Before moving to Maine, our friends Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly, a Chef and Front of the House Manager respectively, lived and worked, ate, and threw parties in Boston for a number of years.
Never knowing where to eat when visiting Boston's Chinatown, we chartered a Maine Beer Tours bus and asked the Pisha-Dufflys to show us around.
Title Design by Sabrina Volante.
And Maine Beer Tours for getting us to and from Boston safe and sound.
And to Baxter Brewing Company for lubricating the trip.
Finally, thanks to our friends and guests Jason Doo, Mark Stevens, Jason Loring, Mike Wiley, John R. Myers, and Jaime Steed for making the trip a great deal of fun.
This time around, Family Feast took place at Slab Sicilian Street Food. The Ham came from Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, Fresh clams were provided by Winter Point Oysters, and Beer was on tap thanks to Banded Horn Brewing. Of the concept of hams and clams, Thom told Adam Callaghan over at Eater Maine that "the marriage of pork and shellfish is as good as it gets." You can read their conversation about the event here.
For our previous coverage of Family Feast:
- Family Feast at Grace / interview with Thomas Pisha-Duffly
- Family Feast at Bunker Brewing / interview with ensemble
- Family Feast at The Well / interview with ensemble
- Shift Drinks interview with Thomas Pisha-Duffly
I have written and re-written this essay a dozen times, each iteration becoming more sprawling, sentimental, and over-stuffed with detail about our relationship with the Pisha-Dufflys and their creation.
Included were recollections of our friend and occasional collaborator John R. Myers encouraging us to check out the family style pop up, and the period between meeting Thom and the first event we attended at Grace in which we hoped spectacle would match our initial impressions of him. In that first conversation, he had been so enthusiastic and in love with his heritage and the opportunity to provide for people this experience that there was no way, right? We were bound to be disappointed, if even just a little bit.
I described that night in which our minds were blown, along with the minds of some of the very best in the industry—with many of whom we were seated—one large format Indonesian-inspired dish at a time. I meditated on Family Feast as it existed before we came to document it, a series of smaller events, which eventually came to be hosted at Nosh, where Jay Loring, our friend and trusted taste-maker, became an evangelist for it and its creators. I discussed the dynamic between Thom and Mariah, about how, in Thom's words: "I can get really keyed up because I feel really passionately about what I do, and I feel this way especially about Family Feast. So sometimes when things aren’t running as smooth as possible, I can be a cunt."
I wanted to offer all of this because our approach to Family Feast coverage has been to fabricate these long, sprawling, oral documentary style reports edited from the testimony of attendees and those close and related to the event. It would be clearer, though, if we very simply said that we love Thom and Mariah, and we are very appreciative of the opportunity they have given us to get so close to their creation. We have covered their events for half of this year now, and watched those happenings evolve. And while nothing has been declared officially, now that Thom is staring down the barrel of working on a restaurant opening with our friends and clients at Hugo's and Eventide, it feels like the series might be slowing down for a bit. As Adam Callaghan suggested over at Eater Maine, this is "potentially bad news for pop-up fans but great news for Thomas Pisha-Duffly fans."
Further, I wanted to offer all of this because we have come to love not only these people, but the related cast of characters. It has been a privilege for us to get close to it, and to watch what happens when it is the goal of two people to rally a talented community to provide an awesome—in the truest meaning of the word—experience for those interested enough to show up. Thom and Mariah have wanted nothing more than to ensure people have a good time, that attendees leave every event gobsmacked, that they are—in the words of Mariah herself—shocked and awed, and the hosts have been successful at every turn. And we have been given front-row seats to watching a new generation of a hybrid pedigree come of age. Thom brings the influence of his mother and grandmother into his game, Thom and Mariah the influence of their travels and their work with, among many, the leadership of Hugo's—past and present—and Duckfat. As the latter are both friends and clients of ours, we have had the unparalleled opportunity to see those we work with not only for what they have created over the course of our documentation, but what they have helped to shape and spawn. And we have seen the culinary and creative community coalesce around this great thing, all emerging talents or greats in their own right, including but not limited to Kim Rodgers, John R. Myers, Briana Holt, Jason Williams, Jessie Lacey, Pete Sueltenfuss and many, many more.
Most importantly, though, we have gotten to eat extraordinarily well, to be a part of something great, to love those involved, and to feel loved in the process. However Family Feast ends up progressing, we look forward to participating in whichever way we can. This is our family, and we are honored (and—a nod to Mariah—shocked and awed) to be a part of it.
Last week we attended Family Feast at The Well. The venue is literally a farm-to-table restaurant located right on Jordan's Farm. It is run by Chef Jason Williams, who co-hosted the event. In conversation, Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly were both extraordinarily complimentary and appreciative of Williams and his supporting staff.
Per usual, the event was substantial in all ways. The conversations were stimulating, the company was grande, and the food was substantial and unforgettable. Also per usual, Eventide Oyster Co. Bar Manager John R. Myers was on premisses crafting specialty cocktail pairings throughout the meal. Tandem Coffee Roasters Pastry Chef Briana Holt baked strawberry buckle for dessert.
We talked with Tom and Mariah, some of those present, and Arlin Smith, a Family Feast booster (and Tom's former employer) about the event itself, the pros and cons of undercharging, and how lucky Tom is to have Mariah in his life.
Warning: Folks in the hospitaliy industry have been known to swear a lot. This conversation is no exception.
- Zack Bowen:Photographer and Partner at Knack Factory
- Michael Leonard:Family Feast fan and supporter
- Jason Loring:Co-0wner of Nosh and Slab, longtime Family Feast supporter
- Thomas Pisha-Duffly: Family Feast head chef, co-mastermind
- Mariah Pisha-Duffly: Family Feast head of logistics, co-mastermind
- Crystal Pomerleau: Front of the House at Grace Restaurant and Family Feast
- Arlin Smith: Co-0wner of Hugo's Restaurant and Eventide Oyster Company, former employer of Tom, Family Feast supporter
- Alex Steed: Operations and Partner at Knack Factory
- Joe Watts: Assistant Beersmith at Bunker Brewing Company
"FUCKIN' SHOCK AND AWE, DUDE. IT'S THE FAMILY FEAST MANTRA"
Joe Watts: I met Tom and Mariah last month when they did the Memorial Day Family Feast at Bunker Brewing. I had volunteered to offer another set of hands to help them get ready for the day. The night I helped out, we had gone to Slab to hang out there when they were testing their first pizza pies before the restaurants opened and then we walked right over to Grace to prep. We were cutting the spines out of trout and gluing the filets together. [Laughs] Seeing those on the grill the next day… I just believed that Family Feast was something special. Tom is working a full time job at Grace as it is, and then he is doing this on the side because he really believes in it. And hosting it at places like this, The Well—it is just fantastic.
Mariah Pisha-Duffly: This event was awesome. The fun thing about the Family Feast is that every one is so different. This one definitely felt very different from the others.
Zack Bowen: Family Feast is always in a state of flux. Every event we have been to has been different from the last with the root staying the same. The first event I went to was at Grace, which is a really beautiful restaurant with a beautiful interior. The plating was phenomenal and gorgeous. The second was an outdoor barbecue with a Summery feel. The price point went down. It was open to anyone, where anyone who showed up could buy a ticket. And this one is a really neat amalgamation of both of those events. We are outdoors, we are in an open, beautiful space and it is communal style dining, but this one will have beverage pairings and the price point is a little higher to cover a bit of a fancier spread. But even at this price, the bang for buck that is promised by what we have seen in preparation is insane.
Mariah Pisha-Duffly: It was really fun to do beverage pairings.
Joe Watts: We had told these guys that we would donate whatever beer they needed but Tom told me that they would have drink pairings with all of the courses. I had assumed that meant just wine because that is often what pairings come with. But there is a cocktail, and sake. I think there is only one wine on the list, which is really interesting.
Thomas Pisha-Duffly: The event went off wonderfully. We had an amazing group of volunteers that put in an incredible amount of effort. Logistically, with being on the farm and not in a restaurant there was a little more scramble for everybody. It was a little bit more of an undertaking, but people really stepped up to help out.
Mariah Pisha-Duffly: I feel like with each one that we do, Tom and I get a little more comfortable with what our roles are and with what we should expect and plan for. And The Well is fucking beautiful and awesome. The space itself is great and we had a really fun crowd. It was great to do outdoor dining like this.
Michael Leonard: Ambiance, variety, pacing, everything is spot on. Even for me, they're pairing nonalcoholic cocktails. They have put some thought into it. Tommy's menus are always rare and eclectic. The soup was phenomenal. You're always touching a lot of different flavors, from the sweet of the soup to the tart of a green strawberry and the savory of a beef tongue. The oysters were just massive and tasty. They source well, they are creative, and it touches all over the palette.
Jason Loring: They are very generous. It is family feast, and it's exactly what it says it is.
Mariah Pisha-Duffly: Maybe some of it comes from a lack of self confidence, and part comes from Tom and me being people of excess, but we always talk about Family Feast being shock and awe. You're already so full and then you get a huge, crazy platter of a million different pork preparations. It is awesome to us. To other people it may be gluttonous or horrifying but to us, that's baller. Tom's like, "Should we do another course?" And I'm like, "Fuckin' Shock and Awe, dude." It's the Family Feast mantra.
"WE ARE LIKE VOLTRON."
Michael Leonard: The ethos of what's going on here bleeds down from their personalities and into the brand, which is Family Feast. It has a little of the familial, communal feel of the Grateful Dead, which I was drawn to immediately with Tommy. Having seen the Dead 111 times, I am into that communal and laid back vibe while having a very eclectic experience. I notice that these two are loving, kind and laid back. I even notice that about the nature of the guest list. Everybody always seems to gel. Tom and Mariah's personalities bleed into the event itself.
Alex Steed: I think it has that Dead thing, for sure, but then there is also the food service and hospitality industry vibe as well and there is definitely a bit of crossover between those two things.
Mariah Pisha-Duffly: You know what's so funny? Tom says that about anything he does. "You know, it's just like the Grateful Dead…" no matter what it is. I am the only person who Tom has ever dated that is not a Dead fan. To me, none of this is like the Grateful Dead at all.
Crystal Pomerleau: Those two are wonderful people. I am always very happy to help them because of that. They are incredibly good at what they do and Family Feast works because they both really want this.
Arlin Smith: Mariah, Tom's better half, does a lot for the events. She puts this touch on it where she translates all of the food to us, the guests, in a way that I think is very beneficial. I think Tom would still be working on getting this together if he didn't have someone who was savvy enough to push it forward.
Jason Loring: She definitely keeps his shit together. You can't have the back of the house without the front of the house and the front without the back. I didn't walk in and sit at a nice, pretty table and get great service because Tom had some ideas about food. He's out back doing shots and eating caviar right out of the can.
Alex Steed: We interviewed Tom a while back because John R. Myers told us we should pay attention to what Tom was up to, and then we shot Tom and Mariah's event at Grace a few months back. For that one, we referred to it as Thomas Pisha-Duffly's Family Feast, but after the Memorial Day event we finally came to our senses and began referring to the two of them as owners of the event. I can't believe I was so slow to do so, but Mariah's role is imperative. You know, when you get to know them both, especially Tom, you realize that he is so, so talented but he'd be fucked without her.
They are sort of this whimsical entity, they are so very sweet and offbeat. When we did our Shift Drinks interview with her, she talked about working at this Belgium fry place because it was the one job she could do while on mushrooms all the time. And now here she is keeping that shit tight. As I am also someone who has a big appetite for whimsy, I can relate to what it's like to benefit from having a co-visionary who is also a managerial partner—my wife—in life.
Mariah Pisha-Duffly: We're a good team. We know each other really, really well. We've been together for a really long time and I know Tom better than I know anybody else outside of my family and he knows me the same way. I think that is a really big part of it. Our vision is similar enough so that we are able to see eye to eye on all of the big, overarching themes as well as the smaller details. But we also possess different enough strengths so that the sum of our… I forget how the saying goes but the sum of the parts are better than the parts themselves?
Alex Steed: You're like VOLTRON.
Mariah Pisha-Duffly: Yeah, that's how the saying goes. We're like VOLTRON. [Laughs]
I think that we push each other and both have really strong opinions. A lot of the time we will both come to the table with really strong, really different opinions and the conclusion we come up with is better than those initial ideas. I am used to Tom. I am not scared to tell him exactly how I feel. We know how to interact together. That carries over from our personal relationship into our professional relationship.
Zack Bowen: Tom can be a little hard to read at first, but once you get a layer below that by just saying hi, he opens up about his passion for his heritage and cooking. And he is this party guy without the bro mentality. He is a fun ball of personality.
Thomas Pisha-Duffly: I can get really keyed up because I feel really passionately about what I do, and I feel this way especially about Family Feast. So sometimes when things aren't running as smooth as possible, I can be a cunt.
Zack Bowen: Mariah is an absolute sweetheart. She is always there with a smile on her face. Because of our work, I have been a fly on the wall of many kitchens. Kitchens are stressful. There are tight deadlines, tight spaces, and there is a lot of heat. It can ball up in people and I have watched some folks get tense in those situations. The beauty of watching Tom and Mariah is that even though they are married, they're both from the industry and they are both on tight deadlines, there is never any sign of that between them.
Thomas Pisha-Duffly: Mariah is very good at putting that part of me to bed and letting me shine by putting me in check. But people gravitate toward her and some of my shortcomings in my actions and personality are hugely forgiven once people get to know Mariah because they like her so much.
I think that it is initially easy to put the spotlight on the cook in these situations because that is what our culture is geared towards. When you think about food and restaurants, for some reason the kitchen has come to the spotlight. But none of this could happen without Mariah being my other half. Family Feast is our first time working together and we have really come together as a team. We know each other and trust each other and so I don't try to micromanage, which is something I have always had a problem with. We have reached a point where she has her half and it always come out beautifully. A lot of things you see are really her touches. All of the china and stemware are things she feels very strongly about. All of the table settings, menus, front-of-house organizing, scheduling, getting promotional materials together and all of those things are on her. All of those are her touches and without them, it would just be way too much food on a plate. I mean, there is still too much food, but she steers it in a way where the coursing and the pacing and design temper that.
"THIS TAPS INTO THE WAY BACK MACHINE WHERE THINGS ARE COMMUNAL AND PARTICIPATORY."
Arlin Smith: Tom is one of those guys where food is his life. He moved up here from Boston and he got a job here on our line. He showed that he has skills and we made him a sous chef here at the new Hugo's. He has always had grand ideas and some of them are off the wall but he is always pushing the envelope. I always appreciated that about him. His background at Sportello helps him bring a lot of the table—he has worked with some heavy hitters—and this Family Feast thing has blown up in a way that is not a pipe dream. I have seen a lot of people put these types of things together… the "pop-up" is a trend and trends are trends. But what comes out of trends is things that stay, things that become the next class, that can become something special. The first Family Feast knocked me off my feet. I was very proud.
Mariah Pisha-Duffly: Tom and I used to have huge barbecues at our house in Boston. That is where Family Feast comes from. We would just spend all day drinking beers and smoking meat and by the end of the day it would be mayhem. There would be people shooting bb guns and there would be strangers still in my house at 5 in the morning. It was definitely young kids partying but it was still about a bunch of people coming together, eating and making food and having a good time. I guess for me it is really cool to see this start as a bunch of shitheads at my house shooting bb guns and eventually become bunch of awesome kind-of-shithead adults at The Well. It is a really cool progression.
Jason Loring: I was so impressed with what they were doing because I had all of this food, so much of this great food that I had never had before. Tom is closer to my age but newer at the business, so he has that fire I remember having when I was 22-years-old. I am not saying that I ever lost it, but I am doing different things now so I don't want to go and do these events where you go and work multiple fourteen hour days and do this thing without making money. It doesn't excite me, but it excites him and I love that.
Thomas Pisha-Duffly: We have been aiming to expand our audience, which has largely been our friends in the industry, and this crowd was largely our industry friends again. But you can't complain when you have some of your best friends, some of your peers, some people you really look up to there enjoying what you do. The fact that they all came out to do this in the summer—which is a crazy time for industry folk—to enjoy an afternoon with us on Jordan's Farm, that's great.
Jason Loring: Tom is notorious for not charging enough for these events. This one was probably the closest they have gotten to charging enough for what you end up eating and drinking, but even then the servings were heavy handed.
Arlin Smith: I think if you are in the fortunate circumstance where you can throw these events and under charge, meaning you have an income that can make this sort of thing a hobby for you, well then by all means go for it. The one thing I think he is losing from doing it the way he does is losing the opportunity to learn how to run a for-profit venture. What if he was doing this for profit? He could be learning about sustainability.
People are willing to spend money on things they want to see continue. That's what I hope he understands. This is not a charity case, this is commerce and this is how things work. If you are providing a service that people want, and you can make something out of it, then that's a hugely beneficial situation. Make it happen.
But maybe it is not sustainable. Maybe it has to be this sort of party for it to be what it is. I feel like, though, I would make that my next step. But they are learning a ton by putting together these food and beverage pairings. I saw what came together for drinks at that event. It is fun and awesome, and I have a lot of appreciation for that.
Jason Loring: When you get older and own a restaurant, or own a business, making money is not the only thing that matters but at the end of the day there is only one thing that shows up on paper. No matter how good the food is or how good of a time people are having, you can't do it another day if you are not making money.
Thomas Pisha-Duffly: Seeing everyone have fun, there is no better compliment to what we do. It makes us re-question what we're trying to do. If we're just going to show up and cook food and these people want to come, I don't care if we get a single person outside of the circle of people who wants to come out. If we did this every six months and could gather all of these cooks and servers and front of the house folks and bartenders and hosts and managers together just to enjoy each others company and cook some great food in the process, maybe that is what it is all about. It is hard to get everyone together, it is hard to find that time, but when you do it is really great because all of those people really understands each other. They understand how much they work and they are appreciating that time off and having the opportunity to be catered to. They can take a deep breath and they don't have to be on. We're not schmoozing and rubbing each others elbows. We're genuinely enjoying each other's company and that's pretty awesome.
Zack Bowen: In talking with Thomas more, and in talking with him about why he is doing this, I realize why I keep coming back. He really wants to provide, host, and give. The money that is being brought in is not for profit, it is to cover expenses. The driving force is that he loves to host and give people a great event. This is his passion and that is just kind of bad ass. And so when I show up and shoot and when we do our thing, for me it is a matter of giving back some of my own passion. It is about making it very communal, very community driven.
Michael Leonard: There isn't very much that we do together anymore. With the exception of a sporting event, maybe a concert, or the movies, everything is done at home now. There are very few communal experiences as a whole today. This does tap into a little bit of the way back machine, where things that are communal and participatory are rare. I think it draws people in.
We were again fortunate to spend the day with Thomas Pisha-Duffly, Mariah Duffly, and the rest of the ever-expanding Family Feast crew on Memorial Day. Where the last Family Feast event was an ode to the Indonesian cooking that Pisha-Duffly grew up with and was inspired by, this one, a barbecue, was inspired by the substantial, sprawling cookouts that he loved as a kid. The fare was still inspired by Pisha-Duffly's youth, but with the help of super bartender John R. Myers, pastry chef Briana Holt, and brewmaster Chresten Sorensen (the event was held at Bunker Brewing Co. + Tandem Coffee Roasters), a plenitude of other flavors and inspirations found their way into the mix.
The following is a synthesis of the various conversations we had with the various Family Feast cast members during the first hour or so of the event.
Warning: As this entire conversation was fueled by mescal and beer, there is some brusk language ahead.
Thomas Pisha-Duffly: head chef, co-mastermind
Mariah Pisha-Duffly: head of logistics, co-mastermind
Chresten Sorensen: co-owner and brewmaster, Bunker Brewing Co.
John R. Myers: bar manager, Eventide Oyster Co.
Briana Holt: pastry chef, Tandem Coffee Roasters
Mosart Nunez: DJ
Chresten: We like events where everyone is involved and doing their thing. Mo is a DJ and he'll do that and the cooks will cook and we'll serve beer. It kind of all comes together like that. That's what Portland is about. Having it be a little under the radar is nice so that all of these people—so many people here are in the service industry—will get a chance to relax before they're busy for months straight. The onslaught of Summer is upon us. In three weeks no one could do this because everyone would be so fucking busy. Look around. People are into it.
Mosart: You have to look out into the crowd and see if people are feeling it. Maybe they're just hanging out and then its cool to play some chill tunes. But if they're standing around and wondering what's going on, you can amp it up a bit. Right now, I think people are just settling in. You have to get people into it, get them to realize that it's not going to rain. It's going to be cool. I am trying to pick tunes that are not super hyper because that's not where we're at right now, you know? But I don't want to put anyone to sleep. We're not trying to throw a dance party. Yet.
Knack Factory: How is the event shaping up thus far, Tom?
Thomas: Well, we've got Ken [Burkett] here from Grace and John from Eventide has the snow cone machine going.
John: There are a bunch of different flavors. One of them has rhubarb, thyme, lime juice and mescal and tequila. There is one that has coconut cream and some mango puree with overproof rum, dark rum and Pandan, which is this Indonesian leaf that is bright green. The syrup looks like Slimer cum.
Knack Factory: I think that Slimer is asexual.
John: Do you? That dude loves to fuck.
Knack Factory: Well, he's got that appetite.
John: It's voracious. Voracious. Next up, we have one made with Tandem coffee syrup, sweetened condensed milk and Allen's Coffee Brandy, which is a little homage to Maine. Then we've got one for the kids, which has decaf tea and ginger lemonade, so it is like an Asian Arnold Palmer. I am ready. I have a ton of enthusiasm. And a ton of booze. What I lack in enthusiasm, I will make up for that in alcohol.
Thomas: We got off to a little bit of a late start, but its okay because Facebook kept changing the time of the event from Noon to 3 pm (from Noon) for whatever reason. It's becoming self aware and it wants to ruin everything.
Mariah: We got a little bit of a late start, yes, but we're ready. The biggest anxiety that I have about these is that they're all so different. When you go into work at a restaurant every day, you know exactly what is going to happen so you can prepare for it. With these, especially with this once since we didn't sell tickets in advance, I have no idea what it is going to be like. It has been shared a lot online, the event invitation, so that made me a little anxious! I am pumped that a ton of people are going to come and I am nervous. There was that Facebook blip, which was maybe a Facebook miracle because we weren't ready at Noon. Maybe it was a gift from Facebook. That's how I am choosing to look at it now.
Thomas: The space looks dope. Chresten got this all manicured the other day and it is starting to look like a party. We just need some drunk people in the bouncy fun castle and we can call it a day.
Mariah: And we've got these great stamps based on the poster that Jessie designed. The stamp people said they didn't think it would work as a stamp, but I think it looks great.
Jessie: I went to a couple family feast events, the first one I went to was the event hosted at Nosh which was amazing to me because it was really one of the only pop-up events I have been to for a while that left me overstuffed and overjoyed on top of the fact that it had an unusually reasonable—too reasonable?—ticket price. I should mention that all this can be blamed on Jason Loring, he has been a force of great collaboration not just for me with some projects here and there, but in the creative and food scene in Portland. He seems to be unmatched in getting people connected and making things happen. Thomas and Mariah wanted to know who was the designer that Jay had been working with on the Nosh menus and the Slab menus and logo, and so Jay invited [my boyfriend] Michael [Leonard] and I to an event at Hugo’s where we all met over delicious food. Michael and Thomas really connected because they were huge Grateful Dead fans, which play a bit into the inspiration for the poster.
Knack Factory: Ah, the Dead! Tom talked about that in his Shift Drinks interview.
Jessie: Thomas and Mariah are a designers dream. They gave me an idea of the feel, the atmosphere and a general direction and then let me do my thing. All our meetings took place at Hunt & Alpine partly because it is centrally located and partly because the drinks are great and Andrew seems to be cool with me spreading out my notebooks, tablet and other implements of business while we geeked-out over design. For the poster, we started with “70’s rock poster plus communal dining” as a direction and from that we looked at a bunch of Stanley Mouse’s iconic work, which has an obvious Art Nouveau meets shrooms vibe. This excited Michael who kept sending me Grateful Dead poster graphics until I told him to stop. I didn’t want to work backwards though, for example: going from 70s rock poster and giving it an Art Nouveau style plus food… instead I started with an Art Nouveau look, studying Alphonse Mucha who was the influence for Stanley Mouse’s work. I loved the look of the ethereal, confident women in Alphonse’s work—coincidentally, when I was a child, I was rather obsessed with drawing fairies with long hair and long dresses, turns out the images I was using as a starting point were Alphonse Mucha and I just added wings. All I had to do was throw in a large hunk of meat to that idea. Once that general concept was built, I added the elements that were common themes in the psychedelic rock posters: flowers, sun bursts and very warped lettering.
Thomas: I never wanted to be pegged as the Grateful Dead guy but here I am.
Knack Factory: So what's on the menu?
Thomas: Straying from the straight Indonesian theme, we have allowed ourselves to take some more liberties. There are lots of fermented foods. There is kimchi, which is Korean but eaten throughout the world. There are some really traditional cold vegetable platters. There is gado-gado, which is something I always eat at family barbecues. It is basically cold vegetables and peanut sauce. There are eggs cooked in sambal and raw sprouts. We are warming the peanut sauce right now. There is also traditional Indonesian. There is sambal oelek, which is your traditional sambal.
Knack Factory: What's on the grill?
Thomas: We're doing grilled pigtails, which are going to blow people's minds. We're doing my dad's traditional chicken wings which are bumped up with smokey bacon fats. Those are going to be rad. We're doing beef tongue sandwiches with green onion. We're doing some whole trout, which we're throwing on the grill, and we're going to make some sandwiches out of that. I also bought a quarter cow from a local farm, and we're going to char cuts of that rare and put them out. Oh! And Briana made a shitload of pies!
Briana: I made rhubarb pies with some nutmeg and plum bitters. I made blueberry pies, which has some brown-sugary streusel—streusel is a German word for yummy and crunchy. I also made a coconut custard pie with a macaroon crust and dark chocolate, Coco Lopez whipped cream.
Knack Factory: How long have you been making pies?
Briana: I have been baking for a long time—like 15 years—but honestly the first successes I had with making pies was when I started working at Pies and Thighs in Brooklyn.
Knack Factory: Pies and Thighs?
Briana: Yeah, it is this pie and chicken place in Williamsburg. It was kind of like my first experience getting down and dirty with pies.
Knack Factory: Have you ever seen Waitress [in which the protagonist, played by Kerri Russell, makes pies as a form of therapy]?
Briana: Yes! I have! I actually tried to make the pie with ham and brie cheese she makes in that movie. I think she calls it the "Bad Baby Pie" or something. I tried to make that pie and it came out pretty good.
Knack Factory: What draws you to pie in particular?
Briana: Pies are pretty cool because they started off as this way to preserve fruit. You would use lard and flour and that makes this dough which serves as a sealant. It can seal everything in and then it can sit there in an old fashioned pie case for days and days and be fine. That's kind of interesting. And then everyone in every culture has their own signature pie. And you can put anything you want in it. You kind of can't... fuck it up?
I don't know if you've ever heard of Chess Pie, but it is one of my favorites. It is a super old fashioned Southern recipe where it is just sugar and eggs and anything you have around the house. They called it that because in the Winter when you wouldn't have fruit left and all of the stuff in the root cellar was gone... they'd make this and call it "just pie." But because of the Southern drawl, it was like, "Jess pie," and it eventually became Chess Pie. It's one of my favorites because it's like candy. Sugar, eggs, lemon, vinegar, or maple or something like that.
Knack Factory: Are pies necessarily oppositional to cake?
Briana: Yes! I think pies are like the cool girl who wears cutoff jeans and sneakers to the party, and cake is like the girl who spends ten minutes getting ready before the party, worrying about how her hair looks.
Knack Factory: Cakes are sort of like pies and dogs are sort of like cats.
Briana: So which one is more high maintenance?
Knack Factory: Well, dogs are sort of eager to please while cats are just like, "Fuck you if you don't like it. This is what I am."
Briana: You're right. Pies are the felines of the pastry world.
Knack Factory: How are you feeling right now, Tom?
Thomas: We're pretty good to go. Let's do it.
Family Feast is a pop-up dinner event imagined and executed by Thomas Pisha-Duffly. It features large format plates of Indonesian cuisine served to communal tables. The most recent installment happened at the beautiful Grace Restaurant in Portland, Maine, which we were delighted to attend and photograph.
Before the event we talked with Pisha-Duffly, who used to work for our friends and clients at Hugo's Restaurant. He told us about how, thanks in part to the enthusiastic encouragement of Jason Loring of Nosh, Family Feast has gone from being an 8-10 supper club to a 60 - 70 attendee pop-up event over the past handful of years. His adoration for Indonesian food comes from his mother and grandmother, both of whom are from North-Central Java, as well as his and his wife Mariah Pisha-Duffly's travels to the country.
We can genuinely say that the food and the event itself were both spectacular. We were seated at a table with Arlin Smith and Roxanne Dragon of Hugo's Restaurant, Jessica Sueltenfuss, Loring and others—all worthy judges of spectacular food—and we were collectively impressed plate after plate. Not only was the food worthy of celebration, the communal atmosphere that Pisha-Duffly stresses is imperative to this experience was in full effect and everyone was in the best of spirits.
What was also striking was how genuinely enthusiastic everyone was on both sides of the kitchen. Pisha-Duffly, Pastry Chef Kim Rodgers and the volunteers working in the kitchen were very clearly excited to present what they had been working on for weeks. The guests were equally psyched to be there to not only experience the food but to support the endeavor. It was very much a pleasure to hear giants of the local and national food scene—Chef Mike Wiley, who Pisha-Duffly worked under at Hugo's in particular—speak with such genuine admiration of both the food and the event.
It should also be noted that some proceeds from the event went to help support Sjaki-Tari-Us, a nonprofit organization in Ubud, Bali. The organization uses their full service restaurant to educate youth with disabilities by providing them salaried jobs in food preparation and service.
You can find Family Feaston Facebook here.
What sort of food did you grow up eating?
When I was a kid I didn't know that I was being exposed to any sort of food that was different. We didn't eat Indonesian food all of the time. My mom made meatloaf and mac and cheese and Marcella Hazan pot roast too. She cooked all the time and we would always gather for dinner. Even when she was a lawyer, she would come home for an hour and cook. She wouldn't just heat up food, she would be preparing lasagna or turning artichokes or making pasta. I thought that's how everybody ate. You sit down with your family, you eat and talk about your day. It wasn't until I went to friends' houses and saw them eating hot pockets and maybe some boiled pasta and butter before I realized that other people ate differently.
When we would get everyone together—more than just the nuclear family—we would do cookouts, grill satay and make gado gado, which is a classic salad platter with eggs, tofu sprouts, vegetables, pickles and a mound of different types of foods prepared in different types of ways that you would slather in peanut sauce. The center of the cuisine was always rice.
My grandmother would take me out to Malaysian restaurants and we would do Chinese food. There is a large Chinese population in Indonesia and when you go to Northern Indonesia, the style of food there is called Straights cooking — the region is sort of the straights between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. That mixture of food culture creates this Straights cooking, which is what my Grandmother cooks. Oxtail soup and red cooking (braising and stewing). One of my earliest food memories is from when we were at Rainbow Room in New York City and we got a whole fish. My grandmother made me eat the fish eyeballs because it is good luck or whatever. I remember being really young—10 or 12—and eating fish eyes and thinking it was so cool.
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This all was clearly incredibly influential on the styles you prepare today.
As I got older and really started cooking, I was really thinking of these memories and ideas. There are these foods where the flavor profile is so familiar to me because I grew up eating them and but they are generally unknown in New England. Everybody knows Thai food, everybody knows Chinese food and Malaysian to some extent—not just take out, but the real thing… But Indonesian cuisine... No one has really heard of it. There isn't a large Indonesian population and if you search online you find that there are very few Indonesian restaurants.
In New York City you have Fatty Crab and Fatty 'Cue in New York City where Chef Zak Pelaccio is doing Southeast Asian so there are some Indonesian dishes on his menu but for the most part people on this half of the globe don't know Indonesian food. Then you go to the other half of the globe—and I mean East/West, not North/South—and everyone over there from Australia to Europe have this in the general consciousness of their food. Beef Rendang is one of the most popular dishes in the world, but half of the world hasn't had or heard of it.
People are just now starting to discover profiles that they didn't know existed. In the 50s people all across America were watering down all of the food. First came canning and then microwaving and flavors were stripped down. Ingredients were simplified by way of selective farming and the lack of people growing their own vegetables. You lose at lot when that happens. I think when immigrants came over here from Southeast Asian and China that food got watered down to accommodate the palate of the time. Less fat and less flavor for the most part. Chinese and Thai restaurants started adopting the flavors we all know as Chinese and Thai but it really isn't. Red Curry and Green Curry don't really exist as we see them. Lo Mein and Crab Rangoon doesn't exist in that way in China.
I am not really a historian in these things but 20 years ago an avocado was really foreign to people and now people are willing to try more. I think across the board people are willing to learn more. In terms of Indonesian and Malaysian, though, there just aren't a lot of restaurants.
Beyond the style of food, talk a bit about what makes Family Feast what it is.
The style of the dinner is the most important thing to me. It is about getting people together, getting them to eat at large tables, and getting them to eat the same dishes. It's much like if you get 8 or 10 of your friends together and eat in Chinatown it all comes out at once and it all comes out on large platters. People are reaching over each other and building their own plates to their own tastes. That's how I ate with my friends and family. There is no real form to it; it's just about people showing up and eating good food rather than experiencing each dish as its own nucleus and then moving on to the next.
As for staff, there is Kim Rodgers and Moriah Pisha, my wife. Kim is the pastry chef at Hugo's and has really come on as my other half in these events and Moriah manages the front of the house end of things. Kim has shown up to all of the meetings and has been there for me to bounce all of these ideas off of and get them off the ground. The rest are volunteers, a bunch of young guys from Grace coming in on their days off and giving me a few hours. I had Chef Flood from Grace give me a couple of hours and we rely really heavily on volunteers. At our dinner at Nosh [in February] it was just Kim and me and I had a couple of friends show up and had they not leant me their hands for a little while it would not have gone off as well.
I love fine dining, I worked at Hugo's for a number of years and you will see a lot of what I learned from Chefs Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor in my food. What we started doing toward the end of my time there were these large format plates. You could do a giant rib-eye for four or beef shank for four or a whole fried fish with all sorts of garnishes. We would stay away from the traditional garnishes and put the Hugo's label on it by using some interesting technique and manipulating the ingredients in some way. It was a lot of fun—everyone would get together and plate these big plates and it would get "Oohs" and "Ahhs" from the table. Other restaurants are adapting to that that style of eating, and that type of eating is really fun to me. It's not that I don't enjoy going out and having a tasting menu now and then, but I enjoy going out with a large group of friends and really having it be less about the food and more about talking about whatever, sinking our hands in and getting messy.
That is the nexus of what we're trying to do with Family Feast. We are trying to show people that you can go out and have really good food without it having to be fussy. It's more about having a good time.
Americans are getting much better about expanding their palates than we ever have been before, but people can get touchy about redesigns of the format of the experience itself.
At these events you are giving up your choice. You're giving it up to the kitchen, but that's sort of the fun of it. When your mother is cooking for you, you don't get the opportunity to order off the menu. There are logistical reasons why chefs and restaurants want to cook this way, but in a restaurant where guests are paying for an experience there are a lot of reasons why it is difficult to do, the way service breaks down, split checks, taste preferences and so-on.
I read somewhere that fine dining is this situation in which each plate is a set stage and each guest is presented with their own show but there is no communal atmosphere and so everyone is in their own pods of 2s or 4s or whatever. Everyone in the restaurant is experiencing their own frame of reference. This sort of opens that up a little bit more, everyone should be trying everything together and talking and laughing and that forced interaction creates a real feeling of breaking bread.
So unlocking the format of the dining experience is itself the next frontier.
It is funny it has become locked in the first place because the table is where it all began. This is where cooking came from. Ask cooks why they cook and a lot of them will tell you it is because of some formative experience that happened around a table growing up. A lot of the best experiences I have had were about sharing dinners. I like bringing it back to what it is about, which is feeding people but also providing everyone with these singular personal experiences… on a level that you can experience without giving up their individuality but while still giving in to the communal aspect.
I used to work at Sportello and there are no cocktails. The only way you get a drink is by telling your server what kind of spirits you like and what you're into. That formless experience where there is no menu and the only way to get a drink is to interact is cool. We are certainly not doing that—we work on these menus for weeks before the dinner so the food is pretty set—but we come up with it by talking with each other. What do we want to present? Where is that coming from? We provide this larger picture that tells the story of our experiences. All of those things combine to express a well-formed idea of a whole of what we think we have to offer and what we think we can provide by way of an experience.