"One of the most important things that I realized is that I am here to serve and my tool is food," Hilary Metcalfe Ramirez, chef/owner of FENTO and author of the online natural foods journal Hilary Eats told us over a cup of herbal tea recently.
With a head full of dreams but still on very straight and palate tuned to the vibrant, rich flavors of the Mexican food she grew up with, Hilary exudes a steady and easy calmness one might not expect of a small-business owner and entrepreneurial chef. In fact, her philosophy is Flow. Cook. Eat. Repeat.
She tells us more about the quilt of feminine energy that inspires her, how pop-ups paved the way and why eating with her hands is one of her best food memories.
Cropbox: Well let's begin at the beginning...
Hilary Metcalfe Ramirez: I'm originally from Los Angeles, but grew up in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. When we moved down there we were living in a small fishing about half an hour outside of Cabo. It had no roads and no white people.
My mom moved us down there to start a boutique hotel and restaurant. So I was always hanging out, barefoot, in the kitchen with my mother and a team of very traditional Mexican cooks. My mother brought with her a Los Angeles cooking style so there was always a bit of a Californian-Mexican to the food.
So that was maybe where the seeds were planted. I've always gravitated towards Mexican cuisine, it's just so rich and vibrant and flavorful. That's always kind of stayed with me even though I've lived other places.
CB: Where else did you live?
HMR: I lived in France for a while and on the East Coast of the US. And at each point I had a couple of different women who were really influential in my cooking style.
My godmother lived on the East Coast, just outside of Boston. She was such an incredible gourmandise, really a bon vivant. She just had the best wine, the best food, the best of everything. She'd throw these huge elaborate dinner parties with many courses and me washing a lot of dishes. There was some osmosis there because I absorbed a lot while living with her, lots of new ingredients and dish combinations.
From there I went to study abroad in Strasbourg, France for a while and I lived with this woman who loved that I loved food. Each night she would prepare something different and teach me about cheese and wine and the different regional dishes of France. She was from the North, but one part of her family was from the South-West and her husband was from Strasbourg so I got a lot of different flavor inputs.
I think these women, my mom, my godmother and Madame Gosselin (in France) were a fabric... or a quilt of inspiration. I got something from all of them and still do.
I was also really inspired by Julia Child originally. I guess if my godmother could be wrapped up in a character or a persona, she would be closest to a Julia Child figure. Whereas my mother would be more of a chaotic force of nature and Madame Gosselin would be more of the traditional, academic force. Like, this is how you do things.
CB: So what did you do after studying abroad?
HMR: I brought all that home with me and started just cooking for friends, lots of big dinner parties. I graduated school and came to live in Zurich with my husband and did more of those, more frequently. When we moved to Amsterdam, I brought the same sort of thing with me and it just kept getting a bigger and bigger.
At one point it was a friend's birthday and I wanted to "friend cater" everything. So I did the cake and I made ice cream from scratch. I was cooking from love because I wanted to show this friend how much I cared. I think that's one of the key elements actually because anyone can make food or translate a recipe but it's the intention and the energy you put into it that makes it that much better and special.
So anyway, at that birthday party, a restaurant owner was there and he was trying things [I had made] one at a time. And I was just kind of sneakily watching him and he was like "MMMM!" and then he'd try the next thing and go "MMMMMMMM!"
CB: That sounds promising!
HMR: So he goes, "That's it, you have to do an event in my restaurant. Do a pop-up." And that's how the first pop-up came to be. That was four or five years ago and I started doing pop-ups at different locations around Amsterdam. It was really just for fun. And it was fun. It was just a bunch of friends, everybody doing a little bit of something.
I was also working a corporate job that got really intense where I had to travel more and decide whether or not I was going to climb the corporate ladder or take the big exit and go into food. But I just really didn't know what that meant or what that would be. So I just stayed...
And then it just became clear after a year and a half of trying to do that, that it wasn't what gave me any joy and it didn't help me to nurture anyone around me either.
And I think one of the most important things that I realized is that I am here to serve and my tool is food.
So once I realized that and could let go of the idea of climbing a ladder and the idea of traditional success and could tap into more flow in my life, then I realized that things were aligning in this path.
So opening FENTO at the Foodhallen came up and became a reality and that became my first commercial storefront.
CB: When you were doing your pop-ups what kind of food was it?
HMR: It was mostly always strongly Mexican influenced. A parallel path to discovering my cooking style with the pop-ups was my own health journey. So there was a pop-up where I was roasting lamb and serving risotto and cheese and things that I just personally don't eat anymore. But by getting closer to understanding what my body needs and knowing the nutritional side of it, I started to refine my cooking style. But Mexican has always been the main inspiration.
CB: What is your favorite food?
HMR: Vegetables. Dark greens. I eat dark greens every single day whether it's in a smoothie or something else. I try to have greens at every meal. And while I do enjoy sugar and it's comfort, I know that that's the food that loves me back the most .
Second to that would be watermelon. I can eat one of those big California ones... I almost ate a whole one once. But I can definitely put away a quarter a day. I remember coming off this very spartan juice cleanse fast and we were allowed to eat watermelon. That first food you eat after the first fast you ever do... it tastes AMAZING. I'll never forget it, that really set it for me with watermelon.
CB: What would you cook for someone you were trying to impress?
HMR: I'd be trying to impress them with how amazing and versatile a a vegan meal could be and also how unique and elegant it could be. So I'd turn out a multi-dish tasting experience with vegan dishes. I would definitely be using some Mexican flavors and would definitely start with a green soup. I like to do a raw green soups which has apple cider vinegar in it and that creates a good acidic environment for digestion.
CB: Sounds amazing! Tell us about what you feel most grateful for.
HMR: For this practice. For connecting with my body and food and others through the practice of cooking. And for having made the connection to what I feel like is a purpose or a calling.
CB: What is your favorite food memory?
HMR: So this isn't a specific memory, it's more of a tactile memory... So I like to eat with my hands. And it weirds most people out. I'm always the last to eat because I want people to enjoy their food however their eating but I know I'm gonna eat with my hands. My Indian friends always say, every utensil that you put into your mouth it has it's own flavor and vibration and it affects the flavor of the food for you. Your fingers are your most natural utensil and the oils on your fingers actually enhance the flavor of the food. So there's that element. That's what I tell people who get weirded out.
But it's more about this tactile memory of putting food in my mouth with my fingers. I feel like I felt when I was a baby. I'm transported to that soothing, happy place of being a baby eating with my hands. It's like an instant thing.
CB: What do you want to eat with your hands right now?
HMR: Cropbox! (laughing)
CB: Good answer!
In the box today:
Mole black beans
Tomato jalapeno salsa and cashew chipotle cream
Fennel, beetroot and salted celery slaw
Cinnamon-roasted sweet potato and watercress salad
Watermelon, lime and pumpkin seed salsa
Red cabbage pickle