Photo credit: Daniel Arnold

It might be annoying when you’re typing up your resume, but we happen to love when a gastrognome has so many job titles that they just don’t fit on the page. Such is the case with Merida, who in addition to owning her own company (complete with shiny new website available here) is also a baker and recipe developer for famed Brooklyn restaurant Vinegar Hill House and their forthcoming Hillside Cafe, and pastry chef for A Tavola restaurant in New Paltz, New York.

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

I’m not someone who always knew what she wanted to do – I followed a number of creative and academic pursuits before finding my way into cooking.  But I was blessed with an adventurous palate and I always loved food – and as a child I was obsessed with baking.  My family is Jewish, and my great aunt was an incredible cook and baker who married an Italian – she gracefully wove Italian cooking in with Jewish.  My mother was a bit of a hippie and was very dedicated to feeding me in a healthy, mostly vegetarian way.  So I had a few different food traditions going on simultaneously, all of which influenced me from the time I was very young.  Through my mother, and for years before it was popular, I understood and internalized the importance of organic food and health supportive cooking, but over the years I’d also gotten very interested in sustainability.  I’d started cooking a lot of dinner parties, and for a while I had a small catering company with a friend.  We really had no idea what we were doing, so I took an 8 week master class with Peter Berley at the Natural Gourmet.  That class and Chef Berley sealed the deal for me – I saw someone weaving strong culinary traditions, knowledge and technique with modern values about sustainable agriculture, locality and seasonality, and I knew that was what I wanted to do.  I enrolled in culinary school, and afterwards did an internship at Al Di La in Brooklyn under Anna Klinger, who later hired me to do pastry for the restaurant. I worked there for a while, then went to Four and Twenty Blackbirds (another HUGE influence), and then to Vinegar Hill House.

How did you get your current good food job?

I have some friends who are involved with Vinegar Hill House, and they let me know early on about the cafe project (Hillside), and that they thought I would be a good match for it.  Jean Adamson was looking for someone who could come with a lot of ideas and creative energy, which I definitely had.  I was intimidated to meet her, but we hit it off and happily had very similar ideas and a shared aesthetic about what the pastry menu for Hillside should look like.  She set me loose in the kitchen and we just tasted, tasted, tasted for months.  I was very lucky that so early in my career someone offered me a lot of creative freedom and feedback on my work.  Its been a dream job for a cook – a truly collaborative process, working with and learning from chefs/business owners for whom I have great respect and admiration.

In May I’ll be relocating to the New Paltz area of upstate New York to work for my friends who own a great little Italian restaurant called A Tavola.  I met them through my former job at Al Di La. I will be pastry chef and bread baker there, and I’m hoping I’ll be making some pasta as well!  I’m very much looking forward to being closer to the source of my food.  A Tavola has close relationships with many area farmers and foragers – its the kind of place where, when you want strawberries in June, you call up the farm and someone brings a flat of them to the kitchen door, still warm from the sun.  A romantic cliche, I know, but one that really gets me excited.

Additionally, I have my company, Chestnut Honey, which is growing.  Chestnut Honey is about private cooking for busy families, health supportive cooking for people who need that, and small scale catering.  This summer I’m hoping to add classes to my repertoire.  Its very fulfilling for me to work collaboratively with clients who share my values about sustainable food, and who look forward to eating what I make for them.  Working in restaurants is really fun, but there is by design a disconnect between what I make and the people who eat it.  What I most love to see is a beautiful feast on a long table, people coming together around it – it satisfies my need to nurture, as well as my creative/gastronomic urges. These things are the reason I’m doing what I’m doing.

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

The vast majority of my previous work experience is in the service industry.  I’ve worked front of house since high school – I started as a hostess, then waited tables for years.  And for the last nine years, I’ve been a bartender at the Bowery Ballroom here in New York City – a concert venue where I’ve learned to be a highly skilled, extremely fast and efficient multi-tasker who knows how to converse and deal with the public.  When put in the context of food work, that skill set is of the highest value.  Bartending has prepared me for my food career in a way I think few other jobs could have, and I’m very grateful for it.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?

Anyone who goes into food work with the intention of getting rich is fooling themselves, but its tough to live in New York City on a restaurant cook’s salary. \ I’ve had to really hustle and supplement my income from cooking with other work, and it has been hard.  (This is part of why I’m moving upstate!)  But the biggest challenge for me (as I think it is for many creative people) has been having to push against my own self doubt, uncertainty, and feeling like I got into this field too late in life.  In order to keep moving forward, I’ve really let a lot of that go and learned to trust myself more.  You develop a thicker skin.  And luckily I’ve been employed and mentored by some pretty amazing, visionary people who believed in me and took chances on me at the right time.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?

I think entrepreneurship is where it’s at.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

Big smiles, full bellies, love.  And maybe a large dog.

What’s your favorite bakery on the planet?