Building Relationships through Food
Over the past several years I’ve made it a mission to meet many of the top chefs in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve interviewed them and told their life stories as it relates to food with a good degree of success. These discussions are almost always interesting, fruitful and have even provided the basis for a few new friendships.
These chef interviews and the telling of their stories has reminded me often that you never know when you are going to meet someone who you just click with. Much like the days of pre-internet dating – most relationships didn’t necessarily start in a bar or because you were on a mission to meet someone. They start because, on some cosmic level, you randomly meet someone who you connect with. This can happen over a long conversation at a cocktail party or in the vegetable section of the grocery store. Or, as in the case with Ryan Ross and I – in the walk-in cooler of a remote farm in the Northwest.
Ryan Ross on Developing a ‘Secret’ Dining Society
Ryan Ross’ pet project these days is Supper Corps – a roving dinner party held around Bellingham that are well-regarded by the insiders that frequent them and kept a bit exclusive on purpose. In fact, when I asked Ross about how one gets invited to such an event she said, “We have to know you – not anyone can just show up. You are either a friend of a friend or a friend of mine if you are here.”
Supper Corp dinners are hosted in homes, barns, tattoo parlors, metal shops, boats, orchards – you get the idea. They are communal meals where payments aren’t required but donations are simply suggested. These are intimate affairs – Ross says, “No one gets any choices from a menu – though I’ll accommodate food allergies/dietary restrictions, et al. I have never seen a guest on their phone – it is just too stimulating of an event. No one is anywhere but right there.”
What started out as a random conversation at a blueberry farm has evolved into a winning appearance by Ross on the Food Network’s Chopped and has continued through conversation’s about food, living in the Pacific Northwest and, most recently, an invite to one of her Supper Corps events just outside of Bellingham. I like Ryan. It’s hard not to. And perhaps you will too. Here’s her story…
Cherishing a Healthy Mind, Body and Soul
How did you get started in food?
I grew up in my mom’s organic health food store in Virginia which was ahead of its time in terms of food. She owned it for 28 years and it gave me a foundation for what I do today. To be honest, I was a bit repulsed by the healthful options presented to me as a kid, carob pie, wheat grass shots, rice dream, etc. because I felt like I was eating rabbit food as a kid and I wanted all the yummy junk some of my pals were eating! My friends would come over and say ‘I’m hungry’ and would go look in the pantry and say ‘there’s just ingredients in here’. So we ate real food and meals and snacked on whole fruits and snacks my mom assembled. Appealing to a child’s palate must have been difficult but my mom did it.
As a kid, I’d make food and have the customers try it in the store. I went to school in New York and danced professionally and in companies, mainly – The Dance Cartel and Eternal Works Inc. But I had to make money to pay rent so I started to cook and cater. Then went to culinary school at the Natural Gourmet Institute in the city.
Why did you choose to go to school there vs. say, the Culinary Institute of America?
I wasn’t looking for a chef’s program but I wanted to further my education in food as medicine – maybe to become a Naturopath. It was an accredited chef program that focused on food and healing – that was an amazing hybrid find for sure. If I hadn’t gotten in there, I don’t think I would have necessarily looked for another chef’s school.
It was traditionally vegan but they called themselves ‘plant based’. When Anne Marie Colbin (author of Food and Healing) started the school the thought was that eating vegan was only way to achieve a healthy diet. But they’ve evolved and now that there are so many healthy, clean and ethically sourced animal proteins available that they have opened their minds and kept up with the evolution in food which I’m happy about.
What is your philosophy on cooking?
I think when people sit for one of my meals first they say, “Wow! Colorful, amazing!” and then, “Wow this is healthful? This is organic?” I source organically as often as possible but there is definitely a difference between healthy and organic. So when folks eat a slice of cake I am like, “Sure, that is organic, but is it healthy, really? Hah! No, probably not.” Everything in moderation, but eating organically is sure necessary! Who wants chemicals and all that? No one.
I love approachable health food. I don’t want to be precious with food nor wasteful. I would always say that my dishes are pretty ‘upscale peasant’ – minimally processed as far as preparation methods but with a bit of flair. It’s got to be beautiful and enjoyed in a community setting for me to attract customers and clients to events so I want it to be accessible and tasty, not just healthful. It’s got to be appealing on that level of entertainment. When you sit down you are sitting down to a meal that’s locally focused in a real legit way.
What is the premise of Supper Corps?
Coming from NY, I would cook for parties and private dinners. I befriended lots of different farmers and made friends with the folks from Southwood who were producing some really delicious grass-fed meats at the time. They were selling at Knickerbocker’s in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
We were talking about promoting the meat and game they were raising and, at the time, it was new for Knickerbockers to sell game. So we started to host a small dinner party after hours and we dressed up to the nines with gold paper plates – everyone wore hats in their dirty best and people would walk by and see us all dressed up serving Southwood’s meats. We did a few events like that and people started to ask me to do weddings with all the food sourced from one place. They’d ask if I could do the event it in a field or wherever and I would figure it out.
That sounds like a wonderful way to start a new business!
It was really fun – and then my partner (who I met on the Q train in NY and will soon be my husband) and I took a job in Nicaragua. I was hired to teach staff how to prepare meals focusing on produce while making boutique-hotel worthy food – sometimes without power. I realized then that I had the tools and I could cook anywhere with love in my heart even. You don’t find that in a restaurant environment very much.
Sounds like an interesting place to be. How did you make your way up here?
We moved here and I was doing some food writing and ghost writing – snagging client here and there. But I realized that I needed to get my hands dirty and cook for the masses again. I missed the performance of it all, and its so fun to throw a dinner party! I also needed to make friends. So I met a few people in Bellingham and started Supper Corps. We came up with the name over a few IPA’s and I loved the idea as well as the incorporation of ‘corporeal’ into the name – the body connection, having this vessel and what kind of foods you fill it with. Supper for the body and soul if you will.
The first dinner I did was as Bow Hill Blueberries in Bow. I loved the aesthetics of the place and Susan and Harley (the owners) were very gracious. We did it in their mink house (a shed of sorts) on the coldest night of the year and everyone was snuggled up with hot hand warmers in their gloves and drinking hot quince cider.
Since then we have a lot of the same folks come to every dinner. I also have rotating staff of hooligans, foodies and artists that help me out. I do the dinners and some catering and a few things here and there with Nell Thorn’s in La Conner.
Who has influenced your cooking style the most?
Well, it’s where I’ve been that has influenced my style the most. I grew up as this ‘organic health food store’ child in Virginia (which happens to be in the South) so I was born with a taste for some Southern classics. My palate is set wide for what I like and what to bring to the table.
Then being a dancer and body conscious to the extent that ‘we really need fuel and the right fuel to be grounded in our bodies and to be strong’ – but it wasn’t the type of experience where we were starving ourselves. In New York city you can have anything at any hour, anytime, anywhere. The vibe is so cool – and a million different ranges of cool. And it manifests itself in the personality of the food.
Then on to Nicaragua where the seasonal food is no joke. You rely on things to be boated over from the mainland or growing right there. That was really exciting.
That’s an interesting array of experiences that led you to the Northwest. How has this area influenced you?
I have to say, it has whittled away something that is becoming my style. In the past couple of years I have had friends and followers send me a photo of a dish asking me if i had made it or it looks like something that i would make! So i would say I am really honing in on my style and look since being here and influenced by the great Pacific Northwest!
Here, when things are in season and abundance everyone, not just chefs and farmers, knows the what’s coming into market. I’m not unique for brewing kombucha here because everyone is doing it. I’ve just felt so more connected to what I’m eating when I’m eating it. Not just environmentally but to the farmers and the land.
What music do you have on in the kitchen during prep?
I was asked this for my first private wedding gig in NY and I told the couple jokingly that I wanted hardcore rap – so they put it on and it was great. It really depends on where I am mentally and physically. I was in a reggae mood for a long time.
I love pop – stuff like Katy Perry. But I’m an early 90’s girl so it’s usually a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots and more recently David Bowie as a bit of an homage. Just after the news of his death broke it felt like if you rolled down your windows you could hear him playing somewhere which I thought was pretty cool.
Also, each Supper Corps event has a playlist that I make. The last one was mostly Motown and some bands like Beach House and Local Natives – which I usually listen to for the days leading up to event
If you’re on a desert island – what is the one food you would choose to eat every day?
You know those champagne mangoes? They are so good. I don’t know the proper name for them – those oblong ones are just so amazing. I remember having such a bad hangover one day just after I got out of college – I ate one and it was gone. They are amazing.
What is your karaoke song?
If you enjoyed this interview with Ryan Ross then please check out my other articles in the Chef Interviews series and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs on The Hungry Dog Blog!