STORIES


How Irving Farm Chef Danielle Dillon Is Elevating NYC Coffee Fare

by Maura Hehir, Communications Manager at Irving Farm

Chef Dani. Photo by Joshua Littlefield.

Not only is 26 year-old Danielle Dillon (formerly of La Vara, Txikito, El Quinto Pino, Tekoá, and Four & Twenty Blackbirds) revamping Irving Farm's food menu as our new Culinary Director, she’s committed to not trashing the planet in the process. Her Shakshuka on a Roll recently appeared in New York Magazine’s “8 Best Eggs on a Roll” feature, alongside sandwiches from Eggslut, Daily Provisions, and The Breslin — no small feat for a coffee shop breakfast. While she’s created a viral-sensation dish not even a year into her tenure at Irving Farm, she has also designed a menu abundant with seasonal produce, locally sourced dairy, and even honeycomb from Millerton, NY  home of our Roastery. Here we talk about her roots, what inspires her cooking, and her perspective on the current state of the food industry.

Maura: When did you first become interested in cooking?

Dani: I grew up in a very food-oriented home in the Berkshires, a community that’s really focused on local food. My grandmother always made a lot of awesome Puerto Rican food and my mom had a garden and cooked all the time. My mom also kept an extensive cookbook collection and tons of Gourmet magazines. I remember this one food column by Jane and Michael Stern in the old Gourmet that was about road food, and they would go on road trips to diners and stuff  kind of like a predecessor to Guy Fieri’s show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. I convinced my mom to let me cut out these articles and paste them into a binder. I loved to see these small places all over America doing regional food.

When I was 14 I got my first restaurant job, as a busser/dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant. I would go there after school and when I finished my shift, I’d do my homework there and then my parents would pick me up. And repeat!

When you went to college, did you study culinary arts?

No. I studied visual arts and art history at Barnard. I was cooking a lot in college, though: I got a job at Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a bake shop in Brooklyn owned by two sisters. Everyone who was working there was awesome. They were all baking and doing all this hard work from scratch. I loved it so much.

Was that when you decided to try to become a professional cook?

It didn’t occur to me necessarily that this would be something I would do when I graduated. I’d just always been really involved in food, so I thought, this is another thing I can do while I’m at school. I was mainly interested in working in art galleries. When I graduated, I was applying for art jobs and still picking up shifts at the pie shop. That’s when I started to work more in the kitchen.

Charred Okra salad

 

Did you start off as a pastry chef?

The whole strange story about it is that during this time, my best friend and roommate was working at a restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn that had just opened -- it was La Vara, Alex Raij and Eder Montero’s restaurant. She was working there as a server and after I finished shifts at the pie shop I would stop by there. So I got to know their staff really well, and through those connections I began working as a prep cook. I started getting call backs from the galleries to come and interview, and I was like, “nope.” I decided I was going to keep cooking, because it really appealed to me on many different levels.

Who or what inspires you as a chef?

Definitely Alex Raij and Eder Montero, because they’re incredible chefs and I spent the longest time in their kitchens. They have such a unique way of looking at food and they work hard to make sure that the ingredients they’re using is of the highest quality. They have a real integrity to the food they put out. I also really love Ashley Christensen from Poole’s Diner in North Carolina. She takes the idea of diner food and comfort food and elevates it by using unexpected ingredients and methods of preparation. On the west coast, Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl is a big inspiration, with their idea of the “one plate.” At Sqirl, you don’t order courses, you order one thing, and on that one plate you have all sorts of exciting flavors and textures -- and all the ingredients are responsibly sourced. Which is basically the model that we used when we were thinking about Irving Farm’s new menu, because our customers aren’t coming in to order multiple courses -- just one dish. And that one dish has to wow.

There’s also a book that recently came out out called Land of Fish and Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop. She investigates the ingredients and methods of preparation in China by looking deeply at the history and the people. So as a chef and a cook, Fuchsia Dunlop is someone else I’m really interested in.

How did you conceptualize the new Irving Farm food program?

When I was considering dishes for the new menu, one of the main things I wanted to do was try to use inspiration from the history of the City. So, for example, we have Milk & Burnt Honey on Toast, which is a nod to the Land of Milk and Honey -- inspired by the Jewish history and community on the Lower East Side. Same with the fermented black bean chili oil (which is actually made from soybeans): Chinatown and the history of the immigrant community there influenced that. I’m always searching for ways to draw from the culture and food styles of all the people that surround us in NYC, as well as from my own family’s culinary history. My all-time favorite nostalgic meal is my grandmother’s black bean recipe: the Matos Family black beans, which made their way onto the Irving Farm menu!

The Arepa, ft. Matos Family black beans

 

Can you talk to me about presentation?

Cooking and painting overlap in ways that surprise me all the time when I think about it. I studied oil painting, which is also very process-driven and tactile and sensory. I definitely try to make my platings artful without being too fussy. Like using tiny tweezers  that’s overkill. Mostly, I think of plating as creating a method to eat the meal. When I plate, or when I’m designing platings for dishes, I think about both the beauty of the plate and the utility of it for the guest. I want to make sure that someone eating it can get a bit of everything at once. I always keep the idea of the full bite in mind.

What are your thoughts on food quality in this country?

It’s something I think about a lot. On the one hand, the current number of people who are concerned about and willing to pay for quality ingredients is unprecedented, partly because it’s so “on-trend.” On the other hand I find that people’s concerns can be exploited by businesses. There are definitely places (not ones I’ve worked in) that will say that they’re doing the right, ethical thing when they’re not and they’re actually getting their food from crappy sources.

There’s also a tendency to prioritize poor-quality ingredients that customers are accustomed to over what’s actually in season. Like: yeah, you love strawberries. But you can’t get great strawberries in New York in the winter without the quality suffering or fossil fuel waste increasing. So we need to be really conscious about sourcing foods that are in-season that will give the customer a similar satisfaction, but that won’t come with such a big impact.

This is a way of eating that our grandparents and our great-grandparents would be familiar with. Forty or fifty years ago, people knew, “I can’t get a strawberry  they’re not growing right now!” or, “I can have strawberries, but they’re the ones I preserved.” So I think it’s funny when anyone calls it “elitist” to use produce that’s in-season, when it’s incredibly populist to eat what’s growing near you.

How are you bringing this perspective to Irving Farm?

Food quality, sustainability, eliminating waste: these are all things that I’m always thinking about. We’re a big group of restaurants, so I’m trying to work on the relationships we have with farmers and vendors. We’re so good about doing that with our coffee and our coffee sourcing, and we are applying that same philosophy to our food.

As I developed the menus I left a lot of flexibility for fresh produce. So you’ll often see language like “greens” or “seasonal fruit.” And that’s not because we’re trying to be trendy, it’s because genuinely, the fruit and vegetable seasons change so quickly and we want to be able to source great produce. And we might not know what’s available until the week of.

I’m also thinking about how we can use our account power to really benefit farmers. We have eight locations in total, soon to be nine. So say, kale really exploded this year and a farm we work with has a surplus they need to unload or else the produce will go bad. How can Irving Farm help them? Can we make that into something? An oil or a sauce or a soup? That’s a long-term project and goal because that doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s something we’ll definitely be working on actively.

Shakshuka on a Roll

 

What’s your all-time favorite meal to cook?

My favorite thing to cook is anything I want to eat myself. I always look to Central America for inspiration, because they use ingredients in a really awesome, fresh way. I also love Middle Eastern and Japanese food. I hate the word “fusion,” but I’m definitely inspired by different ways people around the world cook. Especially countries that might not have a ton of resources or access to certain ingredients  I love learning about all the ways in which they are creative with flavor.

  

Quickfire Proust’s Questionnaire

What is your current state of mind? Always anxious.

What is your most treasured possession? A rice pot that belonged to my great-great grandmother.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Do it well or don’t do it at all.

What is your greatest extravagance? High-end clothes. Or expensive knives.

Which living person do you most admire? I’m gonna go with bell hooks, at the moment.

What is your motto? You get what you put into it.

 

 

Recommended Reading: A Conversation On Gender Inequality in the Coffee Industry

Liz Dean, the Director of Retail here at Irving Farm, recently participated in a meaningful conversation about gender inequality and sexism in the coffee industry along with fellow coffee professionals Becky Reeves, Ashley Rodriguez, and Jesse Raub. The full transcript of their discussion can be found here, but some highlights include:

Why fewer women hold leadership & ownership positions than men

"Open applications for every position [would ensure more diversity in leadership roles]. I see so many men be 'promoted' for jobs that have never been advertised." -Ashley

"People select for specific leadership skills. Often, stereotypically masculine leadership skills." -Liz

"It’s easier for men to get the backing, the investors, and the loans to become an owner. I’ve seen my female and male friends try to open business and it seems easier for men to be approached to start a business, when women have to work hard to prove that they can own a business." -Becky

The idea that passion is a privilege

"I just hired an amazing woman who initially turned down a job with us because she had a kid to support and couldn’t leave a stable, salaried job to work an hourly one, even though she REALLY wanted to work for a serious coffee company. Whereas I’ve had like, two young, white dudes give up their lives to move to NYC and work for us. Because they could." -Liz

How men are often taken more seriously than women

"There’s an article [about how] women talking about diversity are taken less seriously because it’s 'expected' that’s what they’ll care about." -Ashley

"My advice isn’t valid until my male coworker is like 'Yup! She’s right.'” -Becky

"Yes, when I was a manager that would happen all the time. Customers would ask me a question, then go to my white male employee and ask him the same one, and THEN be satisfied when he agreed with me." -Liz

 

Barista Magazine Interviews Irving Farm Women on Gender Etiquette in the Workplace

This is the first post of Stop Interrupting My Grinding, a series dedicated to the ongoing conversation about diversity in the coffee industry, here on the Irving Farm blog.

 

barista magazine, the future is female, barista magazine the future is female, women in coffee, irving farm, irving farm women

“The Future Is Female” is the powerful theme of the June/July issue of Barista Magazine, and we’re proud to report that our very own Teresa von Fuchs and Liz Dean were asked to contribute their insights on gender etiquette in the workplace. Here at Irving Farm, we’re lucky to have a lot of talented, passionate women in leadership positions, but the coffee industry as a whole still has plenty of room for improvement—especially when it comes to equality of opportunity.

As author Nora Burkey admits at the beginning of the article, this is a contentious topic—but she makes sure to note that equality is not about erasing difference. It’s about embracing different people’s strengths and needs, modifying antiquated systems, and perhaps most importantly, listening to your employees. As Teresa, our Director of Wholesale, says, “When someone is telling you their experience, you don’t need to argue.”

 

 

Through conversations with women from around the world, Burkey surveys how success in the coffee industry is often more elusive for those who don’t fall under the umbrella of heteronormative, masculine-performing, cisgender men. The women interviewed in the article share their experiences, asking us to consider all of the small forms of disrespect that add up to a talented, passionate, and competent worker dealing with real feelings of alienation. It’s someone on the phone calling you “honey” in a condescending tone and then asking for the person in charge, or it’s only ever seeing pictures of brawny men on barista competition fliers, or it’s your boss telling you you’re too cocky if you exhibit the same ambition and confidence as male co-workers. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

The article eschews a sense of finger-pointing by offering thoughts on what can to be done to improve the situation. Liz, Irving Farm’s Director of Retail, muses, “You need to build in support for issues like this. I think everyone, regardless of whether they’re working in retail coffee as a career or a part-time position while they finish school, is deserving of a safe, comfortable, welcome workplace where they are heard. I do think that sometimes how those issues are handled can be a deterrent for people in further pursuing a career within the service and hospitality industry.”

Teresa also talks about how coffee, despite its reputation for being a more progressive-minded field, is not immune to discrimination. “As women I think we need to be encouraging people to see things from more sides. These things are complicated. Everyone has a different threshold of comfort, and sometimes it’s OK to call me ‘honey,’ and sometimes it’s not. It’s confusing for us, too. I’m not suggesting we police speech, but it’s not enough to recognize that in our industry small companies can tend to be liberal. The smallness allows fluidity, but usually they are not big enough to have clearly defined corporate discrimination policies.”

 irving farm, teresa von fuchs, diversity in coffee, barista magazine, mayita mendez

 

It’s a conversation that’s only in its beginning stages, and we at Irving Farm applaud Barista Magazine for dedicating their recent issue to talking about gender in the coffee industry. Read the entire June magazine hereand also check out work by two other Irving Farm women in this issue: photography by Wholesale Representative Mayita Mendez, and illustrations by freelance illustrator/former Irving Farm barista Alabaster Pizzo.

 

In Conversation: The Coffeewoman

Teresa von Fuchs, our Director of Wholesale and all-around awesome coffee ambassador, takes the reins of the Irving Farm blog to talk about her experience at #thecoffeewoman, a first of its kind conversation about women, sexism, harassment, and gender roles in our growing industry. Watch the video below, read what Teresa has to say, and continue the conversation yourselves!

 I had the honor of participating in the first ever #thecoffeewoman event in Kansas City as part of the US Coffee Championship qualifying event this February. The idea, as event creator Laila Ghambari Willbur explained it to Sprudge, was to “unify women. To encourage them to find and strengthen their voices.” No small order.

I sat on the Professional panel with a strong group of women from different professional and personal backgrounds. (You can watch that panel and the following one about competitions in the video linked above.) We talked about everything from taking risks professionally to dealing with sexual harassment.

Overall the evening was thoughtful and fostered very serious and meaningful conversations between the folks that came, as well as after the actual event in dialogues with those who couldn’t make it.

Some takeaways I’d love to share:

Most importantly, so many of the issues that we discussed on stage and later that evening are not gender-specific—though many affect women disproportionately more than men.

We are an industry of young, passionate people and young, scrappy companies. There’s not always a clear path for professional growth — organizations with recognizable corporate ladders are few and far between. When it’s unclear how to go from one role to another role, it can leave dissatisfaction among team members. As leaders in our respective organizations, it’s important to try and clearly define the qualifications and skill sets required for each role within our companies. As a small industry full of mostly small organizations, hiring practices can often feel cliquey to someone on the “outside.” I don’t have a clear way to make all hiring and promotions fair in all situations, but there’s ways leadership can work to make processes more transparent in order to not neglect the quiet, hard workers on our teams--who are most often women--who might not always put themselves in front of every opportunity.

On the topic of sexual harassment, I heard stories from men as well as women about being made to feel uncomfortable in workplace situations and at coffee-related events. There is no excuse for harassment in any setting, period. What struck me was how often the people who felt uncomfortable didn’t even feel confident in asserting that they were harassed. Again, as an industry full of young, passionate people, how can we support each other to make sure harassment isn’t going on around us unnoticed? I kept thinking about a sexual assault PSA campaign I caught on TV sometime last year, similar to this one here. It highlighted the role bystanders can play in preventing assault, and reminded us all that the responsibility is shared by the community.

thecoffeewoman coffeewoman irving farm coffee roasters new york city

Our community gatherings and many of our workplaces can be very casual environments, and while most of us don’t want that to change, we can and should be more aware of those around us, and how they might be feeling. We can also make sure our companies have clear and specific harassment policies and structures in place for reporting incidents. And as leaders, we can make sure we enforce those standards equally so that men and women both feel comfortable reporting things that make them uncomfortable. I think as an industry, we pride ourselves on being inclusive and caring. So let’s make sure we’re putting that into effect everywhere we can.

So many of the conversations I had after our panel got me thinking that we don’t have very many avenues for general professional development as an industry. Sure we have conferences, competitions, community meet-ups, and educational opportunities around coffee, but I left the #coffeewoman event realizing we could use more opportunities for conversations about what it means to work together, and to grow in our companies and as leaders.

Huge ups to Laila for taking this conversation out of the usual media—so often these debates are had on Twitter and Facebook, she pointed out—and bringing them to an in-person, face to face space for conversation and growth, both for our industry and for the women and men within it.

Stay tuned to @thecoffeewoman on Twitter for news about more events coming soon.

On Amaro Gayo

Irving Farm's Director of Wholesale, Teresa von Fuchs, has had the opportunity to visit coffee farms in a few different parts of the world—it's not, as they say, her first rodeo. But a recent trip to Ethiopia with our Coffee Buyer, Dan Streetman, to visit the Amaro Gayo coffee farms belonging to our producing partner Asnakech Thomas, opened her eyes into the past and future of coffee as just part of the greater social and agricultural landscape. Read on... 

Amaro Gayo

When I teach classes or conduct trainings about coffee, I always stress that coffee comes from far away, that it’s exotic and we shouldn’t take it for every-day-granted. When I had the opportunity earlier this year to travel to Ethiopia, and specifically to visit coffee producer Asnakech Thomas at Amaro Gayo, this truth was so clear. And although I’d been to other coffee-growing countries, Ethiopia was truly like nothing I’d ever seen before. It took almost 3 hours to drive to Amaro Gayo from Yirgacheffe, a distance of only about 50 kilometers (as the crow flies) along rough, dirt and gravel roads. The landscape alternated from lush and green to dry rolling desert then back again. The spare number of buildings we passed were mostly hand-constructed in the local style from organic materials, and some had intricate designs carved into the wooden windows. We passed beautiful mosques and Christian churches, built out of corrugated metal, or occasionally stone. Our fellow travelers along the road were almost all on foot herding cattle, sheep, or goats, or leading a mule piled with water, or sacks of grain, or coffee. Some rode handmade carts attached to mules piled with building materials, like long sticks, or more sacks of grain or firewood, or more people. We passed motorbikes with up to three or four riders, also carrying goods.

On Amaro Gayo

Wearing two pairs of glasses on her head, Asnakech was sorting coffee with about 20 other women on the porch of her coffee storage facility when we arrived. She shared that they were resorting 40,000 lbs (one container's worth) of coffee because she had been unsatisfied by the sorting done by the processor in Addis. The women were seated, with large metal trays on their laps with small piles of green coffee. They sorted out the defects and rejects into smaller pails and the newly sorted coffee into separate bags. They had removed their shoes before coming onto the porch and a large piece of burlap covered their feet. The material was to ensure that no coffee was dropped onto the floor of the porch and that anything that was dropped could be added back to one of the sacks in the center of the porch to be sorted. Asnakech estimated it would take them all about 20 days to sort through this last container. From there she switched the sunglasses from the top of her head to her eyes and invited us to walk through the mill and then her farm.  We were late in the season, and the harvest had happened earlier in the year than usual. Mill workers were already cleaning up the raised beds, replacing older posts, and cleaning the mill. From the mill, we walked through parts of the farm and she explained that the rains stopped too early this year, and sadly many of the cherries on the trees were not able to fully mature. Total production was down nearly 50% because of this and had increased her costs with the extra sorting. She told us that it was the hardest year of her 11 on the farm so far, but "c’est la vie" she shrugged—what could she do? 

Amaro Gayo

Well, actually, during the rest of the walk and the day, we learned how much she was doing. We walked down to the river just outside the lowest part of her farm. She explained that this was the primary water source for this area and though it was running strong now, by the time her trees needed the water, it would dry up. So she’s building an irrigation project at the top of the hill. She was still working on funding to build it when we visited, but the hope is that building the irrigation system and rain collection tanks will allow for a backup water supply so the trees and her harvest don’t suffer like they did this year. She also showed us the pruning techniques she had been developing, the fertilizer they create from the coffee pulp byproducts in the wet process, how they dry and package coffee leaves, and the husks they save from the naturally processed coffee to sell to the local market as teas. She then walked us through a small nursery that was planted by some of her trainees.  Asnakech hosts trainings once per year for other local farmers, on everything from farm management to how to produce coffee for quality, not just quantity.

On Amaro Gayo

We walked back to the porch and coffee storage building and shared a lunch of injera, lentils and many small cups of coffee with her and her workers while she told us about all the other projects she’s working on. Along with training other local farmers, Asnakech also trains the women in her area, many of whom are the farmer’s wives who end up doing much of the farm work. She trains them not just in farming, but in banking. In her region there had never been a bank and not much reason for a bank to open, because no one wanted to use one. She convinced a bank to open in her town, and in her trainings she created an ID system where husband and wife both get cards and she pays them separately for the cherry that meets her quality spec. This way the women have an income and, potentially, savings. She stressed the importance of this because in her area women have no property rights to their husband’s land. Typically if something happens to a woman’s husband they cannot keep their land and thereby lose their income. With the bank, they can at least save a share. Since the bank has opened she’s also working with all the locals to open accounts and use the bank to secure funding for projects that could help them create more profitable futures. She said even small things, like the capital needed for an out-building to store their coffee and protect it from the elements and animals, can make a huge impact on a small landholders' earning potential. 

Amaro Gayo Africa

She’s also working with her community to create alternative revenue streams, such as setting up honeybee hives and teaching people how to collect and sell the honey. She worked with a group of local women to produce pottery that she hopes they’ll be able to bring to market next year.  And she’s working on introducing new crops to her area like adzuki beans. She has also worked with a partner to create an HIV awareness program. She explained that though HIV is a huge health issue in her region, there was no local knowledge of what the disease is and how it is transmitted. She runs the program during her employees’ work days at no cost to them and incentivizes that everyone in her area go through the program yearly. Another project she’d like to complete is to build a hospital. The closest facility is hours away. It could take an ambulance days to arrive and almost no locals have vehicles. Asnakech has dreamed about being able to open a hospital in Amaro since she was a little girl and listened to her older sister suffer for days and finally die in childbirth. When we were there she’d secured a site but had been disappointed as funding kept falling through. 

Amaro Gayo Africa

What was most obvious and moving to me was that Asnakech’s passion for her coffee was a larger expression of her passion and pride in her region and people. She spent years lobbying the agriculture minister in Addis to study her area’s coffee trees. Every time they refused, saying that her trees were most likely the same as the ones 40 kilometers away. She insisted they weren’t and finally offered to pay for the research project herself. Once there, the scientists discovered 58 new varieties which had never been seen before. She continues to pay for the project to study and cultivate her unique varieties. She named her farm for her region and her tribe, Amaro—which she said no one had really heard of until coffee people started traveling to visit her and discover why her coffee is so unique—and Gayo, a waterfall in the area.  The legend is that Gayo is the place where sacred water collects into a waterfall, and this water was used to anoint the king of her tribe. When I caught the first aroma of this latest crop of Amaro Gayo coming off the grinder, it made me think that all of Asnakech’s work is like the sacred water collecting, ready to spill over,  her beautiful coffee, like her spirit, anointing the world.

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