I’m sitting in Molly Neuman’s kitchen, where the punk rocker, newly incarnated as a chef and proprietor of Simple Social Kitchen, is making a tortilla de patata, which is cooling in front of us. “Have you ever heard of girl rock camps?” she asks.
I admit that I have not heard of them. I am engrossed in her effortless cooking of the tortilla, despite my questions about her background, her influences, her future goals, and at last, the tortilla itself. Across the table, Ms. Neuman is looking at me intensely. “Can you imagine what it will be like for these girls, to be able to go and play music when they’re nine or ten years old? To have their creativity encouraged like that? To think that they couldn’t just be pop stars, but write songs, play guitar, play drums?”
Ms. Neuman, a drummer herself, is hardly the first musician to create a new career in food—before there was Del Posto-hotshot Brooks Headley (Born Against, Young Pioneers) there was Greg Norton (Hüsker Dü), and of course there’s Thistle Hill, the local Park Slope spot run by NOFXer Fat Mike. It’s not quite a movement, but there is something superficially similar about the two careers; the long and late hours, the physicality, the toll it takes, and of course creating something from an idea.
After completing culinary school at the Natural Gourmet Institute earlier this year, Ms. Neuman opened her business, which also offers personal chef services, wellness consulting, and cooking classes, all with a focus on healthful and seasonal preparations. Ms. Neuman is adamant that she hasn’t left music behind; she’s just chosen a path that, at the moment, does not include it. “For me the connection is creativity, being able to make something from an idea,” she says, when I ask her what the similarities are between cooking and music. Of course, there’s much more to it than that.
Ms. Neuman’s public history begins in Olympia, Washington, where she co-founded the band Bratmobile in the early 90s with friend Allison Wolfe (a BTB contributor) and later The Frumpies and the PeeChees. Ms. Wolfe and Ms. Neuman were highly influential in the founding of Riot Grrrl, penning a zine by the same name which effectively gave the movement its name. Neuman also wrote the zine Girl Germs, building a new branch of third-wave feminism that molded many minds and had more than a little to do with the eventual emergence of rock camps for young girls.
She then moved south to Berkeley, where she and then-husband Christopher Appelgren ran famed punk label Lookout Records for several years in the late 90s and early aughts, after founder Larry Livermore sold out to them and partner Cathy Bauer. During this time she also began managing The Donnas and Ted Leo, with whom she still works. Lookout stopped releasing new records several years ago when money troubles overtook them. Ms. Neuman is no longer involved with the label on a day-to-day basis, and though she started Simple Social Graces Discos in 2006, that label is also not releasing new albums at present.
I ask her about the size of Simple Social Kitchen (one person – herself) and its limitations. “I come from the high overhead music business,” she says, “and love being able to keep minimal inventory.” Whether or not it’s a pointed reference to her past, the concept of low overhead comes up more than once during our conversation, and it’s clear that Ms. Neuman relishes the freedom she currently has to run her own business. “Wanting to be in control of my destiny, challenge myself, and find a way to bring creativity and passion back into my work life were my real motivations for pursuing this path,” she says.
Watching her in the kitchen, she’s clearly not lacking for passion. Ms. Neuman describes herself as a “classic latchkey kid” who took an early interest in cooking (her specialty was a heart-shaped cake into which she’d pour liquid Jell-O). But it was her travel with Bratmobile that expanded her culinary repertoire, and perhaps ultimately drew her to food as a career.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled extensively through my work in music, both as an artist and on the business side,” she says, “and I had some incredible meals. Sicily always jumps out at me in my memories. On one tour we started the day in a roadside hotel near Parma, drove to Rome, and flew to Catania. We had a show that night and I don’t think we had really eaten more than a sandwich all day, because of the schedule. By the time they sat us down to dinner, anything would have been good, but it happened to be the best pasta alla Norma I’ve ever had. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the taste.” Ms. Neuman is recently returned from Durban, South Africa, and raves to me about a dish she had there called “bunny chow,” a half-loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry. “You eat it with your hands and you’re left with just a few bits of sauce. It’s awesome,” she says.
She shows me a picture of the sauce-soaked bread, along with a storage box chock full of Ziplock bags of souvenir spices. She turns out to be a compulsive chili pepper hoarder as well, with gallon bags of anchos and guajillos as well as others I’ve never before seen (she stashes these all in a neatly-ordered corner of her kitchen that she refers to as the “catering pantry.” Again, low overhead).
She’s made a sofrito to use in the tortilla that I keep sticking my nose into and sniffing, a caramelized amalgam of onion, tomato, and red pepper that seems the kind of thing one should always keep on hand to finish any dish. Ms. Neuman is also well known for her romesco sauce, another Spanish specialty made with ground nuts, olive oil, garlic, tomato, and peppers. “I love dishes that can come together with a few elements and really knock you over with a sauce or something unexpected,” she says.
Because so many of her customers have restricted diets, she tends to use her repertoire of sauces to build flavor in her dishes – many of which riff on Spanish originals. “Spain is my cultural heart center,” she says. “After I completed culinary school, I took a bit of time to process what I had learned and traveled to Spain. I had made a lot of friends there and had started to visit regularly, and it began to inform a lot of what I love about food and life. In Spain almost everyone you meet has an opinion about the best this or that. Each region has pride in its ingredients, its wine, and the way they are enjoyed.”
The concept of whole foods and of celebrating the purity of ingredients is a recurring element in our conversation. Ms. Neuman was drawn in part to the chef’s training program at the Natural Gourmet Institute because of its adherence to a whole foods philosophy developed by Dr. Annemarie Colbin, a natural health chef and wellness consultant who espouses a belief in the sanctity of whole ingredients, and a holistic approach to nutrition and cooking as a means of maintaining health. It’s an ethos that she’d already been working toward on her own, but post-graduation, Ms. Neuman has incorporated many of these theories into her business as well. Having recently completed a class herself on food therapy, she has now added a “Kitchen Pharmacy” section into her fall cooking basics class, which will review natural remedies for common ailments like headaches, stomach aches, sleep problems, stress, and anxiety (for headaches, she gives me a recipe for lemon tea).
Her focus on healing foods has lead her to work with many clients with dietary restrictions, including Crohn’s disease and gluten intolerances, as well as vegetarians and vegans. After two decades of living as a vegetarian, Ms. Neuman recently began incorporating meat into her own diet after flunking an iron test at a blood donation center. She feels better now, she says, though she would be the first to stress that there are more options than ever for vegetarians to maintain a balanced diet. “Many fall back on tofu pups and cheese, and I try to teach people to eat in a balanced way,” she says. “There are better ways to get your nutrition, vegetarian or not.”
It’s a philosophy that is not only personal but quietly political. Ms. Neuman is committed to health on a less individual basis as well; not surprising, given her roots. I’ve already remarked on her transition from an ethical vegetarian to an ethical omnivore, someone who continues to make choices about her consumption that are more than nutritionally motivated.
“Although it’s one of the most crucial aspects to our health, what we eat has for a long time been associated with cheapness,” she says. “The only way to meet this demand has been to use low quality ingredients that we see having massively detrimental effect on our country’s health – and our world’s health. If as much energy was spent making higher quality ingredients and food accessible [as is spent on making it cheap], I believe we could see vast improvement in some of the main health issues we’re currently facing. This isn’t rocket science of course, but there are a lot of reasons why it’s no easy task.”
When the tortilla has cooled, we each have a slice with a glass of red wine. It’s by far the best tortilla I’ve ever had, easily surpassing my previous favorite at Boqueria (where Ms. Neuman briefly interned, along with a stint at Pure Food and Wine and at Saul). We talk about her favorite places to travel – Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala – and Latin American food in general, which she believes perfectly encapsulates the whole foods philosophy of fresh, quality ingredients, prepared simply. She has a special love for Mexico as well: Simple Social Kitchen’s first gig was to cater a five-course vegan fundraising dinner for the Tia Foundation, an organization based in Arizona which endeavors to provide health-related development strategies for communities in rural Mexico. And in July she catered her first wedding, a Mexican buffet dinner that offered seafood, chicken, beef, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options to its guests. “I was very proud of our work on the wedding,” she says. “One of the guests came downstairs to ask me ‘How do you know how to cook Mexican like this?’”
Ms. Neuman is now waiting to hear if she’ll be approved to teach a panel at next year’s SXSW festival in Austin. Entitled “Steady Diet of Nothing,” the panel would target touring musicians interested in maintaining their health while on the road. Ms. Neuman is no stranger to grueling schedules, and her anecdote about touring with Bratmobile in Sicily illustrates exactly the sort of situation she wants to guide musicians through: What do you do when it’s 11pm, you haven’t eaten all day, and (instead of pasta alla Norma) all that’s available is chips and alcohol? It’s not a sustainable way of life, she stresses, unless you take care of yourself. “Touring musicians need to make conscious choices about what they’re eating. So many people burn out.”
So why did a punk drummer and serial entrepreneur become a chef? Was it simply inspired by a love of food, or is there more? “I have some dreams for my future that food and wellness are a big part of,” she says. When I press her, she demurs. “They are dreams now, so I think it’s better to just focus on where I am.”
Despite her modesty, it is clear that she’s passionate about teaching. Her warmth is infectious, and she’s obviously committed to healing and community-building over faddish food trends. My personal theory is that it all goes back to Olympia, and that her cooking is as much a grassroots effort towards empowerment as her former work in music. And thus, the hope for the girl rock camps. If she can speak to girls when they’re young about the importance of eating balanced meals and exercising, maybe this new generation of musicians can avoid some of the common pitfalls of adolescence and young adulthood. Advocating against junk food and eating disorders may be a more subtle form of feminism than Riot Grrrl, perhaps, but is no less vital in the end.
“There’s so much pressure on women in this industry to look a certain way,” Ms. Neuman says. “Maybe it’ll just be an hour and they won’t listen, but maybe they will and can learn something about their own health.” And if they do, well then, who knows how far they can go?
Molly Neuman’s amazing Tortilla de Patata (Potato Omelet) Recipe
Simple Social Kitchen’s fall class schedule is now available.
Sofrito: 3 T olive oil 1 whole yellow onion 2 tomatoes, grated 1 red pepper, roasted
Potato Confit: 5 medium potatoes, peeled 2-3 cups of oil for pan frying (I like half grapeseed oil and half olive oil)
Tortilla: 12 large eggs 3 T sofrito 2 t salt, approximately
Sofrito: Heat a large sauté pan and add olive oil. Add onions and coat in oil, letting them cook slowly to caramelize. Once softened and slightly brown, add tomato puree and let cook for another 20 minutes (or longer) until flavors have melded. Remove from heat and set aside.
Potato Confit: Cut the peeled potatoes in half lengthwise. Then, with the flat side on the cutting surface, slice the potato in pieces approximately 1/8″ thick. You can also use a Japanese mandolin for this. In a large, heavy, non-stick frying pan, heat the oil on medium high heat. Drop a single piece of potato into the oil to ensure it is hot enough to fry. Carefully place the potatoes into the frying pan, spreading them evenly over the surface. The oil should almost cover the potatoes. You may need to turn down the heat slightly, so the potatoes do not burn.
Note: If the oil is too hot, the potatoes will brown rapidly on the outside, but still be raw on the inside. Leave in pan until the potatoes are cooked. If you can poke a piece of potato with a spatula and it easily breaks in two, your potatoes are done. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula and drain oil into a separate container to use again. Let cool. This can be done ahead of time and the potatoes can be reheated before mixing with the eggs.
Tortilla: Crack the eggs into a large mixing bowl and beat by hand with a whisk. If you’d like a smoother and more consistent texture you can run the eggs through a colander. Add 3 tablespoons of the sofrito, potatoes, and about 2 teaspoons of salt and combine thoroughly. Pour 1-2 Tbsp of olive oil into a small, non-stick frying pan (aprox. 9-10”) and heat on medium heat. When hot, stir the egg and potato mixture once more and pour into the pan and spread out evenly. Allow the egg to cook around the edges. Then you can carefully lift up one side of the omelet to check if the egg has slightly “browned.” The inside of the mixture should not be completely cooked and the egg will still be runny. When the mixture has browned on the bottom, you are ready to turn it over to cook the other side.
Carefully take the frying pan to a sink. Place a large dinner plate upside down over the frying pan. With one hand on the frying pan handle and the other on top of the plate to hold it steady, quickly turn the frying pan over and the omelet will “fall” onto the plate. Place the frying pan back on the range and put just enough oil to cover the bottom and sides of the pan – approximately 1.5 tsp. Let the pan warm for 30 seconds or so. Now slide the omelet (which is probably still a bit runny), into the frying pan, using a spatula to catch any egg mixture that runs out. Use the spatula to shape the sides of the omelet. Let the omelet cook for 3-4 minutes and if it feels loose still, flip it again to ensure it’s cooked through. Turn the heat off and let the tortilla sit in the pan for 2 minutes. Carefully slide the omelet onto a plate and let cool. Tortilla can be served warm or at room temperature.