The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Connie Matisse is the chief marketing officer and cofounder of East Fork Pottery, a ceramics company based out of Asheville, North Carolina. At the cabin where she and her family have been isolating during COVID-19, Connie whipped up her version of cioppino and discussed her nonscientific approach to cooking.
I grew up with an unfair advantage in the kitchen. My grandparents are both Mexican immigrants; my grandpa worked on a farm during the Great Depression, and my grandma lived in this tiny, little village. They literally rode together on horseback to Los Angeles when they were 16 and 19, and immediately connected with this network of other immigrants who were committed to making L.A. their home. They had friends from the Philippines, China, Japan, and India, and they all found this really special multicultural immigrant connection.
Eating was the central activity of my matriarchal family from day one.
So my mom grew up with different people and cuisines always coming in and out. They'd host these huge potlucks, and my grandma would bust out the margarita blender and make frozen margaritas. And they would cook food that most people in the ‘50s and ‘60s were not eating. My mom became an amazing cook. Every single meal they would be cooking from a new cookbook. Or my grandma would have a friend from bingo who would teach her how to make congee. She was very adventurous in the kitchen, but always had this Mexican-grandma undertone to everything she made. There was always someone over and always an abundance of food. If you stumbled into her house, she had something ready for you to eat within five minutes. Eating was the central activity of my matriarchal family from day one.
I worked as a pastry chef at this little Belgian patisserie.
When I did the whole “graduate from college and move to New York” thing like everybody else does, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I was such a dabbler. I worked as a pastry chef at this little Belgian patisserie, then at a law firm, then as a line cook, and then found myself in this funny circuit of food writers and memoirists. I became their go-to transcription person and transcribed a few cookbooks. Then 2008 happened. I was working at a nonprofit at the time, and they laid off the entire staff in one day and shut down the organization. My boyfriend had just broken up with me, and I was just like, "I gotta get out of here." I left New York really quickly.
I ended up in North Carolina and met Alex, my husband and business partner. I was 24 and still working in restaurants and on farms, trying to throw something at a wall and see what stuck. Alex was not that type of person. He was like, "I've had the same vision to be a potter since I was 8 years old, and that's all I've ever done, and it's all I ever am going to do." It was so frustrating to feel like I was still in my existential-crisis mode and he was just like, "I have one clear path." I tried to fight against that for so long but started helping him out, and I realized that if we combined our forces, we could do something really big and wild. So, basically, in the process of getting East Fork up and running, we went from a very niche Southeastern vernacular, like folk pottery and craft-show circuit, to full-blown, modern lifestyle brand and manufacturer.
Now that we're at this certain growth point, I feel like I'm able to come back to food in a way that is a lot more intentional. It kind of brings together this very disparate food background that I've kind of distilled into one very clear food philosophy. So we're writing a proposal for a restaurant right now. Opening some sort of food-and-beverage concept has always been part of the East Fork vision, and now that is actually starting to come to fruition.
Obviously, there's a lot of grief for what's happening in the restaurant industry right now, with beloved restaurants closing left and right. But I also am so hyped on reimagining and innovating the food-and-beverage space. There are all of these genius people coming at this from a whole new perspective, and I'm excited about what's to come. Hopefully it’s a restaurant and hospitality industry that is much less oppressive.
My parents were supposed to come and visit from L.A. in early March, but they had to cancel right when COVID started and things started getting really weird. We'd already rented this amazing little cabin from our friends. So I was like, "Well, let's just stay. We'll take care of the trail for you and maintain the property." That was months ago. At this point, we’ve fully moved in. The cabin is this old 1920s cabin that our friends, who are architectural geniuses, did such a good job fixing up. It's tiny, but the kitchen space looks out into the woods. In April, when everyone was freaking out about having to stay at home, I was like, "I could do eight more months of not leaving this one room." I feel really lucky.
At East Fork, we've navigated this time as best we could. We've managed to keep all of our team on, but all of our plans obviously got thrown out the window. We've been doing a lot more fundraising and just put a lot more energy into showcasing nonprofits and grassroots organizers here in Asheville. We have some really fun raffles coming up. We also have an exciting collaboration with Samin Nosrat coming up pretty soon. It will involve a fundraiser for two organizations — one in Oakland and one here in Asheville — working on food sovereignty for immigrant communities. That'll be really, really fun.
We didn't launch with a brand strategy; in fact, we didn't even launch this company. It started off as a thing that kind of organically grew from this very little egg. It's been fun to figure out what our values are and what that actually means. How does that manifest into real work instead of just being something you put above the bathroom on a dumb sign or something?
Growing up, cioppino is the dish that floods me with nostalgia for my grandfather. Every single birthday, every celebration with my grandpa, we would make cioppino. And I'm not a tomato-brothy person usually. I kind of steer away from super, super-tomatoey things, but I always liked bouillabaisse. But bouillabaisse doesn't quite do it for the nostalgia factor, so this is like a cioppino-bouillabaisse combination that meets in the middle. You start with a lot of sautéed onions, sautéed celery, fennel, and saffron. Then I added in dashi and some potatoes and white wine, plus as many varieties of shellfish I could find. They cook at different times, so I added them gradually. It’s super easy to come together. I love any sort of meal that you have to really use your hands for and work for, so that brought me back to Grandpa Joe, eating cioppino at the beach.
I love any sort of meal that you have to really use your hands for and work for.
A recipe stresses me out so much. I think, for me, cooking is my ultimate escapism. I definitely like to be drinking some good wine when I'm cooking so I can block out anything. Recipes take me out of my flow state. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am never going to bake anything — baking really stresses me out. I don't take any sort of technical, scientific approach to it.
But I love cookbooks. I like reading them for pleasure when I’m not also trying to cook because it's so lovely. Trying to multitask and read while cooking does not work for me. COVID has definitely brought back my love of cooking very elaborate meals, even when I don't have enough time. My kitchen is always messy, as there's always an elaborate cooking project going on. All out. Always.