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.
Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
Exciting news, folks: our original Shakshuka on a Roll was recognized by New York Magazine as one of the top eight egg sandwiches in the city! Created by executive chef Danielle Dillon and sous chef Sophia Dean, this roll is an inventive riff on the North African breakfast, normally served with runny fried eggs in a skillet. Dani and Sophia conceived of the sandwich version in an effort to combine the flavors of shakshuka and the structure of the Mexican torta. Featuring spiced tomato sauce, plenty of fresh cilantro, soft-scrambled eggs, and Bulgarian sheep's milk feta on toasted ciabatta, the Shakshuka on a Roll is a must-try.
Dani and the April 17-30 issue of New York Magazine
Ever since the "third wave" crashed on the shores of the coffee industry at the turn of the 21st century and specialty coffee roasters proliferated around the world, the "Q" has become a common term lobbed around in conversation among coffee experts. It's short for CQI Q Arabica Course & Examination, and those who pass it earn the most prestigious credential for coffee cuppers: the Q Grader license.
Developed by the Coffee Quality Institute, the Q is an eight-section coffee-grading course that ends with a 22-test exam. It's an intense, arduous week of sensory exertion, only attempted by advanced coffee professionals. Like the bar or the Certified Sommelier exam, it often inspires existential dread and sickness-inducing anxiety. Some people practice the sensory identification test with homemade solutions for weeks prior. Some will only eat plain foods the entire week of the Q to avoid polluting their palates. There are only roughly 4000 licensed Q Graders worldwide, and not only is it extremely difficult, it's extremely rare to pass after only taking the course once.
Specialty coffee is a young industry, so the Q certification process is still somewhat shrouded in mystery and spoken about with an air of fear and respect. Since our very own roastmaster Clyde Miller recently passed the Q on his first try, we sat down and picked his brain about it.
First, could you just talk a little bit about how you became our roastmaster?
I didn’t know anything about roasting when I started working for the company. A job opened up at the Irving Farm café in town, so I was doing sandwiches, soups, stuff like that. Then I started working at the Roastery part-time, taking care of the lawn, and I quit my construction job. That progressed into also roasting part-time, and I learned more and eventually became the full-time roaster.
How did you get interested in the science and craft of roasting?
For the first five years of working for the company, I didn’t drink coffee. Right before Dan [Streetman, Irving Farm’s green coffee buyer] was hired, in 2010, we started doing small-batch roasting and more in-depth roast profiles. And then I quit smoking and started drinking coffee. At that time, I didn’t know what cupping was—I had none of that knowledge. My version of “cupping” was brewing a pot of the profile roast and comparing it against the two or three others that I had. Everything I did was trial and error. If it worked it worked, if it didn’t it didn’t.
So you were teaching yourself?
Basically yes. I didn’t have any classes. Just trial and error, and memory.
When and how did you actually become interested in testing to become a Q grader?
This year. I thought of it as just another notch. Once the Irving Farm lab was SCAA-certified, and I knew that the Q course was coming up, I asked Dan if there was anything I needed to do to prepare and he said to take the Taster’s Pathway. So I did that.
Could you explain how the Q works?
This Q course was for Arabica coffee; they have a separate course for Robusta. It’s a couple of days of classes, with general quizzes at the end of each day, and then an exam at the end of the course. If you pass the exam, you get your license to grade coffee. The exam goes through cuppings of washed-milds, naturals, etc. and it really attunes you to what can be found in the coffee: what to look for when you cup coffee, how to spot defects, and how to use your scoresheets without being biased to certain coffees. They also teach you how to grade a 350-gram sample of green beans and pull out the defects within a short timeframe.
Did you do anything to prepare before you take the course?
The Taster’s Pathway really helped out because the knowledge was fresh from that course. But that was it really.
How did you feel during the Q?
I felt okay. At one point, Candice [Madison, Q Instructor & Grader] told me to calm down, but that was during the general knowledge section. Everything else was fine. I cup more coffee doing quality control than I did at the Q.
To pass, do you have to have a perfect score?
No. I don’t know if anybody’s ever gotten one! Not everybody passes it in their first week either.
Most people don’t right?
90% of people don’t.
Now that you’re a Q grader, are there certain responsibilities?
I’m just licensed to grade coffee now. I have a three-year license, and then after three years I have to do a recall. It’s not as extreme as the actual test, it’s just to make sure your senses are still on point, basically.
Why was it important for you to take and pass the Q?
It helped me out with quality control, and it taught me how to look closely at the green bean. Now I’m able to spot more defects. You don’t need to have taken the Q to do a cupping and grade coffee, but it helps. It helped me.
Did you think you were going to pass in the first week?
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
1. Grind fresh!
As soon as coffee is ground it starts to lose its more delicate, memorable flavors. Ideally, it’s best to grind coffee right before you brew. If not, store your ground coffee in an airtight container to extend its life.
2. Get your water hot!
Many of the delicious components of coffee only dissolve and release at temperatures around 200F. Bring water to a boil, then let it cool about 20 seconds off the boil. We aim to add water to the coffee when it’s around 205F.
3. Contact time
This varies for each brew method. A general rule is the larger the grind, the longer it should be in contact with water, and vice versa for smaller grinds.
4. Coffee to water ratio
Coffee brewing is all about ratios. The ratio that many people find enjoyable is 1 part coffee to 16 parts water.
5. Great tasting water = Great tasting coffee
Around 98% of brewed coffee is actually pure water. Filtered water is ideal.
6. Coffee, like all agricultural products, is seasonal.
Coffee is only harvested once, sometimes twice, per year depending on where it’s grown. Though it can be stored in its raw, dried state for up to a year we find it most delicious when consumed under 9 months.
—Joshua Littlefield, former Irving Farm Director of Education, founder of the Great American Coffee Tour
Learn more about our coffee education program, aimed at seasoned professionals and curious coffee enthusiasts alike!
Irving Farm is proud to be offering the Gold Cup Technician + Foundations Program on September 8, 9, and 10th at our SCAA Campus in NYC. This program offers lead baristas, retail managers, café owners, wholesale representatives, and service technicians the opportunity to learn both basic and intermediate tasting and brewing methods. The three-day program includes:
- CP151 & CP152 Brewing & Extraction Principles & Application (9/8)
- GE103 Orientation to SCAA Cupping (9/8)
- CP158 Gold Cup Brewing (9/9)
- CP225 Brewing Approaches & Variation (9/9)
- EXM_GP1 Gold Cup Technician Practical Exam (9/10)
Students can expect to learn the basics of cupping, including evaluating the flavor and aroma of different coffees, how to use a refractometer to measure coffee, and how to dial-in a batch brew that's in alignment with SCAA Gold Cup guidelines (and tastes delicious!). We will also be teaching intermediate brewing techniques, such as bypass brewing.
*All students must also finish CP103, CB100, and EXM_GW1 online through the SCAA in order to receive their certificate of completion.