Claire Phelan didn’t know sorority chefs existed until she got the job. After three or so years hosting pop dinners, catered events and cooking lessons in New York City, the 28–year–old found herself moving to Philly with her partner. Though she continues to organize themed dining events, the lesser demand in Philly (not as strong in New York where food is more expensive) left her with the time to still cook more. When her neighbor, and fellow chef, recommended her to Penn’s Alpha Phi Sorority earlier this school year, Claire took the opportunity without hesitation.
Now five days out of the week, she commutes to campus in the early afternoon and begins the four hour cooking process. Cooking dinner—as well as stocking the pantry with breakfast—for 20 girls in the chapter is a challenge she takes seriously and with creativity. Claire said she rarely practices the meals before hand and is proud of all of her creations unless something goes terribly wrong. Judging by her Instagram, she has made everything from buffalo cauliflower to lava cakes to homemade mini bagels with lox.
“I just read recently that the average food blogger spends 32 minutes posing food to take their picture. I was like what? I spend an average of two minutes. You can’t eat it then if the food has gone cold,” Claire said.
With her ambitions to start a restaurant in Philly, we decided to take note of Claire’s chef secrets before she leaves University City. By the end we were left with a hunger, not merely for food, but also to cook and share the art and joy with others.
Street: When did cooking become a serious hobby for you?
Claire Phelan: I have always been interested in eating. That is how people get interested in cooking...I have always been into hospitality and throwing dinner parties especially in college. I went to Bard [College] which has this joke article about it in The Onion or something about it being the number one for dinner parties. But our dining hall, I think, is rated one of the worst in the country. I like saw them unloading boxes of meat once that had “Grade D” on them which I did not know you could serve to people. So I decided to learn to cook because I was destroying my stomach going to the dining hall.
Street: I think Penn is supposed to have some of the best dining hall food, yet most students still feel like they are destroying their stomachs whenever they go to Commons. Cooking from home can be so time–consuming though that we often just order take out.
Claire: The "no time" thing is a myth. The year I learned to cook, I was writing a 150-page thesis on top of a regular course load and was involved in the leadership of three different clubs. It’s how you prioritize—I made it a way to de–stress, would often have friends come hang out with me slash study in the background and then we’d all have dinner. Also, I know it sounds improbable now, but right now is the most free time you’re going to have in your daily life, so take advantage of it. Learning to cook in between working full–time and getting enough sleep slash self–care slash social time is very difficult.
Street: What did you do after graduation?
Claire: I started working professionally like three years ago in New York. I was the typical underemployed liberal arts grad. I majored in human rights and decided that I didn’t want to work in non–profit, so I was actually working in fashion at the time I started cooking.
I started cooking pop–up dinners. Renting different galleries or warehouse spaces in and around Brooklyn mostly and then I would advertise it on quote unquote secret venues and then word spread and it got really popular. Then I started my cooking business, Cooking with Claire.
Photo: Claire plans a menu at home with her favorite cookbooks by her side.
Street: I read an article in Vice about your “Eat Your Grief” events, dinner parties with meals that have ingredients proven to make you feel better. Where did you come up with that cool idea?
Claire: A bunch of girls I know were talking about how we are sick of eating too much ice cream when we are sad. Someone had a break up, and I was like, "If we are going to eat emotionally anyway, why don’t we eat stuff that is actually going to make us feel better?" So I came up with this list of foods that were good for treating different things, and I tried to get a mix of those things in each dish. They often turn out kind of weird. I was like okay, so I want fish and walnuts plus bell peppers plus blueberries. But some of the things turned out really good. There were definitely some duds. I had a few practice tries on friends before I sold the first ticket.
Street: Why do you think there is this demand for dinner parties or chapter chefs versus ordering takeout?
Claire: Eating out you don’t ever know what’s in your food. I feel like whenever I talk about this I sound like a conspiracy theorist. But seriously. Having talked to a lot of chefs and asking them what’s their secret ingredient, it often turns into things you had no idea where included. In a bad way. Like pork fat is the secret to good vegetarian Brussels sprouts. But other than that I think communal eating has been part of human history forever as a way to hash out problems and de–stress, and I think our society really suffers from not having that. Especially when people are really socially isolated eating alone in their dorm, apartment, office, often in cities.
Street: Speaking of cities, what differences have you noticed between New York and Philly in how people approach food?
Claire: When I had a food event in New York people were attracted to it because of FOMO I guess. It would be like, "I want to be part of this weird, underground, secret thing that others can’t be a part of." Which was not the reason I was doing them. People in Philly are about having food with other people. In general, New York doesn't have time for people because people are trying to follow their dreams. I know this sounds like a slam to Philly, but it’s not. No one is moving to Philly to pursue their dreams. It’s not that kind of city. It’s just life, real life, which is good because they have time to hangout with out people.
Street: Was it a big transition going from crafting tasting menus in New York to weekly dinners for Alpha Phi?
Claire: It’s very different. I like the sorority...I wouldn’t say more but as an everyday job I do like it more. It’s very repetitive; there is a routine. They are pretty open to trying weird stuff once in awhile. Not too weird. When I was catering in New York people only wanted to eat healthy food. And a lot of people had weird dietary restrictions which I have noticed people hardly have here at all. Which is refreshing. There are a lot of invented ones in New York.
Street: Entering the job, did the sorority give you criteria of what you had to cook? Who decides what you make?
Claire: So they told me about having two entrees each night, and they said it had to be healthy. I have a bulletin board that I made as an RA in college. The only part of the job I liked was decorating bulletin boards. But I made a feedback chart and a chart for ideas that people wanted. So like tonight, I am making perogies which is never something I would have thought to make on my own. I don't think there was anything anyone requested that I thought was too difficult.
From left to right: Spanish tortilla with baby kale tossed in a French white wine vinaigrette with minced shallot. Winter squash stuffed with black rice, toasted pecans, almonds, cranberries, sautéed red onion, shallot, garlic and Granny Smith apples.
Street: What is your preferred cuisine to make?
Claire: The term I used in Brooklyn was "vegetable forward" which sounds kind of obnoxious. I’m not vegetarian, but most of the food I like to cook is vegetarian. I don’t like using that term because it scares off a lot of meat eaters because they think that food is going to be bad or boring. I often use vegetables in different ways and put meat as the side. I don’t believe in cooking things that aren’t delicious.
Street: Do the girls have any favorites?
Claire: The only meal that I have repeated, like all of the same ingredients, was a lasagna, and that was only because it was requested. There are a few dishes that I make a lot. There is a Thai green curry with seasonal vegetables that is really good. I once made these turkey or lentil sloppy joes that turned out surprisingly well.
Street: How much work goes into planning the menu?
Claire: It takes me two hours. Maybe if I was less of perfectionist it would take me way less time. I want all the food to go together. There is a budget. So it’s somewhat difficult to make all the things go together under the budget. At one point I thought I could start repeating menus, but I actually don't like that because then it becomes boring. I really like making menus. That’s probably my favorite part other than shopping.
Street: If a student wants to follow in your footsteps, or at least improve their cooking skills, where do you suggest they start?
Claire: People need to know knife skills before they can be a good cook. Chopping an onion, mincing garlic, coring a bell pepper. Also, taste constantly! Develop your palette and understanding of how herbs and spices work together and separately by taste–testing several times throughout the cooking process. Adding too much of something or making an awful mash–up of seasonings is part of the learning process. When I was in college, my cooking motto was "When in doubt, add cheese."
Claire's College Cooking Go-Tos:
Carrot Fries: Cut carrots into thin sticks. Toss in olive oil and salt and pepper. Then roast at 425 for 20 minutes and serve with ketchup.
Eggs–in–Purgatory: Chop up and saute whatever vegetable you have in the fridge. Add crushed tomatoes, salt and pepper, dried Italian seasoning and then make little indents in the sauce and crack in two or more eggs. Cover the pan so the eggs cook then eat with bread.
Cheesy Squash: Halve zucchini or summer squash and scoop out the inside with a spoon. Roast at 400 for 25 minutes. Then fill with scooped–out–squash, sauteed garlic, diced onion and cheese of choice and bake a few more minutes to melt the cheese.
Corn Soup: Saute garlic, onion and optional bell pepper. Add a can of corn, salt and pepper, sprinkle of cumin, pinch red pepper flakes and five cups of stock or water. Blend half the soup with handheld immersion blender and taste–test.