Wednesday, January 25, 2017

At the intersection of snack, art and life: The "New American" cafe

The French Companies have long played a big role on the Westside and across Baltimore as building managers, developers and landlords. They pioneered new housing on Mulberry Street in the early 1990s (Mulberry Court) and cultivated artists in the H&H building and rent space to a number of small galleries on Franklin Street, creating an important seed for what is now the Bromo Arts and Entertainment District.
The New American: Art and culture in the Bromo District
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

Attempts of establishing small retail on the first floor of their own buildings failed more often than not. The corner store at the bottom of the company's headquarters at the southeast corner of Franklin and Eutaw saw several small clothing stores pop up and close. The latest attempt of trying to make the space work involves an artsy food space dubbed New American. Two years in the works and after extensive investment into a full commercial kitchen, the space finally opened last Saturday for brunch. Fiona Sergeant, an artist turned restaurateur, oversaw every step of the renovation and who runs the operation. As can be expected, Fiona has a full theory for life and the restaurant is just a part of it. Below my interview with her:

Fiona, what made you open an eatery on Franklin and Eutaw, what drew you to the area?

I think the first time I was in the area was probably back in high school; I am from New Jersey, but I had a friend from Baltimore, and we would go to music shows in beautiful loft spaces in the H+H building. I continued to go to events around the area during and after college and had always admired the Charles Fish and Sons building. 
When I got serious about the idea of starting a restaurant I realized how many people were always moving through the area, but there weren’t that many good food options for sitting down and relaxing. The space also seemed perfect for the sort of project I wanted to put on. 
Owner Fiona Seargent in her open kitchen
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)


How did you get from Art to eating, tell us a  bit about yourself. Are you still doing art or is art and food one and the same for you?

I think I probably started with eating and then art, but it is hard to say which came first. They are both such fundamental aspects of humanity. I think at the end of the day, most of my interests stem from a fundamental appreciation-of and curiosity-in the project of being human.   
Growing up I had always wanted to be some kind of scientist or designer; I wanted to participate in an understanding of the world. I would also spend much of my time experimenting in the kitchen because it was the workspace that was accessible to me. 
After graduating from high school, I attended MICA for interdisciplinary sculpture, a department that emphasizes exploration and critical thinking in relation to our built environments, both physical and psychological. 
To me, the restaurant is a really interesting and accessible form since everybody understands how to eat food, while Art can often seem more exclusive. I enjoy the title of artist for its expansive meaning, but I am not really interested in living through the gallery system. I have always been attracted to the crossover aspects of life + aesthetics; I am very interested in architecture + the design of furniture and functional ware. Restaurants seem like the functional-ware mirror of cinema. It is something whose aesthetic qualities are felt through corporal use rather than partially removed viewing. 
 
A touch of culture along the walls
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

Tell us about your theory of food, satisfaction and the rise of the snack

The Search for the Satisfying Snack in Contemporary America” is the title of an essay I wrote as my thesis paper associated with my undergrad degree. The essay did not have to be directly related to the sculpture work we showed for commencement, but was more of a chance to consider seriously anything we wanted to. 
At first I had wanted to write a paper that had to do with the American Identity, the concept of “the new,” America’s huge physical scale + its dependance on media as a way of viewing itself/ communicating within itself, etc… but when I went to talk to the librarian about how to research ‘the concept of the new’ he told me about a book by Daniel Boorstin (former librarian of congress) called The Image which had been written in 1962. (Seems especially important to read nowadays…). In any event; I felt that essay I had wanted to write had already been written to some extent, and by a bit of a heavy hitter at that. 
Then, for  whatever reason, I refocused my attention as America as the land of the snack, and the various relationships between the American identity and form and that of the snack; something that is free from strong historical ties or cultural restrictions to be whatever is relevant or delicious at the time. I was also interested in the fad of the-100-calorie-snack-pack as a limited quantity at an increased price on something that for so much of human history had been a scare and much sought-after resource, calories. The essay topic also led me to consider the ways in which the over-abundance of choice/ presence of global reality + global media leads people to engage in snacking behavior in most areas of life, not just food. People snack on information, relationships, TV shows, music, and even food. 
My friend Colin Alexander published an edit of the essay through his art + criticism journal Post-Office http://baltimore-art.com/ 
I really enjoy writing and would like to get into a better routine of it. I think it is a great way to suss out ideas and connections/theories that would be harder to do all in your head. 
The bar is part of the concept (Photo: Klaus Philipsen)


What is the concept for the restaurant, what is your niche?

The concept for the restaurant is an expanded view of ‘American food.’ It is also an ode to America and American food and American culture and the dream of America. It is an ode to diners and pie and coffee and cheesecake and immigrant cultures and Chinese take-out and pizza and frozen pizza and all-day breakfast and hot fresh donuts and biscuits and gravy and Patsy Cline and Erykah Badu. 
I want to create a place that is founded on good juju. I want it to be the place to go if you just don’t feel like being at home or it’s your day off or you want a place to spend time with people you enjoy. 
I don’t totally know what our niche will be yet, maybe our niche is a physical one on the corner of Eutaw and Franklin streets. I want New America to be a place of play + experimentation + appreciation + pleasure. 
Breakfast, Lunch, Bar + Brunch.


What will be your opening hours? 

We will be open Sat-Monday 10-3pm for Brunch  and  Wednesday-Friday from 9-3 Breakfast/Lunch

The Bar will be open from 5-10:30 on Wednesday and Thursday and from 5-midnight on Friday and Saturday. These hours might shift around a little as we figure out what makes sense. 

** Also important: we will be hosting two sweet little Valentines day events! 
There will be a singles mixer with drinks + music + snacks from 5:30-8:30pm on Feb 14th, and then there will be one dinner seating for couples and those in love at 8:45pm; reservations encouraged w/ extra seats at the bar. 
New American: The art of living
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)


Is there an online menu to share

Here is a google drive folder of our current typed menus. Things will continue to evolve, but I hope people can come to rely on us for good taste. 


What was the biggest hurdle for opening a restaurant in the small former retail store?

The biggest hurdle was likely just the building of the kitchen + the creation of the restaurant as a functional + pleasurable space. I naturally enjoy designing spaces and situations, but it was definitely a relatively stressful process of continually learning new twists and turns of the reality of the situation and the process of assessing the trustworthiness of people + figuring out the ways of the system. I definitely understand why people get into opening many restaurants/ serial entrepreneurship since it is its own skill set/ knowledge base. 
Overall I am pleased with the way the space turned out, and I am excited to continue to tweak it and allow it to live. It definitely is exciting to see sketches become real and be able to sit within a project that I have been attempting to realize for so long now. I am just hungry for more….


Can you share the order of magnitude of investment that was needed before you were ready to serve your first meals?

All I can say right now is that I definitely didn’t know what I was in for, but I also knew how little I knew and am now thankfully on the other side. The project from concept to opening took about 2 years (much longer than hoped for) and a few times as much as financially expected, but now I know for next time. I am definitely much more in debt that I would have liked to be, but I am also extremely excited to finally be in business and feel that it is a risk worth taking. I love the space + the neighborhood + the opportunity to share delicious things I’ve been thinking about with others + to work with such an inspiring and good-natured team of people. 
I feel very strongly that now is a time to sew seeds and loose sleep. I am intersected in putting on large scale projects in my life, and I am also someone who learns best by doing. Although this project did have its set-backs and moments of anxiety + minor despair, I don’t really know what else I would be doing right now if not this (maybe I’d try to get into the wine industry…). I feel like I have been pushing myself to grow + train my reflexes over the past couple of years, and I am excited to the forward momentum as this endeavor finally moves on to a state of public operation.


What is Fiona Sergeant Industries? What are the other endeavors going on?

Fiona Sergeant Industries is what I decided to write as my place of employment on Facebook while I was still in art school because I realized that above all else, I wanted to be working in the service of my own enterprise. I have many interests and can be interested in almost anything, so it is important for me to always try to bring myself back to center and assess what it is that I am interested in doing. Fiona Sergeant Industries is a way of remembering that no matter what the job or task at hand, I am always working on a larger scale endeavor that is the project of my life. 
For the future I am interested in helping to establish a ceramic + fabrication studio in Baltimore, establishing a retail scenario to help promote small scale designers + thinkers, expanding to other cities + other continents, setting up a media publishing organization/press, and hopefully someday owning/taking part in a winery since I think the tradition of wine production + consumption is a wonderful aspect of humanity + our relations to the land, culture, and history. I am hoping that if I can even achieve half of my goals, I’ll have lived a worthwhile, or at least enjoyable, life. 

Savory lentils and roasted veggies on a rustic table
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)

What is your favorite food? Will it be available at the diner?

Like most people I have many foods(+memories) that I love more so than any singular favorite, but a few of my favorites are apple pie, yeasted waffles, cereal and milk, pesto on pasta(and everything else), BLTs, hong kong style crispy noodles (coming soon…), and char siu baos (in R+D). 
I think a huge reason why I wanted to open the restaurant is to have a reason to think about what would be good to eat and then have a place to share it with other people. I think of the diner as a bit of a theater for ideal things to eat or at least some things to consider. I am also interested in hosting some events in order to give others a platform to call the sensory shots. 


New American is open Sat-Monday 10-3pm for Brunch and Wedn-Fri from 9-3pm Breakfast/Lunch
The Bar is open from 5-10:30 on Wednesday and Thursday and from 5-midnight on Friday and Saturday. These hours may still shift.
Valentines event: 2/14: A singles mixer with drinks + music + snacks from 5:30-8:30pm 

Location: 429 N Eutaw Street, (Southeast corner at Franklin Street) access through the lobby.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Fiona Sergeant: The Search for the Satisfying Snack
The New American still needs exterior signs
(Photo: Klaus Philipsen)