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How Chef Stacia is inspired by food, flavor, and heritage

September 8, 2020
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In October 2019, Gary and I hosted our first ever farm to fork dinner at our home in Oxford. Chef Stacia of Maison Intimate Catering put together what Gary says, to this day, was the absolute best meal he has ever had. in. his. life.

I have to agree with him (though I wish my cooking had that affect on him!)

With four courses, each spotlighting a different mushroom from our farm, Chef Stacia Epps and her Sous Chef Sarah Bartee of Maison Intimate Catering crafted a mushroom masterpiece right in our home.

Every time I chat with her, I can’t help but feel the energy and passion she has for flavor, for food, for community, and for culture.

I asked Stacia to sit down with me and share her passion with me, to tell me more about flavor, food, her inspirations, the culinary arts, and what the deal is with offal - what is it and how the heck do I cook with it?

Jump to a question

What was your inspiration to pursue a career in culinary arts?

I always knew that I was meant to cook. Growing up, my family viewed food as a foundation - we always had Saturday morning breakfast together, and we always cooked together, even from a young age. And from that young age, I grew up with a diverse cultural background in the kitchen - Black, Vietnamese, Caribbean (Trinidad), and Latin cuisine were always part of the array of flavors from every part of my family.

When I turned 16, I got my first job in a restaurant in Havre de Grace, and set my sights on culinary school after high school. However, while I was working there, I was told by my boss that I could never become a chef.

Because Black women couldn’t be chefs.

Looking around, what I saw made me doubt myself - I didn’t see any Black woman chefs. I was mad. And then I thought… “why not be the first?” That anger and passion fueled my desire - not only to prove him wrong, but to prove myself right. I might not have a role model who looked like me to help guide me, but I could be that role model and that inspiration to another young woman one day.

After high school, I spent time studying at the Baltimore International College, and finished my formal culinary education at the Restaurant School of Walnut Hill College.

In 2012, while at Walnut Hill, I traveled to the French countryside to learn about authentic French cuisine. It was eye opening. It was artisan, farm to table, slow, good food every single day at every single meal, in every single home we visited. At that time, the only recognizable farm-to-table food in our region was Talula’s Table. Which was priced far out of most people’s reach, and there was no reason I couldn’t bring these concepts home.

I came home from France, graduated, and worked for a while in other people’s restaurants before I decided that I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep working for someone else and dealing with the racism, sexism, and harassment that is so rampant in restaurant kitchens across the country. So, in 2015, in my mom’s living room, Maison Intimate Catering was born out of a love for food, a love for flavor, and a love for sharing it with our community. Great food should be available to everyone - it should be a standard, not a luxury.

Culinary school, and France specifically, shaped my foundational values in cooking and made me the chef that I am today. I’m continuously inspired by the other women that are involved in Just Call Me Chef - an organization run by Chef Catina Smith that highlights African-American women chefs in the culinary industry. JCMC provides mentoring programs for women of color to come together to talk about being a chef, and specific issues that they face, honing their skills, and coming together to build each other up.

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What are the most important elements of a successful home chef?

Safety is absolutely essential, and boils down to three things: cutting techniques, temperature, and sanitization.

Improper cutting techniques can result in a lost finger, or worse. Take your time, sharpen your knives, and if you don’t know how to cut something, look it up - YouTube is a wonderful resource. Keep your ingredients in the right temperature range until you're ready to cook with them. Wash your hands and tools, and avoid cross contamination between raw and cooked foods. It’s easy to get someone sick if you allow bacteria to grow and give it a way to get onto food someone’s about to eat.

Taste everything. You are building flavor throughout the whole cooking process, and you should know what your food tastes like before you present it. Be your own insurance, your own taste tester, and adjust as you go.

Realize that everyone has their own methods of cooking. Someone’s grandmother might cut their onion one way, but your mom cuts it another way. It doesn’t mean one way is better.

Above all… LOVE WHAT YOU’RE DOING.

What can aspiring home chefs like me do to learn more about cooking amazing food?

Like I said before, YouTube is the greatest resource, and I love taking inspiration from cookbooks. My favorite YouTube channels are Roy Choi, Cat Cora (the first female Iron Chef), and Anthony Bourdain.

Talk to your farmers at the farmers markets, ask them about what you're buying, how it's grown or raised, and if they have any recommendations for cooking and storage. It is such a huge benefit to a home chef to talk directly with whoever is producing your ingredients.

What’s so special about shopping at the farmers market?

When Maison first started, I was invited to come down to the Havre de Grace Farmers market to take a look around, and was inspired by the hard work of these local farms and artisans - that I didn’t even know existed in our area!

You should know where your food comes from - what it eats, and how it was raised. These pieces all come together in flavor, in texture, and in nutrition.

The farmers markets are a place for people to explore the community, meet new people, try new things, and for our community farms, artisans, and businesses to grow. When we started cooking at the farmers market with our now famous “Hog Wild” breakfast sandwich, we ended up with people lined up in front of our pink tent (which was not pink on purpose - it was just the only one we could find in time for the market!). That success, builds on the success of the other vendors at the market, which builds on everyone else’s success. It’s a true community center.

What would you like to share with someone who might be on the fence about buying directly from a farm at the farmers market?

For one, it’s almost like risking your health by not buying locally. These farms are producing a higher quality product in so many ways - ethically, nutritionally, flavor-wise, and fresh-wise. It’s good for you, it’s good for our community, and good for our economy. You’re keeping your food dollars local - it’s going right back into our community instead of up to some corporate office somewhere else.

What’s been your experience working with us and cooking with our ingredients?

My absolute biggest challenge is finding the best quality ingredients. Maison intimate catering stands for quality, and it is disheartening to have to go across the country or to a big conglomerate to find ingredients that we want to source locally. Having to pay a third party is also disheartening - we want to deal directly with the producer.

When we started working with you, we found a partnership with a farm that had the same goals, and roots in the same quality-for-everyone soil. Improving our community’s health, developing our community’s palet, and reconnecting our community with the food that they eat. Honest, no-cut-corners kind of people.

I’m so excited to use your chicken (specifically the French-Style!) and mushrooms on our summer intimate catering menu and to add to our sip and saute menu.

We love how involved you are in what we think about your products, and our opinions. I love that we can learn from each other, and explore both sides of the culinary coin together - farmer and chef.

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How does French-Style Chicken compare to American-Style Chicken?

Cooking with American-style chickens, you’re typically adding a bunch of stuff to make it have any flavor. If you just cook a piece of it by itself, it’s generally mild and bland. French-style chicken has flavor on its own - like a nice piece of steak has a flavor that doesn’t need to be smothered in salt or sauce or brined or injected for more flavor.

French-style chicken also has a tender, darker meat that doesn’t turn to mush if you cook it wrong (like American-style). They’ll cook faster because they tend to be smaller than the freakishly large American counterparts, and because their meat is more evenly distributed between breast, wings, and legs. Like dark meat? These are for you.

When it comes to cooking, you can really use any methods you would use on American-style chicken with the French-style, but execution is important. Using a meat thermometer will give you a more accurate cooking length than a timer.

What other ingredients should we pair with French-style chicken?

Red wine will take that flavor to a new height. But the basics, rosemary, lemon thyme, chives, garlic, and of course butter, make great pairings with French-style chicken.

This applies for more than just your French-style chicken, but think about what your food is eating, and cook with ingredients that match generally what it eats. Is it pasture raised or grass fed? Cook with herbs and aromatics. Does it eat grains, too? Try serving with farro or rice.

What’s your favorite part of the chicken to cook with?

Oh, this is a hard one. To cook with, it’s tied between hearts and thighs. To eat, my absolute favorite part of the chicken is called “the oyster.” It’s a little pocket of meat between the thigh and the back.

Offal. Organs. I’ve heard all about how great they are for me, but how the heck do I cook with them? How do I make them taste good?

I am proud to cook with offal - it really connects me to my ancestors. For years, they would cook with it because it was the only meat available to them, so they made it palatable, fun, and delicious. African American culinary history is all about taking the scraps and making the best with it.

Offal is typically the least expensive piece of meat you can find, which is crazy because its the most nutritious. I think people just don’t know how to cook with it or are grossed out by it for some reason.

The first thing I want people to know about offal (organ meat) is that meat is meat. Just because it’s an organ, doesn’t mean it’s not good. Yes, you have to take into account different flavors and textures, but you can mitigate most of those issues. For example, hearts and livers tend to have an irony taste that can be made more palatable by soaking it in a dairy product like milk or yogurt overnight.

If you’re still on the fence about eating it right out, you can add it to your stock and get all the good stuff out of it.

Click here for Chef Stacia's Chicken Heart Tacos recipe!

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Would you like to add anything else that our readers might want to hear?

You don’t have to live in a city or go to the city to be a foodie or get good food. Not only do a lot of our local chefs make amazing food, but you can also make amazing, gourmet food right at home. Forge your new relationship with food - where it comes from, how it’s made - and bring fresh and bold flavors to your home and your community. Why can’t you have 5-star restaurant quality food in your home?

About Chef Stacia & Maison Intimate Catering

Chef Stacia Epps owns and operates Maison Intimate Catering with her Sous Chef Sarah Bartee. Maison Intimate Catering offers full service gourmet cuisine in the comfort of your home - so you can spend more time enjoying food, flavor, friends, and family, and less time in the kitchen.

“My goal is to give you a culinary experience - not just a meal,” says Chef Stacia, “Bold, but authentic.”

In addition to in-home catering, Maison also provides off-site catering for up to 150 people, and hosts pop-up events throughout the year including rise and shine breakfasts, sip and saute date nights, and Lena's table, a community meal program to ensure everyone has access to good food.

Chef Stacia and her team will be debuting “Maison on the Go” in 2021 - a gourmet food truck with the goal to work with young women of color who are interested in a career in the culinary arts. This endeavor aims to provide a supportive, safe, and inclusive space for these young women to explore food and flavor.

Maison Intimate Catering serves a wide region - from Philadelphia, PA to Alexandria, VA, and everything in between. They are based out of Havre de Grace, MD, and frequently host events at the local coffee shop and winery.

Visit Maison Intimate Catering on Facebook to learn more about their upcoming events, and to book your next culinary experience.

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