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Serving up success

Goucher alumni express themselves through food and drink

Goucher College alumnae/i are known for their creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirits. Meet four alums who are honoring creativity, history, culture, and sustainability through food and drink.

By Holly Leber Simmons

MONICA POPE ’85 Chef/Owner/Teacher, Sparrow Cookshop

Working with and through food was always part of Monica Pope’s plan: “At 17 I said I was going to change the way Houston eats.”

She was the only one in her family to leave Texas for college. “Goucher was small, as far South as you could get in the North,” she said. “I loved the small size. I’m lucky that I kind of always stand out.”

Pope was part of the last class before Goucher went coed, and said that upon visiting years later, she was impressed by the students, especially their interest in sustainability. Indeed, it aligns with her own.

Her food philosophy for nearly two decades has been “eat where your food lives.” Her food is grounded in seasonality, hospitality, celebration, and locality. “Local food is three to four times more nutritious, flavorful, than anything being grown for travel.”

She defines sustainability as “give and give and give until it feels like it comes back to you.” For every dish she creates and serves, she asks: “Where does it come from and where does it go?”

“I see what’s going on out there. I have to give back to what gives me joy and what keeps me sustainable,” she said. “I’m not interested in being a millionaire. I have everything I could possibly want.”

Pope opened her first restaurant, Quilted Toque, in 1992, followed by two others. Her latest venture, Sparrow Cookshop, combines catering, pop-up events, cooking classes, and prepared foods, including her signature pecan granola, sold at local Houston markets.

The 2007 James Beard Award nominee looks to Alice Waters’ principles for the art and philosophy of eating and living well. Eat seasonally, eat locally, plant a garden, shop at a farmer’s market, sign up for a farm share, become a member of a co-op—try to support your region.

“Remember, food is precious,” she said. “If you have a true relationship with food, you know how hard it is for the farmers and the chefs. If you can get away from processed food and try to cook and eat two local meals a week, you can change the world.”

She started free cooking classes to help people achieve that goal. “I was scared shitless,” she said. “I haven’t always bought into the fact that I’m a teacher.”

Currently, she’s collaborating with a children’s therapy group on cooking as therapy classes. She taught her own child, who recently went o‹ to college, to cook and love food. “He grew up tasting the stinky cheese,” she said.

Pope was a competitor on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, was the first (and to our knowledge only) Texas woman to be named one of Food & Wine’s Top 10 Best New Chefs, and studied with Chef Prue Leith in London.

In addition to cooking, another of Pope’s great loves is writing—she studied English with an emphasis in creative writing while at Goucher. “I like a very tight, short, poetic, essential kind of writing,” she said. “I have a particular style of writing I’ve been struggling to figure out for decades.”

She loves reading about women’s journeys through food and, at press time, was reading Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone. Pope is currently working on her own memoir, something she is able to do, in part, thanks to Goucher professors who instilled a sense of confidence in her writing.

“I’ve been able to write about my career,” she said. “Goucher gave me that encouragement.”

MATT PIERCE ’95 Co-owner, Fadensonnen, Bar Clavel, WC Harlan

Doing just one thing isn’t for Matt Pierce. The 1995 music graduate is part of three bands—Arbouretum, the Furniture, and Midnight Sun—playing different instruments in each one. He plays competitive soccer, calling the game his “greatest love,” and along with his wife, Lane Harlan, he owns three restaurants and bars in Baltimore.

Their most recent establishment is Fadensonnen, a beer garden and wine & sake bar opened in 2018 and named for a 1968 German poem by Paul Celan. Before that, they opened Bar Clavel, a Sinaloan taqueria and mezcaleria, in 2015. Their first venture, in 2013, was WC Harlan, named for Harlan’s grandfather, which, Pierce emphasizes, is “just a bar,” despite it often being described in the media as a “speakeasy” or “Prohibition-style bar.”

“We were inspired by dimly lit bars in Europe with nice drinks, and we used old things because they were cheaper,” he said.

The journey into the restaurant and bar world came a bit by accident. Harlan wanted to open a gallery. “We found a space in Highlandtown with a space in the basement that looked like it wanted a bar. The space didn’t work out but the idea lived,” he said.

What fulfills Pierce is not the running of an establishment but the creation and gestation:  “The concept and the build-out and the inception of these places is the most creative part for me.”

During the process of opening, he said he acts as “almost a contractor,” contacting the health department, dealing with security, handling the permits, licenses, and zoning—basically, he makes sure they can open their doors as planned. “I’m not an industry person,” he said. “I bartended briefly. I was terrible.”

As a couple, he and Harlan make ideal business partners. “We have our area of specialty that we each handle,” he said. “We ask what each other needs and stay out of each other’s way during the day. And at the end of the day, we talk about the big decisions together. It’s nice to know that things are happening because she’s doing it, and she feels the same.”

Having trustworthy managers allows them, pandemic notwithstanding, to indulge in their love of traveling. “We always go for inspiration. We eat or drink something that gives us ideas,” he said. “Travel is always about research and development, as well as rest.”

A trip to Japan inspired their focus on sake for Fadensonnen, while visiting mezcal farms enriched their knowledge for Bar Clavel.

This expansive life would not have been possible for Pierce without Goucher, an experience he calls enlightening. “I came from a very small kind of a bubble,” he said. “Goucher was very eye-opening and liberating. My professors were amazing at explaining life to me. Goucher allowed me to consider and ultimately choose a life of creativity.”

MAX LENTS ’08 Co-founder, Baltimore Spirits Company

Baltimore Spirit Company honors the history of Baltimore. For co-founder Max Lents, there’s a lot of his own history in there as well. He grew up with fellow founder Ian Newton and met their third partner, Eli Breitburg-Smith ’08, at Goucher.

“Ian was the first person I brewed a beer with,” said Lents.

Breitburg-Smith, he said, was the second. They moved in together after college, learning more about brewing. At the time, the Baltimore arts scene was blooming.

“I think everyone was taken with this creative, blossoming energy,” he said. “It drives you to be part of the creation and not just a consumer. Baltimore drives a lot of community engagement and involvement. We wanted to give back to the city and give back to something that harnessed this creative energy.”

Max became a bar manager at Joe Squared, originally founded by Joe Edwardson ’03, and learned about spirits. His childhood friend Newton moved to Baltimore, and slowly Newton, Lents, and Breitburg-Smith formed a plan to open a distillery. In looking to the future, they began with the past.

“We knew there was a lot of heritage to bring into it. Baltimore is sort of the cradle of the American distillery. When we started on the business plan, there weren’t distilleries in the state at the time. The candle had gone out a bit. There was a gap to bring back some of the heritage,” Lents said. “We thought it was a good drive to be part of the Baltimore creative scene. It was a combination of genuine excitement and passion and falling in love with a city that inspired us to be creative and take risks.”

For a time, it was just the three of them. Newton was CFO, Breitburg-Smith was COO, and Lents was CEO—he specializes in the marketing and storytelling. “The Venn diagrams overlap,” he said. “None of us is an island.”

He described their liquors as “reflective and a little pensive. There’s a depth and nuance.”

The rye is a personal favorite and a source of pride. “Every extra penny we had we put into rye.” While using already aged whiskey as a base is possible, he said, “we went into this as creators.”

Their Epoch Rye won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2018.

Aside from meeting one of his closest friends and business partners at college, Lents said much of what he learned at Goucher has been translated to his work.

“I studied a lot of postmodernism. There’s something about postmodern philosophy on how the present is a history of discourse. There’s something about the spirits company that’s reflective of that. We do inherit the past—we use an old-school distillation system, but our spirits are fresh and creative; we’re trying to capture this current spirit.”

NADIERA YOUNG ’12, M.ED. ’14 Founder/Baker, Sweet Reparations Bakery

By day, Nadiera Young teaches eighth grade language arts at Roland Park Elementary Middle School. By night, she is the founder, baker, and chief cook and bottle washer of Sweet Reparations, a Baltimore-based home bakery business she runs with her husband, who acts as financial manager, website designer, assistant, and sugar melter.

“He makes all the caramel,” she laughed. “I will say that till the cows come home.”

She launched the business in 2016, but baking has been part of her life since she was a child, baking with her grandmother, who raised her and even incorporating baking into school projects.

“Oh, you want us to make a 3D periodic table? I’m going to make a brownie,” Young remembered.

Young has created nearly 30 varieties of cupcakes, including bourbon pecan pie, margarita, and Oreo, which she said is her personal favorite. But the heart of Sweet Reparations goes far beyond dessert.

“It definitely is a company that supports all things Black—Black people, Black women, whatever that means. It stands for equality. It stands for justice,” she said.

Young loves sharing her creations with people, giving away her baked goods, and seeing them being enjoyed. It’s something embedded in her roots, she said.

“In my life as a Black woman, food is so important. I do believe that you cannot teach culture without talking about food,” she said. “And specifically with American culture, Black food, Black culture is embedded. There’s no way to get around it. So when I think of Sweet Reparations, it’s like who I am as a person, but also these desserts come from somewhere, the ingredients come from somewhere.”

She had the opportunity to learn firsthand about where one of a baker’s most vital ingredients, sugar, comes from when she was part of a 2019 Fulbright-Hays Grant trip to Rwanda and Mauritius through Goucher and Baltimore-area schools. While there, she learned about sugar cane harvesting, planting, and cultivating.

“There’s so much history that goes into food. There’s no way for me to detach culture from baking,” she said. “Through my baking, I am learning more about my culture. I’m learning more about my family, specifically, but also Black culture through baking. The more I bake, the more I will learn about what foods are specific to our culture.”

She said she envisions one day combining her love of baking and teaching by opening a storefront bakery and educational space where children can come and learn different things, “not just about baking but about justice and being freedom fighters and revolutionaries.”

“My hope is to one day have a bakery that revolutionizes the way we think about people and life, and can educate people on different injustices in the world, particularly pertaining to Black and Indigenous peoples and Brown people,” she said. “Sweet Reparations feels very fitting for me as a person because I do, some days, consider myself a revolutionary.”

 

 

(Photo at top): From left to right, Monica Pope ’85, Matt Pierce ’95, Nadiera Young ’12, M.Ed. ’14, and Max Lents ’08