Cooking up culture, community, hospitality, entrepreneurism, and activism with Eric See
Eric See is a New Mexican-born and raised chef, living in Brooklyn, NY. In 2020, he opened the popular and award winning New Mexican-inspired cafe, Ursula, where he has worked to support and celebrate his intersectional queer and New Mexican-Hispanic identities. His restaurant was a 2022 top 10 nominee for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation and a 2021 Bon Appetit Heads of The Table honoree for his work within the queer food community.
In this episode of How Art is Born Season 2, Eric See discusses his love of hospitality, his journey from pastry chef to opening his own restaurant, his activism and how he uses his culinary gifts to support New York City's LGBTQ+ community, and more!
Links mentioned in this episode:
Episode 10 preview clip
ABOUT ERIC SEE
Eric See is a New Mexican-born and raised chef, living in Brooklyn, NY. In 2020, he opened the popular and award winning New Mexican-inspired cafe, Ursula, where he has worked to support and celebrate his intersectional queer and New Mexican-Hispanic identities. His restaurant was a 2022 top 10 nominee for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation and a 2021 Bon Appetit Heads of The Table honoree for his work within the queer food community.
[INTRO] Dele Johnson:
Hey! This is Dele Johnson Producer and Editor of How Art is Born. Our interview with Eric See is our official finale to season 2! If you’ve been tuning in for every episode this season, thank you so much for your support. If you’re new to the show, welcome and I encourage you to go back and listen to the rest of our interviews with amazing guests this season and in season 1. How Art is Born will be releasing a few bonus episodes before the premiere of Season 3 so keep an eye out for announcements about some special episodes in January and February 2023. Thanks for tuning in, and we hope you enjoy this interview with chef Eric See.
R. Alan Brooks (00:00):
Welcome to How Art is Born a podcast from the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, about the origins of artists and their creative and artistic practices. I'm your host, R. Alan Brooks, artist, writer, and professor. Today I'm joined by Brooklyn-based. Chef Eric See. Say hello, Eric.
Eric See (00:15):
R. Alan Brooks (00:17):
<laugh>. Hey man. So to start us off, can you tell us a little bit about who you are?
Eric See (00:22):
Oh, that--. What kinda podcast is this? Cause there's a lot to unpack there, <laugh>, But, um, I guess on the surface level, superficial level, I'm a, I'm a chef in Brooklyn. I have been here for 12 years. I'm originally from New Mexico, from Albuquerque. And, um, I imagine that I am here because I opened a restaurant called Ursula. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, named from my grandmother that, uh, I opened at the beginning of the pandemic in Brooklyn. It's a celebration of the intersections of my New Mexican heritage and background and, um, the queer community here in Brooklyn.
R. Alan Brooks (01:01):
Hmm. Okay. That's really cool, man. I gotta say, uh, you know, we had a, a chef on last season and, um, my ignorance around the culinary art rings true and consistent. But one of the things that I think is really dope is hearing about, um, how this is an expression of what you believe, um, and looking into your work, I know activism's a big part of it too. So I guess one of my sort of beginning questions is how did you first sort of define your relationship with food? What was, what stood out? What was the first time it spoke to you?
Eric See (01:39):
Um, I, to be honest, I don't know that my relationship with food was defined, uh, early on. It was a relationship with hospitality.
R. Alan Brooks (01:50):
Eric See (01:51):
And also, um, I think that food is like the great connector across cultures and languages, uh, false boundaries of nationalism. And I used to want to be a travel agent when I was a kid. That was like my dream <laugh>. I'm glad I didn't necessarily follow that route. I might be jobless today.
R. Alan Brooks (02:11):
Eric See (02:12):
But, uh, I just, I always love the idea of, uh, cultural exchange and, and traveling and getting to hear and listen to new stories about people that I was unfamiliar with their traditions, because you really only know what you know
R. Alan Brooks (02:28):
Eric See (02:29):
Until you know something else. And so I really loved getting to experience, um, cultures outside of mine. And I used to work in an airport diner when I was 11. And, uh, there would be these pilots of be landing, they're all from different parts of the US just for a couple hours. They'd be exchanging stories about what they did in Nebraska or El Paso or wherever they were coming from. And just that exchange, I think kind of, of really kind of, uh, catalyzed more of my interest in, in travel and food and cultural exchange. Um. And I, I spent 14 years in the front of house, um, doing service and hospitality. I used to work at a, at a hotel in the front office. And I loved that. I just, I like taking care of people.
R. Alan Brooks (03:20):
Yeah! Well, no, this is really cool. Uh, there, there's, uh, I don't know, it's just a really distinct image of you being 11 years old working in the airport, uh, sort of collecting these stories or overhearing these stories. So was, was that like the, the interest in hospitality, the interest in exchange and cultures, was that something you discovered in that position when you were 11? Or do you feel like it was just kind of always with you?
Eric See (03:44):
I, I, I get, I would imagine that it's always been with me. Oh, there's, there were a few pieces of that. I had a very like, entrepreneurial spirit when I was a kid too. And maybe what clicked then was like having cash in my hand, <laugh>.
R. Alan Brooks (03:57):
Eric See (03:58):
Because being a little server at 11 years old and people giving me cash tips, I'd go home and like, with little wads of, of dollar bills in my hands. And that was really, uh, energizing my entrepreneurial spirit. I used to sell newspapers outside the grocery store. I used to host little fundraisers at my elementary school to raise money for clubs that I made up, um,
R. Alan Brooks (04:22):
Eric See (04:22):
But I think it was just, uh, the things that you don't necessarily understand to connect were probably the connectors when I was younger.
R. Alan Brooks (04:33):
Hmm. Okay. So there's a part of what you were saying where like you're, you're overhearing these stories about people having experiences and, um, connecting with other cultures. Um, it feels like there's that aspect of it, but there's also the aspect of it, which is you bringing other people together. Um, and I wonder at what point that part of it formed for you?
Eric See (05:04):
That part, I, I would say probably started to change when I owned my own cafe. Prior to Ursula, I had a small cafe um, in Bushwick in Brooklyn. And it was, um, it was a different concept, but I had indoor space, I had seating, I had the ability and resources to, to gather people. And one of my, um, big loves and interests is being able to reinvest in, communicate, in uh communities and to reallocate resources and to understand your privilege and share that with other people. And I understood that I have a, had a privilege to run and own a business in Brooklyn, which is incredibly difficult to do. And I wanted to use that space to share with the community. So we were able to host different queer organizations to have their meetings or fundraisers. We, um, had a lot of wall space in there. We had a, a ton of, uh, walls and really great light. So Uh, I worked with local artists in the community to allow them to display their art and we would host like a, a gallery opening for them. Um, to be able to allow them to be celebrated. And that was when I really got to delve into that. I was in event production and catering for like, seven years before that. Um, so it was a big part of like, celebration and getting people together and having parties and hosting parties. But that was the first time that I got to do it in a more meaningful way that wasn't entirely centered around, um, like a consumerist and capitalistic view. I'm not gonna say that, that's not a driving force for a business cuz we had a for-profit business. But it was, um, an opportunity for me to be able to use my resources for the community without the expectation of making money off of it.
R. Alan Brooks (07:03):
It's cool cuz it sounds like it, uh, might, might have been more rewarding in a different way.
Eric See (07:10):
A hundred percent.
R. Alan Brooks (07:11):
Eric See (07:13):
I got to do a lot of really cool events. I got to experience why there's far too much money in New York when it comes to event production for big brands and for, uh, artists and musicians out here. So that was incredible to see those kinds of events come to fruition. Um, but yeah, it didn't feel like it had the, the meaning and the, the soul and the integrity of being able to have a small gathering for people who don't have the resources to do it, uh, outside of those situations.
R. Alan Brooks (07:43):
Right. Okay. Okay. So let's run it back. So we were talking about, um, this experience when you're 11, these kind of ideas of exchanging culture. You were saying that your way into this world is of love, of hospitality. Um, I want, I want to hear a little more of like what's your journey was. So like in high school, were you connecting hospitality with food? Did you--was it college? Like, how did you kind of find your way on this path?
Eric See (08:11):
I would say that, yeah, it's kind of always been, it's always, it's been omnipresent my whole life. Um, wanting to be part of celebrations when I was a kid. Um, but I've, in terms of hospitality and getting to like, run my own show or like be my own act, uh, I've worked in restaurants, um, since I was like 14 outside of this, uh, illegal trade of child labor when I was 11 <laugh>. Right. Um, but, uh, I, uh, I used to run like the drive through counter at, um, uh, a fast food seafood spot. And even that was like really fun for me. I just liked giving people their food and talking to them through the menu. Uh, I worked at a new Mexican restaurant in the takeout counter and I was a busboy. I loved being able to talk to people about the menu and help them, um, find the things that I thought they would like.
I grew up outside of Old Town Albuquerque. So the restaurant that I was working at was, um, in a very like, tourist heavy area. So I got to talk to a lot of people about the culture where I come from and the menu that I'm very familiar with. Uh, and that was exciting. I think, um, I've always, even when I didn't think I was gonna go into hospitality, cause it was never, it was actually never a, a career path that I had envisioned. I went to college to study linguistics and I thought about doing kinesiology. Um hmm. And it wasn't, I was always waiting tables or like in a restaurant part-time from 14 on. And, uh, it, it didn't ever strike me as a, as a career choice. In fact. Like I kind of looked down upon people that were career waiters when I was younger and it was like, oh, how sad to <laugh> be in this position and be 50.
And now to this day, I'm like, I get it. It's a love, it's a passion. And also I have, as a business owner now, I kind of envy those people that were career servers cause they have so much freedom in their life. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, they get to come and show up to work and do what they love to put on an act, to put on a show for somebody every single night. Right. Um, and then go back. Then they get to clock out and go home. Huh. And not have to have to worry about anything else. And they have financial security and freedom from their job. And I envy that that was a, something that I wish I had grasped onto at a younger age. But, um,
R. Alan Brooks (10:42):
Well, you know, it's interesting cuz there's a lot of people who, uh, look at food service as a career that you do while you're trying to do your real thing. Um, yes. And it sounds like you might have had some of that, but now you've found a life and passion within it. Um,
Eric See (10:59):
Yeah. I don't know. I think I always wanted to be adjacent to food because it was, uh, because it was adjacent to travel mm-hmm. <affirmative>, um, and, and it was adjacent to linguistics. It was like all of those things were combined in the, into this, um, industry in hospitality that I was like, wait a minute. I could do all of these things at the same time. Hmm. Um, I don't speak a second language unfortunately. And I lost, I lost, um, a lot of the study that I had put into when I was in college. But, uh, I, I'm still around different languages on different menus, uh, working with different people. Yeah. Um, food is essential to travel and I get to host a lot of people visiting New York. So I'm still touching on all of the things that drove me here in the first place. Hmm. Um, but now I get to do it on my own terms and I get to tell my own story. Yeah. And I think that that's also, um, what people are looking for in terms of, um, how they consume food these days too.
R. Alan Brooks (12:08):
Hmm. Okay. It's just, it is interesting cause it's just cool to hear like, um, I don't know what it means to you, you know, like what your journey is, how your passion connected to it all. Okay. So you went through this thing of, um, working in different restaurants. Um, so was the next step for you to start your own? Or was it to grow within and establish one? How did that kind of work?
Eric See (12:31):
Well, so I was waiting tables in New Mexico, uh, 12 years ago. Um, and my journey to the kitchen was a result of a failing relationship. Uh, I, I was dating somebody who was a hairstylist and they didn't like that I worked at night. The impetus was on me to change my life and my schedule. Right. And so I was exploring other avenues for, um, what my career or future might look like. And so I decided to go to culinary school. Um, and I started that and I was like, wait a minute. Uh, I, I started with the, the idea of going into food and beverage management. I want, I wanted to be like a sommelier or work with uh, like a bar program.
R. Alan Brooks (13:16):
Eric See (13:18):
And then I was like, wait a minute. They work at night too, so that's not gonna work. <laugh>. Um, and then I was learning how to cook and same thing. I was like, well if I'm a chef I still have to work at night and work on the weekends, on holidays. And so I decided to go down the route of pastry and I spent six months in Vermont doing pastry at a culinary school there. Cuz I felt like that was a little more, um, variety of what your career could look like in pastry. Cause if you're a baker, you might be up at 3:00 AM mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, if you're a pastry chef, your work is doing prep during the day and then your pastry cooks work at night. Um, so I thought, I thought, I was like, well, let me tinker with this. I was never really that interested in pastry <affirmative>. But going to pastry school and seeing the way that you could like, manipulate these ingredients in such unique ways, definitely caught, uh, my attention. Hmm. I came to New York to intern. I was supposed to leave after six months. Um, but I, um, had also realized that in New York and in these big food cities, it's, uh, your network is paramount to your pedigree. So I didn't go back to school cuz I had started to make some good connections here and I wanted to keep them intact rather than having to start over in 12 years later I'm here still.
R. Alan Brooks (14:40):
<laugh> You know, that's, that's kind of crazy man. Cuz like, uh, 2010. So yeah, 12 years ago, uh, I had a, I had a breakup that, uh, you know, I had to like fill the time, uh, so that I wasn't feeling all the like, emptiness and loneliness. Uh, and I started hanging out--So I'm a, I'm a graphic novel writer and, uh, you know, I teach graphic novel writing at Regis University, stuff like that.
Eric See (15:07):
Yes. You just had a new novel come out. Yes?
R. Alan Brooks (15:09):
Oh, look at that. You look some stuff up. Nice <laugh>. I did. <laugh> Nice. Yeah, I did. But so, but like at this point, I had only read them all my life. Um, I had never tried to create one. And after this breakup, I started just somebody, I heard a rumor that there was a group of comic book creators who just hang out and drink and draw at this restaurant, uh, or cafe. And so I just started hanging out, you know, and it, uh, led to all of these relationships. Like I've never had a community of other people who like comic books before this. And, uh, it just began this trajectory that led to, when the point came where I was like, you know what? I wanna write something that would've been about 2016. Um, and now my life is like completely that. And it all kind of started with that breakup <laugh> kind of like yours. So
Eric See (15:55):
Sometimes we need that, sometimes we need something to shake us up like that.
[AD] Valerie Cassel Oliver (16:02):
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R. Alan Brooks (17:06):
Alright, so you're in, you're in New York. Uh, you're doing the pastry thing. It's okay. So the reason, uh, I'm really digging this conversation cuz it's cool to hear what it all meant to you as a kid, um, kind of your journey. Because, you know, like in your bio, uh, you know, info about you like saying it says that, um, that you was, that you made a cake for Beyonce or did dessert experiences. Right?
Eric See (17:32):
I have done that, yes.
R. Alan Brooks (17:34):
Okay. Yes. Uh, I, I will ask a little more about it. Obviously don't say more than you wanna say about it, but I just think it's an interesting thing that you've gone from, um, you know, maybe being a travel agent <laugh> to, uh, well, I'll be in New York for six months to like starting a business during the pandemic, which is arguably one of the hardest times to start one, um, to having kind of all of these successes, but also finding the successes in a way that is true to like, who you are as a human being and who you are passionately and what you believe in. And so anyway, all of that I really dig. So, uh, what was kind of next while you were in New York, once you exceeded that six months, did you, did you continue to focus on pastries or did you kind of grow into other areas?
Eric See (18:21):
Uh, it was still, it was still focused on pastries. Um, I moved here, my brother lived here already and I was living on his couch. Yeah. And he had agreed to house me for six months. Um, I will also say that I was interning here for free and working for $8 an hour, <laugh>. Um, and the cost of living here in New York, uh, was not significantly different 12 years ago than it is now. Okay. Um, so at, at the six month mark, he was like, well, if you're gonna stay here, you have to find your own place.
R. Alan Brooks (18:54):
Eric See (18:55):
And I was like, all right, fair, fair, fair, fair. You gave me six months of free rent. Um, and you're right. Like, you have to be thrown to the wolves out here if you're actually gonna look to succeed <affirmative>. Um, and so I started waiting tables again, um, because I couldn't afford to only do pastry, or work in kitchens if, uh, if I was gonna be living on my own and not living on my brother's couch for free <laugh>. Uh, so I was waiting tables. I enjoyed doing that again, ish. I think I actually missed being in the kitchen as much. Um. I recall, also just like waiting on, waiting on people in New York. Uh, I was working at a very trendy Thai restaurant in the West Village, and some of those customers can really pull at your <laugh> your, your, the, the, the lines of your patience and um, and passions. And I was like, this doesn't feel like hospitality anymore. Um, I just feel like I'm trying to keep my head above water waiting. Answering some of these questions. Uh, but I ended up waiting on a chef for this catering company, this event production company who really liked me and offered me a job, with their event company. And so I started working over there in the kitchen and doing events. Um, and I forgot where we were going with that, but that's what happened. <laugh> at that, at that six month mark. Oh yeah. I went back into pastry.
R. Alan Brooks (20:23):
Eric See (20:25):
And I, I did that. I did, uh, pastry for events and, uh, event production. And I worked for a lot of like fashion and beauty lines. Uh, Beyonce. I did desserts for, uh, Rihanna when she, when they released the Fenty line the first time around, I had to make desserts that were all, um, kind of reminiscent of some kind of piece of makeup. So like, something that was the same shade as this lipstick or that looked like lipstick. Uh, I would do stuff--
R. Alan Brooks (20:56):
Wait, I wanna ask before you go on, like, that's, that's really dope. Cause now we're getting into like the, the really sort of artsy part of this, right? Like, so, so, uh, so Rihanna's people or whatever are saying like, okay, we want to do a dessert that matches this makeup. So do you, how do you start, do you start with like, okay, well here's something that's blue, or are you thinking like terms of like, uh, the emotion, you know, how do you connect it?
Eric See (21:22):
Kind of, A lot of times it's very literal. So what, um, your first you're thinking about colors? And then I look at the logo, a lot of times they would send you a design deck.
R. Alan Brooks (21:33):
Eric See (21:34):
So you picked stuff off, off of the design deck. You look for different textures. Um, so it's like, all right, this would be really great if it was cast in chocolate, cuz that's very smooth. Then you can get it really shiny. Um, or maybe it's something that should be like a, a cocoa butter that's sprayed on if you need like a rough sandy texture. So Right. Looking through the, the design decks, you'd pull different ideas and textures. It also depended on who the audience was gonna be for these. So you had to make stuff that was either gonna be like a literal piece of art that some people might not touch, but it was gonna be photographed. Or that 5,000 screaming Rihanna fans were all gonna want to like, throw in their mouth. So you gotta make it. So I think for them, I did like a hexagonal shaped, um, like mini cheesecake with this pink hexagon of white chocolate so that it kind of looked like lipstick <laugh> on top, but you could eat it. Um, and then there were other times that I would work for a, a different fashion line where I needed it to make it look like the texture of the fabric. Um. So I might take, one of the things that I used to like to do, if I had to make any kind of fabric or skin looking thing is, um, I would take chia seeds and add a liquid to it, like a sweetened passion fruit juice or like pomegranate juice. And have you, have you ever played with chia seeds much?
R. Alan Brooks (22:59):
Eric See (23:00):
It, it becomes very slimy. Like you let 'em hydrate and it's like a basil seed or a chia seed. Its very slimy, like a pudding. And then if you spread it out over a silicone mat and dehydrate it, uhhuh <affirmative>, then the whatever was gelatinous in that, uh, solution, um, remains. But all the liquid goes. So it becomes this like kind of this piece of fabric, like a fruit rollup.
R. Alan Brooks (23:27):
Eric See (23:27):
It's basically like creating a fruit rollup. But um, it would have the texture with the seeds or it would have the flavor of the passion fruit <laugh>. Uh, so I got to like create textiles or an edible lipstick.
R. Alan Brooks (23:40):
Well, it is fascinating to me because it's like, uh, well first of all, just the idea of, um, you designing desserts for an aesthetic look. But I guess one of my questions is how do you know, like, how do you know what chia seeds do when it comes? Is it just experience? It's the stuff that you have picked up over the years? Uh, and then I'll ask my next question after that.
Eric See (24:05):
<laugh>, I research, uh, looking stuff up, uh, YouTube
R. Alan Brooks (24:10):
Eric See (24:10):
YouTube helps. Um, I have a ton of cookbooks too. So looking through those kinds of things. Yeah. Um, following people online. Yeah. There's a lot, there's so many resources out there for you to learn this kind of stuff.
R. Alan Brooks (24:21):
That's so cool. I mean, cause I do that with comic book art, but for some reason within the culinary world, it, you know, it just doesn't even occur to me. Uh, okay. And then is there, um, do you have a specific direction for flavor or taste when you're doing those kind of things? Like, obviously you want it to taste good, but you're thinking about like the look you're designing and stuff like that. But are you also saying, okay, um, the thing that's going to match this look will be strawberry. I don't know. You know, something like that?
Eric See (24:51):
Uh, yeah, absolutely. I think it makes sense to, um, coordinate a color with a recognizable flavor. So, oh. Um, doing a blueberry flavored, uh, dessert with a, with a pink shell on it, it doesn't really make sense to the person. Unless what you're trying to do is, uh, counter what the psychology is of a color, which is stuff that you've had to do in events before as well. But, um, yeah, normally you kind of, uh, make sure that the flavors, the colors, the textures are all linear so that it, it's not off-putting for the guests when they're eating it. I've had to do a lot of stuff with, uh, like candle companies too. So they'll send me the, the scent of this new candle that they're, um, releasing. And so I have to find the esters or compounds that are in the candle that would be palatable. Um, that you would want to eat or something that gives you the illusion of musk without having to eat something like that. Or, uh, what's the ambergris is one of 'em that I've had to do before. And I can't remember what I did before to like, create that idea, but I don't know if you know what ambergris is. It's like--Uh, it's the excrements of whales that are like found in the ocean floating.
R. Alan Brooks (26:18):
That's such a pretty name. <laugh>.
Eric See (26:20):
Yeah, no, it is <laugh>. Uh, so they would find it floating in the ocean and it's actually a, a compound in many, many perfumes and colognes. Um, but trying to, I think that I went for, uh, like a visual for that I can't recall, but like, doing something that was like amber, like a petrified situation. Yeah. So you might look to texture to recreate that scent compound rather than trying to recreate what it would taste like to eat the, uh, vomit of a whale.
R. Alan Brooks (26:52):
<laugh>. I gotta say, like I said, it's fascinating. It's really dope to hear like, uh, I dunno how you approach your art with this stuff now. Uh, I know a big part of, uh, just your life is, uh, activism, um, specifically, uh, well particularly in the LGBTQ plus space. So, um, I, I want to hear about how that connects with your, is it, is it part of your culinary work? Or is it, uh, sort of just like parallel to it?
Eric See (27:25):
Um, it's both. It's both because it's my, it's part of my identity. And you--that's inextricably tied to my, to my lived experience, which then is manifested in my food <affirmative>. Um, but it's also the people that are around me. And my restaurant specifically, it's, um, the people that work for me <affirmative>, most of my staff is queer and trans identifying. Um, a lot of my friends here in New York are, and I think that, um, I've always wanted to have some connection to community at every point in my life. Um, but, uh, there's so much going on. There's so many things, so many people, so many organizations and communities that need help, that need resources. And it can just become very overwhelming. If you don't, um, focus your energy into something that is actually tangible. Cuz it's like, well, if I put 25 cents over here at 25 cents over here, like that's not doing anything. So I am like, there, there are people that have better resources or information to coordinate and help this organization and I let them do that <affirmative> and I can focus on my community because I'm in touch with it, because I'm part of it. Um, and I'd rather focus more energy on this one part. So it's been a cornerstone of my business for the last seven years. Even before I opened Ursula to, um, connect with, to fundraise for, to advocate for queer based organizations here in New York and around the country. It started actually with a fundraiser that I did at a market. Um which it's really odd to have this conversation today given what happened in Colorado Springs yesterday. But my first big fundraiser was for the, um, uh, the victims of the Orlando massacre.
R. Alan Brooks (29:21):
Oh, wow. Yeah. Uh, I, I guess, uh, just for people listening, we should note that we're recording this just a couple days after the, uh, Colorado Spring shooting in the Club Q um, <affirmative>. So, you know, I, I've been thinking about that a lot and I'm thinking about how that, so, okay. So for me, when I, when I want to address a social issue or, uh, try to make change, it is composing a story that captures some aspect of humanity, um, in a way that hopefully, uh, creates unity or compassion or empathy. Um, it seems like a lot of your creation is about community connection, hospitality, things you mentioned. And specifically since this, this bar, uh, Club Q was about community and gathering, I want to hear like, I don't know how, how it is, how it sets in your mind. Like when you want to use your creativity to engage with social issues. Obviously it's not gonna be like me writing a story. So what is that process like for you?
Eric See (30:27):
Um, I think that that's a, again, it's like inextricably tied to my work <affirmative> because food is political. And, um, it's the access to food, it's the access to, um, who, who gets access to it, who's making the food, who is growing the food and harvesting the food, um, who's creating the policies, um, surrounding the way that our food systems work and distribution. So it's like you can't get away from politics and food and uh, so I think that it's on us to make sure that we, um, continue to advocate in ways that are supportive of our communities internally. Um, cuz yeah, you can't really get away from that. Yesterday, actually, the day, the same day, the same morning that we found out about the news in Colorado Springs, I was part of a big fundraiser here in New York for the Ali Forney Center. It's a, it's the country's largest, uh, LGBTQ+ homeless shelter and transitional system. Um, they provide medical services and gender affirming care for trans folks. They have, uh, temporary and long-term housing for queer and trans people here in New York. Hmm. And we had spent months and months working on this danceathon, um, where it was gonna be this day long event where there were different drag queens and DJs performing. They had, uh, like a culinary corner with different queer chefs serving food. And, uh, we raised about half a million dollars from this event <affirmative>. Um, but I remember waking up and reading that and, uh, then having to go to this event and like, be cheery and happy. But I was like, no, this is the reason that you have to have these events so you have to continue, um, expressing joy. Because joy is a form of resistance and the people that are threatened by that are the ones that want to take it away from you. So you can't stop.
[AD] R. Alan Brooks (32:37):
MCA Denver at the holiday theater is a hub for the arts located in this historic 400 seat theater. We aim to realize one of a kind creative experiences for audiences that spark curiosity challenge conventions, inspire and delight. Visit mcadenver.org to learn more about the robust schedule of museum driven and collaborative programming.
R. Alan Brooks (32:57):
I feel you there. I think that's very well said. I, I think, um, I don't know man, people who, uh, attack, basically, they just want us to all be smaller and quieter and in that box. There was a couple years ago I got death threats over a graphic novel that I was working on that was an allegory for leaving white supremacist movements <affirmative>. And, um, you know, it was the first time I had that and I had to really think through "what is my response to this?" You know, like, and uh, and I really did get that sense that it was intended to make me quieter and smaller. And, uh, what you're saying about the expression of joy, the full expression of your humanity, I think it is a necessary and powerful way of fighting back against this kind of stuff. It's not the only way, you know, there's a lot of things that have to happen, but it's an important element of it. And, um, I don't know, it's just cool to hear what you just said.
Eric See (33:58):
Yeah. I mean, it, it's not the only way we gotta, we gotta be more effective at policy making and
R. Alan Brooks (34:03):
Eric See (34:03):
changing laws to protect us all. Uh Rand to dismantle the, uh, systems of white supremacy and oppression too.
R. Alan Brooks (34:10):
Yeah. And, uh, showing up and removing the people from office who are fighting against those goals. Uh, there's this whole, uh, you know, I mean, uh, I'm sure you've been around a lot of dis disenfranchised people like I have who, uh, question whether it makes any--whether there's any value in voting. I know it's a little off topic, but it just makes me think about like, if if there was no value to it, then why are, why are so many people invested in making a stop? Why are they spending so much money to change laws and districts and, you know, whatever, uh, to, to rob people of the vote? I don't know. Just No, do you--
Eric See (34:49):
I know. No, it's true. It's, uh, it's, it, it, you feel powerless often. You feel powerless yesterday, you feel powerless during elections when the right people aren't winning these elections. And that's, that is the purpose. It's supposed to be taking away our power in our voice.
R. Alan Brooks (35:03):
Which goes back to making us smaller again. Right.
Eric See (35:06):
Yeah, exactly. But that's also, that's why it's so imperative to, um, to find ways to continue telling your own story through your art, whether that's, um, through a expression of queerness or through an expression of, uh, like racial or ethnic identity, whatever it is, and telling your story through that. So cuz it's always gonna, it's gonna reach somebody else that's like, oh, wait, yeah, I had forgot that that's part of my identity because there have been so many people trying to remove that from who I am.
R. Alan Brooks (35:38):
Eric See (35:39):
And so when you continue to hear more and more people talking about it, then it makes you feel stronger and empowered
R. Alan Brooks (35:43):
You know, uh, th this, there's this theme I think with all of the different artists that I talked to on this podcast, just about how our art is a way of, I don't know, expressing some part of our humanity, you know, and, um, and also the interest in experiencing the humanity of other people. So it's really, uh, uh, inspiring, refreshing to hear how it manifests in your practice. I just think that's, it's just dope, you know, mental high five.
Eric See (36:14):
<laugh>. Thank you. Thanks. Uh, yeah, I mean, I'm not, and it, it's weird to talk about like, I'm doing this, I'm doing this, but it's really, I'm not the one doing it. I'm just, I just happen to have the space or the resources to help other people do it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And that is, that brings me a lot of joy is to be able to be, to bear witness to that, to be able to celebrate and witness other queer people's joy. Um, and that, I think that's what's most fortifying about it and talking about, um, the way it manifests itself in people's art. I think that just, I think we, I I also, I just watched this movie called The Menu, um, earlier today
R. Alan Brooks (36:58):
I saw the trailers. I haven't seen it yet. Yeah.
Eric See (37:00):
It was, it was really good. It's, uh, it's kind of like a, a dark comedy horror, but, um, there's a lot of commentary on the, like, egoism of, uh, chefs these days. But also just the way that consumerism ruins, uh, the joy for artists in general, the way that they, um, have become their own like self-proclaimed, uh, experts in things. Or the way like food reviewers for magazines and newspapers, uh, come in and will write a terrible review and just ruin the, the livelihoods of dozens of people um, and essentially shutting down a restaurant with one bad review. Uh, and the way that people just break down your food as though they understand where it's coming from or what it's supposed to mean. And it's the same way with the way that people receive art through music or I, I've learned a lot about the way that I try to talk about other people's art. That if that it's not, I've tried to reframe my verbiage, uh, that if something, if I don't like something, it's not that it's not good, it's just not for me. That's fine. Not everything is to meant to be received by me. <affirmative>. And, and that's okay.
And I think that we live in this, uh, this world now of exceptionalism and individualism in New York, but also like, uh, I mean in America and where we're supposed to have access to everything and people aren't used to being told no. They don't like being told no. So if this painting sitting in front of me isn't for me, I'm being told "no" that I can't, that I can't have this, that it wasn't made for me. And that's upsetting to people. And it's like, no, it's just, it's not for you. And that's okay. There'll be another one. <laugh> I've had, I've had people get online and say that the food is terrible or this and this and I'm like, no, actually it's really good. I know it's good. Um, cuz I eat it every day, <laugh>. I know. It's good. It's just not for you. And that's okay. Uh,
R. Alan Brooks (39:04):
I love that.
Eric See (39:05):
And it's, yeah, it's an expression of people's lives. Like there are things on the menu that are there because of lived experiences that are be--that are because of my queerness or because of my family having been in New Mexico for 400 years. This being so deeply rooted in that region or just, um, my travels or we have, uh, some herbal teas that are tea lattes there that I've blended myself from a period of time when I, uh, took for some sobriety cuz I had, uh, struggled with some alcoholism and was not drinking for a little while. And so I'm one of those people that always need some kind of vice at the end of the night, <laugh> and I started mixing herbal teas to relax at night. And so those are in my menu now and it, that's all part of my journey. And that's all part of the art that you see. Uh, you see those things in somebody's painting, in somebody's music, in somebody's food. And so for you to sit there and try to deconstruct everything as though you understand it, it's like no, that it wasn't for you.
R. Alan Brooks (40:08):
I love that you're saying it cuz it, you know, so I found for myself when I was younger, I expressing strong opinions on movies or television shows or whatever, um, that even though I was saying something that was true to me, that I was robbing other people of their enjoyment of something. And so, uh, my
Eric See (40:27):
That's a them problem
R. Alan Brooks (40:28):
<laugh>, Well, you know, for me it was like, all right, well I actually don't have to lambast it, I can't just say it's not for me. You know? <affirmative>. Um, and if they wanted like a deeper opinion, that's a whole other thing. And so, you know, I I've that I've found that to be part of my own, um, my own vocabulary now is that generally my answer if I don't like something, it's just like, eh, it wasn't for me. You know? Um, okay. But I do think this might be a good time to talk about since, uh, you were talking about criticism and stuff like that. When you feel fear in your creative process, what's it like? How do you get through it?
Eric See (41:07):
I think I, I have, I have some good friends and family that I talk a lot of things through. Um, I think this goes back to, I'm often asked like what advice I have for small business owners <affirmative>, um, and yeah. People getting started on their own, uh, dreams. And I think that it's, uh, we're so often, uh, afraid to ask questions, um, from our peers, from our family members, from our friends. Cuz it's, uh, it's, it's making it, we, we think, we believe, we're taught to believe that asking questions or not knowing is weakness and vulnerability. And, uh, in fact, I think that, that, that is a strength in knowing that you can find those answers and save yourself the time and emotion and risk by asking questions. So whenever I'm fearful of something or I'm doubting myself, I, I ask people.
R. Alan Brooks (42:04):
Hmm. That's that's good because it, it, it ties into, uh, community and, um, like all the things, all the themes that you've been talking about this whole time about people sort of coming together, hospitality, community, all of that stuff. And it ends up being sort of your your way outta fear too, which is I think
Eric See (42:24):
Yeah, no, absolutely. I, they're my community, my friends and family are my biggest cheerleaders. And so also when you're a asking questions, that's at time for them to, uh, kind of reinstate your value for you. Remind you who you are, remind you that you are powerful or that you are an artist. Um, and sometimes you just need to hear that. Cuz we have our own like internal monologues, uh, that are trying to beat us down
R. Alan Brooks (42:50):
<laugh>. It's so true. Okay. Uh, I usually like to wind up by asking two questions. One of them is, um, what's, what's inspiring you? What's your geeky pleasure these days? Like, songs, music, uh, I guess that's the same thing. Television shows, <laugh>, food, whatever. What, what, what's inspiring you these days?
Eric See (43:11):
Oh man, that's, uh, that's a lot. <laugh>. Um, all of, all of the above. I love, I love listening to music and, um, live music or even just like a, a, a playlist or something with dinner <affirmative> with a, like a, at a restaurant or like at a dinner event. I just think it's so integral to experience. Um, so I, I'm always inspired by music. Um, I've been really into, this is something that I think a lot of people started doing at the beginning of the pandemic, um, rediscovering themselves <affirmative> and where they came from. And I think that that has been probably the most essential part of my process in the last two years. I never, never in a million years thought that I was gonna be serving New Mexican food in Brooklyn. That was never part of my plan. <laugh>. Uh, and I never even thought that I was gonna be like a savory chef or, or continue down this path. And so getting to, uh, reacclimate myself with the land and culture that I'm from <affirmative>, um, the history of the food in the Southwest.
R. Alan Brooks (44:23):
Eric See (44:24):
That has been very gratifying for me. And also just learning all the history and information that we weren't taught or that was hidden from us.
R. Alan Brooks (44:34):
Hmm. Okay. Well, uh, excuse me. What do you have on, uh, horizon? Like what's, what's coming up for you?
Eric See (44:43):
Um, I'm about to release our second annual holigays, cookie box. Uh, nice. That's a fundraiser for, um, the Ali Forney Center. Again,
R. Alan Brooks (44:53):
which I just discussed holigays, happy holigays, <laugh>. I usually get 12 different queer chefs from around the country this year. We even have somebody in Mexico City, in Ireland. They each submit a cookie and we put it in the box and it's a fundraiser for the Ali Forney Center. We raised $10,000 last year. We can do $15,000 this year. And I have to move my restaurant from its current space, um, to a new space. So I'm hoping to have a lease to sign next week. Oh, nice. And be able to move to a new larger location that'll have a bar, indoor seating and a backyard.
Ah. Well good luck.
Eric See (45:30):
Right now. I don't know how much you know about our spot, but we were open, I opened during the pandemic as like a, a response to not having a job. I was afraid that nobody was gonna hire a pastry chef. Um, for the next couple years I opened this spot as a takeout spot thinking it was gonna get me through the next year, and then I'd figure it out. And we're two and a half years in, we don't have indoor seating. Winter is coming. Ah, uh, new Yorkers have a little less patience for it this year than they did the last two years
R. Alan Brooks (45:59):
Eric See (46:01):
So I'm excited to have indoor seating.
R. Alan Brooks (46:03):
Okay. I mean, <laugh>, I I love that. I love that you're expanding. I love that it's worked out. Um, okay. Well, so <laugh> All right. If, if people want to check out your stuff, uh, if they're, you know, outside of New York, like, uh, I dunno, where can they interact with your stuff online?
Eric See (46:22):
Uh, Instagram @ursula_brooklyn or my own social media is @erictheawkwardscone <laugh>. My old cafe was called The Awkward Scone. That's where that came from. But
R. Alan Brooks (46:34):
<laugh> Cool. Hey, well, Eric, I I really appreciate you talking to me. It's been a, it's been a cool conversation.
Eric See (46:40):
Thank you. I appreciate you all having me. And I, I was really excited to, uh, have a connection to the Rocky Mountain region. So thank you Denver
R. Alan Brooks (46:49):
<laugh>. Nice. Uh, special thank you to today's guest, Eric See. Thanks to our listeners. Please be sure to subscribe to How Art is Born, wherever you get your podcast from our episodes. And if you can leave a review, it really helps us out. Check out MCA Denver on YouTube and subscribe there too, for behind the scenes clips from today's episode. Season three of How Art Is Born is coming in Spring 2023. Until then, keep an eye out on our feed for special bonus episodes of the show. Don't forget to visit MCA Denver's current exhibition, The Dirty South on View until February 5th, 2023.