Interview by Mona Bavar
Article by Lynne Myers
“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”
~ Federico Fellini
Meryl Feinstein founded Pasta Social Club with the simple idea of connecting people over a dinner table. Initially launched as a supper club experience, Feinstein has gone on to spread the gospel of fresh pasta making to keen students via classes, workshops, and intimate dinner parties.
After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education, Feinstein garnered experience in pasta production by working the famous New York establishments Lilia and Misi. She attributes her unique style and tasty dishes to her travels in Italy, continuous research into the science and tradition of pasta making, as well as her Jewish heritage.
As Resident Pasta Maker for Food52, Feinstein's passion has made her an expert in the art of pasta making - similar to the Italian pasta grannies, sitting around the kitchen table creating shapes and designs to compliment delectable sauces.
Currently, in the time of COVID-19, Pasta Social Club has gained a new global audience thanks to online classes and a beautifully curated Instagram page, which has amassed over 100,000 followers. In this interview Feinstein speaks passionately about the art of making pasta from scratch, and how important it is to preserve this great tradition.
Chestnut & Sage Pappardelle
Mona Bavar: What’s the story behind Pasta Social Club?
Meryl Feinstein: I have a background in art and art history - which now makes sense to me because I think pasta is such an artistic form of cuisine - and I have always loved food of all kinds from a young age. However, when I was growing up, it was never a viable career path. A few years ago, I knew I wanted to be in the food industry and I had an idea of doing a supper club experience many years before that. And so, I left my corporate job in 2018 and I enrolled in culinary school.
But between ending my job and going to culinary school, I went to Italy on my honeymoon. We did a two week trip starting in Sorrento, going all the way through Modena, and ending in Florence. While we were in Modena, we did a day of pasta making with a family and their Nonna. It was a magical experience and at that moment I knew I wanted to learn how to make pasta and that it was going to become my focus.
After I was finished with culinary school I worked in a couple of pasta focused restaurants in New York where I really got a sense of how to make pasta on a restaurant scale. Around that time, I started Pasta Social Club.
MB: What was your first event?
MF: My first ever event was when I was leaving the restaurant I was working in and I knew I was relocating cities. Before I left New York, I really wanted to take advantage of the city’s food scene and do an event. I teamed up with a couple of friends and we hosted two 25 person dinners in Chinatown, where we did three fresh pastas, antipasti and dessert. That was more of a social thing where people who didn't necessarily know each other came together. We had a big long table where everyone just ate and met each other.
Ravioli al Uova
MB: Did you do all the cooking or did everyone that came contribute as well?
MF: We cooked for them. The original vision was to create a casual and relaxed environment for young adults to meet new people. Because for me, coming out of college, it was hard to make new friends when you're not in school and when you're in a new city. And New York is such a big place. I grew up in a Jewish household and a big part of Jewish culture is the Sabbath, when on Friday evenings you eat with friends and family. No phones, just very relaxed. I wanted to recreate that experience obviously without it being religiously affiliated.
We did a couple of those dinners where we cooked the food and everyone else just enjoyed it. Then we also did two workshops where people made the pasta and then we cooked the pasta at the end.
MB: What is a pasta dish that you can say you personally invented?
MF: There are a few dishes that I have incorporated some flavors from my Jewish background. One of them was on the supper club menu and it's one of my favorite dishes. It was like recreating the Jewish bagel and lox. It was rye flour cappelletti pasta filled with farmer's cheese and a little bit of ricotta but also capers and caraway seeds. It had smoked trout roe in it and some lemon. It was very much like a bagel and lox pasta.
I've done a couple of those kinds of dishes but I also want to make people aware of traditional shapes and combinations. But most of my stuff isn’t actually traditional because I don't eat meat. Many traditional pastas, like tortellini, have a meat filling, which I can't make so I usually have to adapt it in some way. Plus, it's also about what ingredients are available in the US versus in Italy.
MB: How much of the tradition of pasta do you try to respect?
MF: I respect all of it and I think that traditional pasta making needs to be preserved. I always read sources from Italy. I always like to learn about traditional shapes and combinations. The book I use most often is the ‘Encyclopedia of Pasta’, translated into English. It's the most comprehensive book on pasta shapes. There are no recipes but it tells you which region the pasta comes from and how it’s made.
I definitely try to respect and learn as much as possible, to the point where I'm currently learning Italian because I want to be able to read primary sources on things and understand them. But I think being based in America, there's so many things that we don't have access to. There are so many cheeses, herbs or greens, that we just cannot get. And so, I want to be respectful but I also need to use what I have and be creative with the ingredients that might be better here.
I try to encourage people to make pasta from scratch because it's something that's very doable. There is a perception that unless you’re a restaurant chef, you can’t do it, but it’s just about practice and very basic ingredients. It's a craft.
MB: Is it meditative for you?
MF: For sure. I have an art background and I grew up using my hands, but then I went to work at a desk and I didn’t use my hands for many, many years. I felt like I wanted to be doing something with my hands. That’s what pasta does for me. Plus, you have the benefit of being able to eat it at the end! If I'm having a bad day and I spend two hours just sitting and making pasta, it definitely helps me to relax and clear my head a little bit.
MB: With regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, how are you finding online classes compared to teaching in person?
MF: Before this I was only doing in person events and I was doing them in New York and then increasingly here in Austin, where I live now. In person, the mission is really just to bring people together, and pasta is the vehicle for that. Now, it's more that people want to learn how to make pasta and it's less about meeting new people because we're online. So, it's taken a different direction. It's more about trying to get people interested in the craft and feeling comfortable with that.
Spring Pea Lanterne with Wild Mushrooms
MB: How do you like the virtual world?
MF: I was hesitant at first because pasta is such a tactile experience. The consistency of your pasta dough is so important and when I couldn't physically be there, I didn't know if it was going to work. However, it's worked out much better than I could have anticipated because I've become better at, even on Zoom, recognizing the consistency of something and what needs to change. And it's been really cool to connect with people all over the world. That would never have happened before and it's something I'm going to continue to offer. I obviously will resume in person events when that's possible, but I think there's a place for both.
The silver lining is that it forced me to change direction and it’s showed me that yes, you can teach it online. It’s not ideal, but you can do it. Also, I have become a lot less rigid in which ingredients people need to make pasta. I want to maintain the tradition and show how it's made traditionally, but in this time, we can’t always get the ingredients we want.
MB: W hat is your prediction for how the food industry is going to change, and are you worried?
MF: I’m not worried because I think restaurants will always be such a central part of our culture. I'm sad for what's happened to the restaurant industry and I'm worried about the recovery of it in the near term, but in the long term, I think a lot of people are going to come out of this and feel like they want to get out. It’s such a central part of any community that I don't see a danger of that going away. But I am sad to see so many great restaurants having to close.
Agnolotti all Norma
MB: Have you ever used box pasta?
MF: Oh, yeah. When I first started this platform, it wasn't necessarily my intention to only do fresh pasta. My passion lies in making the pasta itself, however, box pasta is incredible. I definitely think that there’s a time and a place for both.
MB: What’s your favorite pasta dish?
MF: Cacio e pepe is obviously a very trendy dish for the last several years. In my house my husband actually introduced me to it and he's made it for me on special occasions. It's such a simple dish but it's so delicious and it feels a little indulgent. He would make it for me on Valentine's Day and I will make it sometimes on special occasions. I would say that dish is very special.
MB: Do you have any message you’d like to share with our readers?
MF: My message is that anyone can make fresh pasta. It requires practice and understanding but if anyone's thinking about it, it's always worth giving it a try. I also want to demystify it a little bit. It’s not solely for restaurants or for people who've been doing it for generations. I think there should be a new generation of people who are carrying on the tradition.
The other thing I would say is, it’s not too late to change your career path. I think that this period has given people time to think about what they're doing and maybe, the course of their lives a little bit more. It’s never too late to do something new or rethink what your goals are. When I signed up for culinary school, I did it without thinking because I knew if I sat down and thought about it, I wouldn't have done it. Taking risks is really important. It’s scary and it still scares me sometimes to do the classes, but that feeling is a good indicator that you're doing something that's challenging you and that is in the right direction, hopefully.
Click here to learn more about Meryl Feinstein and the Pasta Social Club.
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