When Brushland Eating House’s Sara Elbert and Sohail Zandi first pitched the idea of doing a Parisian pop-up to Sarah Andelman, the creative director and co-founder of legendary concept store Colette, they figured they had nothing to lose. “We had zero expectations and that’s why we asked,” says Elbert. Andelman, a Paris native and part-time Catskill resident herself, and her husband Philip have been supporters of the Bovina restaurant since discovering it last year. “They are a couple of the most down-to-earth, genuine people,” Zandi adds. “Asking the question was really easy.”
Andelman has been pioneering a campaign in Paris over the last few years to showcase Upstate New York makers and artists, even hosting a “Catskills Week” in November of 2015. So when Zandi and Elbert approached her with their idea to collaborate, she couldn’t refuse. “She wrote back right away and said ‘Yes, absolutely,’ recalls Elbert. “At that point I started getting excited.” Two months later, the couple and their long-time friend and frequent collaborative partner Antonio Mora, Executive Chef of Quality Meats in Manhattan, were stationed in Colette’s Water Bar Restaurant, serving Riviera buffalo chicken sandwiches to a line of hungry Fashion Week goers.
There are many ways that Paris differs from Bovina: its population, its architecture, its access to Hermès and crepes to name a few. But as Zandi and Mora sat down to plan the menu, it became clear that when it comes to food, Paris and Brushland are an obvious match. “I think that in French cooking, it’s the seasonality that is so important,” says Mora, who began his career in the kitchens of French restaurants like the Ryland Inn and Daniel. “Whatever is the freshest and whatever is the most beautiful product at that time goes on the menu. And that’s what Sohail does at Brushland.” For the four day pop-up in January, the two of them wanted to create a set of menus that paid homage to the flavors and techniques of their temporary home while staying true to themselves. “We knew we couldn’t out-French the French,” says Zandi, “and we wanted to keep it simple.” This thoughtful balancing act resulted in a daily changing menu of items like a citrus salad with radicchio, pistachio, and coriander vinaigrette, a côte de bœuf with braised winter vegetables and kale butter, and yes, a Riviera buffalo chicken sandwich.
“In Paris, people eat well because they think that is just what you should be doing,” says Zandi, reflecting on the overall experience. “I think that’s what makes it fun cooking there. You’re a part of the food culture, which is such a big part of the actual culture.”
The three-story Colette, with its Water Bar restaurant on the lower level, is as much an exhibition space as it is a mecca for apparel, design, music, and beauty products. “When Colette opened twenty years ago, it was still a little village with a shop for fruit and fish and meat,” Andelman says of the trendy Rue Saint Honoré. “Balenciaga used to be a gas station.” The neighborhood is now at the center of Paris’s fashion scene and Colette stands proudly as its flagship.
“Sarah is a treasure hunter,” Zandi says of Andelman and her collection at Colette. “Her job is to source interesting and undiscovered things. And I think that is kind of what she has done trying to bring our region to light in Paris. She obviously thinks it is something that Parisians will be into.”
Though the food was served in Colette’s Water Bar, the crew prepped at nearby Verjus, a four-year-old restaurant owned by expats Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian that overlooks the Palais-Royal. “They were introduced to us as one of the best restaurants in Paris so that was a little bit intimidating,” says Elbert. “When we found out we were going to prep in their kitchen, it held a lot of weight.”
The Brushland team served their menu alongside Water Bar’s own, which Andelman says is curated much like the rest of the shop. “It’s a selection of what we like and we change the menu everyday,” she says. Collaborations like this are becoming a more frequent occurrence at Water Bar; most recently, cookbook author Mimi Thorisson did a similar residency where she highlighted recipes from her new book French Country Cooking.
Zandi admits that coming into a new kitchen in a foreign country is an interesting experience. “There are certain things that are a matter of taste or functionality, but it’s cool to realize when you’re in the space that you know what to do with it,” he muses. “A kitchen is a kitchen; it’s just like wearing a new pair of pants and thinking Oh yeah, I can walk in these.”
Mora and Zandi have collaborated professionally on a handful of events including last fall’s Preserve and Gather dinner in Bovina. “Antonio brings so much knowledge and expertise — he’s like a Buddha,” says Zandi. “He’s so wise when it comes to food, he’s so calm no matter the situation, and he just has ideas spewing out of him.”
“I instantly became aware of the service industry,” Elbert says of exploring the restaurants, cafés, and bakeries of the city. “I was just kind of in awe; it’s casual but so polite, casual but perfect.”
“I was always taught that mother nature does 99% of the job and it is up to the cook to present it in a way that both honors the product and brings pleasure to those who are eating it,” Mora says of his cooking philosophy. “These are the fundamental values I have taken from working in French kitchens.”
“Somehow our food ended up being a little more modern and a little more chic,” Zandi says of how a new environment influenced his cooking. “We saw the photos afterwards and I was like Wow that doesn’t look anything like what we serve at the restaurant. I think it happens subconsciously, but I also think you step up to a situation while trying to stay true to what you do.”
“Parisian cooking is just so classic,” says Zandi. “It’s like Oh, this is why food is good. It’s not because of the stuff you put on top of your steak, it’s because the steak is simple and it’s cooked really well.”
Spending time in a new city and a new space has given Zandi and Elbert a certain energy that they are excited to bring back to their own restaurant. “Going from a really small rural place and having worked and cooked here for three years now, to a vibrant bustling city was rejuvenating,” says Elbert. “It was a reminder that you need that energy, you need all those new smells and new colors.”
“It’s important to travel to old cities where cooking really is about the simplest of ingredients and technique,” Zandi says of the way traces of Paris have made their way onto the Brushland menu. French-inspired specials like a guinea hen galantine with charred mushrooms and dijon sauce, a “chou fleur” with harissa mayo, preserved lime, and black olive, and poached pears with chocolate ganache have all popped up since their return. “In an age where everything new has to be over the top and visually stunning, I’m reminded when I travel, that taste prevails.”