We asked five food-world luminaries to share their memories of food and love with us. Whether it was a plate of oysters in Paris or a tender cheek swiping of Philly cheesesteak grease, a lot of moments have been shared around the dinner table by these people. Here they are. And happy Valentine’s Day.
Illustration credit: Gant Powell
Sarah Obraitis is half of the husband-and-wife team behind the lauded M. Wells Steakhouse and Dinette in Long Island City. (Her husband, Hugue Dufour, is the other.) These days, the pair are packing in the customers at their two bustling eateries. But not long ago, finding a venue to sell their wares was a much more difficult proposition.
Before we had the restaurant, before we got married, in 2009 he had just moved to NYC from Montreal. He’d sort of abandoned his world there and started a new thing in New York City. (I was very flattered that New York had won out.) We just started doing stuff together, I guess in preparation of things to come.
We decided to pull together a Quebecois meat pie project. It had all sorts of game in it: beef, pulled pork, turkey, and rabbit. The ground beef was cooked up with autumnal spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. We’d braise the brisket and pull that into chunks. The meat was also mixed with grated potatoes and onion and beer. The pie dough was to die for—we’d used great butter from France and Pennsylvania mill flour. It looked just like an apple pie. Quebecois and Americana all wrapped up in one. And it also came with jars of cranberry ketchup.
There was this market downtown, and we arranged to sell them there. I was so psyched. We had impeccable ingredients. I was able to take preorders, and the plan was to hand the pies out at the market. I had a lot of names on a list I had been building for a number of years, a lot of really good people on this list and a little bit of press. It was cold out and it was just a perfect season for this hearty Quebecois delicacy.
But the market had based itself as a very, very local market. Everything had to come from like 10 miles around. And then they sort of dropped us. They’re like, “you’re not local enough.” And we’re like, “holy sh*t. We just got 70 people to sign up for it.”
So I said, “f it.” We’re going to bring all the meat pies to the market. We’re going to park across the street and we’re going to find every single person who preordered, and they’re going to find us. This was our plan the night before. And then, just like last week, the city got inundated with snow. It was insane.
The next day, we’re downtown, and it’s real ugly out. Here we are in this parked car. Really long story short, we had 70 preorders and we had every single person pick up their meat pie that day. We’d created a little bit of coup. Our ingredients, ironically, were impeccable. And most of my meat was sold by vendors who themselves were at the fair. So half of the pie was local enough.
People wrote about it. Someone told me, “I feel like I just bought drugs!”
The funny thing is that it really launched this pie brand, and we’ve been doing it every year since. It was almost the start of people caring; it built up our friends and followers. That was the beginning of our days together, making and selling food.
It’s still up for debate exactly when we met. When this happened, we were already together for a number of years. But the meat pie was the first thing we did together that was exclusively ours. We were in it together, 50/50. We didn’t have to share any of the work or any of the rewards with anyone else. That was a pretty turnkey moment. That opened up our eyes to the possibilities.