I recently found myself seated around a dining table in an intimate Greenpoint, Brooklyn, location, eating a five-course meal with seven strangers. It was a speakeasy-style dinner, held by private chef Claire Phelan in a location that was undisclosed until the ticket purchase. The event was called "Eat Your Grief"—every ingredient in each course was selected for its supposed therapeutic value, purported to assuage anxiety, boost mood, treat depression, or even relieve obsessive worrying.
Professional clinical herbalist Ray Edwards was on hand to explain how the ingredients nourished both mind and soul, and even sent us each home with a sample of tea designed to fight stress and sadness.
To Phelan's credit, after I sprung it on her last minute that I'm a vegetarian, she was able to whip up alternatives for the meat- or chicken-broth based courses, and I never felt left out of any of the experience.
I caught up with Phelan just after she relocated to Philadelphia, where she plans to continue hosting off-the-beaten-path dining adventures. The next Eat Your Grief dinner will be June 9.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Claire. How did you get into cooking? Claire Phelan: I've been bringing people together over food most of my life. I grew up with nightly family dinners, then brought that tradition with me when I went to Bard for college, organizing and cooking for large communal meals regularly.
While my "day job" nowadays is cooking instruction and catering, I actually got into professional cooking through holding pop-ups dinners; I hosted the first (a five-course seasonal tasting menu at a Brooklyn art-gallery space) a year ago just for fun, and then decided to pursue cooking as a career after experiencing such an unexpectedly high level of public interest and an enthusiastic response.
What do you like about throwing a group of strangers together for a meal? The "communal table" is where people used to regularly process issues together, from celebration to grieving; our busy modern society has more or less lost that. My focus is on bringing back community through shared, intimate, food-based experiences, and by introducing new ideas, feeding curiosity, and encouraging a dialogue.
I've found that many who attend my dinners were primarily attracted to the experimental food and theme elements, but then leave gushing about the people they've met—so gratifying!
What are the challenges of cooking in small places/apartments/ever-changing spaces? About what you'd expect, but I enjoy the challenges—and adrenaline—that navigating each new space brings.
How did you come up with the idea for Eat Your Grief? I received the cookbook Food and Life as a gift. It's co-authored by world-famous chef Joël Robuchon and acupuncturist/neuropharmacist Nadia Volf. I started thinking about eating to support mental health and relieve anxiety, stress, depression, and so on. In spite of my active interest in healthy cooking and holistic health and mental illness, I'd never really thought about how food can affect mood. Inspired by the authors's recommendations, I did some research of my own, reading through many scientific studies, and so on…. I posted about the concept on Facebook and received an immediate and overwhelming response, which is when I started piecing together the menu for the first dinner. I then found Ray Edwards, and arranged for her to attend to complement the menu with an expert-led discussion.
Can you describe one of the courses from the Eat Your Grief dinner? A dish I will be repeating for the upcoming dinner is a smoked-salmon salad: It includes fish to boost brain function; pineapple for the amino acid tryptophan, which the body uses to produce serotonin; bell peppers for higher dopamine levels; turmeric to help the brain produce new cells; and black pepper to treat depression.
Can you reveal anything about the location of the upcoming Eat Your Grief event? I can't, but I will tell you that I look for welcoming venues with intimate spaces, to help frame the experience as one where people can feel comfortable and safe engaging.
What other theme events do you have in the works? I have a number of different ideas, but the next series I plan to implement will be "Last Suppers." These menus and the environments and staging will be inspired by both famous and infamous and more obscure historical meals, such as the dinner menu on the Titanic and the last banquet the Girondins—French revolutionaries—enjoyed before their execution.
How has moving to Philly changed what you do? The thing I miss most about New York is my diverse and extensive network, and I can't wait to build something similar in Philadelphia so I can continue to organize fun and thought-provoking events. I'd like to encourage any experts or enthusiasts, interest groups, venue managers, artists, and any other kinds of creators who'd be interested in collaborating to reach out to me!
Thanks for speaking with me.