Down the Aisle:Emily Fiffer and Heather Sperling

Co- Owners of Botanica Restaurant and Market Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

These two besties have been working on Botanica since 2014, when Heather (then living in New York City) first proposed the idea to Emily (then living in Chicago), to finally bring the two of them and their shared vision together. When I caught up with them earlier this year, they were in the midst of a situation that they would never have imagined in those early years: They were finally putting roots down in Los Angeles, they had just reached their fundraising goal of $60,000 through Kickstarter, and they would soon be opening their first restaurant. It’s rare to come across two people who are as enthusiastic about finding, supporting, and showcasing great small-scale food producers as Heather and Emily. Lucky you, Los Angeles!

How often do you find yourself at this farmer’s market?

H: We have so many markets surrounding us- Echo Park, Atwater, and Silverlake- but this is the motherlode. Hollywood and Santa Monica are the heavy hitters.

E: It depends on the week, but being busy has never stopped me from making time to go to the farmer’s market. Coming here is like meditation. It’s a real pleasure.

H: When I was 16 I remember telling my mom, “I can’t wait to get my driver’s license so I can go grocery shopping.” She looked at me like, “Yes, please!”

How do you approach the market? Do you shop with a list, a meal in mind, or any type of mental map?

E: We don’t come to the market with a list unless we are catering, which is different than our own personal shopping.

H: We’ve been doing a ton of catering as the restaurant gets built out- anything from 10 person to 150 person parties. For the big ones, we come with our wagon and our long list of ingredients. It’s an intense military-like operation.

E: Just checking things off a list- boom, boom, boom.

H: …but we still always get distracted talking about food and fondling snap peas.


“Honestly, I wouldn’t even see the dandelion greens if Ryan Gosling were there. I’d like to state that for the record.”

So tell us about the paths that led each of you to Los Angeles and to opening Botanica.

H: Emily and I met in Chicago in 2009 when we were both working in publishing. One day Emily emailed me saying that she loved The Tasting Table, which is where I worked at the time, and asked to get lunch. We have been best friends ever since!

E: Our relationship started around the fact that for work, Heather always had to go out to these new restaurants to try food and there were times when she didn’t want to do that solo. She started inviting me since I really loved trying new things as well. It was a really unique and fun way to start a relationship. She was always so open and really pushed me to say yes to all of these new things. I’m so glad I said yes.

 

H: That is so sweet! (Quietly) Oooh, Anna Kendrick… brown leather jacket.

E: Good sighting, I am proud of you for that one!

H: This is the other distracting thing when we are buying food here- celebrity sightings.

E: But we’re really bad at spotting them because we’re not up on it.

H: Or because we’re looking at produce.

Right? Like, “Oh, there’s Ryan Gosling… Oh look at these dandelion greens!”

E: Honestly, I wouldn’t even see the dandelion greens if Ryan Gosling were there. I’d like to state that for the record.


“I still remember the day when I got back from a long trip I saw the email in my inbox from Heather saying, “Let’s do this!” My jaw dropped, I called my boyfriend over, and I said I feel like Heather just proposed to me!”

Sounds like your relationship was really founded upon eating, cooking, and talking about food together?

H: Yes, and exploring.

E: Both of us are naturally curious people.

H: So fast forward a bit and we decided to start our first business together.

E: Which was a monthly pop-up food and design market in Chicago.

H: That was what planted the seed for Botanica. We were giving producers and food makers a physical platform to share their work and we began to create a community around that.

E: We got high on the feeling of bringing people together.

Tell us about some items we always find in your fridge.

H: I always have honey dates. They are so soft and caramel-y. I put them in nut milks or eat them on their own. Also, Sabrina’s olive oil from Weibe Farms. Walnuts and pecans from Avila + Sons I put those in grain dishes and salads… Aris yogurt, which is plain sheep’s milk yogurt. Oh, also Manouri cheese, a sheep’s milk cheese.

E: I’m always getting tahini, and I use it in just about everything- dressing, dips, desserts like halva and tahini fudge. I like two brands: Soom Tahini and Seed and Mill Tahini, both of which get their sesame seeds from Ethiopia. Not all tahinis are created equal.

H: Oh, and if you want a really beautiful dessert, just heat some dates in a pan with some olive oil and then drizzle them with tahini and put a bit of sea salt on top. Then add some magical Aris yogurt.


“Cooking can be so fulfilling, and a lot of our friends have the desire to cook more but feel they don’t have the tools.”

What’s your favorite quick meal?

E: A salad on top of a giant moat of lemony-garlicky yogurt. Just take a big handful of fresh greens and dress them with lemon olive oil, sumac, and some salt and pepper. Season your yogurt with garlic, lemon, and sea salt. Fry and egg and put it on top.

H: We make a chili oil from scratch, which I always have on hand. I’ll put a big glug of that in a pan, heat it up a bit, and then crack an egg in it. Once that starts to sizzle, I’ll break up the egg so it’s like a quick scrambled egg. I throw that in a bowl with some avocado and lemon zest, and it’s delicious.

So how did you two end up in LA?

H: I first headed to New York with my now husband thinking we would settle down there and grow our roots. I was doing consulting work while Emily continued freelancing in Chicago.

E: Being separated only lasted about a year.

H: While I was in NYC, we quickly realized Botanica was what was going to be next. The shape and the character of the business came together so quickly, and has remained the same ever since.


“For work, Heather always had to go out to these new restaurants to try food and there were times when she didn’t want to do that solo. She started inviting me since I really loved trying new things as well. It was a really unique and fun way to start a relationship.”

E: I still remember the day when I got back from a long trip I saw the email in my inbox from Heather saying,  “Let’s do this!” My jaw dropped, I called my boyfriend over, and I said I feel like Heather just proposed to me!

Were you worried about how she would take this email proposing the idea to start Botanica?

H: Yes! I felt like I had just proposed to someone! I literally built her a fake website. It was set up to look like a restaurant…it was a pitch.

E: It just felt like everything had led up to this. She sent the email in June of 2014.

Why did you guys decide on Silverlake? Why Los Angeles, since both of you were in Chicago and New York?

H: We have had an immense respect for what has been happening in the food world out here. We felt like we would be incredibly fortunate to be a part of it.

E: It went from, “Whoa, I can’t believe I would ever do this.” to, “Duh, this is the most natural place for us..” We are in love with Silverlake. It’s so tight knit, and your neighbors say, “Hi” to you on the street and people stop to talk to each other.

Botanica is an ambitious project; as a restaurant, online magazine, and a market. Tell us about why the market was such an important part of it.

H: It is important to us to give people more than just a meal on a plate. We want to sell and make available to the public everything we love to use in our kitchen. We also want to continue to support producers that we believe in and that are making products that inspire us and the food we make.

E: It’s a full circle approach. If you love a dish in the restaurant, well that’s because of this ingredient and that ingredient and you can buy them here.  Then you can go and  learn how to make it by reading the recipe on our online magazine. We hope to enrich people’s lives. Cooking can be so fulfilling, and a lot of our friends have the desire to cook more but feel they don’t have the tools. This was created with that purpose in mind.


“Our grandmothers will both be with us at the restaurant in spirit, for sure.”

If you could cook dinner for anyone alive or dead, who would it be?  

E: My grandmother. She passed away a bit over a year ago. I used to cook for her all of the time, and nothing brought me more joy.

H: Our grandmothers will both be with us at the restaurant in spirit, for sure.

E: There are some bad-ass pioneering women in the business that I would love to cook for, like Ina Garten. She runs her business in such an inspiring way. Also, Jen Agg, who opened one of the most well-known and respected restaurants in Toronto called The Black Hoof. She is at a Joe Beef level of bad-assery in terms of level and quality of food she is serving, and is also paying as much attention to ambience and service as she does to food. She has become an unbelievable spokesperson for treating women fairly in the restaurant world. I think she is extraordinarily bold and inspiring.