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Palo Santo's 'Operation Tamale' - Lia Forman, Sous Chef, and Araby Smyth, Manager, headed up the Park Slope restaurant's effort to make a few hundred tamales for the Occupy Wall Street protestors at Zuccotti Park

Jacques Gautier, the chef and owner at Park Slope’s Palo Santo restaurant, is an avid believer in ‘good’ food.  He sources seafood directly from sustainability-minded fishermen through Clinton Hill-based Sea to Table. He sources rare heritage breeds of pork and goat through Bushwick-based Heritage Foods. And he raises rabbits and grows herbs in a large rooftop garden above the restaurant.

What’s not so readily apparent to the outsider, is that chef Jacques is also a believer in ‘good’ business. He’s created a culture at Palo Santo which prioritizes sustainability in everything from the way they source food to the way they treat the staff.

When Occupy Wall Street began to attract attention, the Palo Santo staff felt that the many of restaurant’s values aligned with those the protests were seeking to promote. They wanted to find a way to show their support. So they made tamales, a few hundred of them, from scratch, and brought them to Zuccotti Park. We met with Araby Smyth, a manager at Palo Santo, to learn more about ‘Operation Tamale.’

So Araby, tell us about ‘Operation Tamale,’ – what motivated the crew here at Palo Santo to make tamales for the Occupy Wall Street protestors at Zuccotti Park?

We’ve got a small staff here at Palo Santo, and we’re all kind of friends. We talk a lot – about anything and everything. We talk about the restaurant, we talk about politics and the economy, and we talk about silly things too. We’re not always serious.

When Occupy Wall Street started getting some attention, we were all interested – intrigued. We’re a small business that really strives to be sustainable in every way. We source all our food really carefully and sustainably. We want to do right by the environment, and we want to do right by the people who work here – we want to provide sustainable jobs that allow people to work here for years, and a lot of people have worked here for years. That’s not so common in the restaurant world.

We think businesses can be run in a responsible way – that businesses can be successful while supporting their staff as well as their community and the planet. We know that’s possible because we do that here. But it’s hard. If communities and government paid more attention to that kind of approach to running a business, and honored it, it would be a good thing.

But it is hard. I started working here in the fall or 2008, right after the economy tanked. It was difficult for me as a server and it was difficult for the restaurant. We really felt it. The easy way out is to do things irresponsibly or to just cut costs. But we’ve been able to make it work here.

As a business, you have to profit and grow. At Palo Santo we look for ways to increase the employees’ growth and benefit and the community’s growth and benefit along with the restaurant’s growth and benefit and the ownership’s growth and benefit. We try to increase everything in a balanced and responsible way.

It’s great to be able to train your staff and to keep teaching them new things, to increase their knowledge and experience, and to make that a part of the restaurant’s mission. And to give back to the community – we like to participate in a lot of special events and fund raisers, donating food and sending people to cook and serve it to support good causes. But we have to keep profiting and growing to keep doing those things.

You can grow and profit in a responsible way. But it is hard. You always have to be ready to go back to the drawing board and get creative.

But it has worked out, and it’s worked because we have all these customers and regulars who are so supportive and loyal to the restaurant. We’re so appreciative of that. They’re who have kept us going. They make it possible for us to have a business that does these things.

Anyway, having that kind of approach to the business has always been part of Jacques’ mission here, and everyone who works here appreciates that and supports that. So when Occupy Wall Street started up, it seemed like they were looking to promote and support a lot of the values we believe in here, so we were intrigued.

So how did you come up with the idea of making food and donating it?

I went down to Zuccotti Park to check out what was going on down there at some point. One of the things I noticed was the kitchen. They have an outdoor kitchen set up in the park and they were serving meals to everyone from protestors living at the park to people just passing through. Anyone can get in line and get a meal at almost any time of day.

I thought that was pretty impressive, so I went to Jacques and I said, “It’s really cool that they’re serving food.” Food brings people together. Food is a great connector. It sustains people. It’s a comforting thing.

The Occupy Wall Street message of sustainability seemed to fit with our own values here at Palo Santo. So I said I thought it would we should do something to show some support. It wasn’t hard to pitch to Jacques. He immediately said, “Yes, great idea.” Another person who works here was really busy, and as he rushed by he said, “I like where your head’s at! I like what I’m hearing here!” He ended up coming in the night before we went over there to help make the tamales. Everyone was onboard.

We’re a restaurant, so obviously we thought it would make sense to make some food and serve it there. At first we thought we’d go down there and make food on the spot. We thought it would be really cool if we could take our mobile plancha and make tortillas or mariscos from scratch, on the spot – heat it up, serve it hot and fresh…that’s what we do.

That’s what we’re all about here! Every once in a while here someone will complain that the food is taking too long. We have to explain that we make it from scratch. We’re like, “The tortillas are being rolled out, pressed, right now. They’re on the plancha, and it takes a few minutes when you’re making tortillas from scratch!”

Anyway, I went back over to the park to try to figure out whether we could do that, and I found out that we wouldn’t have any electricity down there, and no open flames are allowed so we couldn’t use a gas stove.  So all that was out the window. We thought, “OK, we can’t make tacos. We can’t transport most things because it’ll be a mess and it’ll get too cold…”

We were trying to figure out what to do. And someone realized tamales would be perfect. I’m sure it was Jacques who came up with the idea. I know it wasn’t me. Tamales are pre-packaged in their own corn husks. They stay really hot once you pull them out of the pot – so they transport really well and they’re delicious.

Then the question became – what kind of tamales? You can make a tamale with nopales cactus, or with chicken, pork, mole poblano…so many things. The way you traditionally get the masa dough in the tamales to bind is by using lard. So even if you make a vegetarian tamale with nopales or something, the way we make tameles here, there’s going to be lard in the masa so it’s not really going to be vegetarian anyway.

We talked about the food politics. At Occupy Wall Street they request that whenever possible, donated food be friendly to as many different allergies, dietary restrictions and food politics concerns as possible. So we thought about it. But we just thought that vegan tamales were going to be really tough to make. We’ve never made vegan tamales at Palo Santo. We make vegan food, but not tamales. If we were going to stick with tamales, we didn’t want to tear down what a tamale really is.

Tamales made the most sense logistically, so we decided to stay true to our food rather than try to make it in a way that would avoid all the allergies and dietary restrictions and political concerns. So we decided to make our pork mole poblano tamales, which have everything in them – meat, nuts, dairy, chocolate, gluten…everything. But you know, they’re really good. We thought there would be plenty of people who would eat them and enjoy them.

Also, we use really good ingredients. The pork is a heritage breed of pork from Heritage Foods USA, based in Bushwick. It’s pork that’s raised in a really sane environment and it’s a rare breed that should be preserved and eaten and celebrated. The mole poblano we make here comes from a recipe that’s been passed down for generations. It has nuts and chocolate and all those things that aren’t allergy friendly, but it’s a timeless, classic food, made from a recipe hundreds of years old.

That’s what we decided to make. The day before we went over there we put out a call for volunteers on Facebook. A few of our staff members came in to help out. The people working in the kitchen that night had the tamale elements on their prep lists, and we had a few outside volunteers come in to help out. We basically doubled our kitchen staff size to make the tamales.

The tamales, fresh out of the pot, headed for the Occupy Wall Street kitchen at Zuccotti Park

 

Our kitchen staff taught everyone else how to make them. Tamales are hard to make. It’s hard to roll them, wrap them in the corn husks, tie off the husks with little bows. When they’re cooking in the pot, if they’re not assembled right they’ll burst open and then you’ll have masa and pork everywhere. So that perfectly packaged, easy to transport and easy to eat tamale isn’t really all that easy to make.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate working here, where we make all these different recipes from South America, Latin America, Mexico, the Caribbean – is that there are so many steps, there’s such a process to the making of all the food, all the sauces we use, the braising of the meats…it’s really labor intensive and slow. And that shines through. That makes it good. A tamale might seem like something basic or easy, but it’s not. When you’re making everything from scratch it’s not quick and it’s not easy. It’s quick to eat, but it’s not quick to make.

So the tamales cooked in a big pot at a low temperature overnight. The next morning we pulled them out, put them in hotel pans, wrapped them in foil and took them over to Zuccotti Park with a few people who had volunteered to help.

How did that go?

Ha. It was kind of crazy. I mean, I had never been here in the morning before. I always work at night. I was trying to unlock the gates for the first time and couldn’t figure it out.

Once we got opened up, we pulled the big pot of tamales out of the oven and got some pans out to load them into to transport to the park. We had some volunteers transferring the tamales from the pot to the pans and Lia said, “You can just do it with your hands, they shouldn’t be too hot.” Of course, they were really hot so we had to run around to find tongs for everyone.

I was running around trying to figure out how to package up the pans so we wouldn’t spill stuff all over the car. They were really hot too, so I didn’t want anyone to carry them on their lap…

Lia, our sous-chef, had double parked right out front of the restaurant. When we were ready to go we called a car service for a car to take us to lower Manhattan, and she ran out to go park her car. The car wouldn’t start! It was unbelievable. So the car service guy pulled up, and as he did another couple of volunteers arrived and we realized we needed a van – we wouldn’t all fit in the car. So while the driver of the first car was jumpstarting Lia’s car, we told him that we actually needed a van. He was cool. We tipped him and called back for a van.

Lia finally parked her car and we loaded up the van. The guy who drove us downtown had a Mexican flag on his dashboard. He was like, “Oh, you’re bringing food to the protestors at Occupy Wall Street – that’s really great. “ I told him we had made pork mole poblano tamales and he said, “Yeah – that’s a great thing to bring them. Perfect for people out on the street.”

So we drove down Flatbush and over the Brooklyn Bridge, and got out a few blocks away from Zuccotti Park, then worked our way down the sidewalks on foot with our pans of tamales. We went to the kitchen, which is pretty much in the middle of the park. The people working in the kitchen are really on top of things. It’s really well organized. When we showed up with the food, they were like, “Yes! Awesome! Thank you so much!” They said, “We can’t put the name of the restaurant up because all donations have to be anonymous, but WE thank you.”

I was really concerned that someone was going to say something about it being non-vegetarian. Food politics are real. Food allergies are real. But when we told the guy running the kitchen that the tameles had pork, nuts, chocolate and all that stuff he said, “Oh! You mean all the good stuff!” He took a paper plate and made a sign that he put in front of the tamale pans that said, “Pork, Nuts, Daily, Gluten…YUM!!!”

So they put it out and we asked if they needed any help distributing or cleaning and they said no. So we wandered around a bit and casually asked a few people eating tamales whether they liked them. Everyone seemed to like them a lot.

They get a lot of pizza and takeout food delivered from anonymous donors every day, so I think they appreciate getting something a little different every once in a while.

And that’s the story of operation tamale?

That’s the story.

You talked about the different approach to running a business here at Palo Santo. You’ve worked in other restaurants, and know the restaurant world in Brooklyn – is that unique? Are other places doing the same thing?

Honestly, I was so excited and stunned when I started working here. I noticed all these little things that were just different – people didn’t get angry or yell at each other. I had never worked in a restaurant environment like it. And I noticed that difference right away. On my first day.

Creating this sort of environment or culture has always been part of Jacques’ mission. He really likes to have staff members who are excited by that and who want to contribute that.

But Palo Santo definitely isn’t the only place with this sort of approach. There are lots of restaurants doing amazing things in terms of environmental sustainability, food sustainability, labor sustainability, giving back to the community – creating a different kind of service and food, and bringing that all together in search of a different way of doing business. But like I said, that is hard to do.

I always look around at the restaurants I eat in. If I see the same staff staying there for a long time, that often means they like their jobs – they like being there. That’s a good sign that there’s something there that they believe in, that they want to be a part of.

At a lot of restaurants, there isn’t really a focus on the culture. It’s so intense. It’s just about getting the food our and the making the customer happy and nothing else. If you’re going for something more than that you need leadership. You need someone to lead by example. And Jacques is really amazing that way.

So what’s coming up at Palo Santo? Anything special for the holidays?

We always do Thanksgiving here. It always gets booked up. There always ends up being a wait-list. So if anyone’s got family coming to town or they don’t want to cook or their apartments too small, they should give us a call.

We do a take on traditional American Thanksgiving classics with our spin on things. We always do turkey with our mole poblano sauce – the dark chocolate, chili and mole sauce. It’s so delicious braised with dark meat from the turkey, and just poured over the breast meat.

We just picked up one turkey from the market this weekened for a test run. Lia and Jacques are finalizing the Thanksgiving menu and we’ll have the details settled in the next week. We’re open on Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day too.


Palo Santo is located at 652 Union Street, in Park Slope, Brooklyn  (718.636.6311)

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One Response to Operation Tamale: How Park Slope’s Palo Santo Restaurant Decided to Support Occupy Wall Street…With Tamales

  1. wayne says:

    Cool Idea. And I like Palo Santo. Who’s idea was it to add the extra step of tying the tamales? Double work in mass production slows things down. Roll and fold is more efficient. Next time.

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