contribute as much to everyone’s enjoyment as the meal itself.
That got me thinking too…I wanted to find a way to make it more convenient for people to cook meals at home, to host friends at home, to have the meals be delicious, and to engage with all aspects of the process by which food ends up on the table – to deliver that story behind the meal, along with the components of the meal.
The idea started to come together. I wanted to bring all the components of a really great meal together with a really easy-to-follow recipe and pre-measured amounts of ingredients, along with all the information about the chef who created it and the farms that produced the ingredients, to make it really easy for people to cook a great meal, share a great story about the meal, and host a great party at home.
So what made you decide to actually do it?
My early experience working with entrepreneurs had really made me want to be an entrepreneur someday. I had always assumed I’d go to business school. I actually started the process of applying but realized that I really knew most of what I needed to know to start my own business. Rather than spending all that money on graduate school, why not use it to start the business I wanted to start? I figured that when I came out of grad school in debt, it would actually make this a lot harder to do.
I just said, “It’s now or never!” There’s so much energy and enthusiasm in the Brooklyn food world now that it’s so easy to get caught up in it – shopping at the farmers market, working with chefs on recipes…I’m just really enjoying how I’m spending my days and who I’m spending my days with.
So tell me about FeastUpon? How does it all work?
We currently offer three different meals that I’ve created with three different Brooklyn-based chefs. I’ve worked with Jacques Gautier at Palo Santo to create a duck chimichurri meal, with Mike Roberts from Flatbush Farm on a poussin chicken meal, and with Justin Phillips of Beer Table on a vegetarian meal.
The way it works is that if you want to make a great dinner from anywhere from two to ten people, you can go to our website (feastupon.com), pick the meal you’d like to make, tell us how many people you’ll be cooking for, and tell us when you’re planning on hosting the meal.
We then assemble all the ingredients – the only things we don’t supply are salt, pepper and olive oil. We measure them out ahead of time for you so you don’t have to do any measuring yourself, and deliver everything with recipe cards, a source list for each ingredient, details on all the utensils you’ll need, and the story behind the dish – the chef who created it. And we deliver it all to you at a pre-arranged time. You get a little amuse bouche too.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to organize the recipes. It’s set up as a countdown. So the card says, one hour before plating, begin this step…30 minutes before plating begin this step…it makes it pretty easy to integrate those three different recipes used in each meal.
I like it. You deliver all the pieces of the dinner puzzle, and the person hosting the party just follows the countdown instructions to put it all together. Tell us a little more about each meal.
The first meal we put together was Jacque’s from Palo Santo. Jacques is the chef and owner of Palo Santo and he’s a phenomenal guy, amazing cook. He was the first chef I approached about putting together a dish and he was really friendly and helpful. His dish is a duck breast with chimichurri. Duck is so easy to cook – most people don’t realize that. You just sear it, get the skin nice and crispy, slice it, lay it over sautéed kale, and top it with your fresh homemade chimichurri. It only takes 45 minutes and it’s a great, restaurant-quality meal. We use this beautiful duck from Hudson Valley Duck. All natural duck – beautiful product.
Justin Phillips at Beer Table created a vegetarian meal. I think I annoyed him the most because I really wanted him to work on a vegetarian meal, which can be a little tougher to work out. In the end, it came out great. The salad is a roasted cauliflower with arugula, capers, and pickled red onion that you flash-pickle yourself, and olive oil. The entrée is a tomato-based stew with barley, chickpeas and couscous. We use these Black Kabuli chickpeas from a farm called Timeless Organics in Montana. They’re an Asian variety. Fresh legumes are a whole different ballgame in terms of flavor and texture!
So it’s the three grains in a tomato base. You also roast a whole clove of garlic in the oven, and smash it and dump it into the stew at the end of the cooking process. You serve it in bowls over arugula, and you top it with yogurt, sriracha and olive oil. It’s awesome.
The third dish is Flatbush Farm’s Old World Chicken. When I first met with Mike Roberts, their chef, he wouldn’t stop talking about Ashley Farms, this incredible farm in North Carolina that produces this amazing ‘Label Rouge’ chicken. Label Rouge is a certification that requires you to go way beyond anything like free range or organic in your production approach. We use their poussin chickens – the little ones – so each person gets an individual chicken. You ground up some nice herbs, stuff the chickens and roast them. It’s a nice presentation.
That’s served with some chard. We also do a nice potato side with that one. We give people a sachet of herbs to boil with some new potatoes. When the potatoes are cooked, you set them aside, but you leave about a half cup of water behind with the herbs and keep simmering it until it’s really reduced down. You add this great Vermont Creamery butter at the very end and toss the potatoes back in, so you get this really herbaceous, buttery coating on the potatoes. It’s so good.
Little things like that take very little extra time. Chefs do little things like that all the time to take a dish to the next level. But they’re never in home cooking recipes.
I owe so much to the chefs I’m working with. They’ve been so patient and accommodating. I’ve got a bunch of food bloggers and great home cooks to help me refine the recipes and products. Developing recipes is hard! It’s been challenging, but it’s been fun. It’s satisfying to get all the ingredients and all the recipes just right.
To order up your own dinner party, check out the Feast Upon site here. The current delivery zone is below.