Twenty minutes on the F train out of midtown Manhattan leads to a charming enclave in South Brooklyn rich in brownstones and steeped in Italian-American history. Welcome to Carroll Gardens. Today, it’s one of the borough’s most desirable neighborhoods, but in the mid-20th century it was the one-time home to a blue-collar, predominantly Italian community. A community that enjoyed gathering on front-stoops to bask in the glow of warm summer evenings, to share stories or gardening tips with neighbors over fresh-from-the-oven pastries.
It’s quite fitting, actually, that I’m here to talk to Hetty McKinnon––self-proclaimed salad maker, cookbook author and brussel sprout aficionado––about the concept of community kitchens.
Despite the new addition of trendy shops and artisanal food stores, Carroll Gardens is still very much a sleepy little oasis that hasn’t strayed too far from its roots. The influence of its strong Italian community is evident in the local delis and family-run businesses, dotted along Court Street. I spy a few that I want to stop off in on my return trip and make a mental note to do so, all whilst the wind whips me along the snow-peppered sidewalk. New York has just celebrated the arrival of the first snowfall after an unseasonably warm December.
I turn the corner and shiver down a flight of steps in the front garden of a handsome brownstone. McKinnon greets me at the door with a warm, familiar grin and ushers me in from the cold. The last time we met, we were both living in Sydney, Australia––the city where McKinnon’s own community business, Arthur Street Kitchen, was born.
In 2011, after a four-year stint living in London, McKinnon returned to Sydney to raise her young family in the leafy inner-city suburb of Surry Hills. Motherhood couldn’t have come at a better time. After a decade working in the fast-paced and notoriously demanding industry of fashion and beauty public relations, it felt like prime time for McKinnon to pursue a career in which work around her lifestyle and not vice versa. Serendipity brought McKinnon back to Surry Hills to do so––the very neighborhood in which she was born and discovered her love for home cooking.
Raised in a Chinese household, food and cooking were always an integral part of life. McKinnon conjures up childhood memories helping her mother cook traditional Cantonese food. One particular favorite is Gok Zai––a dumpling made from glutinous rice flour and a savory (often meat) filling. Together, they would make plenty for the family to enjoy at birthdays or celebrations like Chinese New Year. “My mom would make the dough, then we would fill and crimp together,” McKinnon recalls fondly. It’s not hard to see where her love for feeding others originated.
She’s since discovered a wider array of flavors and cuisines, as well as a fervent love for vegetables. Yes, those vegetables––the ones piled onto your plate, often as an afterthought. With doting adoration, she convinces me that with a little creativity you can unleash the full potential of vegetables. In fact, it was in her tiny Surry Hills kitchen where she made a life changing-discovery, that char-grilling broccoli and releasing smokey flavors, a sometimes underrated vegetable is transformed into the star of a dish. Soon after, Arthur Street Kitchen was born.
“All I knew was, I really wanted to make this type of food that I was eating at home, that no one else was making, and serve it to the people in my community,” McKinnon explains. Arthur Street Kitchen began as a way for her to share a love of vegetables with her neighbors (McKinnon has been a vegetarian for over 20 years), and her community kitchen was built on a simple premise––“local food for local people.” Every Wednesday, she sent an email to subscribers with a set salad menu. She capped the supply at a manageable 50 salads per day, no matter the demand. McKinnon would then single-handedly create salads in her home kitchen and pedal around her neighborhood to hand-deliver them. The personal touch forged strong friendships between McKinnon and her customers, in addition to the memorable culinary experience. It was unconventional, the way she operated, but it was “her way”––and it seemed to make complete sense. This was after all, about cooking and delivering the food she knew best for the locals in her community.
What began as a simple idea blossomed into a wildly popular venture providing a new way to view vegetables, and even spawned a best-selling cookbook––appropriately and simply titled, Community. Admittedly, there was no intention of growing into a large-scale business, and ironically there was absolutely no public relations strategy, so the snowballing success of Arthur Street Kitchen was primarily attributed to word of mouth. “I didn’t want to promote it at all. I wanted people to make up their own minds about it,” McKinnon says. It grew organically, with people in the community telling one another. That and of course, the salads. The salads speak for themselves.
The origin of salad can be traced back to ancient Romans and Greeks, beginning as humble mixed greens served with a dressing. Despite being popularized in the United States during the 19th Century, salad is often recognized as the side dish or appetizer; rarely ever the main act. This isn’t the case for McKinnon’s salads. They’re big, hearty and largely inspired by the seasonal produce available. She stages each salad around a core vegetable and then weaves in a chorus of beans, seeds, chickpeas, quinoa or herbs to write a culinary melody that sings as soon as it hits the palate. Her salads are plant-based, but she doesn’t strictly label them vegetarian. “I never want food to be categorized,” she shrugs. And with that same concept in mind, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what culture her food most reflects; it’s not starkly Australian, nor Chinese. McKinnon’s salads are infused in all the worldly experiences and cultures she’s encountered on her own journey.
With a best-selling cookbook and an ever-growing customer base, McKinnon was no doubt at a height of success in Australia. It seemed the next logical move would be a brick and mortar presence for Arthur Street Kitchen. But naturally, McKinnon decided to do what felt right––the complete opposite. In 2015, she and her husband, Ross, announced that they would be relocating their family to Brooklyn, and that they’d be taking Arthur Street Kitchen and all her beloved salads with them.
Uprooting your life and starting from scratch is no small feat. To do so with a business is an even bigger challenge. The greatest speed bump has been to acquaint people with her style of cooking and her concept of salads. “I already had a strange concept in Sydney. It took people a really long time to understand it. What appealed to me about moving to Brooklyn was that people here are more open to something that’s different,” McKinnon pipes up hopefully.
Last November, she road tested her concept on her new local at a weekly pop up in Sol Coffee on Court Street. But she admits even here, people were a bit reluctant initially. “People would come in and say, ‘This is not a salad. These are just roasted vegetables.’”
But rather than feeling discouraged, the feedback motivated McKinnon. “It’s really interesting because I don’t feel like this type of food is what people would instantly eat over here,” she muses whilst foraging for plates in the kitchen cabinets. I ask whether she feels she’s made the right decision in moving, and whether there’s a place for Arthur Street Kitchen in this community.
McKinnon replies––almost instantly––“Absolutely.”
Though it may take time, it hasn’t stopped her from doing things her way. “I’m very dogmatic about the food. This is the food I make and I will not change it for anyone,” she laughs while sprinkling a generous dose of dukkah on a bodacious-looking broccoli salad I’ve been eyeing since I stepped through the door.
“I almost feel like I need to be here because I believe people do need this food. People want it. They do. New York is definitely a healthy city with such great produce, but I feel like people just don’t know they can eat it this way,” McKinnon proclaims whilst passionately spooning salad onto my plate.
I collect as many broccoli florets as I can onto my spoon and guide it across the plate, picking up every mint leaf and smashed chickpea I can find. With each crunch, I decide from here on I’m going to char-grill broccoli every time it comes my way. There’s a slight bitter edge and depth to the vegetable when it’s been seared this way that helps it meld with the tangy, garlic chickpea mixture. Going in for my second, third and fourth spoonful, I can’t help but agree. People do need this.
In a few weeks, McKinnon will be taking up residence in Brooklyn FoodWorks––a newly launched coworking kitchen space in Williamsburg. There, she will prep and cook before jumping on her trusty bike to deliver Brooklyn area-inspired salads to her new locals around Carroll Gardens and bordering Cobble Hill. Arthur Street Kitchen will continue to operate in a similar fashion to its origin business in Sydney. McKinnon will take orders via a very humble, but egalitarian email subscription system––first come, first serve.
And as for how she’ll get the word out? There will be no bells and whistles, no fancy public relations strategy. Instead, McKinnon will rely on her strongest asset: her community.