Food memories: Q&A with Dani Dillon

Food memories: Q&A with Dani Dillon

 

At Primary Beans, we see food as a powerful source of connection, memory, and love. So we’ve invited some of our favorite creators to share their own food memories, and the recipes and people who inspired them. Food Memories is a rotating collection of stories from our favorite home cooks, chefs, and bean enthusiasts, featuring all your favorite beans and showcasing recipes, tips, and bean magic from around the world.

Meet our friend Dani Dillon, a New York-based chef, founder, and operations leader who believes that personal, story-driven food can connect people in profound ways. She’s worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and at mission-driven food brands like Pineapple Collaborative, and through her food and hospitality consultancy, Lunch Group, is creating new ways of operating that prioritize and highlight worker experience. Dani’s paternal grandma (who she called “Mom Mom”) migrated from Puerto Rico to NYC when she was young, and played a huge role in Dani’s upbringing and her earliest memories in the kitchen. When we heard about the Matos Family Black Beans recipe passed on to Dani by Mom Mom, we knew we had to learn more about Dani’s upbringing and its impact on her life and career.

 

We're so honored to be able to feature a family recipe that is so personal– we'd love to know a bit more about your Mom Mom and what she means to you.

I’m so happy you asked me to share it! My grandma Adeline Matos– or as my sister and I called her, “Mom Mom”– arrived from Puerto Rico to Washington Heights in New York City when she was very young. She spoke Spanish at home with her parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but grew up in the City of the 1930s and ‘40s at a time when becoming an “American” meant “speaking English” and fitting into the dominant culture. 

Mom Mom married my grandfather Gerald Dillon– or “Pop Pop”–  who was an Irish Immigrant, and had three sons, including my dad. My father and his brothers grew up without speaking Spanish and without a close tie to Puerto Rico and its culture. They did, however, eat lots of Puerto Rican food, although the dishes were not always called by their typical names. For example, fried pastelillos de carne also called empanadillas became “Spanish Ideas,” as in the “-adillas” of “empanadillas'' became the English word “ideas.” 

My mom Debbie is also from the same Washington Heights neighborhood as my dad, but on the Irish-Catholic side. I like to think of my family as representing Washington Heights of a specific transitional time when the neighborhood was becoming a mix of Irish-Catholic, Puerto Rican, and Dominican families. I was born in Washington Heights, but we moved up to the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts when I was little. We visited all the time, though, as all of our family was still in the Heights or right over the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. 

I moved back to the City to go to Barnard College of Columbia University, and every Sunday during my four years at school I would take the M4 bus up to Washington Heights to spend the day in the old neighborhood with Mom Mom. We would read the New York Times together and watch the “Cuban-American Judge Judy,” aka Doctora Ana María Polo on Caso Cerrado. I had pretty good Spanish by that time, given my jobs in kitchens and time spent in university Spanish classes, and Mom Mom was always tickled that I could speak Spanish. Those Sundays were deeply meaningful to me, and I got to know Mom Mom on a deeper level different from that of a typical grandmother-granddaughter relationship. 

I got to know her as a person, and to have conversations with her about the world, food, culture, storytelling, and community. And I also got to learn her recipes! Mom Mom passed away in 2015, but she is still such a part of my life through her food. I cook her recipes regularly, especially her black beans. When I taste that particular recipe during the very last steps, when the wine, the apple cider vinegar, and white sugar are added, I always rely on my memory of her and the nostalgia of the flavors to guide me on what I need to adjust to get the recipe just right.

 

Dani Dillon for Primary Beans - Dani with Grandma Matos

Dani with Mom Mom in her Washington Heights kitchen.

 

What are some of your earliest memories in the kitchen and how have they informed your career in food?

Some of my earliest memories in the kitchen take place in Mom Mom’s Washington Heights apartment where my dad and his brothers grew up, surrounded by the smells, tastes, and sounds that I associate with her. She kept a very tidy and cozy home, and the narrow hallway of her railroad-style would smell of Pine Sol (which is still comforting to me to this day). My dad’s bedroom was right near the front door, followed by my Uncle Jerry’s room and the bathroom. After that, the kitchen! My Mom Mom’s kitchen is the stuff of legends to me– it was very small and narrow, and only a couple of adults could reasonably fit at a time. 

And as a cramped New York City kitchen, the oven doubled as storage for pots and pans, and the stovetop always had cooking equipment covering at least two of the burners– I honestly think that only two of the burners ever worked at a given time, anyways. One of the pots often had a few inches of cooled cooking oil in it, ready to reheat and reuse for frying up empanadillas. The countertops had cans of Goya beans, packets of Sazón, and lots of other seasonings and spices. When we would visit– which was pretty often, as well as for all holidays– there would be a platter of thinly sliced deli meats and cheeses waiting for us. A big platter of baloney, salami, lacy Swiss and so forth, all ready to be made into a quick sandwich or eaten rolled up on arrival before we’d get to the food that Mom Mom cooked. 

My memories of Mom Mom center around that idea of care and love delivered through food and hospitality. I’ve also been very interested in the ways that traditional Puerto Rican foods were passed down through my family. White rice, black beans, tostones, plátanos maduros, pernil, arroz con gandules, pasteles– all of these dishes are a big part of my family and our cooking traditions. My father may not speak Spanish, but that cultural lineage and the stories that are shared through food are there. These are definitely things that have informed my own career in food, and inspired me to think about food and culture through different lenses.

 

Dani Dillon for Primary Beans - Dani and sister Maeve

Dani (right) with sister, Maeve, in Mom Mom's kitchen.

 

How would you define your cooking philosophy?

Cooking is storytelling! It’s a powerful way to learn about who someone is. I love to cook because I love to eat and I love to share. I’m very curious about flavors, techniques, ingredients, and all of the labor that goes into food and drink. I’d say my cooking philosophy is centered in our relationships to one another, to agriculture, and to land.

 

Dani Dillon for Primary Beans - Matos family black beans ingredients

Ingredients for Matos Family Black Beans.

 

Beans play a large role in Puerto Rican cuisine and culture– other than the Matos Family Black Beans of course, what are some of your favorite ways to prepare and share beans?

Beans bean beans! We eat a lot of beans at home– absolutely one of my pantry staples. My partner Ernesto is Costa Rican, and loves gallo pinto, which is Costa Rica’s version of rice and beans. We also love casamiento (Salvadoran beans and rice), refried beans (I have a great recipe that a Mexican coworker of mine taught me!), and frijoles guisados from the Dominican Republic.  I’m also a huge fan of Basque-style garlicky brothy beans. Basque alubias are incredible! I’d be remiss to leave out Greek Gigantes– what a delicious way to eat beans.

 

We love what you're building with your company, Lunch Group, what do you want people to know about your vision for the future food and beverage brands?

Thank you! Lunch Group is an interdisciplinary operations, curation, and impact consultancy for mission-driven food and beverage businesses. We focus on reimagining the systems of service and hospitality. I’m very interested in the operating systems of F&B businesses in particular, and how to create new ways of operating that prioritize the worker experience. Lunch Group also creates editorial content that focuses on initiatives at the intersections of identity, accessibility, social impact, and food & drink. We like to highlight folks who are dreaming up equitable and non-extractive new futures for the industry: dynamic projects that support those who have been historically undervalued, overworked, and underpaid in an industry that wouldn’t exist without them. Check out our IG @lunch.rush and our substack :)

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