Our Best Job Ever series focuses on women who do extraordinary things in their fields, as well as in their free time. This week, we’re inspired to celebrate an accomplished entrepreneur/cook/writer/dream chaser/family woman who’s also a master at business, blogging, balance…and brie!
Allison Arevalo is known around the Bay Area as a mac n’ cheese maven. Along with her business partner Erin Wade, she co-owns and operates Homeroom, a restaurant specializing in the deliciously rich and cheesy dish. They also co-wrote The Mac + Cheese Cookbook, (which happens to be a huge bestseller here at ModCloth).
When Allison left her corporate gig several years ago to pursue her dream, her career path took a sharp turn from marketing to farmers’ markets. We asked her about her experiences along the way. And as an extra-special bonus, she shared an exclusive recipe, perfect for holiday menus!
The Mac + Cheese Cookbook by Allison Arevalo and Erin Wade: makes a great gift!
Was there a particular dish or moment that sparked your interest in cooking?
My passion for cooking began when I was quite young. Every week, my extended family gathered at my great-grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner. We’d walk in the door and she’d be standing on a little stool in front of the stove, frying massive amounts of her famous meatballs. She was the quintessential little Italian grandma.
I loved watching and learning from her. Sauteed string beans, slow-cooked meat sauce, chicken soup, even the way she minced fresh jalapenos from her garden and sprinkled them over pasta. I remember thinking how easy she made it look. She was 90 years old, and perfectly capable of having full conversations while straining spaghetti, chopping tomatoes, checking the sauce, and yelling at my grandfather.
Why do you love to cook?
Ah, so many reasons! Maybe because I love eating so much. I think also because it’s so gratifying. Whether I’m spending two days making a cassoulet or 20 minutes pan-frying garbanzo beans with spinach and rice for my boys, I love feeding people. It’s something I can do that makes people happy, and that’s pretty awesome.
Food — and sharing meals — was very important to everyone in my family. As I got older, I was always the one cooking for friends and hosting dinner parties. I was living in New York, and because most people have kitchens smaller than a shoebox, dinner parties were not common. To me it just felt so natural. It was hard to imagine not cooking. I never had any professional training, but I expand my cooking skills by experimenting with new ingredients and techniques. Some of my favorite ingredients and things I always have in the pantry are sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, anchovies, farro, and beans. I’m also a little obsessed with olive oil. I always have at least four on hand.
Photo by Brian and Jessica Images.
When opening Homeroom, you left your corporate career to follow your dream. Tell us about your journey and what made you decide to pursue this path.
That’s pretty much exactly what I did! I wanted to open a restaurant for as long as I could remember, but my career started down a very different path. I graduated with a degree in journalism, and my first non-restaurant job was at a Public Relations firm. Skipping ahead a few years to 2008, I was newly married, managing a team of copywriters at a giant marketing firm in Manhattan, and one semester away from getting a graduate degree in Integrated Marketing. And that was when we decided to leave it all and move across the country to sunny California, with the hope of one day opening a restaurant.
So we quit our jobs, packed the car, and headed on a two-week road trip across the country to our new home. After settling in Oakland, the plan was to find jobs and save enough money to invest in our dream. Our plan didn’t quite work out as we imagined, because a week after we left, the recession hit, and finding jobs was not as easy as we thought. I was lucky though, and was eventually hired as a marketing manager at a credit union. During this time, I started a food blog called Local Lemons, and I also started writing food columns for local papers. I was so amazed by the west coast food scene, and I wanted to immerse myself in it as much as possible, even though my day job was the furthest thing from it.
A few months after moving to Oakland, I randomly met my future business partner while sitting at a cafe. We chatted, became friends, and a few months after the initial meeting, we decided to open a restaurant together. So once again, I quit my job. Though this time it was for mac and cheese.
Going into business on your own (or with a partner) must be quite challenging! What was it like getting started?
Going into business for the first time is extremely hard and very stressful. But it’s also exhilarating! You get the chance to build something from scratch, to create something brand new, and to design it however you want. There was so much about the process that I truly loved. Experimenting with recipes, designing the space, creating a brand – it was all so exciting. But there’s also the more serious side of things, like insurance, leases, contracts, a solid business plan with a break-even analysis – and, of course, learning how to actually operate a restaurant. There was a steep learning curve, to say the least. Pouring my entire life savings into a mac and cheese restaurant was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but I don’t at all regret doing it. Even if it wasn’t successful, the experience of actually jumping in and following my dream was totally worth it.
There must’ve been some hiccups along the way… failed recipes, restaurant woes, etc. Can you share some learnings?
There were many, many hiccups, to put it lightly. When we first opened, we hired half the people we actually needed to run the restaurant, we had no idea how to do simple things like ordering and scheduling, we had almost no money left in the bank for operations, and within three days, we changed our model from counter-service to full service. But, we had the best mac and cheese. And because of all the marketing and outreach we did for months before we opened, we had a line out the door.
What’s your system for experimenting with a recipe?
It really depends on how the recipe will be used. Coming up with a recipe for a restaurant is very different from creating something for friends or even a cookbook. When I’m coming up with something that will be served at a restaurant, I have to first consider the availability of ingredients, food costs, prep time, complexity – there’s a pretty long list of things that limit the kinds of dishes you can make. And then you have to try making it over and over again to make sure it’s always consistent, and you have to try double and tripling the recipe to make sure it still works and nothing needs to be changed.
When I’m creating recipes for home use, whether it’s for my blog or a food publication, I start out by creating the dish freehand. I don’t write anything down, I don’t think much about it. I just do it. If it’s a disaster, I change up the ingredients and start again. If it’s good, I’ll make it again, using the same ingredients, and I’ll pay close attention to how much I’m adding of everything – especially the spices, and I’ll write it down. I usually make the dish at least one or two more times before I’m completely happy with it and I feel comfortable letting the world try it out.
Photo by Brian and Jessica Images.
What are your cooking inspirations?
My biggest cooking inspirations will always be my family – my grandmothers and my father in particular. The famous chefs I admire most are Alice Waters and Marcella Hazan. Their food is so classic and beautiful.
Moving to California, though, changed my cooking significantly. When I lived in Brooklyn, I constantly tried recreating classic dishes from my favorite restaurants – pasta from Frankie’s on Court St. or soft-shell crabs from Marlow and Sons in Williamsburg. My all-time favorite thing to make? Fresh mozzarella! Practically every week I’d watch old Guiseppe from the deli down the street as he shaped each soft mound into a perfectly smooth, creamy ball of cheese. I was pretty good at it! My neighbors would come by to watch me and to try it out.
When I moved out west, I was seriously in awe of all the fruits and vegetables out here. I didn’t even know some of these things existed (really, how come no one told me about cara cara oranges or padron peppers?) There were citrus trees and blackberries growing on our street! My cooking became all about the ingredients and what was available at the farmers’ market. It became less about tradition, and more about what was in season. (And, I make a lot less cheese. No matter what any Californian says, the milk is just different out here, and so the fresh mozzarella is not the same.)
What’s a typical day like for you?
It’s actually pretty difficult to give you a snapshot of a typical day, because I rarely have one. I do though make time every day for what’s most important to me – my family. I have two young boys, Nico is 4 and Luca is 2. As all working parents know, juggling work and family is really, really hard. You never quite feel like you’re excelling at either task. Spending time outdoors keeps me focused and calm. On days that I don’t run, I feel off. Cloudy, almost. I think it’s super-important when you have a busy life that you find time to do whatever helps clear your mind.
Any advice for amateur cooks and aspiring business owners?
My advice to cooks who want to open a business is to be passionate about what you’re doing and have a solid, well-thought out plan. There are so many different kinds of food businesses, you have to know which one is right for you. For example, if you love to bake, you can open a bakery. Or, you can teach baking classes, you can distribute your goods into retail shops, or you can cater. It’s important to think about your other interests and strengths, and what you will truly enjoy doing for the long-term. Because if you open a bakery, only a small part of your job will actually be baking.
Anything new on the horizon?
Yes! I started a new blog at allisonarevalo.com. It’s actually more like a journal, but it’s new, so we’ll see where it goes. So often people ask me how I created this life. How I found the courage to take all these leaps in my life. People also often tell me what a positive presence I am in their lives, that I inspire them. Every time I hear that, I feel so grateful, so fulfilled. I’m hoping to encourage people, even if it’s just a few people, to take that first small step toward their life goals. I’m sharing stories about my life, obstacles I’ve overcome, even some recipes.
Cheesy Mashed Potatoes with Greens & Panko
Pictured: Soup to Your Level Bowl in Warm
- 5 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes
- 3/4 pound mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes
- 1 bunch swiss chard, roughly chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs
- 2 cups whole milk (warm)
- 5 tablespoons salted butter, cut into large pieces
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- Set a large pot of water to boil. When water boils, add 2 tablespoons of salt. Throw in the potatoes and boil for 15 minutes.
- While the potatoes are boiling, cook the chard. Set a skillet on medium-heat and add olive oil. When the oil is hot (about one minute), add the swiss chard. Sprinkle about one teaspoon of salt and a generous grind of fresh black pepper, and stir. Add the chopped garlic. Stir, and continue to saute for about 4 minutes, until the chard is wilted but not too soft. Move the chard into a small bowl.
- Add another tablespoon of oil to the skillet, and when it’s hot, add the panko. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, until it gets golden brown. Be careful not to burn it! You can avoid it by stirring frequently and taking it off the heat as soon as it gets golden.
- When the potatoes are cooked (stick a fork in one, it should feel soft or break apart), drain and put them in a large bowl. I like my potatoes chunky, so I use two forks to mash them up. If you like them creamier, use a potato masher. After mashing, add the milk, butter and cheese and stir with a big wooden spoon. Add the chard and most of the panko, and stir again until combined. Taste for salt.
- To serve, sprinkle the last of the panko on top and drizzle with olive oil.
- Serves 6-8 as a side.
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