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.