Industrial Arts: Katrina Jazayeri of Bread & Salt, Belly, and Post Oak

November 6, 2014

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Industrial Arts is where we talk to some of our favorite Boston bartenders, servers, and other hospitality professionals about their creative endeavors outside of the culinary & mixological arts.

We first met Katrina Jazayeri at an Opus Affair TAG dinner, where we chatted her up about the conspicuously handsome aprons that she and chef Josh Lewin were wearing and that—it turned out—she had designed and sewn herself. We’ve since enjoyed visiting her at Belly Wine Bar in Cambridge.

Lewin and Jazayeri’s hospitality group, Bread & Salt, took over the kitchen at the South End’s newest speakeasy, Wink & Nod, in September. Just before the beginning of their tenure there, she got drinks with us at Backbar and let us pick her brain about designing her Post Oak aprons, as well as bartending, public health, and culinary storytelling.

Christine Fernsebner Eslao: How did you end up making aprons?

Katrina Jazayeri: I guess I started by making Josh [Lewin] an apron for butchering. He was doing a series of classes about how to butcher an animal.

I like the idea of making really useful things. I watch the people around our restaurant folding their aprons or tying their aprons in a weird way. I started asking them, “Why are you doing that? Do you not want a pocket? What are you trying to avoid?” I guess the engineering brain was like, “There’s a problem here. People are adjusting their behavior around, it seems, this tool that they use. What’s wrong with their tool?”

I thought it would be really cool to design aprons based on the craft they’d be used in. I started realizing that wasn’t a thing that exists. Aprons come in one shape. They typically are the same fabric and they’re made for one mannequin size. I’m 5”10’. There are people I work with who are 5”2’ and their aprons touch the floor. That’s not comfortable and that’s not useful to doing your job or your craft better.

So it started from making Josh a leather apron that had a holster, essentially, for his mallet and his boning knife. And then it turned into, other people might have jobs-specific requests for what their apron might look like, the durability of it.

So I started making a couple of prototypes, because I love to sew. If I do any one thing for too long I start looking for side jobs or side projects. So I wanted to get back to my sewing roots. I took [the aprons] around to different boutiques. People would see Josh wearing them and ask, “Where’d you get that apron?” The guys over at Bronwyn [in Union Square, Somerville] asked if I would make them some.

It’s been a word of mouth thing that’s gotten a little bit of traction.

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In action, at Bronwyn

CFE: So, Bread & Salt. What can you tell us about your role in that?

KJ: Bread & Salt is Josh [Lewin] and I, and we argue about who’s the bread and who’s the salt of our group.

I can’t actually eat bread. I bake bread and I teach bread-baking classes in college and all this stuff—but I developed a gluten intolerance. So I kind of joke that I have to be salt because I can’t be the bread.

The name comes from […] an Arabic saying that Josh used quite a lot on his menus that means, “There’s bread and salt between us.” Which means we’ve shared a meal, there’s a bond between us now that politics or conflict can’t take away. You can’t fight with someone you’ve broken bread with, essentially.

My role in Bread & Salt is the front of house, the beverage program, the design of the event. We collaborate over concept.

We both like history and creating a story for people. So we get together on that. We come up with an idea for either a one-time popup or a series of events. Then Josh takes the food and I take the guest experience route.

CFE: So what’s the story that will be told at Wink & Nod?

KJ: A little bit to-be-determined. A lot of it, I think, has come from Josh’s summer of travel. He spent some time in San Francisco and then in DC working at an Indian restaurant. So a fair amount of the opening menu has connection to either an Indian tradition—there’s usually a bit of Persian influence that I sneak in, but—

CFE: Those are sort of contiguous empires, right…

KJ: Yeah. India, geographically, wasn’t part of Persia, but a lot of the people in India were sort of exiles of the Persian empire. Particularly the Zoroastrians were kind of ousted from Persia.

It’s going to be a mixture of things, seasonal and New England ingredients. Definitely a mediterranean, if not middle eastern slant, on things.

Food experiences are a story. And they should be a peptic history, a little bit.

So when we think about the place we’re gonna open, we can’t, we’ve chosen not to say, “We want to open a tapas bar in Brookline.” We would rather say, “Oh, there’s a convenience store for sale in this little corner of J.P.,” or wherever. “Let’s take that over and keep the history, make it accessible to the people who already come there for their bag of potato chips, and maybe we’ll give them potato chips with Persian dried lime on it instead.”

I think it’s not only much more difficult to decide everything and then wait until you find the perfect blank canvas—we would rather walk into a space, see a story, incorporate that into our own, while paying tribute to what came before us, literally and figuratively.

So, yeah, Wink & Nod will be—I imagine it’ll be changing, from our opening menu through our six months’—maybe longer—stay there. But at Wink & Nod we are only the food.

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At a Somerville Open Studios fashion show

Kate Holowchik is the sous chef over there. I have to make her an apron.

CFE: Where does Kate need her pockets?

KJ: I don’t know. We’ve just met each other. I haven’t quite figured out where she needs her pockets. I will. I’ll get there.

Brayden C. Burroughs: A cake pocket.

CFE: Historically, you have aprons for specific purposes. Is that just not a thing that people  make anymore?

KJ: There definitely were, and I think, still should be, different aprons for different tasks. But because no one’s asking for them, a market doesn’t exist for someone to make them. In some ways, people have taken the best attributes of the blacksmith apron and combined them with the best attributes of the hostessing apron. Then you get this trendy leather, like, ruffle thing. And that’s cool, but it’s not authentic to either of those.

There’s no judgment in that. That’s just an observation. But I like parsing out that—not to harp on history, but, why do train conductors wear overalls? Because they need things close to them and they don’t want to have pockets, because you’re standing next to a coal-burning whatever. Which is not dissimilar to a cook. Do you really want your pockets at…

BCB: At flame level?

KJ: Exactly. That was one of the things that the bakers at Bronwyn said. They were like, “We stand up against the cutting board. We don’t want pockets here. We want pockets on our sides.”

And that’s not attractive, because that’s an unflattering place to put bulk. So Anthropologie isn’t going to make an apron that has pockets on hip level. They’re gonna make them, like, little tiny pockets that accentuate your waist.

[A sewing teacher] told me: “Cut on the bias, always. If it’s going on a human, cut on the bias.” One thing I’ve learned, in practice, is, I might have to test the bias cut for certain uses. Because the same reason it looks nice on a body is also what makes something stick between your legs, like when you’re walking. Because it’s formed to you, it will shift.

The chef at work the other day was wearing the apron I made him and he was like, what’s this about? Why is this happening?

I may have made that [apron] too sexy for you.

CFE: Are there other professions [besides bartending and cooking] that you’ve targeted your aprons toward?

KJ: I don’t want to design something for what I think the needs of another person are. I can design for a baker, because I’ve been a baker. I can design for a seamstress, because I’m a seamstress. I can design for a chef, because I know enough of them.

I have a friend who’s an industrial designer and he’s a woodworker. We’ve been talking about the needs of a woodworker versus another kind of craftsman. It mostly comes down to durability—so, material choice. Things to avoid, like shrapnel kind of shards being blown into a person.

So it’s mostly been designs for what I know or for people I can interview about their needs. The idea is making something custom, sturdy, and useful. So I haven’t really tried to imagine a set of needs for somebody else.

CFE: Are there any stores where you sell your aprons?

KJ: Right now they’re at Boutique Fabulous in Inman Square [in Cambridge]. They’re opening up a new location on Charles Street and I’m designing a specific line for them. It doesn’t have a name yet. The [apron] company is called Post Oak, so everything will be that, until it gets a more specific identity.

CFE: What kinds of design concerns do you have in mind, for those, if it’s not for a specific person or a specific profession?

KJ: The retail component is definitely more of an advertisement, on a level. For retail you kind of have to pick the median design. It can’t be a floor-length apron, it’s can’t be a half-apron. It has to be somewhere in between.

It could be used for someone barbecuing, it could be used for someone painting their furniture.

CFE: This is Somerville. We butcher goats.

KJ: For your home goat butchering. It will be useful. It may not be exactly what you want.

BCB: We have to ask you the cheesy question, which is: which drink best describes your apron design work?

KJ: Sazerac. Yeah.

It’s traditional, classic. From humble beginnings, but with a little flourish. A little something that makes it not an old-fashioned. But it’s pretty much an old-fashioned. Yeah.

CFE: It’s funny that you mentioned frilly home-sewn aprons, because I literally wrote down, “Your aprons are the opposite of colorful, print-heavy, vintage-kitsch aprons that are often made by home-sewing enthusiasts. How would you describe the aesthetic you’re aiming for?”

KJ: My aesthetic has always been a more masculine one. I tried as much as possible to buy men’s clothing for myself because I loved the textures and the fabrics so much more than what made its way into women’s fashion.

Definitely texture-focused and textile-focused more than printed pattern. Industrial. The vintage craftsman. The locomotive engineer, or a carpenter. I love chambray and I love that that’s come into style because I think it’s so rich and I just see the person with their overalls and a little mud rubbed in somewhere. Kind of like an earthen color palette. But also bringing an element of interesting design. I think you should be able to have function and fashion in the same item.

So, yeah, if I guess if I had to pick a person to… personify my aprons, it would be like a vagabond engineer. On a train somewhere.

[laughter]

Like, corduroy and houndstooth and men’s suiting. But worn.

CFE: How did you start sewing?

KJ: In complete honesty, it was because my older sister had a friend who I thought was like the coolest thing ever. She introduced us to the Magnetic Fields. I started listening to Depeche Mode because I heard her talking about them one day.

She made her own sack bag once. I was like, I need to start sewing. I need to learn how to make my own bag like this. I was probably eleven at that point.

Just started there. I didn’t have a sewing machine for three or four years, so I made skirts and bags and stuff by hand. I got a machine in high school and my world changed.

CFE: You’re bartending at Belly now. How did that come about? This is your first bartending job, right?

KJ: Yes. Belly was my first restaurant job. It was my first serving job. It was my first bartending job. And now it’s my first managing job. I’ve been lucky to work my way up around in one place that’s really supportive of that kind of growth.

[Bartending at Belly] came about out of necessity. Ryan [Connelly] was leaving and I was actually at this fork in the road where I was going to work in the kitchen at Belly but the front of the house made a move quicker and offered me the bartending job.

At that point, I was almost a year into working there, so I had the vocabulary and the interest in wine. People come in [to Belly] looking for conversation. They want to know about a producer, they want to know about a process, and they want that interaction. As a front-of-house-interested person, that’s the rewarding part, when you can learn along with your guests.

CFE: What are the things you’ve most enjoyed learning?

KJ: I guess, as a science brain, I really thought it was cool learning just the process of spirit-making. It’s something that surrounds you but—I found myself asking questions like, “So, what is gin?” “What is Pimm’s?” “What is…”

CFE: You also have a sciencey background?

JZ: I do. When I applied to college, I applied to art school and I applied to bioengineering programs, and I ultimately […] started a pre-med program in Santa Cruz. And then took a Marxism class and got interested in social activism and community policy. And then started picking up a public health degree.

And that was really what brought me to food, in a kind of circuitous way. Because I was working at a nonprofit in New York that is now in probably the height of hipster Bushwick but, in 2009, was definitely a food desert. Bodega cooking for sure. I ran a farmers’ market for them and started these nutrition classes. We did “forty dollars and a bodega, what can we make?”

I started to view food as an instrument of power or an instrument of oppression for communities. So, from there I looked at how a food business can be a source of careers for people, and through a steady income—well, without a steady income, people can’t make informed or healthy decisions. And so, to say my goal was to impact community health through food, you had to back up and say, well, what stops people from being healthy when it comes to food? And how do you effect change at all in that setting?

Part of it’s biology, part of it’s the quality of the raw ingredient, but more than that it’s decision making, and it’s access, and all of that backstory that takes you to that point where you know “this is better for me than this, and I’m going to put my resources towards the healthier choice, as opposed to a convenient choice.”

So, somehow, pre-med and Marxism created my desire to effect social change through a business. I was looked down upon very severely by my socialist comrades.

CFE: Is there anything about designing aprons for your own use that helped you to think more consciously about how you work?

KJ: Definitely. I’m someone who likes to, in my head or on paper, plan out as many eventualities as I can think of. I think that the framework of “plan every motion, don’t make unnecessary movements” is really specifically useful, but it’s also broadly expanded to general…

Have what you need to do what you love. Don’t waste your time thinking about where your scissors are.

CFE: It’s a way of controlling your space.

KJ: You’re making your space part of you, in a way.

If something’s not on your body, it’s your own fault. It’s not that someone took your strainer.

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