Before she had a menu, Maya Lovelace had hype.
When she moved to Portland from South Carolina in 2012, Lovelace, the woman behind the decadent Appalachian comfort fare at Old Salt's backroom eatery Mae, quickly immersed herself in the local restaurant industry. One Friday afternoon, she was having lunch with other scenesters at the now-shuttered Vancouver location of Taste of Sichuan (see our review), when she started chatting with one of the city's more aggressive food writers.
"She and I ended up chatting about my plans, and she was like, 'Oh, this is really cool. Do you mind if I write a thing about it?' And I was like, 'Suuure.' We'd just gotten ourselves set up with a website and a mailing list, and she wrote a little article. There's a really bad Instagram photo of a coconut cake I made. But it came out and we had 350 people sign up before we'd done a dinner.… It seems like that's how things work here."
We didn't write about Maya Lovelace's fried chicken until we actually ate it—so maybe we're a little late to the party. But believe us when we say that a year into its existence, you won't find a more #authentic, soul-satisfying dining experience than Mae.
Named for Lovelace's late grandmother, the dinner series that pops up in the backroom at Old Salt is a loving and faithful ode to the liberally larded comfort fare of Lovelace's native North Carolina. As BYOB supper clubs go, Mae is pretty much the perfect experience—great food with great stories in a cozy room.
Today, we're naming it our Pop-Up of the Year.
Lovelace not only serves up juicy fried chicken and savory cornbread with sassafras sweet tea that'll induce deep nostalgia in anyone raised around mitten trees, she's also an excellent storyteller with vivid tales of piling into the minivan in Beaufort for the ride west to Hickory, the little town where her grandmother greeted them with three or four different types of pound cake. You leave her table not only sated, but feeling like a member of the family.
"The storytelling component of it is really important. You can put down cornbread in front of people and be like, 'Here's some cornbread, enjoy!' or you can be like, 'This is why our cornbread is this way, here's a little personal anecdote about it.' I feel like I get to give little bits of history and explain the cuisine as I'm serving it," Lovelace says. "People think that Southern food is one thing, and it's not—it's micro-regional. The food in eastern North Carolina is very different than in western North Carolina. The food in South Carolina is totally different. There are different crops that were grown in different places. Everything has a different use."
But until she worked at Sean Brock's much-loved Southern spot, Husk, in Charleston—praised everywhere from Bon Appétit to Architectural Digest—Lovelace didn't always value the food she grew up with.
"I didn't claim my Southern culture at all. I didn't care about what my grandma cooked until I worked at Sean's," she says. "I was a vegetarian for 12 years until two months before I worked at Husk. I was the kind of vegetarian cook that would, like, taste the chicken and spit it out. Working with Sean taught me that looking backward was OK. I got really into looking at old recipe books and thinking about what my family's traditions were."
Lovelace moved to Portland to work at Beast, where she was Naomi Pomeroy's sous chef when Pomeroy won the James Beard Award. She traveled with Pomeroy to New York to cook crepes for 1,200 elite foodies. After leaving Beast, Lovelace worked in the Bollywood Theater commissary kitchen and for Janis Martin of Tanuki. Martin, in particular, has became a mentor to her.
Related: Portland's 2014 James Beard Winners
"She's probably the most demanding boss I've ever worked for, but at the same time she takes care of you and genuinely cares about what you're doing," she says. "Since I put in my notice, Janis has been my most vocal supporter."
Partly, that means showing up for dinner .
Pop-ups give their proprietors lots of freedom—Lovelace can cook what she wants and focus on just a few meals every week. But empty seats mean losing her thin margins. Which is why you'll find her on her grind, Instagramming mouthwatering pictures of succotash with tongues of fire beans from a little 1-acre farm outside Gresham and corn from a farm in Forest Grove.
"We're at a place where if you don't have really good pictures of your food on Instagram, nobody gives a shit about you," she says. "It really bums me out. But it's part of my job."
It's the model Lovelace says she's going to stick with for the foreseeable future.
"I don't think that Portland needs more restaurants," she says. "I'm watching people close all over the place, and people that I know who are opening things are struggling to find spaces, and landlords are super-demanding and won't give you what you need because they can get away with it."
The downside, of course, is that Lovelace doesn't have the luxury of taking a week off promoting the dinner, or to stop telling the stories to the people who come.
"There are nights when I'm not feeling it and don't want to talk to people all night, so I'll try to do a slightly abridged version of one of my spiels, and you can sense the difference in the energy in the room," she says. "People aren't as engaged and I realize that I'm not doing my job properly. And I go back to telling the stories better."
And when people come back? Well, they get the same stories—something that does make Lovelace a little self-conscious.
"They realize it's part of the experience, though I do always feel a little weird," she says. "The best part is when we close up shop for the night and my cooks start parroting my stories back at me. That's pretty funny."
GO: 5027 NE 42nd Ave. (behind Old Salt Marketplace), maepdx.com. Dinner is $35-$65 at 6 and 8:30 pm, Monday and 7 pm Wednesday. Sunday brunch is $40 at 10 am and 12:30 pm. It's BYOB, so bring a nice bottle of wine or, if you want, a 40-ouncer. Gratuity not included.