by Len Lear
Anyone who watches the long-running TV show, “Master Chef,” knows that there are countless ultra-talented home chefs in this country, and the 17 guests who dined Aug. 17 at Airy Kitchens, a kitchen designer business at 423 E. Mt. Pleasant Ave., would undoubtedly argue that Mt. Airy resident Claire Phelan is right up there with the best.
And we are not talking about recipes from a Campbell’s Soup can. Each of the five courses, BYOB $38 dinner was as sophisticated as a Coco Chanel little black dress. For example, the first course was a chilled smoky tomato broth made with bush and heirloom tomatoes; seared zucchini, eggplant and mini green peppers; a scoop of burrata cheese and wonton wrapper ravioli filled with fresh pesto lurking in the bottom of each bowl.
So how did Phelan, a 29-year-old self-taught chef, come to put on complicated pop-up dinners as enticing and delectable as those at a haute cuisine restaurant? Claire did not specifically plan for a career as a chef, “but I always knew I liked hands-on jobs where I was helping other people in some way.”
Claire was born in the Philly suburbs, but her family moved around a lot when she was a kid, including foreign travel, “which helped introduce me to different cuisines and how different cultures build community around food. My mother is also ‘off the boat’ Irish (from County Westmeath), so early on, I learned the Irish value of hospitality as a way to connect and comfort.”
Claire went to Merion Mercy High School in Merion and then Bard College in upstate New York, from which she graduated in 2011 with a Human Rights degree. While she learned knife skills and other basics from her mother, she “developed and honed my cooking skills in college (self-taught) in order to avoid the unhealthy and unappetizing fare the dining hall provided. I was destroying my stomach going to the dining hall. So as a fun way to build relationships, I started to host regular (often themed) dinner parties for friends and residents alike featuring fresh, vegetable-focused dishes.”
Claire worked in a number of different industries after graduation but always kept coming back to food. She took some nutrition courses and kept a healthy cooking blog for a few years after college. In the fall of 2014, a year into living in New York City, she started teaching one-on-one cooking classes part-time and was gaining a following on social media for pictures of meals that she cooked and posted.
“It was at the collective behest of these casual acquaintances and strangers that I started thinking about ‘popping up,’” she recalled. “All the same, when I decided to throw my first ticketed pop-up dinner in 2015, a five-course seasonal tasting menu in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, I was surprised at the level of interest and positive response. Guests at pop-up dinners not only wanted to return for future events but started requesting that I cater their office lunches, launches and personal parties.”
As a result, Claire started catering professionally as Cooking with Claire, LLC, while continuing to throw pop-up dinners on her off-days. One particularly ingenious five-course dinner prepared by Claire included foods known to support healthy moods and relieve stress and anxiety. She was inspired by the cookbook “Food & Life,” co-authored by world-famous chef Joel Robuchon and acupuncturist and neuropharmacist MD, Nadia Volf.
The dinner featured salmon to boost cognitive function, bell peppers for higher dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine levels, pineapple for the amino acid tryptophan, which the body uses to produce serotonin, curry because turmeric helps the brain produce new cells, and black pepper for depression.
Claire and her partner, a lawyer named Gary who requested that his last name not be mentioned, moved to Philadelphia last summer, and Claire took a full-time job as a professional chef for Alpha Phi, a Penn sorority, last fall. “During this summer break, I truly earned my ‘farm-to-table’ label,” she said, “by working in the vegetable fields of an organic farm, Blue Elephant, in Newtown Square. After living in Old City for a year, we bought a fixer-upper house in Mt Airy a few months ago, and we’re really delighted to be in Mt. Airy with its warm, welcoming and diverse community.”
Claire’s ultimate goal is to run her own small restaurant “that also functions as a community space for local clubs to meet, neighborhood cooking lessons, communal dinners and so on. Ideally, I’d serve a diverse group of people healthy and affordable foods with locally-sourced ingredients. Healthy eating is as important component of emotional health as human connection, and my dream business would include and emphasize both.”
For more information, visit https://cookingwithclaire.co