When we talk about art and creativity, the focus tends to be on the visual or performative genres. But with talent, dedication, and vision, artfulness can be injected into just about anything.
Three relatively new businesses on the Rochester food scene, Relish, Fruit Belt Seltzer, and Burwell each offer an artful take on gastronomic pleasures. The people behind Burwell and Fruit Belt Seltzers are artists who are redirecting their skills toward creating consumables, while the owner of Relish's training in high culinary arts informs his new home-cooked meal delivery service.
From inspired flavor pairings that showcase the depth of diverse ingredients to creating a buzz of consciousness about improving neighborhoods through art and small biz, creative skills and vision are imbued into the way these businesses operate.
Stephen Rees marinades his food in expertise, experience, and the community connections he's built over time. He paints plates with a vibrant palette of colors and flavors, putting his own creative spin on classic meals and accommodating dietary restrictions in unexpected ways.
In May, Rees launched Relish, an online menu of prepared food, from which clients can order restaurant-quality dishes that are easy to reheat at home during a busy week. Rees lists the items he will prepare for the week on his website, where customers order what they'd like for that week, and select the preferred day of delivery. At this time, Rees delivers the food frozen or cold, and the packages come with reheating instructions.
The one-man business is geared toward those who have jam-packed lives, with little time to cook and clean, but still want to eat well without paying restaurant prices every day. Because Relish doesn't have restaurant overhead, Rees can keep his prices relatively low for the style of meal that you get; meals range from $10 to $15, and sides, desserts, and other items range from $4 to $7.50.
Relish's menu is bistro-style with classic French dishes as well as unique ingredient and flavor pairings. For example, one of the menu's staples is an interpretation of Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon — a rich beef stew with potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms that takes two days to prepare — but Rees also offers creative takes on poached chicken, slow roasted pork belly, pan-roasted fish, pasta, and vegetarian entrees, as well as a variety of add-on sides, appetizers, snacks, and desserts.
One recently featured vegetarian entrée, the bright, citrus-and-herb Asparagus Medley, is a carrot soufflé topped with asparagus, toasted quinoa, and mint salad, and finished off with crunchy almonds. A recent special entrée option was a Cauliflower French Toast: a gluten-free, sweet and savory take on breakfast-for-dinner, featuring cauliflower "toast" with wilted greens in a vegan cheese sauce, frizzled onions, and locally sourced maple syrup. Menus change weekly, and Rees only makes a set amount of each dish that is offered, which means some items sell out quickly.
Relish also offers a "butler service" option which prompts clients (via phone call, text, or email) about weekly offerings, drawing from Rees's notes on their preferences and dietary needs.
Most of Relish's ingredients come from vendors at the Rochester Public Market and other local businesses. The food service, Rees says, offers the simplicity and ease of knowing that your meats are coming from a humanely sourced place, the bulk of the produce is coming from local and organic sources, and it's all the best quality that's available right now.
Though this is his first business venture, Rees has worked at various restaurants since he was 15 years old, including as a server at 2Vine and Good Luck, three years as the general manager at Lento, and most recently as the general manager at JoJo Bistro and Wine Bar in Pittsford.
Rees has an associate's degree in culinary arts and a bachelor's degree in restaurant management from the Culinary Institute of America. He also did a number of stagiaires — which are small, month-long chef stints — at New York City restaurants Lutèce, The Modern (of the Danny Meyer group), and Payard.
But the bulk of his culinary career was spent at a restaurant in the Berkshires called Aubergine Fine Food and Lodging — the Hillsdale business closed in 2008 — which also featured a high end restaurant. Rees cites this time period as the experience that sparked his passion for the slow food and locavore movements — the restaurant had a large garden on the estate — and, he says, he has a profound respect for farmers.
"I lived in the staff quarters," Rees says. "Basically, you would wake up at 6 or 7 a.m. and go out, cut your lettuces, pick your tomatoes, see what else was around, then prep all day. Service started at 4:30, and you'd work from then until midnight, then go to sleep, wake up, and do it all again.
Rees says he's been trying to get a restaurant going for a while. "When I left Lento, my idea was to get a small, very French, cute wine bar concept up and running."
But securing the ideal location took time, and he lost some of his investors. Over time, Rees whittled his concept down to something he could personally finance.
Relish is based in a rented commissary kitchen with cooking ranges, a convection oven, a walk-in freezer, a three-compartment sink, prep areas, a commercial dishwasher, and so on.
One of the drawbacks of the current setup is that Rees is a bubbly, delightful human being, and dreams of socializing with customers and community in a restaurant setting. "I'd prefer to have a brick and mortar place, but this is a launching point, so that I can show proof of concept of what I want to be doing, and go from there."
In addition to launching Relish's online ordering, Rees has been holding pop-up events at various Rochester businesses, to give audiences a chance to sample his offerings. The next pop-up will be held July 21, 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Rochester Brainery's new location (176 Anderson Avenue, F109). He also hosts a series of experimental fine dining experiences twice monthly. The next event will take place on July 17 and 18, "with a nod to French cuisine, as the 14th is Bastille Day," he says.
Relish also offers cooking classes. To learn more, visit relishdelivers.com.
The words "Say I Will & I Can" appear on some of the walls painted by the Mural Arts of Rochester Crew — a group of city youth led by artist Shawn Dunwoody. It pretty much sums up how Dunwoody moves through the world. The MARC initiative's purpose is to employ community members to create murals that feature "words to live by," offering inspiration to neighbors and passersby. The project took some of these young artists to paint murals in Philadelphia last summer, and most recently, sent two of them to paint in Brazil.
Late last year, Dunwoody's Dunwoodé Consulting expanded the community empowerment of MARC by teaming up with Greentopia to create The Fruit Belt Project in the JOSANA neighborhood. The beautification project is named for the area's fruit-themed street names, like Grape, Orange, Lime, and Orchard.
The Fruit Belt Project's vision includes rebranding the neighborhood, painting murals on area businesses, and initiating self-sustaining projects that maximize community resources to revitalize the area. One of those projects is Fruit Belt Seltzer, which Dunwoody has branded as "a beverage made for building," and was informally launched this year with tastings at local businesses.
The seltzer concept came about after members of the JOSANA community proposed adding a garden, and The Fruit Belt Project built one for the purpose of growing fruit, naturally. The yield from the Fruit Belt Garden will eventually be used as a natural flavoring for the seltzer, in collaboration with College Club Beverage. Located in one of the buildings on Grape Street that received a mural, College Club has been making Fiz soda and other drinks in the neighborhood since 1922.
Dunwoody hired a core of five people from the area and similar neighborhoods, ages 16 through 21, who served as mentors for a group of younger participants. There is a nod to this group in the five seeds of the fruit core in Dunwoody's label design for the beverages.
Fruit Belt Seltzer offers a locally-made, sugar-free, preservative-free alternative to ubiquitous sugary beverages. The first drink offered by the company, a refreshing lemon-lime flavor with that pleasingly subtle bite of carbonation, was created using College Club Beverage's supply of natural flavorings. But Dunwoody and his team are working with Chris Hartman of The Good Food Collective on growing raspberry plants that will yield the source for the seltzer's flavoring in the near future, and other fruits will follow.
In addition to installing murals and the garden, The Fruit Belt Project has improved sidewalks and installed streetlights, and is collaborating with ROCspot to install solar panels for the garden, and with Seneca Park Zoo to build a butterfly beltway.
"I want my core to understand that we're not just painting, we're trying to bring attention to an area," and have people gain a different respect for it, Dunwoody says.
The seltzer shows that "a neighborhood project can create a smaller business within a business," he says. "I'm building it up so that someone in the neighborhood will want to carry it on, take on the rights, and move it along. That's the strength of Fruit Belt: how creativity can change a community in a physical, financial, and emotional way."
Dunwoody is consulting with others to determine distribution, price, and other details. For more information, visit fruitbeltproject.wordpress.com and facebook.com/fruitbeltproject, or follow @fruitbeltproject on Instagram.
Since February, Rochester-based artist Carter Burwell — who has worked in film, painting, sculpture, and other media — has created delectable treats for special occasions and custom orders under the Burwell label. She offers such sweet and savory concoctions as chocolate chili caramels; honey vinegar rosemary cashew brittle; beer and bacon toffee; bourbon marshmallows; candied jalapenos; tart cherry and thyme pate de fruit; lemon lavender madeleines; smoked sea salt grapefruit marmalade; and French macarons in a variety of flavors and hues.
The list goes on and on. And Burwell caters to specific dietary and allergy needs, using separate utensils and cookware and making non-allergen items on different days than items that have allergens in them, to extra ensure no cross-contamination.
Burwell says she's always thinking about how to "combine, deconstruct, hybridize, or enhance flavors and experiences in food," she says. While shopping at Asia Food Market recently, she spied a bag of honey powder. "I found myself thinking about biscuits and melons and being on the farm as a kid. I thought about thyme and bourbon and suckers. I wondered if it would melt instantly on my tongue or if it would become a tacky syrup? Could I whip it into butter for a spread or would the cane sugar in it cause a crystallization? What would happen if I mixed it with popping sugar? How would this taste with bacon? Then I broke out of my trance and put the bag back on the shelf."
Burwell's flights of epicurean fancy have roots that stretch into her childhood. "I spent a lot of my weekends as a kid following my grandfather around his farm in Owensville, Indiana," she says. She experienced farming produce from planting to harvesting (her grandfather grew much of his own food), and she joined him on hunts for morel mushrooms, and collected wild pecans with her grandmother, who was from South Carolina.
"Saturday and Sunday meals were full of Southern cuisine, from breakfast to dinner, with food from their land or the farmers' around it," she says.
But the fare in Burwell's own home contrasted greatly from these fruits-of-the-earth experiences.
"My family was lower-class and I grew up in a trailer with cabinets full of canned dinners and not a lot to eat," she says. "Being raised with that juxtaposition was very impactful to me."
Today, when friends pop by to visit her at home, Burwell is ready to feed them treats or her beverage specialty, jalapeño margaritas. "To me, cooking is more than just feeding a person," she says, recalling her grandfather frying up potato wedges for her as an afternoon snack, while she waited to be picked up by her parents. "I think it is such an act of generosity and love."
As a youngster, Burwell found herself glued to televised cooking shows, and was determined to one day become a world-renowned chef. But soon, filmmaking took over as the center of her interests. "Suffice to say, I never attended culinary school and kept my love of cooking to myself," she says.
That was until 2008, when she moved to Rochester and began catering treats for 1975 Gallery's opening receptions. She launched her short-lived but popular business, Bake It or Cleave It, in July 2012, and began to acquire additional culinary jobs for wedding dessert tables and realty showing spreads. And Burwell and Hannah Betts, who joiner her team in 2013, offered a pop-up patisserie at Thread in the South Wedge. Later that year, the operation dissolved — both Burwell and Betts had fulltime jobs, and Burwell decided to finish her BFA in Studio Art at RIT.
In the months after graduating in 2015, Burwell left both of her day jobs in order to pursue her creative impulses. With Valentine's Day approaching, she found herself daydreaming about making candies and treats.
"I offered to make 'Sweets for your Sweet' treat boxes and the response was humbling," she says. "I didn't expect to have so many amazing people let me know how excited and happy they were that I was doing it. I am pretty sure I smiled for two days straight."
Though she advertises her creations on social media, the bulk of Burwell's business comes from word-of-mouth. She also takes custom orders. "It's a one man army over here at Burwell. I make everything myself, design and package it, and deliver or set up," she says.
So far, Burwell has offered themed boxes for Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and Father's Day, which will be the last until October.
"Halloween is my favorite holiday, so I thought it would be fun to offer the option of getting someone a 'Trick' or 'Treat' gift box," she says. "The 'Trick' one will be filled with ghoulishly concocted flavor pairings, lots of spicy things, and some mystery items. The 'Treat' one will be filled with spooky sweets and devilish delights."
There will also be one or two special offerings for the holiday season in December. In the meantime, she's busy with wedding favors (she doesn't do cakes, though) and some small soirees.
"Once I get my garden certified for organic produce, I would like to be able to finally merge my farming and culinary passions together," she says. "I'd love to open a storefront at some point, but it's not in the immediate future. With so many amazing neighborhoods and locations in Rochester, it is difficult to decide where to put down some roots just yet," she says. "There are so many positive and exciting changes on the culinary scene in this city, I am just excited to wait and see what happens."