Down The AisleTarajia Morrell

Food Writer, Restaurant Consultant, and Partner at the Restaurant Metta Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

Throughout the last few years I have found myself returning time and again to Tarajia's writing at The Lovage, which ranges from reflections on seasonal feasts and local restaurants to intimate travel guides, and where I tend to lose myself for hours in her witty and often vulnerable writing. She was raised in NYC by a family that is no stranger to the food and wine world, and I jumped at the chance to join her in visiting some of the places she has been frequenting since she was a child. We explored some of these old-school Midtown butcher shops and markets while talking about cooking with love, the future of food, and her new partnership with the recently opened Brooklyn restaurant Metta.


“How can you not have shallots!? They are the best thing in the world! I also have extra tubes of anchovy paste. It’s my secret weapon.”

 

How does what you buy at the grocery store reflect who you are?

I buy pretty simply. The things I like to have in my fridge are good eggs and hearty greens. I don’t know if I’m going to get to them immediately, so I usually go with Swiss chard or radicchio- greens that will be crunchy but will also braise or sauté well and will last for a long time. I also have tons of shallots. They are so essential. When I go to someone’s house to cook and they don’t have shallots, I’m like, “How can you not have shallots!? They are the best thing in the world! I also have extra tubes of anchovy paste. It’s my secret weapon. I have a kit- a tube of anchovy paste, a head of garlic, lemons, and mustard.

I’m also very particular about my eggs- they have to be farm fresh. Quattro’s farm has great eggs. They sell at Union Square and their farm is Upstate in Pleasant Valley, which I go to often when I visit my parent’s place.

I typically try to get to the Dag Hammarskjold Greenmarket every Wednesday, which is the best option in my neighborhood. If I miss this market, my daily meals kind of go out the window.

What is a go-to meal that you return to week after week?

My favorite “home alone and so excited about it” meal is sautéed kale with tons of shallots and a couple of eggs baked into it. I’ll also make a savory yogurt to go on top.

Have you always lived here in NYC?

I lived in Los Angeles for 3 years and in Barcelona and South America for shorter periods of time.

How did your routines around food adapt to living in different parts of the world?

In retrospect, I see that wherever I have been, it was cooking at home that grounded me. When I lived in Barcelona, for instance, I didn’t speak the language, wasn’t able to legally work, and I didn’t know anyone. My boyfriend at that time was traveling a ton, and I would just go to the markets. My only interaction with people throughout the day was with the people I was buying fish from. I would go to them to buy sea urchins to teach myself how to take the tongues out, and just because I needed human contact. I would derive so much passion from the process of learning and cooking. My life has always revolved around food, long before I entered into that world professionally.


“I’ve always believed that there has to be something wrong with it if there are no calories in it. It doesn’t make any sense unless it’s a cucumber. Food has calories- it’s supposed to have calories- that’s why you’re eating it!”

 

Do you have anyone that you would consider a mentor, who you see as having a really unique attitude towards sourcing and cooking food on a daily basis?

I’ve learned a lot from the chefs I have been lucky enough to spend time with. Whether it’s making a really simple soup at home and adding freshly ground fennel seeds and cumin- things that completely change the experience of an incredibly simple dish; or obviously in my family- cooking with wine, which is an ingredient in many things that we make. I was at a market in France with my good friend Camille Becerra, and I would watch the way she builds a dish while she shops for it- with brightness, spices, and savory ingredients.

Also, there’s my friend Fernando, who has a ceramic studio and O Cafe. I ate his food the other day and it was so simple and clean, but there were so many nuances- like nuts and milks that were so fresh and healthy.

I feel like there is a new kind of movement in the food world… I don’t know what else to call it other than “future food”. It’s like health food but with things like bone broth, or pickled and fermented foods that are nutritious and good for digestion. I really feel like it is the food of the future. It’s not about calorie counting or being low-fat. I have never eaten like that. I’ve always believed that there has to be something wrong with it if there are no calories in it. It doesn’t make any sense unless it’s a cucumber. Food has calories- it’s supposed to have calories- that’s why you’re eating it!

What’s one ingredient that are you obsessed with right now?

Turmeric. Fresh turmeric is addictive. It emboldens whatever it’s added to with a saffron-y yellow tone, and lends a rich, earthy and bright flavor and scent. Apart from its deliciousness, it’s also a superfood, has strong anti-inflammatory properties, and promotes liver health (which seem like a good thing if you drink as much wine as I do) not to mention being anti-carcinogenic, anti-bacterial, and supposedly it even has a calming effect. When I find fresh turmeric at the market, I put it in everything- particularly savory yogurts, fizzy water, sautéed greens, curries, stews, you name it. I just microplane it into and onto everything and stir. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever give up my vices, so if I can balance them with other delicious but healthful ingredients, why not?

Favorite grocery store in NYC?

Definitely Kalustyans. I love the smell of all the spices there. I’m obsessed with these peppers called Pequin. They have the perfect heat, not the kind that makes you lose your mind, but with real flavor and depth. I buy them in bulk there. I also love Simchicks, an old school butcher shop in Midtown that my family has been going to for years, and of course SOS Chefs Downtown.

If you were stranded on an island and could only have 5 ingredients in your suitcase, what would you bring?

Ostensibly I wouldn’t need to bring salt because I could gather that from rocks, right? I guess I’d want citrus, olive oil, some lettuce seeds, a hen…and a LOT of wine. That’s six. God, being stranded on a desert island sounds pretty great. I miss being feral.


This idea of really minimizing our impact on the environment is very idealistic, but I think now more than ever, we need idealists.”

 

So you now inhabit the same apartment that you grew up in as a kid, watching your parents entertain and host people for dinners. Do you have early memories of those days?

Oh yes, I basically became a waitress when I was able to walk without dropping something.

When I moved back into this apartment, I started the wine and food series, Morrell Salon, to offer my generation a bit of the magic and entertainment with which I was raised. I invite chefs and wine pros to co-host dinners with me (such as Ann Redding and Matt Danzer of Uncle Boons and Mr. Donahue’s; Chris Fischer of Beetlebung Farm; and Angelo Romano), ironically, where my parents originally did all the cooking and pouring themselves.

Is there a meal that your parents made for you growing up that you still get nostalgic for, or that you recreate now?

My mother was and still is an amazing home cook, and is completely self-taught. Summer borscht was a staple, with the freshest, brightest fuchsia vegetarian beet stock puree. Then there was her winter borscht, which was heartier with a “stick to your ribs” feel to it.

Every year my mom makes a cassoulet for my dad’s birthday. Also, it doesn’t matter how many times I have tried it on my own, but my mother’s roasted chicken is still the best I’ve ever had, maybe it’s because it’s her hands making it. I don’t get to cook enough…and really the most fun cooking I have done in my life has been when I’ve been in love.

Tell me about cooking “in love”? I love that phrase.

There is a real magic when people who love food are in the kitchen together… to conceive of a meal together… wandering through the grocery store and grabbing things, excited that you’re going to make something delicious, it’s like talking without speaking.

I absolutely loved the meal I had at Metta- it’s a special place. Tell me how this all came about and what attracted you to the concept of the restaurant.

Metta is such a gift. This is the first time I have ever been a partner in a restaurant. The name of the restaurant comes from the Buddhist practice of sending love out into the universe- love and kindness and benevolence. You can’t get more ideal than that. It has a zero carbon footprint, and that is thanks to the vision of our chef Negro Piattoni. Negro is a really special person and incredibly talented person. He is very soulful- quiet and thoughtful with a belief that every action makes a difference. This idea of really minimizing our impact on the environment is very idealistic, but I think now more than ever, we need idealists.

I am so grateful for the years I spent waitressing because I can step onto the floor and know how to help my team, and I can see far enough ahead to know that it’s more important to polish the steak knives than to schmooze with customers. It makes me happy and relieved to know that in those years of not knowing exactly what I was doing- I sometimes thought they were such a waste- and in being a food writer- that through this restaurant it has come full circle in so many ways.

Take-aways:

  1. Metta Restaurant in Fort GreeneMetta
  2. Tarajia's WritingThe Lovage
  3. Live on Prince StreetThe Morrell Salon