Happy Hour on the Fringe: Resa Mueller and Jezabel Careaga
Raina Searles: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe, Fringe Arts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Raina Searles, Marketing Manager here at Fringe. And today we invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversation with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. On today’s episode, we are joined by bartender Resa Mueller and chef Jezabel Careaga, who will each be leading interactive culinary experiences during the 2020 Audi Feastival Virtual Dinner Series. Feastival as Philadelphia’s leading culinary fundraiser for the arts and culinary industry, which will be running this year from October 8th through October 11th, and proceeds benefit Fringe, the Hospitality Assistance Response of Pennsylvania, and Cooking for the Culture. To talk a little bit more about their events coming up please welcome Resa and Jezabel.
Resa Mueller: Hi, guys.
Jezabel Careaga: Hi everybody, Jezabel here. I’m excited to be part of this. Hi Resa.
Resa: Hi Jezabel it’s good to hear your voice.
Raina: So just to start off, and I think this is actually the time that this question is the most apt, because as it is Happy Hour on the Fringe, we always like to ask, you know, what are we all drinking?
Jezabel: On a regular day, I’ve been drinking a lot of water, but I have to say, I’ve been craving a really good apple spritz lately. So today might be the day that I make myself one.
Resa: Usually just like a really fun, easygoing wine, but had a rough night last night so. A lot of water today.
Raina: That is fair. I am having tea. I think my go to drink… I actually I… this is not at all sponsorship, but I went to Fogo de Chão recently and had this amazing like lemonade with raspberries or strawberries or something and I don’t know what it was but it was like… didn’t even taste like alcohol. And I was very impressed by whatever they were doing back in the kitchen.
Jezabel: So one little drink, that off lemonade that you just mentioned, I love to make, that my brother got me into is actually coconut milk, lemonade and a little bit of mint. Yes. Super, super yummy and refreshing.
Raina: Yeah. I will have to try that. Thank you.
Raina: Well, so just as we dive in, can each of you talk a little bit about your respective events. So we have No Pants, No Problem with Resa and we have Carnaval Jujeño with Jezebel. Could you guys talk a little bit about what those experiences will look like?
Resa: Yes, sure. So No Pants, No problem is basically just a fun way for me to show how to build cocktails at home with, like, whatever you might have. So we’re sending out booze to everybody. We’re sending out all the mixers, everything that you need to make the drinks, the three drinks that I’m gonna be making during the class. And I’m also going to be talking about kind of the creative process. We’re gonna go through building drinks that are basically like a blueprint. And you can swap your base spirit out, you can swap your sweetener out, you can swap your citrus out, and you have any number of drinks and things that are just super tasty to put in your mouth. Also interspersed in between cocktails, we’re gonna be doing really cool… we’re going to be showing really cool cabaret performances. So that’s something tying in the Fringe Arts aspect there as well.
Jezabel: That sounds like so much fun Resa. So we are bringing… because we cannot travel these days. I think I wanted to bring a little piece of home. You know, home for me is Northwest Argentina. Jujuy is actually the province where I was born and raised. And if you are from Jujuy, you will be Jujeño on this way. The carnaval is Carnaval Jujeño because we’re representing a traditional carnaval that is usually celebrated at the end of February, which is the end of harvest as we get prepared for the fall. And it’s kind of like perfect timing when it’s happening with Feastival because we’re wrapping up the summer, getting ready for fall. I wanted to just make it very representative of the joy that the music from that time brings around. It’s actually one of the happiest times in Jujuy where people are actually part of the carnaval. And for, you know, being in Feastival at the event since 2016, there is so much joy around it. And I was like, how can we blend these two things together? And I was like, OK, let’s put together a carnaval. So we actually are going to be doing a cook along where people will get to make their empanadas at home. And I’m making a few other traditional dishes from Northwest Argentina. But we also got to work with Los Tekis, which is a very well known band in South America. They are actually from Jujuy. And, you know, they are really involved in all these cultural aspects of Carnaval. They really created these big festivals, now that it also happens, in the main capital of Jujuy these days. And people just gather and dance on the streets and dance for like three or four days on this festival. So, you know, I’m just really excited to bring the music. They were really kind and generous and they actually are going to be performing for… they perform for our event. And so we will have Los Tekis. Then we also have a little surprise which… something that is very unique about the Carnaval is kind of like opening up the earth and letting the devil run wild for the days of Carnaval. So we work with the Fringe teams to get the devil running in Philadelphia. So I’m excited to share those photos with you whever I can.
Resa: That sounds awesome Jezebel. That sounds so fun.
Jezabel: Yeah and then we should all go to Jujuy and celebrate Carnaval when we can.
Resa: I’m down.
Raina: Yes, definitely. Well, these events, we are very, very excited about them. And I want to dive more into them. But first, I’d love to just kind of hear from both of you a little bit more about your background. You know, normally when we’re interviewing artists, we ask about, you know, how they got into whatever artistic practice it is that they’re pursuing. And I’m curious for each of you how you found your way into the culinary arts and you know, what led you to where you are today?
Resa: Yeah, I can start I’ve been bartending for 13 years now. And I’ve kind of done every kind of bartending. But I’ve been in craft cocktails for, like, I would say, eight maybe years now. So currently, I’m at R&D cocktail bar. And a few years ago, in 2015, a bunch of us got together and started a pop up dinner series focused around our Filipino heritage. At that time, there wasn’t a lot of representation for Filipino food in the city of Philadelphia, which was actually surprising. And we were all talking about it because there is a pretty significant Filipino community in Philly and South Jersey. So we decided to just kind of do it ourselves. And it started with a series of pop up dinners. And then two years ago, we transitioned that into a fast casual food stall in the Borse. Unfortunately, we had to close that this summer because of Covid. But now we’re kind of taking a step back and trying to figure out how we can keep doing our events. A lot of it was community focus and fundraiser events to benefit a variety of different causes. But obviously, that’s more of a challenge right now. But I’m still at R&D, still doing the cocktail thing. And yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Jezabel: So I was, I mean, I’m excited to join you Resa and Neil and Jill at one of the dinners so please posted when they come up. I mean, I think there is no linear path at least for what I did or for my career if I have to look back. I will say I love food, I love eating. And you know, those are like some of my fondest memories as a child. Everybody in my home, my mom, my dad, I’m the oldest of four siblings, we all cook. Our life was very food centric- where food came from. Like trying to eat organic, without the organic label. It was just getting really good ingredients. My mom was amazing with all of that. Always making food from scratch. The same thing as my grandmas. You know, they cook everything they could and what they didn’t cook they made it into compost. They made stock out of it. So I think all of those things are represented today on my food and in the way that I leave as a chef or the way that I cook in my house. And, you know, my life, it’s a little… It’s pretty multidisciplinary, I will say, in the sense that I just, if I like something, I’m going to, even if I don’t know what to do, I will figure out how to get it done. And I’ve done from… I started in the hospitality industry, because somehow I wanted to get back into the food business. And I opened my cafe in June 2010. It was very different. The food, the vibe, it was very different how we started to what it looks like today. And it’s been an evolution, since I opened, from changing the flavors, from getting a little more in touch with local agriculture from Philadelphia or around Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania. And also, it has been an evolution to say like, well, you know, I like furniture. I want to make the furniture in my house. So I started making furniture for my house. And then one thing led to the other one. I ended up furnishing my space on 45th Street, and I’ve made all the furniture. And I was also interested on design. So I started reading and following certain magazines with certain aesthetics that I really appreciate. And that’s how kind of… It’s been very organic for my road. And it’s kind of like it comes and goes. And it has some deviations and then I come back around and I love what I do. And I think now I’m in a very different phase of what cooking has been for me. I’m trying to work on, you know, Philadelphia has an amazing collaborative community. We are working with other bakeries, with other restaurants on a, the Pennsylvania Grain Coalition, trying to focus as much as we can on the local economy and support farmers in the area. And, you know, that is also like allowing me to connect with ingredients to try to cook, but also not really change much the structure of the ingredients, was just slightly highlighted. So I like to say I’m a person who really loves simplicity on all of these things. I love simplicity in food. And that’s what I try to work with every day.
Raina: Yeah. I think all of that is, you know, super great content and I love that both of you are bringing in those elements that you don’t see in most restaurants and bringing in some new flavors. But it’s also really cool to hear that you started moving to more local businesses. And, you know, you mentioned Jezabel that you had started to make a shift from where it started to where it is today. Is one of those biggest shifts the fact that, at least from the culinary side, the fact that you’re using more local farmers? Like did you start off with a more specific Argentine flavor?
Jezabel: I mean, Argentinian food, if we’re talking about the general idea of what you will eat if you are in Buenos Aires or like in the bigger cities, it’s pretty plain. You know, there is.. It’s pretty much beef, potato and all of those things. Buenos Aires is having a renaissance with food. And it has been amazing to see the progress that happens over the last 7 to 10 years at most I will say. But, you know, the Northwest of Argentina, it’s kind of like a little bit like you are from the countryside. So my influence is very different and the relationship we have to ingredients is also very different. I think as a personal… I think my personal evolution really reflects on how my food has changed. Maybe at the beginning it was a little more Buenos Aires style, a little more European style. That’s kind of like, that’s what people knew about Argentinian cuisine. But, you know, the older I’m getting and… I am kind of really craving those flavors from home. The really good carrots. The very irony, beets, that, those were really common in my childhood. And so we can find all of these things in the Philadelphia area easily. And for me, it’s just making very simple food, good olive oil, good salt. And you have a dish. You actually don’t need that much. So for me it’s going a little more simpler in all of those flavors.
Raina: Mm hmm. Yeah. And Resa for you, at least with Pelago, did you find that you stayed pretty true to the Filipino roots or were you doing more fusions? Especially since you were collaborating with some other chefs on that?
Resa: Yeah. So when we first started, the idea was to be as traditional as possible with our flavors, but kind of a little bit more modern and more westernized, I guess, with the presentation. Really Filipino food is, it’s all family style. You know, you have all the like staples and then your big bowl of rice and everybody just kind of puts everything on their own plate and shares. But we wanted to do more of like a coursed out dinner and, you know, make a fun night of it for our guests. The problem is, is that it’s actually… for Filipino food it’s actually really hard to get the ingredients that we need here, especially on the East Coast. And so, for example, something as small as like citrus, Philippine lime, they make frozen concentrate and stuff like that but it doesn’t taste the same at all. And that is in literally everything. So it kind of tastes like, you know, we’re trying to reverse engineer it a little bit. It kind of tastes like if you cross lemon, lime and like mandarin. But even still, it’s tough to to get those those flavors. So we ended up all… while we wanted to be an original as possible we realized that it’s not really… It doesn’t make sense for us to shoehorn all of the cool local produce and like local farming, you know, with like cows and stuff like that, pigs and all that stuff. Why not just instead highlight some of these like heritage breeds and all of the produce that grows so abundantly in this area and add Filipino flavor to that? So that was definitely like a learning process for us, but it ended up becoming something that was actually more representative of all of us as first generation, basically kids of immigrants. Right? Because we all, for the most part, grew up here in the US. And while the other two of my partners grew up here on the East Coast for most of their lives. So we ended up being able to create something that was really more representative of us and our experiences, which was… once we landed on that, that was a really cool moment for us.
Raina: Did you find… so actually, that makes me have another question thinking about how you mentioned trying to, like, adjust the flavor palette. Growing up at home, did your parents also use the same kind of alternatives or were they, I don’t know, like every time they went to the Philippines, like bringing back those key ingredients that they wanted to include in their food?
Resa: There was a little bit of that. The problem is you can’t bring meat products or produce from the Philippines. So, you know, that was the biggest challenge. We’ve always had the Filipino store and stuff like that. But it just… they never really got too creative with their cooking. They tried to be as traditional as possible, but, I go home… so most of my family lives in the Philippines, actually, and I go home every year to see them. And it’s just such a different experience, eating Filipino food cooked here in America and food cooked over there. So while our parents kind of tried to be as original as possible to kind of maintain that connection to the homeland, our shared experiences growing up with a diversity of food for us here in the States and, you know, having access to all kinds of stuff that our parents didn’t grow up with, that informed a lot of our palate and allowed us to get super duper creative with, like, understanding ingredients that we can get here and understanding how they might fit into a Filipino dish or beverage. For example, pawpaw native to this area, if you taste it kind of tastes like mango and banana put together. So we made a custard out of that for like a dessert thing. We made… we actually combined it with Mango to amplify some of those flavors and made a compound butter out of it for a bread that we make in the Philippines. So it’s simple things like that. We just have this like broader frame of reference from which to draw that our parents didn’t have because they grew up over there and learning the traditional ways. But it’s all because they taught us those things that we’re able to expand and build upon that which is pretty cool.
Raina: Yeah. So clearly, you know, both of you are innovators in so many ways. And, you know, one big thing, obviously, this year has been the pandemic and the effect that that’s had on the culinary industry. And so I’m curious if you could both talk a little bit about how Covid has affected your businesses, how you’ve made adjustments and responded to, you know, these local and state and national guidelines around dining and dining out and what that all looks like.
Jezabel: So I think for us… I mean, I try to think about the days in March, the end of mid March, and late March and like they’re all a blur in my head. But I think, we were already working on an e-commerce platform and that was ready at the end of 2019 because I just felt it that January and February were just like going too fast. Our revenue was OK, but it wasn’t great, you know, from what it has been in past years. So I was like we have to figure out something else like there is something that doesn’t feel right. And do you relate to that Resa?
Resa: Yeah, well, I mean, so for us, it was kind of different because we were fast casual. So we just, we needed the volume to make our ends meet and transitioning to an online, like a delivery thing wasn’t really working for us. And then on the flip side, the cocktail bar I work in was… there was a whole other host of problems there because we just weren’t allowed to sell alcohol. Like, you can’t sell it online, you can’t do delivery, anything like that. So we had to do a major pivot until we could open, until we were allowed to open again.
Jezabel: So we actually we went on e-commerce and then we actually closed the doors here at Jezabel’s for two months, a little over two months. We started opening back up and having people inside around June 15, which was our 10 year anniversary. And all that time, we just operated everything online. People will pick up or we will do delivery and I will just put this stuff, all the food at the end of the day on my car and go and deliver it through the city, you know, because it was just this idea of, like, how do I survive this? You know? I just remember at the very beginning it’s like, how do you keep a business going if you don’t have money coming in? That was like my very first question. And I was like, well, we need to figure out how we make some… how I make something happen. So I kept two people on my team, one for, you know, helped me manage the store and then someone in the back office. And, you know, the sales were less than previous years, but it actually allowed me to explore a platform that we were already working towards. And, you know, it’s gonna keep running afterwards. And since we opened the doors the traffic inside the space for takeout, and now we have a little outdoor garden right in front of the store like a streetary. It actually has increased a lot. And we may… we are doing well. And now we have more people in our team. You know, little by little, every day is different. And we haven’t opened for indoor dining yet. And that is something that I’m really skeptical. I’m being pretty conservative on that end. As much as I would love to have people inside and as much as I would love for everything to kind of go back to normal, whatever the new normal is, we want everybody in our team to be safe. And we are just figuring it out week by week. What does this week look like? This is something we feel comfortable doing. OK. Then let’s implement that. And it allows us to, I will say, take time. And just be really intentional on our work and what we want to serve people. What we want to do moving forward. So, you know, there are two sides to this, to this situation, and one it has been challenging at the beginning on how do we bring some revenue. And then the other one is like, OK, now we’re on the other side, what does a future look like? And that’s something that we are still trying to figure out, you know, every day. And we don’t have the answers. And, you know, but we’re open and we’re working toward something.
Resa: Yeah, that actually is a great point, like it feels really good to have that focus and to be able to do what we like to do, even if it doesn’t look the same as it did before the pandemic. Like I said at Lalo, our fast casual stall, we just couldn’t make it work. We weren’t doing the numbers that we needed. And so for us, it was just kind of like, all right, you know, we’re not going to… we’re just going to shut it down and take a step back and try to figure out our next best step. At R&D it’s a different challenge because what we’ve always done has had a major focus on alcohol and unfortunately the state of Pennsylvania doesn’t love selling alcohol, even though it provides a ton of revenue for them. So at the very beginning, they made it like literally it was… remember, they shut down all the state stores and it was literally impossible to get booze in the state. And then they started slowly opening things back up and letting us, but still, the restrictions on being a bar and operating as a bar were just really challenging. And it kind of… one thing that we’ve always been super proud of at R&D is presenting like high quality product, but having a really fun atmosphere around it. And we’re like, OK, well, if we don’t have that atmosphere anymore, how do we, you know, make sure that we can still engage with all of our friends who come, who used to come out and see us, and, you know, all of our regulars and like, how do we kind of translate that? So now that we have outdoor dining and stuff like that, we’re able to still have fun with everyone, and you know, have a good time while still putting out, like, drinks that we are really proud of. But it’s like, thinking of a menu right now is strange. Also thinking of like what’s going to happen in a month from now and two months from now when it starts to get like super cold and people don’t want to be outside. We also are super hesitant to open up indoors. It’s just, it feels really risky for everyone involved, not just for us as staff, but also for our guests. And, you know, we don’t want to put anybody at unnecessary risk, but we also, yeah, it’s like what… how else can you think about this and create an experience for people while still being safe? It’s really challenging.
Raina: Yeah, and I think, you know, we’ve had, you know, similar, if not the same conversations from the performing arts perspective of, you know, we can’t have the same kind of capacity in our theater and we can’t have, you know, live events where people gather, which is kind of like our bread and butter. So, you know, how do you keep an organization running if you can’t make money and if you don’t have the ability to bring in that revenue? And I know like for us, we did make that shift to like doing this digital Fringe Festival. But we also still have the question of, you know, once we move into next year and once we move into the future, like, is it still feasible to be doing full scale events if all of the audiences are digital? And, you know, what can you charge for digital versus, you know, the normal in-person experiences that people would expect? And it’s definitely a challenge and an ongoing challenge that I think is unfortunately not only changed by government regulations, because there’s also still, you know, just as you said, Resa like what are people comfortable with and what is safe? You know, even beyond like, oh, there’s a vaccine, but how do people actually feel about still gathering together and being in a crowd or being in a crowded restaurant or anything like that?
Resa: Yeah, I mean, the thing is that this also presents a really cool opportunity to think about everything from a different perspective. Right? So like Jezabel, you’re saying that you were doing e-commerce before, but now I feel like more people are just going to see the advantages of having that component as part of their business. And customers also are more willing to embrace that. And understanding that getting delivery doesn’t mean you’re getting like Domino’s Pizza all the time. You can get like a really cool at home experience delivered to you, whether that is a raw materials kit that you can then cook at home and have restaurant quality food or like just really beautifully plated and really well executed, you know, multi course meal delivered to you in the comfort of your home. For us at R&D, you know, as long as we’re allowed to, we’re also doing bottled cocktails and we’re selling our large format Ice. And people have been really embracing that. So you can make like a craft cocktail at your home with high quality ice and, you know, do the whole experience from the comfort of your couch.
Raina: Yeah, I think that’s actually a really nice segway into the Feastival. Back into the Feastival Virtual Dinner Series and about how, you know, this is really an opportunity to have these culinary experiences from your home. You can get delivery or you can pick it up. And I’d love to dive a little bit more into what those specific events look like, because I think one of the things to emphasize is that, you know, I love watching cooking shows but then my biggest complaint is that I never get to taste the food. And this is that actual opportunity to, you know, learn with you how to make these delicious recipes and then have that and be able to, like, get all the ingredients that, you know, the chefs are using, get all the like, you know, liquors and everything that you’re using, Resa, and be able to make those in your house and actually feel like you’re in the moment with a real person.
Resa: Yeah, I mean, it’s gonna be… I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun. Like, we’re just… It’s Zoom, so it’s interactive. You know, I can like, I’m gonna be taking questions and, you know, we can all, you guys everyone can watch me make the cocktails and you’re making them along with me. And yeah, like, literally I’m gonna be using the same exact ingredients that everyone at home is gonna be using. So it’s gonna be as close as possible to having a cool cabaret experience in your house with the performances and everything too. Just be yucking it up.
Jezabel: Yeah. And I think the fun part for us. Like, usually people will come here to the Cafe and they will smell the empanadas coming out of the oven. And now you get to make empanadas and have that smell at your own home, which is so yummy. Yes. And then, you know, I feel like this is a big opportunity. I know, you know, this is bringing I think on a personal note, to me it’s making me really intentional of how do I spend my time? How do I have fun? And I think these are great events for people to be part of something larger. But it’s still in the comfort of your home, in the comfort of, you know, having a little extra and then just saving a few empanadas for the next day for lunch. So I think there is a little I’m going to say homey feeling to doing all of these the way that we’re doing. And I am pretty certain people are going to come out of this, and I’m gonna be like these are the things that I enjoy, these are the things that are amiss. And then hopefully we will be able to gather again and have Feastival somewhere in Philadelphia where a lot of people are having fun in one place.
Raina: Absolutely. And, you know, I think, like, I’m so excited to see what happens at the events and to taste all the food. I think there’s a lot to be excited for. And having… you know, this will be right after the Fringe Festival, we are recording this during the Fringe Festival. So, you know, there’s been so many different digital experiences and some are more interactive than others. But I definitely really love ones that have more of that, you know, interaction where I can be feeling like I’m, you know, at an arts event still experiencing all of that live. So one of our final questions is just to hear, you know, we talked a lot about how your backgrounds have inspired your work. And one of our usual questions is, what are some of your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations when you are thinking about, you know, something new you want to try? Or a new recipe? What are the things that you think are like, really, like lofty and like impressive to people and then what is like, usually our examples is like trash TV is like the best lowbrow inspiration.
Resa: So for me, like having a really nice meal out really does a lot for inspiring cocktails and tasting flavors and trying to understand… you know, I taste some food, pastry, something like that. And I’m just really inspired by the flavor combinations and try to translate those into drinks. And then on the other hand, like honestly, trash TV is a fantastic inspiration for like everything. Everything from cocktail names to menu themes to observing drinking trends. I like, I had a bar manager stop in his tracks when guests asked me what I like to drink and he said, no, no, no, drink what she makes, don’t drink what she drinks, because I love Twisted Tea and Rumple Mints and like a trash can, which is just a Long Island with a Red Bull. I love all of that stuff. And I’m like, really, that’s one of my favorite things about bartending, is being able to connect with people and making them understand that craft cocktails are actually not as intimidating as they, as people might think they are.
Raina: I love that answer.
Jezabel: So this is a tough question for me, because I, you know, I’m not born and raised in the U.S., so I learn constantly like new phrases and like this one, like highbrow lowbrow. So I’m just kind of like trying to think about it. But, you know, this is the never ending learning English situation. Right on a podcast, Happy Hour on the Fringe. But I will say, I mean, I had some amazing… I, You know, for highbrow and lowbrow, I think my word is simplicity. You know, I’m going to choose highbrow because I’m trying to… I can’t find the word like the example for low brow. But I think for me, I have a friend from Spain that visits once a year and we didn’t get to see each other this year because of Covid. But the meals that we put together- just go into the market, coming home and having a few, you know, my sister, my siblings, having a few friends over. Those are some of the best meals we had. It was just because we choose the right ingredients and took time to do cooking. We took time to cut the garlic and to prep every single dish from scratch. And we may have spent like four or five hours cooking, but we also make sure that when we sit down the table is set all the way to the top. And most likely when we sit down to eat, we’re eating for a couple of hours and we’re drinking for a couple of hours and, you know, at the end of the day, its like a whole day event. So that to me is the highlight of amazing food, some of the best food I had had it in my home kitchen. And this is one of the best. This is one of the best compliments I ever received from a friend from Columbia, she was at my house and as she was going back to Colombia, she said, I have never had a bad meal at your house. And then I was like, thank you. I’ve done well, for myself, you know? So I think that for me goes with, like, just really simple, but it can be amazing food.
Raina: Yeah, I absolutely love that as well. I always say that, you know, I love eating. And so the cooking for me is always a challenge because I’m like, I want to be eating this right now. But I love that, you know, you take your time and I really make it this full day event so by the time you sit down, you’re like, OK, we’re digging in but like, we’re eating and we’re drinking for like hours. And this is, like this is the whole day. Well, thank you both so, so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. It’s been such a pleasure to have you.
Jezabel: Well, it’s a pleasure chatting with you both. And thank you for inviting us.
Resa: Yeah. Thank you. I had a great time.
Raina: Awesome. Thank you. And, you know, for all of our listeners, make sure to follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and download the Fringe Arts app and learn more about Feastival at fringearts.com/feastival.