A Love Letter To Atlanta’s Food Community

Especially The Wonderful Women of the A

Julia Schneider and Sarah Dodge are women to know in the food world of ATL.

Julia Schneider and Sarah Dodge are women to know in the food world of ATL.

I’m obsessed with the South. Always have been. Always will be. Back in the day, I almost moved to Mobile, Alabama (for a relationship of course but thank goodness I came to my senses, to be honest). Before I made the decision to move to Austin, I juggled between the idea of living in Austin versus Nashville. I didn’t know it at the time but the South had been calling my name for a long time. On a whim last year, I bought a ridiculously cheap flight to Atlanta for a random weekend in February, knowing damn well that I had absolutely no connections or friends out there.

But now I’ve made some of the best friends one could have. The Atlanta community took me in during that weekend, opening its arms to a stranger in their midst. When I first arrived, I walked around the Old Fourth Ward drinking coffee, standing in line at Staplehouse all while determined to eat at Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurant of 2016. I sat at their bar and had dinner by myself, chatting up the bartenders, who then sent me to Ticonderga Club down the way. On a busy Friday night, I wriggled my way into a seat at their bar, chatted with bartenders and patrons alike, and immersed myself in this enthralling scene of real Southern hospitality. This was just the first night, y’all.

I went back to T-Club the next night, to chat it up with Sarah Dodge and Julia Schneider (thanks for the intro, Hilary!) In the midst of Super Bowl Sunday madness, we chatted about the industry, why we love food, and Atlanta’s supportive community, all while eating deep fried pickles and foot-long hot dogs. I was totally enamored by these two and how they found their way into food and beverage.

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

Sarah went to school for psychology, working as a nanny and pre-school teacher, before making her way to grad school. In the midst of her program, she decided to take up a baker job and realized that she found more fulfillment in the industry rather than school. So, she dropped out and took baking to the next level. She’ll be the first to tell you that she didn’t know a thing about baking when she started out but after spending time at local staples, Holeman and Finch and Little Tart, she eventually made her way into the arms of Julia. The two met while Julia was working as the kitchen coordinator of Octane Coffee and have been friends and collaborators ever since.

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

Julia made her way into the Atlanta food scene after a brief stint in advertising, making the decision to go to the Art Institute of Atlanta for a year. During that time, she started working at Octane Coffee and worked her way into the scene, working on dinner series, supper clubs, and collaborations with Sarah. Their latest endeavor (that I was fortunate enough to taste!) was a breakfast pop-up, full of all the gluten and beautifully put together dishes that one can try to scarf down. (Still can’t stop dreaming about the savory french toast, y’all!)

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

And then, there’s Myrna Perez of LottaFrutta. I was introduced to Myrna on that fateful Super Bowl Sunday night, by Sarah. Her energy and vigor upon meeting had me hooked and I begged for her time before leaving the next day. “We’re closed on Mondays, mama,” she regretfully responded. I must have had such a look of heartbreak, because she changed her mind right away. My last day in the A was spent eating my way through the LottaFrutta menu, chatting about our shared love of South Texas (hey Valley Girls!), and the love of family that brought about Perez’s LottaFrutta into the Old Fourth Ward.

First off, what are the odds of finding someone else in Atlanta that’s from the same part of Texas?! Seriously. Myrna grew up in McAllen while my formative years were spent in nearby Brownsville. Her Mexican-American upbringing means a lotand you can tell as soon as you walk into LottaFrutta - it’s an homage to her roots. Her grandfather, a fruit chef, was known as “El Frutero”, who would carve intricate sculptures out of fruits. The leftovers would go to her grandmother, who would turn them into paletas (homemade popsicles) and she’d sell them to the kids in the neighborhood. It was what was the most familiar to her and what she didn’t know she needed when she moved to Atlanta in 2004.

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

LottaFrutta was Perez’s first website project in art school and she never thought it’d turn out to be what it is today. After eleven years at Univision (which took her from Dallas to Atlanta), she bought the building that’s in the Old Fourth Ward today. As soon as you step foot into the space, it’s as welcoming as any other fruiteria from the Valley. The colors are bright, the fruit paintings on the wall are all done by Myrna herself, and the air of the place is beyond welcoming. Old family photos are displayed to pay homage to her upbringing, Mexican candies that I hadn’t seen since leaving Brownsville are on display, and a plethora of fruit cups and Latino delicacies are up for grabs. Pair all of this with her captivating presence and you’ll understand why LottaFrutta is a staple for the food scene in Atlanta.

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

It was one of the best weekends I’ve had to date and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“We should go to Atlanta and do a pop-up dinner there. I’ve met some pretty amazing women in the food community and we just have to go back.” That was my opening line when I called my good friend Yana Gilbuena up, as soon as I got back from my trip. I spent the next two hours detailing my brief weekend in the city and its impact it had on me. By the end of the conversation, we were determined to get to the A.

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

photo credit: irvianne torremoro

We hosted two wonderful pop-up dinners, made all the friends, collaborated with Sarah and Julia, and cemented roots in the scene that has since captivated my heart. Atlanta’s diverse community is strikingly supportive and I wouldn’t have been able to make the connections and friends I have now, had it not been for its people. Thanks to everyone that helped us out back in April. I think of y’all fondly and hope to make my way back to the A soon.

photo credit: tim "tiny" jackson

photo credit: tim "tiny" jackson

photo credit: tony rifel

photo credit: tony rifel

SALO Series x Flavor & Bounty at Space 24 Twenty

Summer’s arrived in Austin and what better way is there to kick off the season than with a Filipino pop-up dinner?! A couple weeks ago, Yana Gilbuena of SALO Series came back to town and we threw INIT: A Filpino Summer Feast. This menu was an homage to our culture’s hot weather food full of whole fish, pickled vegetables, and plenty of that bright, green rice she’s known for!

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

photo credit: benjamin garrett

Thanks so much to Space 24 Twenty, Topo Chico, Chameleon Cold Brew, Tito’s Vodka, and all of our wonderful friends that helped out that night. Biggest thank you to Benjamin Garrett for capturing the night. <3

SALO Series x Flavor & Bounty Popup dinner, Space Ninety 8

Serendipitous encounters and grit brought Yana Gilbuena of SALO Series and I back together in Brooklyn for a popup dinner at the wonderful Space Ninety 8 venue. Last December, my family and I had just driven from Las Vegas to Los Angeles for Christmas and I excitedly brought them to Lasa, where the Valencia brothers are at the helm of modern Filipino food. I looked over to my left and saw a familiar face and approached a table of two, “Hey this might sound crazy, but were you at a brunch popup back in November in Austin?” Tania Enriquez, looked up at me with a huge grin on her face, and we immediately hit it off. She introduced me to her friend, Diane Chang, of Eating Popos, who has hosted events at the Urban Outfitters/Space Ninety 8 venue, and they suggested a Filipino popup dinner in New York. We started an e-mail thread, wished each other happy holidays and good luck into the new year and were off.

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

Quickly after the new year started, the ball was rolling when Yana jumped on board for the popup dinner. Since the woman is a force all on her own and completely down for most anything, especially when it comes to travel and food, I knew she’d be on board. She booked her tickets, we put the menu together, and February rolled around in no time.

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

The week of the popup was hectic and crazy but definitely worth all the running around we did, from Brooklyn to Queens and back to Brooklyn. Asian markets in Flushing are no joke, if anyone was wondering. We’re so thankful for Neil Syham of Lumpia Shack for rolling through and bringing us plus all of our produce back to Williamsburg.

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

I cannot thank everyone enough for spending their Friday night with us and enjoying the food of our culture. It’s always a pleasant surprise when the nerves wash away and I can breathe a sigh of relief, look at Yana, and proclaim, “Dang girl, we did it, again!” She’s so used to the high energy that it doesn’t even phase her at this point. Thank you to Heidi Lee and Eric Michael Pearson for capturing the night. A huge shout out to the amazing team behind Space Ninety 8 and Urban Outfitters for helping us put this together: Tania Enriquez, Cara Flaherty, Cristina Fisher, and Sheewa Salehi.

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: heidi lee

photo credit: eric michael pearson

photo credit: eric michael pearson

photo credit: eric michael pearson

photo credit: eric michael pearson

photo credit: eric michael pearson

photo credit: eric michael pearson

photo credit: eric michael pearson

photo credit: eric michael pearson

squad goals/fempire: diane chang, cara flaherty, tania enqriuez, yana gilbuena, &amp; yours truly. xoxo, ladies, now let's get in formation. &lt;3&nbsp;

squad goals/fempire: diane chang, cara flaherty, tania enqriuez, yana gilbuena, & yours truly. xoxo, ladies, now let's get in formation. <3 

Yana Gilbuena, Chef / Salo Series

“I have a crazy notion to ask of you on Monday. I’m obsessed with this woman and she has a popup dinner, her last one, is in Houston and I want to go and interview her. Want to come with?” I sent this text in hopes that someone, any one of my friends was willing to jump on board with me. I found two willing participants and we were off.

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

My newest talent as of late has been convincing friends to partake in trips where food & beverage is at the epicenter. This past Memorial Day weekend, two good friends and I made a trek to Houston from Austin to experience Yana Gilbuena’s pop up dinner series, Salo Series. Little did I know that the night would bring more opportunities but also a wonderful friendship to unfold.

I’ve been following Yana for quite some time now, especially since her foray into cooking is fascinating, to say the least. I looked up to her: a woman from the same country, blazing a path in an industry dominated by males, in the most non-conventional way. She was born and raised in the Visayas region of the Philippines, by her grandmother, who taught her everything she now knows in the kitchen. Gilbuena graduated from University in the Philippines with her psychology degree and moved to Los Angeles to work as a behavioral therapist. As with anyone in their early 20’s she bounced around professions, from therapist to architecture to carpentry.  

She eventually found herself in Brooklyn, missing Visayan food from her childhood. Her first pop-up was held in Bushwhick, which was a learning lesson in all proportions, literally and figuratively. Since then, she’s taken her tour of 50 Weeks in 50 States, bringing Filipino food to the forefront across the United States, then eventually taking her dinners overseas, to the Philippines, Canada, parts of South America, and Mexico.

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

The first night I met Yana, I was not only utterly impressed by the food but also the community that she’s built over these dinners. She brings the “kamayan” experience to the table, which is essentially laying out food on top of banana leaves and eating with your hands. “The rules of kamayan dinner is you serve with your non dominant hand and eat with your dominant hand, and have fun!”, she exclaimed as she and her friends proceeded to place food in front of diners.  I looked across the table at my good friend, Moyo Oyelola, and asked his opinion of dinner. “I’m home”, he said as he grabbed another handful of rice. It really was like being home, he had a good point. I was born in the Philippines and my family moved to the States when I was five but these tidbits of our culture have resonated deep within me nonetheless. Eating with your hands, for example, was something that comes as second nature for me. Yana also has a way of making the familiarity of Filipino cuisine different to even those raised on it. She’s influenced by the different regions of the Philippines and puts a spin on them that is approachable and not too overwhelming.

Conversations flowed easily as diners bonded over food and the experience, from first timers to seasoned veterans of Filipino cuisine. At the end of dinner, she sat and talked to every single guest as if they were family. Excitedly, we suggested she bring the dinner to Austin if she had the time. “Yes, I leave for Mexico in a few days, maybe when I get back!”, Yana exclaimed as she told us of her plans to bring Salo Series across the border to Mexico City and Tulum. Eagerly, I e-mailed her days after our initial encounter to suggest a possible collaboration.

A month passed as I watched her adventures over social media and I reached out one more time until she e-mailed back saying she’d love to collaborate, as soon as she got back. “Sure, let’s do it! July 3rd?”, she said. For a split second, I didn’t know what to think. She wanted to throw a popup dinner together in a week? She was still in Mexico talking about our collaboration and I’ve never taken on a task like this. “Well, it’s now or never”, I thought to myself.

The days leading up to the dinner were some of the most exciting and stressful I’ve had in quite a while. I was juggling work, projects, and now an additional popup dinner, which sounds crazy to most but I thrive off a busy schedule. Yana arrived on Saturday, the day before the popup dinner, with much collaboration via e-mail under our belts. We then ran around like mad gathering ingredients and tools for the dinner. Sunday came around, with a guest list of sixteen, we pulled off a wonderfully exciting dinner that showcased what we grew up on and introduced several new friends to each other.

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

photo credit: chelsea laine francis&nbsp;

photo credit: chelsea laine francis 

Our menu was simple yet delectable and easily shared amongst new friends: to start, shrimp chips paired with seasonal pickled vegetables in spicy coconut vinegar, followed by garlic fried rice and kinilaw, a take on the more commonly known ceviche, paired with the right amount of heat from chiles and coconut milk. The main course, humba, which is pork slowly braised in pineapple, soy, and star anise, was so tender and juicy by the time it reached the table. Dinner was paired with two refreshing cocktails, the Gabriela: mezcal, mango, and the slight heat of Thai chilies as well as the Sampaguita: champagne, elderflower, and calamansi. Yana let me take charge solely on the dessert, which was always my forte, in the kitchen. Individual flans were made with macapuno, a young coconut, and ube, a purple yam popular in Asia. Making this dish made me feel like I was back in the kitchen with my grandmother, with all the same flavors and textures that reminded me of what I loved most from my childhood. An after dinner drink paired well with the flan, the Tsokolate-eh: Oaxacan chocolate (which Yana so graciously shared from her recent trip to Mexico), coconut milk, and whiskey. It was such a treat to share the food that was dear to us with friends over a communal setting.

photo credit: chelsea laine francis&nbsp;

photo credit: chelsea laine francis 

photo credit: chelsea laine francis&nbsp;

photo credit: chelsea laine francis 

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: chelsea laine francis&nbsp;

photo credit: chelsea laine francis 

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

photo credit: chelsea laine francis

I learned so much from Yana that weekend, especially how to calm down. At one point, I felt like I checked the clock every five minutes to keep track of dinner being ready by the allotted time. She was so calm, practically floating on air as she prepped food up until the last minute. Picture this: my running around like a chicken with its head cut off as she took her time and paid attention to every detail of dinner. It was a sight to see, honestly, but the dinner went swimmingly. Guests filtered out afterwards but most stayed to have conversation with her, asking about her background to how many dinners she’s done. “I think this one is over two hundred”, she calmly replied. Well, no wonder she wasn’t as panicky as I was!

photo credit: moyo oyelola&nbsp;

photo credit: moyo oyelola 

photo credit: chelsea laine francis&nbsp;

photo credit: chelsea laine francis 

photo credit: chelsea laine francis&nbsp;

photo credit: chelsea laine francis 

Not only did we pull off a pop-up dinner together in a week’s time, over a busy holiday weekend, but a grand friendship unfolded. She’s due back in the fall for another one, which we’ll be collaborating over, once again!

photo credit: chelsea laine francis&nbsp;

photo credit: chelsea laine francis 

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola

photo credit: moyo oyelola