Connect with us

Dining

At Michele’s, sophisticated cuisine in an inclusive space

Executive sous chef Rachel Bindel brings her full identity to work

Published

on

‘Being at Michele’s, I can be my full self, which makes my work better, too,’ says Michele’s executive sous chef Rachel Bindel. (Photo courtesy Michele’s)

Both traditional and chosen, it’s all about family at Michele’s. Michelin-starred chef and owner Matt Baker named the restaurant after his late mother, but it’s also where Executive Sous Chef Rachel Bindel, who identifies as a lesbian, feels at home. 

“I have never felt comfortable enough to be completely open about myself until I met this team,” she says.

As Executive Sous Chef, Bindel oversees daily operations at Michele’s, located in the mission-focused Eaton Hotel. She also plans menus and runs scheduling, sourcing, and events.

The menu at Michele’s is a reflection of Chef Baker’s upbringing in Houston and New Orleans, resulting in a sophisticated, French-American cuisine. Both Baker and Bindel are trained in classical French techniques, and both also spent time cooking and studying in East Asia. The combination of their background and vision come together at the tables at Michele’s.

Bindel also oversees the chef’s table 10-seat, 14-course, Lorraine’s Counter. Each dish is inspired by specific food memories, designed and cooked by the chefs to tell the story of Michele’s and who they are as chefs. 

Driven and creative, Bindel, who grew up in the Mid-Atlantic region, recalls food nostalgia as far back as the wafting aromas of her mother’s baked ziti fresh from the oven. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, steeping herself in French cooking and a specialized focus on Advanced Japanese Techniques.

But it was also while studying at the CIA when she met her wife Marissa. Both were CIA students moonlighting as staff at the on-campus restaurant. A back-of-house romance soon blossomed and they married last month. 

After graduating, the two relocated to Charleston, where Bindel worked at acclaimed restaurant Husk. “While I loved living at the beach, eventually it was time to move back home,” she said. She came to D.C. in June of 2019, landing at Tail Up Goat. 

In September of 2021, she joined 101 Hospitality (the parent company run by Chef Baker that also manages Gravitas and Baker’s Daughter) to run research and development for Michele’s. The restaurant opened last November.

When Bindel graduated, she moved to Charleston in search of the best place to expand her cooking chops. But it was also not the most open space she has encountered in her young career.

In D.C., “a more welcoming city,” she notes, she has the ability to look at both the cooking and the environment for the staff, where everyone can be open about who they are.

“Being at Michele’s, I can be my full self, which makes my work better, too. I don’t have to hide, so I can explore even more who I am as a chef.” 

Her work is on full display for the restaurant’s current seasonal menu. A highlight: the Parisian gnocchi, a flour-based dough pocket in the French style, in place of the traditional potato. The pasta spheres are bathed in a rich Parmesan cream, snuggled by foraged mushrooms and brilliantly green spring peas and asparagus. Other veggie-forward items include a duo of tarte flambee: potato and black truffle, and squash blossom and ricotta. The restaurant also serves fresh French bread, cheese and charcuterie plates, and lofty seafood towers.

“At Michele’s,” she says, “we have created not only a safe space for our diners but also all of our staff. We have adopted a more inclusive standard of service. We no longer serve all females first, and we have eliminated the need for gender pronouns when addressing tables. Being on the management side, I can create space for everyone to be comfortable.”

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Dining

Crazy Aunt Helen’s to host ‘Pride-a-palooza’

Barracks Row restaurant celebrating all month long

Published

on

Crazy Aunt Helen’s ‘serves American comfort food with a southern slant.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Shane Mayson’s restaurant is as colorful as his language. His multi-hued American eatery Crazy Aunt Helen’s debuted last July on Barracks Row, just a few days after Pride concluded. But as Pride is 365, this restaurant has spent its first year with flair and fanfare, and this June, Mayson, who identifies as gay, isn’t holding back.

“I LOVE PRIDE MONTH,” Mayson wrote (caps are his). “I love everything we have at Crazy Aunt Helen’s for Pride. Check out our events and get blown away,” he says.

This isn’t Mayson’s first Pride – but it is his first as owner of Crazy Aunt Helen’s, a delightfully fabulous neighborhood restaurant in Barracks Row.  

Thus far in June, Mayson has already held comedy shows, book readings, a ladies’ tea dance, play readings, bingo, and a Story District event. Coming up on June 25, to end Pride month with even more color, is “Pride-a-palooza,” featuring a host of drag queens, food, drinks, prizes, and plenty of surprises that MayD.C. Mayor Muriel Bowserson has been waiting an entire year to showcase.

Crazy Aunt Helen’s “serves American comfort food with a southern slant,” explains Mayson. Taking over the space of Irish pub Finn McCool’s, Crazy Aunt Helen’s spreads over two floors, plus a patio and streatery. The interior is wildly bright: a Prince-esque purple host stand and staircase welcome guests, and a highlighter-green wooden banquette runs the length of the dining room. A set of wicker chairs and flower-print cushions recall that southern influence.

Mayson enlisted Pixie Windsor – the very same of eponymous Miss Pixie’s – to design the restaurant (the two have been friends for years). “Pixie has a way with creating fabulous comfortable spaces,” Mayson says. 

Windsor and Mayson partnered to craft the whimsical aesthetic, from the brilliant paint job to a bright-pink neon sign.

Mayson is quick to note that his Aunt Helen “was charming, warm, and funny, with an amazing laugh, and I wanted my restaurant to have that same feeling,” he says. “I wanted our guests to feel like they are getting a big’ol hug each time they walk in the doors.” 

The menu is just as homey and eclectic. Mayson waxes poetic about the fried green tomatoes, the chicken fried steak smothered in chicken sausage gravy, and a Jewish-style braised brisket. Yet many of the dishes are also vegan and vegetarian, like the “fab” cakes made of soy and mushroom and a vegan steak.

As for the drinks, Mayson says that the “signature cocktails are also seasonally driven, and I only use local distilleries like Republic Restoratives, another LGBTQIA business.” There’s also a list of beer, wine, and zero-proof drinks.

Mayson has been in the restaurant business since he moved to D.C. in 1984, working first at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill, and most recently as director of business development for the restaurant group of the highly lauded restaurant industry leader, and lesbian, Jamie Leeds.

Mayson is using Pride this year as Crazy Aunt Helen’s coming out, both as a restaurant and a safe space. “I can say that I have had experiences in my life where I didn’t feel welcomed places. The staff and I work very hard to make sure everyone who walks into Crazy Aunt Helen’s feels welcome,” he says.

“I find it’s the small things that build to allow folks to feel safe,” he notes. There’s no required uniform, allowing staff to dress however they feel most comfortable. Mayson also makes an effort to support local LGBTQ artists and performers, giving them space in the second-floor Peacock Room to share their talents.

To that end, Mayson is offering The Rainbow Theatre Project, a theater group that has been dark since pandemic closings, a home until they are back up and running. During June, they performed four staged readings from four LGBTQ playwrights. “I can’t wait to have the Peacock Room buzzing with entertainment every night of the week and to hear all the people laughing and enjoying the food, each other and the show,” Mayson says.

Mayson’s goal at Crazy Aunt Helen’s is twofold: create a space “that’s welcoming and nourishing to both our bellies and our spirits.”

Shane Mayson (Photo courtesy of Mayson)

Continue Reading

Dining

Relish Market offers a space for wellness

Lesbian entrepreneur a supporter of mission-driven brands

Published

on

Stephanie Freeman and daughter Alexia Yates own Relish Market. (Photo by Kea Dupree)

From urban farmer to wellness provider, Stephanie Freeman has been a caregiver to the earth and to her customers for more than a decade. Freeman, who identifies as lesbian, owns Relish Market with her daughter, Alexia Yates. Located in Brentwood, Md., Relish offers housemade drinks, herb and spice mixes, condiments, wellness products, and a host of proudly D.C.-made products.

Freeman founded Relish Market in 2018 and opened a storefront inside of miXt Food Hall in October 2019 upon the inauguration of the hall. (miXt co-hosted the Arts, Beats, and Eats festival in May, which featured several LGBTQ artists.)

Freeman began in the food industry in earnest in 2013 as an urban farmer and food entrepreneur selling her hot sauce and condiment brand, Pepperly Love, at farmer’s markets and events throughout the area. Her daughter Yates focuses on the catering and custom beverage aspects of Relish. With a background as a chef, she brings experience and creativity to the goods at Relish.

Although Freeman came from the corporate world, she grew up in a home with a big, productive garden. She has cherished memories of canning produce with her grandfather.

Among its offerings, Relish may be best known for its beverages. It serves a rainbow’s worth of smoothies: everything from strawberry-banana to peanut butter, kale, and whey. The shop offers more than 20 add-ons to boost the drinks, including new superfoods like sea moss gel and black seed oil. There’s also a range of juices and proprietary tea mixes like elderberry echinacea chai. All the options are made in house, just like her own spice and herb blends: she’s packed everything from butterfly pea flowers to valerian root to adobo lime spice mix.

When the opportunity came up to open the marketplace within MiXt, Freeman jumped at the occasion. The food hall allowed her to further express her creativity and provided her with a platform to showcase her talents – and put her in front of a bigger, broader audience, but also one that seeks to make close connections.

“I’m proud,” she says,” because there aren’t so many places for healthy choices where customers can ask questions while also supporting local.”

Having opened at the end of 2019, Relish soon had to confront pandemic restrictions. While customers couldn’t stay to eat at MiXt and many vendors were closed, Relish was able to stay open. It was during this challenging period that Freeman leaned in to her wellness background.

The gray of the pandemic cloud therefore offered something of a silver lining. Relish became a community space when so many other vendors and food establishments were shuttered. It was through these in-person interactions that Freeman has found her calling.

Freeman has embraced her role as caregiver and supporter of mission-driven brands. She stocks products from more than 20 local vendors in addition to her own in-house-crafted products. Being in front of so many customers, she’s proud to show that people like her can create wholesome, welcoming spaces.

“People see the shop as more than just selling food, but create a space for wellness,” she says.

Referring to other LGBTQ people in the food space, she says that the community is “often underrepresented and underreported on.” She also notes her ability to “pass” as a straight Black woman unless she specifically speaks about her identity. She therefore ensures to recognize others who need that recognition. When sourcing her products, she always looks to organizations that are supportive. She has also participated in Black Pride events in the past.

“I’m excited to show to other would-be entrepreneurs to know that it’s possible here, as an example. I want to emphasize that I certainly had to overcome obstacles, whether its Black, or female, or otherwise, but it is possible, even with the odds stacked against you.”

Continue Reading

Dining

Award-winning chef on pasta, pandemic, and queer visibility

Richmond’s Laine Myers among StarChefs Rising Stars honorees

Published

on

Laine Myers is blazing a unique path through the Richmond culinary scene.

Laine Myers is bringing pasta to the people. Through her dishes, Myers has received critical acclaim – and through her identity, has elevated her community.

Myers was named as part of the elite 2022 cadre of D.C.-area StarChefs Rising Stars. The awardees are a collection of emerging chefs and bartenders recognized by StarChefs, an industry group that supports the restaurant world. 

Myers, who identifies as queer and as part of the LGBTQ community, is blazing a unique path through the Richmond culinary scene. “My queerness has become my brand,” she says. “People feel comfortable talking to us – it’s the trust that we create,” as much as the pasta, she notes.

Myers and the other Rising Stars were “recognized by StarChefs for their culinary strengths, charitable contributions to the DMV, and their ability to navigate, lead, and inspire,” according to StarChefs. 

Originally from Connecticut, Myers was an undergraduate when she began cooking professionally. She soon landed at Graffiato, which was Richmond’s biggest new restaurant at the time from (now-disgraced) celebrity chef Mike Isabella. While there, she fell in love with the pasta station. She soon moved on to a restaurant from another Rising Star and Top Chef alum, Brittany Anderson. Finally, she was named executive chef at Nota Bene in 2019, while simultaneously founding Oro, a pop-up focused on seasonal and vegetable-forward hand-made pasta and other Italian dishes.

When the pandemic hit, Myers quickly realized that a traditional restaurant format was unsustainable. She left Nota Bene to concentrate on Oro.

The pandemic offered opportunity – and challenges. “On one hand, it gave me time to reset and really identify how I wanted to conduct both myself and my business moving forward in an industry that was heavily scrutinized for the poor work environment it’s notoriously known for,” she says. “On the other hand, much of the pandemic has felt improvisation, and like survival.” Myers noted that she encountered significant discrimination as a woman and queer professional in the kitchen, only thriving later under women-led restaurants and later especially as an entrepreneur and owner herself.

Today, she runs her own business with her partner. “We are the face of Oro, and I think our queerness has been roped into the brand.” When she brings Oro to farmers’ markets, she notes the support from the LGBTQ community and Oro has become a de facto LGBTQ caterer of choice. “We get approached by gay couples constantly. There’s intention, trust, and understanding.” 

Establishing these grassroots, core community relationships brought her through the pandemic – and allowed her to gain visibility in a male, hetero-dominated industry. Running Oro through the pandemic laid bare her priorities: both pasta and connecting with the local LGBTQ community. 

Oro operates currently out of a small commissary kitchen in Hatch Café. Her creative offerings run from a “Cinderella Pumpkin Casconcelli” with dates, toasted pepitas, Parmesan, and rosemary, to a charred pappardelle with sweet baby cauliflower and a jammy egg. Beyond the pasta, she churns out antipasti like beet-butternut caponata and desserts like a walnut tart and borscht cheesecake. Beyond crafting small-batch pasta for farmers’ markets and gay weddings, Myers also offers retail and wholesale pasta, and runs a rotating supper club.

StarChefs gave Myers the award because she “expertly executed pasta centric dishes reflect both art and craft. They are the honest fruit of years of hard work both developing her creative personal cooking style and perfecting her past game – and the Richmond dining scene is all the better for it, states StarChefs Managing Partner Will Blunt. Others receiving the award include D.C.-based chefs Paolo Dungca of Pogiboy, Angel Barreto of Anju, and the team behind RASA. StarChefs is running a two-week promotion through March 29 is showcasing the 2022 D.C.-area restaurants “that best represent the future of American dining.”

Up Next, Myers plans to continue being creative and flexible. She’s looking to create a brick-and-mortar daytime pasta-crafting kitchen, shop, and education center that also offers “sexy dinner service at night.” 

She believes that “there needs to be holistic change in the industry. I must have space where workers can thrive and be well. We can’t go back to the old model of 80 hours a week.”

“If I can’t ask someone else to do it how can I ask myself to do it? That is certainly a queer perspective,” Myers concludes.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular

[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]