By Thomas Santella
As winter unleashed (hopefully) one of its last gasps of cold air one recent Tuesday evening in Greenpoint, a group of food lovers packed tightly into the cozy confines of Veronica Peoples Club. The reason? Cara Cannella’s new lecture series, Speak Easy, on artists and entrepreneurs, with this installment focusing squarely on local collaborations resulting in small food ventures. As we take our seats or spots at the bar, fresh slices of panelist Paulie Gee’s pizza are liberally distributed and the discussion begins.
First up are Sean Dimin, proprietor of Sea2Table and Christopher Nicolson, of Iliamna Fish Co. The business model they share, says Cannella, is that they both bypass middle-people. Sea2Table, based in Brooklyn, allows small sustainable fisheries to distribute directly to New York chefs; likewise, Iliamna Fish Co., brings wild sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay, Alaska directly to restaurants. Christopher is a fifth generation wild sockeye salmon fisherman, splitting his time between Alaska and Brooklyn. Having always wanted to travel to Alaska, Sean read an article in Edible Brooklyn by Christopher, emailed him and they subsequently met at Carroll Gardens’ favorite outdoor dive, Gowanus Yacht Club. When Christopher arrived carrying a fresh sock-eye salmon, Sean knew right away that they’d be fast friends. Through Christopher’s company and CSA at the Brooklyn Kitchen, and Sean’s direct delivery of wild fish to the New York Market, both bring wild, sustainably caught fish directly to New York City chefs.
“What I’ve learned about fish,” Sean says, “is that the most important thing about them are the people that harvest them, the control factor is the guy out there in the boat, they are the gatekeepers to our source of wild seafood.” But he sees much inefficiency in the way the majority of fish are procured and delivered. “As an example,” he says, “a fisherman on the coast of North Carolina catches fish, packs it into a 1,000 lb box, and puts it on a truck that will come up to the Fulton Fish Market. It’ll take a couple of days, get bought and sold, and take a truck right back to Raleigh Durham, where it goes to a distributor, now a week old. That distributor delivers the fish to restaurants that are just 200 miles from where the fish was caught.”
“Working with fisherman in Montauk,” Sean says, “we’re able to go and take what they catch, find restaurants in New York City and send the fish overnight, creating a direct connection between the fisherman and the chef.”
Both Christopher and Sean are happy to be living in an area so receptive to their respective frameworks for a sustainable fish business. “The exchange between neighbors living in Brooklyn is exciting,” says Christopher, “because we are on the streets living together here and we’re compelled to interact with each other in such a way that we might not be in a place where we didn’t have access to public transportation, bars and so many restaurants.”
On fish delivery itself, Sean indicates that actually, “vacuum packaging and freezing fish [the method employed by Iliamna] is the wave of the future, it’s the most sustainable way,” he says. “You’re not air-freighting fish around the world with a shelf-life; you’re locking that fish into its state. You can get the fish anywhere in the world, really easy, with low cost and no pollution, and you can enjoy that fish in the middle of the desert and it will be pristine. What Christopher is doing is actually way ahead of the time.”
Part two to the night’s discussion focused on a unique set of relationships, whereby three very different businesses (Paulie Gee’s, Ovenly, and hOmE), fell into collaborations that supported the success of each of the others.
The story begins with Paulie, whose journey to Greenpoint and pizza fame was a long one. “I had a job that I got in my late 20’s,” he says, “which I wasn’t very passionate about, and as I found out, not very good at either.” After grinding it out, maintaining a home and raising a family, he found that he was always dreaming of other endeavors, especially making pizza. A consummate host during weekend parties, family members told him he should start a restaurant, but at the time, it seemed like too daunting a task.
“But then,” says Paulie, “I realized that with pizza, though challenging, it was simple enough that maybe that was something that I could do, do well, and maybe be recognized for… I knew had to do it. And I learned,” he says, “if you start telling people you’re going to do something, you pretty much have to do it.”
Having built his own Neapolitan style pizza oven in his backyard, Paulie then found Greenpoint and fell in love. With a perfected product (pizza) and a place to make it (60 Greenpoint Ave), all he needed was someone to build out the restaurant, someone with a clear vision and connection to the community – enter Evan and Oliver of hOmE.
Perusing the Build It Green! NYC website, Paulie noticed an ad for the newly opened Manhattan Inn, which was built by hOmE using Build It Green materials. Wanting to see it in person, Paulie stopped by, spoke to the owner and ended up meeting directly with Evan Haselgrave [Owner of hOmE along with his brother, Oliver] who happened to be there that night. Once Paulie met Evan and saw the Manhattan Inn, he knew that he wanted hOmE to build his restaurant.
“I knew I wanted to hire these guys,” he says, “but I didn’t think I could afford them. I figured maybe I could at least have them build the tables.” Evan and Oliver agreed but told Paulie that they’d “need to see the place first in order to know what the tables should look like.” Once they were in, that was it, says Paulie, “I was dead, because little by little, they built out the whole restaurant. It didn’t take long to build (late December to early March), but it was the best decision I ever made.”
Evan and Oliver’s level of involvement in the restaurant, as with all of their projects, is certainly unique. “For three of the businesses we built [including Paulie Gee’s],” says Evan, “we also started out initially doing the front of house managing and hiring of staff. It’s just one of those situations,” he says “where, you know…we really want to see it become what we hope it to be.”
Initially, perhaps with a somewhat less clear vision of where they wanted their business to go, Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin started Ovenly in September 2010. “I don’t think Agatha or I knew what it meant to start a business,” said Erin, “and we didn’t know what it meant to start a business in a neighborhood in which people love food.” They started at Veronica People’s Club, making their pastries and bar snacks and subsequently secured a deal with the Brooklyn Brewery. From there, to put it mildly, the business exploded.
“We were renting a kitchen and pulling all nighters,” Erin says, “and we realized that it was just not a sustainable lifestyle. I’m not sure how many people start a baking business without a bakery,” she says laughing. “So that’s when I sent an email to Oliver, who told me that there might be an opening for kitchen space at Paulie’s. Oliver was indeed correct and as Paulie says, “I was more than happy to let them use my kitchen.” That space, Agatha says, “has become a kitchen incubator,” helping small food businesses develop and succeed.
For each of these businesses, partnership clearly played a key role in their success. Agatha and Erin met at book club, also run by Cannella, and immediately decided that they would go into business together. “It’s really helpful to have a partner,” Erin says, “to bounce ideas off of and to experience the stress with, there’s a comfort there, and for us, without that, I don’t know how we would have accomplished what we accomplished.”
“Partnership is an integral part of success, Oliver says, and “if you start your own business,” Evan adds, “you have no life,” so it’s important to have someone with you to share equally in the joy and burden.
For each of these entrepreneurs, whether delivering sustainable fish, making artisanal pizza, pastries and bar snacks, or designing unique spaces, the constant is collaboration. In her series, Cannella hopes to host engaging discussions, which inspire others to follow their dreams and passions. Ultimately, as was clearly on display this night, it’s the mix of people, inspiration, connections and passion that make up Brooklyn’s ‘secret ingredient.’
Note: you can see the next installment of Cannella’s Speak Easy series, “The Creative & Collective Process behind Cinema 16: A Conversation with Molly Surno, Experimental Filmmaker Joel Schlemowitz & Musician Julianna Barwick,” May 3rd, 8PM at Veronica Peoples Club.