African Chop

Eclectic Instapot of Flavors

Food is so ingrained into the culture of Cameroon that even the West African country’s name, camarão, means shrimp in Portuguese. Throw in some 250 ethnic groups and the influences of colonization by Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Add the Portuguese explorers who named the country after a crustacean and you get an eclectic Instapot of flavors.Flavors served up in African Chop, as far as I can tell the only sub-Saharan African food truck in Los Angeles, California.

"African food was not represented…”

African Chop is part of what has become a fleet of an estimated 400 food trucks in LA. The culturally diverse meals on wheels include the trailblazing Kogi truck which started selling Korean BBQ tacos back in 2008.

It’s only been just over a year since African Chop started cooking, but Hector Tantoh, one of the owners of the food truck, says they are still culinary pathfinders. "African food was not represented in the food truck space in Los Angeles. We are happy to be one of the pioneers,” says Tantoh.

African Chop’s menu features chicken legs, mackerel, beef and even a vegan dish, The to-go meals are all served with a side of  what’s known as jollof rice (more about that later) and puff puff, a savory version of a beignet. It’s a taste of home for Tantoh.

From Young Street Vendor to Food Truck Owner

He grew up in Doula, the biggest seaport in Cameroon. The city is also the country’s financial center. Tantoh compares his birthplace to New York City. "I grew up around street food and street vendors—people selling puff puff and other food on the street,” he says.

His family even got into the act.

"My mom had us selling food on the street too. The values--the hard work I learned in Cameroon have added to the food truck.” He brought those values to the United States where he earned an MBA before landing in Los Angeles. It’s here where he joined forces with fellow Cameroonian Opportune Akendeu, his African Chop partner. It was easy for the two come up with the name for the truck. Back in their homeland “chop" stands for food.

"Easy" Transition to Food Truck

"I never saw a food truck before coming to the US, but it's easy for me to see how it would catch on. I buy food from street vendors all the time. For me it was an easy transition to sell food on the street,” says Tantoh. He and Akendeu take turns when it comes to running the truck. During my visits Tantoh was in the driver’s seat at spots two regular spots. One is near city hall and the other is in front of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as LACMA.

The customers he welcomes are as varied as the city’s food trucks.That includes Whitney Butler, a transplant from Arkansas. She walked passed food trucks in front of LACMA offering fragrant falafel, bulgogi beef and tempting tacos in order to stand in line at African Chop. She’s a regular who always orders the chicken plate. "Once I moved here I tried all kinds of food and I fell in love with African Chop’s chicken,” Butler says.

Actor Kwesi Boakye needed no introduction to African Chop’s fare. Though he’s American-born, his immigrant family is from Ghana. He is very accustomed to the items on the food truck’s menu. A particular favorite of Boakye is jollof.  The tomato, onion and pepper-flavored rice is a side dish at African Chop. But throughout western and central Africa jollof is smack dab in the middle of one of the biggest cuisine conflicts in all of Africa.

The Best I Have Ever Had

With that knowledge I prod Boayke, with his Ghanian ancestry and all, to reveal his favorite version of the dish."Is African Chop’s jollof the best jollof you have ever had?” I ask not so innocently.Tantoh listens and laughs, knowing where I am going with my line of questioning. "For sure! I’m from Ghana. This is one of the best I have ever had,” he responds. Tantoh continues laughing before I go all in. “So jollof from Cameroon is better than Ghana’s?” I ask. Them’s fighting words. Tantoh continues to laugh as Boakye stammers his response.  He recants his previous tasty testimony.

“I can’t say that. No. No. No,” he says. "This is the closest thing to the jollof in Ghana.  It’s up there, it’s up there.”

“My jollof brings all the boys to the yard…"

Boayke’s largess may be due to the fact that jollof beef is especially piquant between Ghana and Nigeria. To calculate the popularity of jollof all you have to do is search the internets. You’ll find jollof festivals. There’s a podcast called “Jesus and Jollof.” There are multitudes of jollof love songs. My favorite lyric from the jollof jam “Ghana Jollof" is “My jollof brings all the boys to the yard…”

Many of African Chop’s customers, like regular Whitney Butler from Arkansas, don’t have a clue about the origins of the rice that’s served along with every African Chop plate. She did not know anything about jollof until I asked her about it. And I’ll admit that I didn’t have a clue about jollof until doing this story. My family heritage traces to the south eastern nation of Malawi where we like our rice plain and uncontroversial.

Schooling Diners

Tantoh says schooling his diners is part of his charge. "In LA where people are very open to trying new cuisines there is still a challenge. They’ll say ‘What is West African food? Oh, it’s rice.' People don’t understand the variety and how big Africa is. There is so much variety within the continent,” he says.

An Education Process

"And because people haven’t been eating this for long they don’t know about it. But you can ask an American and they will tell you about Thai food and different kinds of nuances of Thai and they have never been to Asia. But they can tell you because they’ve experienced it around them. I think part of what we’re doing is an education process." says Tantoh.

In addition to educating patrons about African food the food truck also serves up a healthy helping of African culture.  African Chop is like a walking, make that rolling, billboard festooned with posters and leaflets advertising events around Los Angeles featuring the African diaspora. It’s all part of the general mission.

An Insertion Point

“This is an insertion point. So this is how you break into the cuisine is through jollof. If you’re curious you want to try more.” The business-minded Tantoh believes an introduction to jollof and other foods from his native Cameroon will stimulate consumer interest in say a sit down African sit-down restaurant.  And even perhaps to the African Chop food products Tantoh and his partner hope to distribute to supermarkets one day.

African Chop’s owners are happy to share their roadmap with other food trucks from the continent. They do not see them as competition.

“…we want more people in the market."

The current market is sparse. As far as I can figure there are fewer than a dozen sub-Saharan African food trucks in the United States.

“Opportune and I help people. If somebody wants to start an African food truck we are going to help them because we want more people in the market,” says Tantoh. Because that’s just how he rolls in his drive to make jollof and puff puff as popular in the US as hot dogs and hamburgers. But I have a feeling he settle on making those dishes or at least as well-known as pad thai.

African Chop Food Truck


Los Angeles, California
408 429 5458

About the author

Lena Nozizwe is and  visual and verbal storyteller. The Emmy-award winning journalist’s book, “Starring in Your Own Life,” was published by Simon and Schuster. Her work and passion has landed her in fabulous eating spots, from Paris to Portland, and from Dakkar to Detroit. Nozizwe loves them all. Keep up with her via her Instagram account.

Saffron

In the small town of Twin Falls, Idaho, a refreshing respite from the usual chain restaurants has opened on the ever-regenerating old main street in the historic downtown. Yellow, red, and orange paint with gold accents adorn the walls, suggestive of the warm smells of spice lingering in the air. Wafts of cardamom, cinnamon, and anise engulf you as you enter Saffron, the first standalone Indian restaurant in Twin Falls.
Sanu, from Kolkata, India and Rosemary, his wife from Peru form the dynamic duo running the restaurant. Both Sanu and Rosemary immigrated to the U.S. on work visas within the last 5 years. They met in Sun Valley, Idaho while working at different restaurants in the area and bonded over their mutual love and passion for food.


Sanu and Rosemary

Sanu grew up learning about cooking under the tutelage of his Mother, who he says was a very good cook, but didn’t start thinking about cooking as a career until he was 22. After completing a 3-year degree in Hotel and Hospital Management, he cooked at various 5-star hotels in India. Dreaming of bigger and better things, he heard of an opportunity from a consultancy group for a job cooking in Sun Valley, Idaho and jumped at the opportunity.

Vegetable Curry, Karahi Chicken, Chicken Korma

Rosemary moved to the U.S. four years ago on a work visa to join her family who owns a group of local burrito shops in Southern Idaho called KB’s. In her spare time, she pursued her degree in Business Management from the local community college.
After dating over the course of a few years, they moved to San Francisco and worked in an upscale Indian restaurant, honing their culinary and restaurant chops. During their time in San Francisco, Rosemary’s mother called and asked her if she and Sanu could come help manage and cook at the Pocatello KB’s restaurant to help the family. Rosemary was hesitant as they were really enjoying their time in San Francisco, but she knew she had to help her family, so she agreed.

Chicken 65 Appetizer

After a few months of managing and cooking at the restaurant, although they enjoyed the business, they realized that they longed for something more. Sanu was dying inside to get back to his Indian roots and express his true culinary self. They dreamed of owning their own restaurant, making their own dishes with their own spices in their own way. One night, Rosemary and Sanu were spending time with Sanju, Sanu’s brother who had owned an Indian restaurant in Pocatello. After sharing some laughs, they had a sudden thought- why don’t we open a restaurant?  That night they started looking for available spaces in Twin Falls where they might open a restaurant. As fate would have it, they found that the KB’s burritos in downtown Twin Falls had just closed and was available to lease. Although it was 9 at night, they called the realtor and set up a meeting to see the property the next day. The next day, they showed up at the restaurant and 30 minutes later signed the lease and Saffron was born.


Lunch special with assorted dishes

With the help of Sanju and other family members, they started rapidly painting, decorating, and just 3 months later, Saffron was open for business. With Rosemary running the business side and greeting customers with a smile and Sanu cooking his creative and comforting food, Saffron has taken off. Dishes like chicken 65, an appetizer named for its 65 different spices that go into the flavorful curry, are part of a delicious and adventurous menu. Community members were packed in on the first night I visited, excited to welcome something new and authentic into their town. As I take the first bite of the chicken karahi, flavors of ginger, garam masala, tomato, chiles, and cinnamon warm my palate. The Naan is chewy, buttery and crispy. The rice is fragrant and fluffy. Sanu comes out to eagerly ask how everything is, satisfied as we rave about all the dishes we are eating.


In the back of the kitchen are Renuka, Kal, Krishna, and Ran, immigrants from Nepal and Bhutan, laughing and enjoying each other’s company as they chop onions, garlic, peppers, and ginger. They say they are all one big, happy family. Sanu says that he is most excited when other Indians come in and give positive compliments to the dishes. He says that Indians can be quite critical of Indian food, so when they give their seal of approval, it means a lot. Sanu says that he prides himself on not cutting corners, spending hours simmering the curries, toasting and grinding his own spices, and roasting the vegetables to build the bold, complex flavors that go into each of his dishes. He says that he is constantly experimenting with new dishes, testing them out as specials, and if the customer reaction is good, he will put It on the full-time menu.


Rosemary says that it took her a while to learn all the nuances of Indian food- all the spices, the dishes, and flavors that were very different from her Peruvian roots. She is also learning to speak Hindi, while Sanu is slowly picking up Spanish. Sanu jokes that Peruvian food doesn’t taste like anything, to which Rosemary shoots back asking why he asked her to make Peruvian Ceviche on their day off? Sanu laughs and admits that he has grown to love Peruvian food, but Indian food will always be first in his heart. This beautiful combination of cultures seems to be the secret ingredient to the delicious flavors and inviting ambience of Saffron, making it well on its way to becoming a staple in Twin Falls for years to come.

Visite:
Saffron
117 Main Ave E,
Twin Falls, ID 83301
saffronidaho@gmail.com
Tel: 208-933-2580

About Author: Porter Long

Porter Long is a food scientist by day, food fermentation experimenter by night, and a food enthusiast always. He lives in Twin Falls, Idaho with his wife, two dogs, and four chickens.

Sumela Restaurant

Sumela Restaurant in High Point, North Carolina

A highly popular Turkish restaurant, Sumela Restaurant is very busy, especially at lunchtime. Tucked away in a strip mall the ambiance is cheerful and pleasing with plants and Turkish decor — copper pots displayed on shelves, beautiful Turkish ceramic plates and red carpet displayed on the walls. Turkish music plays in the background and the restaurant has plenty of natural daylight. Outdoor seating is a popular choice during warm weather but we sat indoors as it was a cold day.


Sumela Restaurant
Sumela Restaurant

I met with the owner, Mehmet Cakal to interview him about his background and how he came to open the restaurant.
Mehmet is soft-spoken, but I sense his strength. He hails from Trabzon, Turkey--a province located on the coast of the Black Sea and at the foothills of the Pontic Alps in the NE corner of Turkey. The area is famous for an ancient Greek monastery, Soumela.

Sumela Restaurant
Sumela Restaurant

This Greek Orthodox monastery was founded in 386 AD and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The monastery was built on Mela Mountain within the Pontic Mountains range, in the Maçka district of Trabzon Province in modern Turkey. Soumela means "Black Mountain." The monastery sits on the narrow ledge of a steep cliff.
After immigrating to the USA from Trabzon, Turkey in 1989 Mehmet started a new life in Williamsburg, Virginia. Seven years later he moved to North Carolina. He opened a restaurant in High Point, NC in 1997 and named it Sumela Restaurant--after the Greek monastery. At the restaurant, there is a framed picture of the monastery hanging on the wall, in honor of the monastery.
Initially, Mehmet served grilled hamburgers. Over time people started asking for Turkish food. He realized there was a need and market, especially with the twice-yearly International Furniture Mart Event where designers and customers come from all over the world. Not only is his cuisine popular but locals, visitors, and employees adore him.

Mehmet describes Turkish cuisine as being diverse and includes a lot of vegetables in addition to lamb, beef and chicken. Friends and family members enjoy getting together often for meals. A large pot or platter of food is placed in the center so everyone can eat together. A popular Turkish food is Doner--or Gyro as it is known here. As Mehmet hails from the Black Sea area, seafood--especially fish--is a staple in that region.
The spices he uses commonly in Turkish cuisine include various kinds of dry chili peppers that may be roasted and added to grilled meat kebab marinades. Each chili pepper has a unique flavor. The spices are more flavorful when bought at the spice bazaars in Istanbul. Other spices include cumin, pepper, paprika, rosemary, and oregano. Unlike in middle eastern cuisine, he rarely uses saffron. Dessert may be baklava or rice pudding, both of which are very popular at the restaurant.
Growing up in Trabzon, Turkey as a child, Mehmet helped his father with the family-run business--a convenience store--in Turkey. His mother and sister taught him some basic cooking. Since then he has taught himself the finer aspects of Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine and even today Mehmet’s cooking continues to evolve as he aspires for perfection. Having eaten several times at the restaurant I can easily say he has a very refined style and his restaurant is always busy.

In the last 5 years, he overcame 2 major challenges: first, prolonged road construction that prevented easy access to his customers and his business suffered a serious setback; second, an accident where a car crashed into his restaurant destroying the prep area—the restaurant was shut down for 6 months.
Mehmet took me into his kitchen where he stirred a pot of rice pudding that was simmering on the stove. He also had a pot of boiling sugar syrup to pour over the baklava that was baking in the oven. His chef, Santos, has been working for him for the better part of 20 years.
Mehmet has 2 sons who help him run the restaurant. At home, on Sundays, Mehmet cooks fish for his wife and family. As his wife is allergic to spices, he avoids using them when he cooks her a meal.

I came back on a later date for dinner there with a friend. Everything we ordered was served within a few minutes. With guidance from Mehmet’s son about the different items on the extensive menu we decided to have a 3-course meal and it was a sumptuous experience eating authentic Turkish food!

Sumela Restaurant

For starters, the menu offered many choices such as Baba Ganoush, Spanakopita, Hummus, Tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, and Turkish meat pie. We ordered falafel. Having eaten falafel at many places I can honestly say these were the best—crunchy on the outside with an explosion of flavors inside. Falafel is a deep-fried vegetable patty made with chickpeas ground together with parsley, onions, garlic, and aromatic herbs. The cold yogurt sauce served with the falafel provided a refreshing contrast. In addition to Turkish food, the menu featured several Italian items so we also ordered mozzarella sticks for appetizers and these were also the best I’ve ever had.

Sumela Restaurant

There was a large variety of entrees ranging from Kofte (char-grilled meatballs made from fresh ground beef mixed with chopped onions, parsley, garlic, and spices) beef, lamb and chicken kebabs, salads, wraps, subs and Italian food.


We chose the Tavuk Shish Kebab—chicken kebabs on a skewer and they were delicious! Chargrilled after being marinated in spices overnight they were perfectly seasoned, tender and moist. Served with a yogurt sauce, mildly flavored rice and “Pyaz” ( a fresh salad with cannellini beans, onions, tomatoes, and parsley) they made for a thoughtfully balanced combination.
Wanting to try the Mediterranean entrees we also ordered lemon chicken with a tangy sauce, capers and mushrooms served with steamed vegetables, fresh pita bread, and the best French fries I’ve had.


Dessert was a golden brown homemade pistachio baklava - Mehmet showed me how they were baked in the oven while he stirred a pot of sugar syrup on the stove. Biting into the baklava I could taste the crisp flaky layers with the sweet sugar syrup adding delicious juiciness to the lower layers. Crushed pistachios were sprinkled on the golden brown top and also in between the layers.

Sumela Restaurant
Sumela Restaurant

We were full but it was hard to resist the homemade creamy rice pudding flavored gently with rose water, cinnamon and vanilla. The bill with tip was about $50 for the 2 of us,

 Mehmet has elevated every dish served at the restaurant... A great experience will definitely go again!

Visit:
Sumela Turkish Restaurant
805 N. Main Street #101, High Point, North Carolina 27262
Timings: Open daily from 10:30 am to 9 am
CLOSED Sundays
Restaurant Facebook

My Interviews with restaurant owner.

About the Author:
Hi, I’m a high school senior. I enjoy traveling all over the world. I’m also interested in exploring international cultural diversity in my community. I interview local immigrants and refugees and share their stories on a Facebook page.
Please visit my FB page to read these stories

Mrs. Potato Restaurant – Brazilian Potato House

Mrs. Potato a Brazilian potato house

To wander inside of Mrs. Potato, a Brazilian potato house tucked into Southwest Orlando, you’d never imagine from the modest decor and cozy atmosphere that this restaurant was showcased in an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives when Guy Fieri chose Orlando as his featured “Flavortown” in 2017.

carne seca rosti potato with Brazilian cream cheese

Carne Seca

“I hope you’re hungry,” says chef-owner Rafaela Cabede as a carne seca rosti potato with Brazilian cream cheese is placed in front of me, the server pausing briefly with a big smile to see my reaction to this ultimate comfort food. The rosti potato, Brazil’s version of the classic potato pancake, is Mrs. Potato’s signature dish, with filling options that not only represent the traditional Brazilian flavors that Rafaela grew up with, but also Philly cheesesteak, broccoli and cheese, and other flavors that remind Americans of home as well.

“I’m happy to share my culture, but I want to respect your culture as well,” says Rafaela as she politely watches me groan over the crispy, buttery potatoes and the saltiness of the meat. A creamy, house-made garlic sauce and a spicy Brazilian pepper sauce are served on the side for additional flavoring, but the rosti is heavenly in its own right.

The carne seca, or dried beef, rosti potato has a yellow star next to it on the Mrs. Potato menu, indicating that Guy Fieri sampled and put his restauranteur stamp of approval on it. It has become the most popular menu item since the episode aired, but while Rafaela says she was overjoyed to have been chosen for the TV show, she was also nervous for one main reason — she had no formal culinary or restaurant education.

Rafaela Cabede

Chef Rafaela with Carne Seca

“All I have is a passion for cooking. I have always cooked for my family and for my friends,” says Rafaela. “Some people go running, some go to the gym. I go to the kitchen. Cooking is my way of telling people ‘I love you.’

She grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian potato houses are a mainstay of Brazilian comfort cuisine. It was in Rio where Rafaela’s mother met her stepfather, an American engineer from California who was in the country working on a project with his company. The two were married after a year and a half, and after her stepfather’s project was complete, the family moved to California when Rafaela was 11.

She stayed in the San Francisco Bay area for about three years, and when Rafaela was about 14, she and her family went back to Brazil, where she finished her education and ended up getting a professional degree in teaching. Rafaela enriched the lives of both children and adults during her career, but as the political situation in Brazil became more volatile, she knew she had to make a decision to secure a better future for her daughter, Bruna.

In 2010, when her daughter was 10 years old, Rafaela made the important decision to come back to the San Francisco/Bay area. With her teaching career left behind her in Brazil, Rafaela’s dream to open a potato house began to take the forefront.

“The concept of a Brazilian potato house is very common in Brazil. But when I told other people my dream that I wanted to open a Brazilian potato house, they would look at me and say, ‘What!?’” a Brazilian Potato House? she said. “Potatoes are international. I don’t know one culture that doesn’t have them. Like when you play cards and a wild card goes with anything, potatoes go well with anything.”

But Rafaela soon found that realizing her dream might not be possible in San Francisco.

“I couldn’t find quality Brazilian ingredients in California for my Brazilian potato house. It was like being an artist and having your brushes and tools taken away. I wasn’t feeling it,” she says.

The strong Brazilian culture and more accessible and diverse food markets of Orlando, Florida appealed to Rafaela, and shortly after, she relocated to The City Beautiful. But although her dream to open a potato house was just as alive and strong as ever, she knew she wasn’t ready yet.

“I didn’t know anything about restaurants. Everything I knew about it was what I had seen on TV,” she says, laughing.

Rafaela decided to begin her foray into the restaurant industry by starting at the beginning and applying at Brio Tuscan Grille at Orlando’s Millenia Mall. She did not yet have the necessary experience to be a server, so she began as a hostess and used the position as an opportunity to learn.

“Whenever I got the opportunity to go into the kitchen, I would ask them, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and I was probably the most annoying person but they would explain it to me and I learned about consistency, portion control, temperature control...I saw someone putting hot chicken into the refrigerator and asked why because my mom had always told me I would break the fridge if I put hot things in it,” she says. “They told me about getting the chicken down to a certain temperature in a certain amount of time to keep it safe from bacteria.”

Rafaela’s tenacity and determination earned her a place in Brio’s server course after just four months with the company, which was unheard of at the time. At the end of the course, she and three other potential servers were tested by having to serve the General Manager and other senior positions at the restaurant as though they were everyday customers, and Rafaela says it is the most difficult test she has ever taken to date.

“One of them would ask for water with no ice, one of them would ask for water with ice and lemon, and we had to memorize the ingredients for everything on the menu so one of them would claim to have an allergy and ask if a certain ingredient was in a dish,” she said.

Of the four people who took that final test, only three passed — and Rafaela was one of them. In the four years that she stayed with Brio, she quickly worked her way up from server to closer to team leader while continuing to ask questions from the experts around her and using every opportunity to learn.

“From customer service to cleaning to answering review, I’m so thankful for that. That was my big school,” she says.

Now ready to realize her dream, Rafaela opened the first location of Mrs. Potato in 2014, in a small kiosk on International Drive — one of the most popular tourist destinations in Orlando.

“We had four flavors on the menu when we first began,” she explains, “and everything we made was to pay the bills. What’s for dinner? Let’s have a potato. Every single day I would eat a potato because that’s what I could afford.”

As for the name Mrs. Potato, Rafaela says that was a result of sudden inspiration.

“I wanted a name that would speak for itself, and ‘Rafaela’s Potato House’ wouldn’t really do that. The drawer was drawing as I was speaking, and I thought ‘How about Mr. Potato?’ but realized that my husband can’t fry an egg and I’m the chef!”

happy-looking female potato character

Mrs. Potato was born, a happy-looking female potato character with one hand on her hip and the other holding a giant wooden spoon, ready to prepare your order in her chef’s hat and apron. Mrs. Potato has also become a nickname for Rafaela, and within just a year of opening the business, word had already spread about the new potato house in town and the little kiosk on International Drive was featured in Orlando Magazine.

Mrs. Potato Restaurant

By 2016, Rafaela was able to move to her current location, which offered her the ability to upgrade from just a few outside picnic tables to a true restaurant experience. The popularity of her dishes continued to grow, and Mrs. Potato was soon visited by the local Fox 35 TV station.

But although her business was gaining traction, Rafaela’s daughter, Bruna, was getting closer to college age, and Rafaela was worried about being able to send her to her school of choice — the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Mrs. Potato Restaurant

“How could I have the story of bringing her over here for a better life and then have to tell her that she wouldn’t be able to go to school?” she said.

Their lives changed when Guy Fieri came to town.

“He asked me where my daughter was, and I said, ‘She’s out front.’ He said, ‘I want to meet her’ so he went out there and he said to her, ‘We’re doing this for you.’”

Bruna is now 19 years old and attending the University of Florida for International Affairs, an achievement that Rafaela knows she could not have achieved without Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Although the Food Network recognition has not changed or defined Rafaela or Mrs. Potato, the success that the restaurant has experienced since the episode aired is a large part of their story.

“I never imagined this,” says Rafaela, speaking about the 300% increase in business that the restaurant has seen and the Yelp awards, magazine features and autographed Guy Fieri poster that adorn the dining room wall.

The staff at Mrs. Potato, Brazilian Potato House which started with just one person in addition to Rafaela, is now a team of 20.

“They’re not just 20 employees. These are 20 families and 20 immigrants who have the same dreams that I did,” she says. “I think the American dream is still possible for people who work hard and are decent and who respect the culture. I don’t want to impose my culture; I want to share it.”

Banana Crunchy Roll

Before I knew what was happening, Rafaela whispered a few words in Portuguese to one of her staff, and in a few minutes, a surprise dessert was put on the table — a cheesecake and banana crunchy roll, served with soft vanilla ice cream and homemade dulce de leche sauce.

When I revealed that I’d eaten the entire carne seca potato because I couldn’t have leftovers due to being on the keto diet, Rafaela laughed a deep, hearty belly laugh, and a single spoon was placed at the table for me, because I was her guest.

Visit:
Mrs. Potato
4550 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando, Florida 32811
407-290-0991

Author: Becky Greiner 
Becky is based in Orlando, Florida, and jumps at any opportunity to combine writing, people, and food. She has been writing professionally for 16 years and can most often be found on her patio with a cup of strong coffee and a book with a weird title.

Pine Island Getaway Cafe

Pine Island Getaway Cafe

Take a Voyage Down Pine Island

The journey down Pine Island is a sunny scenic route, traversing bridges and palm tree-lined paths, one gets a highlight of Florida's best attributes. The island is a retreat from Florida's more urban regions. Reaching the bakery requires crossing an aquatic preserve filled with dense tropic mangroves and beaches which span the road to Pine Island Getaway cafe. The main road is lined with easy-going vacationers meandering in and out of pastel colored art shops. The cafe itself is tucked away from the main road of the island, situated next to a small lake. Offering a view the shop is a short distance off from the more tourist dense portions. In this location the cafe shares the same essence of the island - remaining a retreat without being remote.

Pine Island Getaway Cafe
Stepping in, the cafe is lined with a counter seeped in sunshine, spanning the wall, windows face a small pine forest. Resort style chairs are arranged under quirky lightbulb lamps. The space is fresh and open despite the storefront being relatively small. But the space was needed to make way for an industrial sized kitchen, the whole place was built to suit the needs of the bakers. The bakery is brand new, opening its doors just over a month ago. "We opened on April, Friday the 13th, which is supposed to be an unlucky day. But it was not so unlucky for us. We had a line out the door."

Pine Island Getaway Cafe 2

 

The Origins of Pine Island Getaway Cafe

Brothers Thomas and Florent Brunet, originally from the French/Dutch island of St. Martin, then purchased land on Pine Island and constructed a bakery to match their dream. As Thomas explains it, they could have selected a space more central and more costly with a view that didn't parallel what the lake provides. A glance outside makes it clear why this location was the better choice. To the back, a screened in porch offers cozy clusters of seating and the authentic vacation atmosphere that the region is known for.

Pine Island Getaway Cafe 3

The 'getaway' feeling is essential, "we don't like stress, we try to avoid it the most" jokes Florent commenting on the laid back attitude pervasive throughout the community. Originally a weekend trip destination, Florent fell in love. He came from Miami, where he had initially resided in the States while seeking to improve his English. Despite having lived in Miami for five years he found himself a place to anchor his dreams. "I never came back to Miami, I fell in love with it here, the beaches, the lakes, the nature" Florent gestures towards to the idyllic surroundings.

The business climate here is calm, but especially so when juxtaposed with the fierce competition of France. After turning eighteen Thomas left St. Martin and the Caribbean, and spent three years there studying pastry near Bordeaux. He gained exposure to a variety of cooking and management styles from over five bakeries. He describes the culinary work environment in France as harsh and high-strung. "I took the best of all and brought it here ”, cultivating recipes and techniques while abandoning the cutthroat attitude. "Here there are only a few places to compete with-- in France? There's a bakery on every corner. They're saturated.", remarks Florent. But there was a distinct absence of authentic French pastry and cuisine on the island. That fact drew him in, and led him to prompt Thomas to plant their cafe there.

But Pine Island wasn't always on the horizon. Thomas initially envisioned creating a bakery on an entirely different continent. While Florent had remained in St. Martin and then transferred to Miami, his brother moved from Europe to Asia.
Thomas (who appears to be drawn to a variety of islands) journeyed throughout southeastern Asia, where he spent a significant part of time in the Philippines. He originally got the idea to open a cafe while visiting the Pacific island. "The Philippines’ have no French bakeries," Thomas continues with the advantages, "We would have been the only one.".

Shunning stress doesn't signify lack of hard work, Thomas explains. "Some people think we come for vacations, that's not really the case because I'm in the kitchen for twelve hours a day, I go from six am to six pm." . Though the bakery remains a spot for patrons to get away, the Brunet brothers receive no breaks. "There are no vacations. If you come here to work, to make money, that's it. I cannot take holidays...just work, work, work."

Starting a business as an immigrant in the United States is taxing. Thomas recounts the biggest hurdle of opening the operation being obtaining his visa. Between acquiring permits for construction and negotiating with the US embassy there were no shortage of obstacles to getting the bakery off the ground. There is no guarantee that a business proposal will get approval of the embassy. Not having enough experience, not investing enough, or if the office doesn't believe in your project it can be denied. A foreigner working here has to be a creator of jobs and show clear contributions to the community. This adds pressure to do whatever it takes to support the business.


The Kitchen 

During the conversation rapid French interjections emerge from the kitchen, the brothers communicate through the walls to continue work. Despite being closed on Monday production doesn't cease. Making fresh pastries from scratch takes time. On top of that, the particular type of pastries themselves are quite labor intensive. French pastry, being known for its layers and complex flavors, require a lot of effort. Croissants, a popular French classic, take at least two days to prepare. Thomas reveals two lumps of dough on their second day, proofing in massive chillers that keep the butter intact despite the Florida heat.

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But the brothers are no strangers to heat, St. Martin's proximity to the equator make Florida seem moderate in comparison. "Here it can be cold and you see palm trees.", Thomas has fond memories of the warmth of his birthplace. He recalls the joy of the beaches, to which he testifies the Dutch half of the island has more fun. Growing up in the French section provided their introduction into the world of baking.

But baking French recipes with American ingredients can be hazardous. They lament over the horrors of bleached flour and its acrid effects. "You can taste the quality of the ingredients, it shows through. Florent states that his biggest challenge is sourcing ingredients that provide the level of flavor they seek. Not everything is American, with great pride they show off French butter, recently imported. On another counter Dutch chocolate rests, waiting to be incorporated into pain au chocolate. The butter and chocolate are both used in these batches of croissants.

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The pair is quite capable of multitasking, they work together, but separately. Florent prepares two plates as he discusses the best places to source items. Thomas contributes as he whips up meringue for the dessert.

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The Food

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Make no mistake, much more than pastry can be found in Pine Island Getaway Cafe. The focus of the cafe is directed equally towards the meals and the pastry. The pastries rotate with a variety of French treats. Serving unfamiliar tarts, chocolate éclairs, flan, and mille feuille has posed some challenges. But the use of samples quickly puts any qualms to rest.

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I am beyond eager to see what has been prepared for me. To ensure that we would have time for the interview I've been invited to dine on a Monday, when the cafe is closed. Periodically throughout our visit, potential customers approach the door. Thomas greets each one of them apologizing for the inconvenience, they reassure him they will be returning. He even sends one particularly passionate woman off with a few goodies.

Because they are closed they offered to make a special meal and dessert, asking my preferences. Having a deep love for all French food after my own experiences of working in a bakery and limited preferences I tell them to surprise me.

We make our selections from an array of high quality coffee drinks, as well as a variety of beverages such as juice. Florent prepares an iced latte, offering: almond milk, soy milk, and whipped cream as options. Returning to the front of house, Thomas brings out our meal, which he informs us is the Vol Au Vent Forestier.

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The plate consists of two main elements. There was a simple salad with mixed organic greens, sliced tomatoes, freshly shaved cheese and an olive oil based dressing. It was light and paired perfectly with the Vol au Vent. The Vol Au Vent Forestier had a perfectly crisped flaky puff pastry base topped by chicken and mushrooms prepared in a crème white wine sauce. The texture of the pastry is a result of a dough folded with no shortcuts, each paper-thin layer present. The richness of the sauce, the butter of the pastry, and the chicken, is elevated by the simplicity of the salad. The freshness speaks to the European ideals of high quality local ingredients. A portion that appeared moderate was very filling, but so deeply satisfying that one would forget they had another round of food coming. After cleaning and clearing our plates we advance to dessert.

 

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We're presented two toasted meringue swans sitting atop a glossy pool of lemon custard. These avian-esque edibles are their lemon tarts. The swans are made of a decadent marshmallow-y Italian meringue. The custard is smooth, full of citrus flavor and encased within a firm buttery crust. Every bite is consumed and we're left feeling full and content.

Bienvenue
Pine Island Getaway Cafe is the culmination of cross continental influences. It is the result of adventitious events guided by a vision and dedication. The brothers' roots in St. Martin, time in France, and inspiration found in the Philippines come together, expanding the palate of the community. The Brunet brothers welcome a challenge, they are aware continuing will not be a simple task. They await, earnest to serve and share with their new neighbors.

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Visit

Pine Island Getaway Cafe - Bakery
Address: 5281 Doug Taylor Circle.
Saint James City, FL
Phone: 239.283.3602

 

From the Author:

"Some of the biggest elements that comprise my identity are my passion for politics and activism. That focus stems from my position as a queer, biracial, first-generation American. I am interested in exposing disparity within our food systems and developing sustainable solutions to food scarcity. Captured by the concept of 'critical eating', I explore an intersection of anthropology and economics. This delves into the relationship between agriculture and food production. Part of my approach consists on educating consumers on the mechanics of how we provide for ourselves. My intentions are to improve conditions and cultivate an appreciation for those who feed us. I hope contributions to Uncle Sam's will help towards the goal of uniting communities around a common table."

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