The Birds Nest
Everyone has one of these friends, the ones who throw amazing dinner parties, the ones who make dishes worthy of a Bon Appetit spread. At the end of the night, friends go home thinking, Wow, she could do this for a living. Marika is one of these people. “I’ve always loved putting on dinner parties,” she says. “Ten or 15 years ago, these dinner parties were the highlight of my week. People would say, Marika, you love doing this, why don’t you become a chef?” So she did. But you won’t find her cooking in the kitchens of any restaurant in Vancouver. At least, not any restaurant listed in the Yellow Pages (do those even exist anymore?).
Marika runs an underground restaurant, a kind of secret supper club out of her beautiful home. She calls it The Birds Nest.
“The whole point of me cooking is that I want to experience the food with my friends after, that’s such a huge part of it,” says the chef.
Way before Marika opened The Birds Nest, she was an executive assistant and the idea of quitting to work at a restaurant had zero appeal. “I’ve been in restaurants behind the scenes and what they do is not what I’m doing,” she says, “they are cranking out the same thing every day and it’s a grind. They have no connection to their audience. It’s the server that takes the food out, there is such a disconnect there.”
Everything changed for Marika during a trip to Buenos Aires, where the concierge at her hotel recommended she check out a puerta cerrada (literally, closed door), as the underground restaurants are called in Argentina. “I was like, ‘What? Go to somebody’s home to have dinner?’ I went and it blew my mind.”
I’ve been to Marika’s secret restaurant and it blew my mind. Here’s how she went from a 9-to-5 job to living (and cooking) her dreams.
Tell me about your experience having dinner at a puerta cerrada in Buenos Aires, Argentina?
It was this couple; he was the chef and she was a photographer. You went into their home and he showed you the herbs he was going to be using in the meal. We sat down at a long table and it was friends of his and tourists. It was a mix bag of all these people, and it was such an amazing night because I met people I would have never met. It was just like this feeling of being home but at the same time being out, and you were getting to meet the chef. It was so intimate and great. It’s called Casa Felix.
Is that when it all clicked for you?
I was like this is what I want to do! I came back from that trip and wanted to be that girl who puts on dinner parties for a living. That was my dream. I talked to people saying I don’t know if I can do this in Vancouver, and they said, well actually there are some underground restaurants and secret supper clubs and some people just do it once a month. Or pop up stuff. So about a year later after I got the idea, I started doing brunch on the weekends and it took off right away. After about eight months of doing the brunches people were like, when are you going to start doing dinners?
What was it like having your secret restaurant thing and a full-time job?
I was so busy and the contrast of having these weekends where I was cooking and doing something I loved and sharing it with people, and then going back to an office job was becoming very apparent. Then I got a couple of opportunities or signs from the universe or whatever you want to say, and I should just jump into the deep end. I don’t know whatever metaphor you might use but I left that job and the rest is history.
How did you come up with the name Birds Nest?
A friend of mine came up with it. There was a bird’s nest right outside the dining room window and she was like, “you are the bird and this is your nest.”
How can we find out more about secret supper clubs?
They exist all over the world as pop ups, underground restaurants and are very common in Argentina, Chile, Cuba. There are tons of them. Check out the web site www.casasaltshaker.com. It is moderated by this guy who has an underground restaurant in Buenos Aires and he lists all the great spots around the world. Paris, Rome, Istanbul, you can look up all the good spots.
Is the Birds Nest on that website?
Vancouverites are famous for having food allergies and dietary restrictions. Do you find this hampers your creative process?
I’d say 25 percent of people have some sort of issue. Vegetarian, vegan, gluten free etc. I find it’s pretty easy to accommodate unless it’s a combination of all three, that gets tough. Like, a vegan with a nut allergy who doesn’t want to eat sugar or gluten or meat.
How do you arrive at a menu? Are you influenced by specific people, trends or are you totally self-directed?
I’d say it’s a mixture of all of that. I get inspired by other chefs, going out for food, traveling, magazines, blogs, Instagram, farmers markets. It’s all of those, a big combo. Farmers Markets are like church for me.
What Blogs or publications do you draw inspiration from? What should we check out?
I’ve always loved Bon Appetit and Epicurious. My New Roots she is really good. Oh She Glows, that’s a really good one too. Probably on everybody’s list. One that is on my list is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. Erin Ireland’s It’s To Die For, she is a local, great photos. Her Instagram feed makes me want to go and eat. I like to go into Chapters and browse cook books or go to the library. The library has lots of good cook books, test out a recipe and if you like it, go and buy the book.
How did you learn to cook? Are you self-taught?
I took a couple of courses and have to really think about what they taught me. I’ve learned more from watching my old roommate Jamie, who is a chef, and how he gets inspired and gets his ideas. Whenever I get a great idea for a dish, I want this combination with this combination, I realize its already been done for the most part. I’ll google it and find someone has already done it. It’s great because you can then see how it turned out.
Any chefs or mentors you look to for ideas and inspiration?
Jamie Oliver. I like chefs that are excited about food. Celebrity chefs are interesting. There is a great documentary called On the Road Again where they follow Gwyneth Paltrow around Spain eating and talking about food. It’s amazing, super inspiring. Ina Garten from the Barefoot Contessa, she is a person you can tell just loves cooking, they are not necessarily the best cook. I also appreciate the scientific mind of El Bulli, with crazy ideas of Nitrogen infused whatever, it’s just a very scientific approach to food. It’s not the everyday and not but what I aspire to cook either.
What do you aspire to cook?
I aspire to cook food that people like to eat. [Laughs]
Tell us about some of the people you’ve cooked for.
About 4 years ago when I was thinking about quitting my job to cook full time I had two opportunities come my way. One was to cook for a famous rock star when he was in town. I can’t mention the name because I still cook for him. And the other was to go and cook for a family in Cognac, France for three months. That was a dream, going to France, cooking everyday, going to the markets. The family had this beautiful 200-year-old home, put that all together and it’s a “vision board” come to life. Those two opportunities kind of catapulted my away from my desk job.
Where do you see this creative passion you’ve developed going in the future?
What’s been interesting with working with celebrity clients is I’ve seen where I want to go with my career. The experience has shown me that when I’m cooking for my secret brunch or supper I find myself in the kitchen cooking and prepping and I’m an extremely social person. So I’ve been working on some collaborations that get me out with people more. I’m working on a project called Farmacie and trying to teach cooking classes and focusing on collaborative retreats, photography and cooking class retreats.
What would one of these retreats look like?
I imagine organizing a week or ten day trip to Paris with everybody staying in a rented flat, and clients learn to cook some dishes, go to farmers markets, experience some restaurants. A very interactive kind of vacation. Or a cooking class/retreat to Hawaii. Getting to do that is a dream because I would get to hang out with people, talk about food. That is what I love to do.
Rumour has it you are an avid Yogi. Do you see this contributing the big picture plan?
Funny you should ask! When talking to one of my collaborative partners about doing retreats, I could throw in teaching yoga classes as well. I am a certified yoga instructor. I know when I’m on vacation, the fact that you are eating all time makes you want to move. Do some yoga, maybe go for a run before you gobble up a croissant.
Where do you eat in Vancouver, where do you recommend we go?
Oh before I forget let me mention my cookbook!
Oh yes! Of course…
[Laughs] I’m working on a cookbook! Don’t ask me when it’s going to be finished but I need to be encouraged at the same time.
Oh, when is it going to be finished?
[Laughs] I hope by next year, I really want to share my recipes but there is a monotonous part of writing down everything I’ve put into a dish, a lot of it is on the fly – a bit of this a bit of that. Cooking is very precise for a lot of people, and they need well-explained instructions. I’ve found that cookbooks of a lot of professional chef are the worst. I find the amateur chefs do a better job. With my cookbook, when you see my recipes I will include lots of options so you can work with what you have. No limes? Use a lemon. If you don’t have cumin in your pantry you can use this. I find one of the most frustrating things is going to a cook book, getting stoked on a dish and be like, “I need to go buy elderflower and all these other ingredients, and you know what screw it, I’m going to order pizza.”
So your goal is to make your cookbook accessible to everyone?
What are some places in Vancouver that you go to for a culinary experience?
I like to go eat stuff that I don’t typically make at home. Going out for sushi and going to Izakaya houses. I love that. I love Bao Bei, Chau Veggie Express. Chambar is a staple. The Farmers Apprentice, Heirloom, and Acorn because I am slightly vegan. People need to check out the farmers markets in Vancouver. They have so many different types of lettuce, micro greens, stuff that you don’t see in any or most of the grocery stores. Things like stinging nettles are hard to find in grocery stores.
What inspires me as far as eating out in Vancouver is finding places that have good food and a good vibe. I think the ambiance and who you are with is so much a part of the experience of eating. There are some places in Vancouver that serve an amazing dish but have no ambiance. That’s not what I want. I want good scenery and people.
Photos: Allison Kuhl.