Maya Lovelace is the epitome of homegrown cookin’. Everything from the stories she shares about an ingredient’s origin to her supper club’s namesake pulls directly from her youth in North Carolina. Mae, named after and created in honor of Maya’s grandmother, lives nestled away in an annex space at the Old Salt Marketplace in northeast Portland for just under a year. Although it’s provided as a basecamp for Mae’s pursuit, the restaurant space used seems appropriately complimentary to the southern Appalachian cooking style that Maya has preserved and brought here to the Pacific Northwest.
Maya explains her weekly dinners best – a big feast that is supposed to represent her grandmother’s table, bringing back the feelings she had with the family being completely overwhelmed by her grandmother’s hospitality and generosity. *Generosity being an understatement, once it is revealed just how much food is about to be tabled in front of you.
However, the ambient concept of hospitality and family is also heartily represented at Maya’s supper club as several couplets, small groups, and individuals clump together in conversation after initially being seated at the long family style tables hosting pitchers of her signature sassafras sweet tea.
What was your emergence into cooking?
I started cooking when I was 16. After working at some weird food joints in Atlanta where I went to school, I moved to Charleston and wound up working at a little Italian restaurant there. Sean Brock used to actually come in and sit up at the chef’s counter right in front of me. He always ordered this butter bean and shrimp salad that I would cook for him, and I would just be freaking out because I was such a fan of his. Eventually when he was opening Husk, I sent in a resume on Craigslist and I wound up being his first hire in the kitchen because he recognized me from making those salads for him at the counter every night. I was on the opening team there at Husk which was super crazy but super fun.
What brought you to Portland?
I lived in Charleston for about seven or eight years and felt that I needed a change. Sean said that he could position me in Sydney but I was also considering Portland as well. Eventually Sean contacted Naomi Pomeroy on my behalf, and she offered me a job with her at Beast three weeks later. So I packed up all my things and drove across country to Portland.
What were your first experiences like in Portland?
Well after about my first week, I really just got to be plunged into the farm-to-table scene that’s so big here in Portland. Immediately from the get-go I was getting up at eight a.m. and going to the farmer’s market twice a week as the produce buyer for Beast. That allowed me to start making connections with the local farmers, which plays a big role in what we do here.
After being at Beast for some time, I finally decided that it was time for me to continue growing. Being in a management role in a restaurant doesn’t really allow for a lot of learning because as a manager you’re always teaching. So I moved on to work with Troy Maclarty at Bollywood Theater – who is an incredibly talented chef. However, I had never cooked Indian food before, so I got to learn an entirely new set of techniques and ingredients. Giant crazy batches of curry and all that fun stuff.
You openly tribute this endeavor to your grandmother. How and why?
My grandmother Mae passed away after only four months of being in Portland, and after moving I didn’t have enough money to fly back home for her passing – so I kind of view Mae as my tribute/goodbye to her.
The most spiritual I ever feel is when I’m here and people come in to eat. People get emotional. There was a woman a couple weeks back from Tennessee, and she cried at one point when I was telling a story about my grandmother. I tell a lot of stories about the food that comes out as I’m delivering it to tables. It can get a little emotional, a little heavy at times – but in a good way.
I think people are more and more finding that connection, pulling from early memories and childhood food. Not even necessarily ‘comfort food’. Kachka for example, that’s all “here is my childhood on a plate” – but through me and the training I’ve received, you know?
Are there any special ingredients from childhood that you’ve continued to employ?
For dessert we always do a pound cake because my grandmother made pound cakes excessively. She would always have five or six cakes just hanging out around her house. They were always in boxes ready to go, as she sold them to restaurants in the town where she lived to make some money. So every time we went to go visit her, it was always a question of which kind of pound cake do you want today? Black walnut? Chocolate?
This style of Southern, specifically Appalachian cooking, is kind of the first American cuisine. It’s this wild mix of Irish and German and Native American heritage. Like cornbread for instance, is traditionally a Native American dish that was adopted by people who moved here and learned that they could grow corn. Grits, all of that stuff. To me, that is the true American cuisine, and I think that’s why people are so drawn to it in that way – comforted by it in a sense. It’s the story of our country.
How do you feel about Portland’s reception of what you are creating here?
I feel like the reception that we’ve had has been really, really good. We’ve been very lucky to have so many people interested in what we’re doing. I feel a lot of pop-ups never quite make the jump outside of the temporary events that happen occasionally.
What sets you apart in Portland?
I feel like our food is different from the other southern food you find here in Portland. Our kitchen is region specific and super vegetable focused. To me, southern food is like a poverty cuisine in the sense that it can be whatever you have available growing in your back yard. We also focus on less industrial food and ways of making food.
In the spring and summer our menu is super vegetable heavy; whereas in the winter it’s a lot of pickled vegetables, preserved pork, and our preserved corn. In between seasons you’ll get this really great hybrid – for example, right now on the menu we have a really creamy beautiful grist dish with these Sea Island Red Peas by Anson Mills in South Carolina. They were actually extinct and someone found their seeds in their grandma’s cupboard and planted them and they kind of came back to life.
Who is your creative community here in Portland?
Our traditional after service spot is Spare Room, karaoke. Every Friday we go out and get soup for lunch – me, and Tommy Habetz from Bunk, my buddy Jason Hope who works here at Old Salt and runs Dogwood Distilling, and a few other people who I’ve met through one avenue or another get together and talk about our projects or what we have coming up or what we want to accomplish. I just didn’t have a community like that in Charleston. Everything there was just so competitive. Charleston is such a small town, but there is loads of stuff going on so a lot of the cooking jobs become intensely competitive and hardcore; whereas here, I feel that people are more focused on the meaning behind what we’re doing. People talk more about community not competition. So it’s been nice to arrive here and find that community to be able to acknowledge my goals with.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’ve been working on getting more involved with the farms out here. The guy who grows most of our vegetables is really cool, Dan Sullivan of Black Locust Farm. He’s from Vermont actually, but now lives here and owns this farm that is one acre of land and is the only person that works there. He tills the land, he builds the beds and plants the vegetables, germinates the seeds, picks the vegetables, delivers them – 100% he is the farm from start to finish. So when we first met when I was buying produce at the market for Beast, we immediately had this exciting connection where he would try to push these weird turnips and things from Vermont on to me to use. I think we just feed on each other’s excitement about what we are doing on either end of this process. I just don’t think that exists as much outside of Portland. I think we are really lucky to have that kind of space here. People can kind of chase a dream and lean on the people around them, create something that is unique and based in passion.
What are your next steps creating in Portland?
I’ve moved around a decent part in my life, and I’ve always considered myself the kind of person who could pick up and move where there might be a cool opportunity. But I really love it here, I could see myself staying here for as long as I can keep learning and experiencing new things.
People always ask and assume that my next step is to open a restaurant, but I really appreciate the freedom of what I have here with Mae. This is just so much fun, and I see this trend too where people want that freedom in that they don’t want to stress about the big kitchen staff to switch out but have a small dependable group like we have here. Our people are focused and invested, and you want your people to be present with every aspect that is going on.
What has been a fun event for you and what are you looking forward to?
Well, we were the Portland Mercury Chili Cook-off winners. And we are definitely looking forward to the Tacos and Tequila challenge later this year. I feel very, very lucky to be here and be a part of the creative up-and-comer scene.
What do you see in Portland’s future cuisine scene?
The Portland community, and food community at large, is trying to keep Portland from becoming aggressive and competitive. Our population can only support so much – I think this community here is trying to resist that next common progression. I think it could very well turn that way if rent prices keep going up and restaurants keep closing.
I’m happy to be part of a collective. It feels like everyone is pushing towards the same goal in a sense. It’s a collective.
If you’re interesting in keeping in the supper club loop, sign-up to attend a dinner or contact Mae at www.maepdx.com.