Thomas Pisha-Duffly’s Family Feast at Grace Restaurant

Family Feast is a pop-up dinner event imagined and executed by Thomas Pisha-Duffly. It features large format plates of Indonesian cuisine served to communal tables. The most recent installment happened at the beautiful Grace Restaurant in Portland, Maine, which we were delighted to attend and photograph. 

[Note: This post originates from Knack Factory, which contains a robust gallery of photos from the event. If you like what you see here, be sure to check it out.]

Before the event we talked with Pisha-Duffly, who used to work for our friends and clients at Hugo’s Restaurant. He told us about how, thanks in part to the enthusiastic encouragement of Jason Loring of Nosh, Family Feast has gone from being an 8-10 supper club to a 60 – 70 attendee pop-up event over the past handful of years. His adoration for Indonesian food comes from his mother and grandmother, both of whom are from North-Central Java, as well as his and his wife Mariah Pisha-Duffly’s travels to the country.

We can genuinely say that the food and the event itself were both spectacular. We were seated at a table with Arlin Smith and Roxanne Dragon of Hugo’s Restaurant, Jessica Sueltenfuss, Loring and others—all worthy judges of spectacular food—and we were collectively impressed plate after plate. Not only was the food worthy of celebration, the communal atmosphere that Pisha-Duffly stresses is imperative to this experience was in full effect and everyone was in the best of spirits.

What was also striking was how genuinely enthusiastic everyone was on both sides of the kitchen. Pisha-Duffly, Pastry Chef Kim Rodgers and the volunteers working in the kitchen were very clearly excited to present what they had been working on for weeks. The guests were equally psyched to be there to not only experience the food but to support the endeavor. It was very much a pleasure to hear giants of the local and national food scene—Chef Mike Wiley, who Pisha-Duffly worked under at Hugo’s in particular—speak with such genuine admiration of both the food and the event.

It should also be noted that some proceeds from the event went to help support Sjaki-Tari-Us, a nonprofit organization in Ubud, Bali. The organization uses their full service restaurant to educate youth with disabilities by providing them salaried jobs in food preparation and service.

You can find Family Feast on Facebook here.

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What sort of food did you grow up eating?

When I was a kid I didn’t know that I was being exposed to any sort of food that was different. We didn’t eat Indonesian food all of the time. My mom made meatloaf and mac and cheese and Marcella Hazan pot roast too. She cooked all the time and we would always gather for dinner. Even when she was a lawyer, she would come home for an hour and cook. She wouldn’t just heat up food, she would be preparing lasagna or turning artichokes or making pasta. I thought that’s how everybody ate. You sit down with your family, you eat and talk about your day. It wasn’t until I went to friends’ houses and saw them eating hot pockets and maybe some boiled pasta and butter before I realized that other people ate differently.

 

When we would get everyone together—more than just the nuclear family—we would do cookouts, grill satay and make gado gado, which is a classic salad platter with eggs, tofu sprouts, vegetables, pickles and a mound of different types of foods prepared in different types of ways that you would slather in peanut sauce. The center of the cuisine was always rice.

My grandmother would take me out to Malaysian restaurants and we would do Chinese food. There is a large Chinese population in Indonesia and when you go to Northern Indonesia, the style of food there is called Straights cooking — the region is sort of the straights between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. That mixture of food culture creates this Straights cooking, which is what my Grandmother cooks. Oxtail soup and red cooking (braising and stewing). One of my earliest food memories is from when we were at Rainbow Room in New York City and we got a whole fish. My grandmother made me eat the fish eyeballs because it is good luck or whatever. I remember being really young—10 or 12—and eating fish eyes and thinking it was so cool.

This all was clearly incredibly influential on the styles you prepare today.

As I got older and really started cooking, I was really thinking of these memories and ideas. There are these foods where the flavor profile is so familiar to me because I grew up eating them and but they are generally unknown in New England. Everybody knows Thai food, everybody knows Chinese food and Malaysian to some extent—not just take out, but the real thing… But Indonesian cuisine… No one has really heard of it. There isn’t a large Indonesian population and if you search online you find that there are very few Indonesian restaurants.

In New York City you have Fatty Crab and Fatty ‘Cue in New York City where Chef Zak Pelaccio is doing Southeast Asian so there are some Indonesian dishes on his menu but for the most part people on this half of the globe don’t know Indonesian food. Then you go to the other half of the globe—and I mean East/West, not North/South—and everyone over there from Australia to Europe have this in the general consciousness of their food. Beef Rendang is one of the most popular dishes in the world, but half of the world hasn’t had or heard of it.

People are just now starting to discover profiles that they didn’t know existed. In the 50s people all across America were watering down all of the food. First came canning and then microwaving and flavors were stripped down. Ingredients were simplified by way of selective farming and the lack of people growing their own vegetables. You lose at lot when that happens. I think when immigrants came over here from Southeast Asian and China that food got watered down to accommodate the palate of the time. Less fat and less flavor for the most part. Chinese and Thai restaurants started adopting the flavors we all know as Chinese and Thai but it really isn’t. Red Curry and Green Curry don’t really exist as we see them. Lo Mein and Crab Rangoon doesn’t exist in that way in China.

I am not really a historian in these things but 20 years ago an avocado was really foreign to people and now people are willing to try more. I think across the board people are willing to learn more. In terms of Indonesian and Malaysian, though, there just aren’t a lot of restaurants.

Beyond the style of food, talk a bit about what makes Family Feast what it is.

The style of the dinner is the most important thing to me. It is about getting people together, getting them to eat at large tables, and getting them to eat the same dishes. It’s much like if you get 8 or 10 of your friends together and eat in Chinatown it all comes out at once and it all comes out on large platters. People are reaching over each other and building their own plates to their own tastes. That’s how I ate with my friends and family. There is no real form to it; it’s just about people showing up and eating good food rather than experiencing each dish as its own nucleus and then moving on to the next.

As for staff, there is Kim Rodgers and Moriah Pisha, my wife. Kim is the pastry chef at Hugo’s and has really come on as my other half in these events and Moriah manages the front of the house end of things. Kim has shown up to all of the meetings and has been there for me to bounce all of these ideas off of and get them off the ground. The rest are volunteers, a bunch of young guys from Grace coming in on their days off and giving me a few hours. I had Chef Flood from Grace give me a couple of hours and we rely really heavily on volunteers. At our dinner at Nosh [in February] it was just Kim and me and I had a couple of friends show up and had they not leant me their hands for a little while it would not have gone off as well.

I love fine dining, I worked at Hugo’s for a number of years and you will see a lot of what I learned from Chefs Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor in my food. What we started doing toward the end of my time there were these large format plates. You could do a giant rib-eye for four or beef shank for four or a whole fried fish with all sorts of garnishes. We would stay away from the traditional garnishes and put the Hugo’s label on it by using some interesting technique and manipulating the ingredients in some way. It was a lot of fun—everyone would get together and plate these big plates and it would get “Oohs” and “Ahhs” from the table. Other restaurants are adapting to that that style of eating, and that type of eating is really fun to me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy going out and having a tasting menu now and then, but I enjoy going out with a large group of friends and really having it be less about the food and more about talking about whatever, sinking our hands in and getting messy.

That is the nexus of what we’re trying to do with Family Feast. We are trying to show people that you can go out and have really good food without it having to be fussy. It’s more about having a good time.

Americans are getting much better about expanding their palates than we ever have been before, but people can get touchy about redesigns of the format of the experience itself.

Absolutely.

At these events you are giving up your choice. You’re giving it up to the kitchen, but that’s sort of the fun of it. When your mother is cooking for you, you don’t get the opportunity to order off the menu. There are logistical reasons why chefs and restaurants want to cook this way, but in a restaurant where guests are paying for an experience there are a lot of reasons why it is difficult to do, the way service breaks down, split checks, taste preferences and so-on.

I read somewhere that fine dining is this situation in which each plate is a set stage and each guest is presented with their own show but there is no communal atmosphere and so everyone is in their own pods of 2s or 4s or whatever. Everyone in the restaurant is experiencing their own frame of reference. This sort of opens that up a little bit more, everyone should be trying everything together and talking and laughing and that forced interaction creates a real feeling of breaking bread.

So unlocking the format of the dining experience is itself the next frontier.

It is funny it has become locked in the first place because the table is where it all began. This is where cooking came from. Ask cooks why they cook and a lot of them will tell you it is because of some formative experience that happened around a table growing up. A lot of the best experiences I have had were about sharing dinners. I like bringing it back to what it is about, which is feeding people but also providing everyone with these singular personal experiences… on a level that you can experience without giving up their individuality but while still giving in to the communal aspect.

I used to work at Sportello and there are no cocktails. The only way you get a drink is by telling your server what kind of spirits you like and what you’re into. That formless experience where there is no menu and the only way to get a drink is to interact is cool. We are certainly not doing that—we work on these menus for weeks before the dinner so the food is pretty set—but we come up with it by talking with each other. What do we want to present? Where is that coming from? We provide this larger picture that tells the story of our experiences. All of those things combine to express a well-formed idea of a whole of what we think we have to offer and what we think we can provide by way of an experience.

For more photos of the Family Feast event, check out the original post here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Zack Bowen / Knack Factory

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.