Badass Women of Detroit's Hospitality Industry: Brittiany Peeler and Le’Genevieve Squires of Experience Relish
A lavender latte, a patio table at Great Lakes stacked with treats from Butter Bear Shop, and conversations filled with cooking experiences in India and creating moments with food. I had the pleasure of chatting with culinary badasses Brittiany Peeler (B) and Le’Genevieve Squires (V), co-owners of Experience Relish who took part in creating the food journey along the Transatlantic Slave Route and first dinner in Foodlab Detroit and Keep Growing Detroit’s Fruits of Our Labor Dinner Series.
B and V have recently returned from a cooking opportunity in India and are developing Relish and creating food experiences by providing education.
In the dinner series menu I saw Relish’s name in almost every single dish. Did you have a hand in crafting each dish? For me it felt like Relish had a hand in guiding and informing every conversation throughout the dining experience.
B: That’s the gist of who we are and who Relish is. We like to create conversations around what food should be, from how its grown to how it could and should taste.
V: I think a lot of it is because I have so many ideas. I’m always asking, “what about this and what about that?” I read a lot and that helps to expand my ideas, so everyone will just say sure V whatever you want to do, just because they trust the flavors we produce. At the initial meeting I was taking notes and we were curating the menu ideas, and somehow I ended up having a helping hand in each of the courses.
B: At that meeting, with all the chefs because we were the first dinner of the series, we were really focused on the food menu bringing people together. We wanted it to be healthy and interesting and to really invoke conversations amongst the community of guests dining with us. V and I like to bring the idea of something new to someone. Something they’ve never tried before, whether they wanted to try it or maybe they’ve been cautious about it in the past. And we were able to execute that during the entrée course with the lion’s mane being the protein.
Was that the mushroom that had a similar texture and flavor to chicken?
B: Yes! We had originally thought of presenting chicken but we really wanted to do something different. I had read about lion’s mane and found I could batter fry it – something I had been wanting to do. That being my first opportunity to work with that mushroom I think it went over well. People seemed to love it and could not believe the texture, its very much like crab.
V: The coolest part of the lion’s mane is that when we were first in the research stages for the dinner, every person I kept bumping into – every farmer would talk about how they couldn’t wait for the lion’s mane to come up. And we learned from
them that lion’s mane is really good for your cerebral. When B cut into it for the first time we were startled to find the inside actually looked like brain tissue.
B: It’s similar to cauliflower in that regard, just with a meat texture. It’s a remarkable mushroom and I can’t wait to work with it again. So, we did the battered lion’s mane mushrooms and African soul fried rice, yam puree, tempura fried greens and Ederique took care of the voodoo gravy.
I love having the opportunity to talk to Ederique and then you because it’s truly inspiring the way everyone in the community shares their knowledge and works together. Is that something you think is unique to Detroit?
V: Yes, with having lived in Detroit and now seeing how we in the food community encourage collaboration and economic sustainability, and when you find black women— especially in the city— that are just so open and caring with a wealth of knowledge and willing to share while pulling you along to help you along your journey, that’s the amazing part of this city’s industry.
B: Especially in this city within the food community, relationships grow so organically and beautifully. And it brings everybody together when the end goal aligns with one another. That’s been my driving force for food. Coming together and making dope memories, with dope people, over dope food.
V: And those amazing women are the ones pushing and inspiring you, and leading you on amazing adventures, like the opportunity we had to cook in India and learn an entirely new culture, through food.
That’s amazing. How did an opportunity like that present itself in Detroit?
B: These kinds of opportunities are available; you just have to look. The NuDeli is a food truck that creates Indian-inspired deli sandwiches. It’s owned and operated by Matt and Meghana, and for six months out of the year, they go to Goa India to host their restaurant Verandah. They needed some additional help in the kitchen and to help structure the restaurant and develop recipes. E reached out to V and asked if that’s something we would be interested in, and it was an amazing experience.
V: My spiritual awakening was in India. I brought the “The Cooking Gene” by Michael Twitty with me and I was reading it while I was there –
B: It was like we were reading The Cooking Gene but I was listening to an audiobook and she was turning the pages. She was just so excited to share all she had learned from the book.
V: It was a read-along for sure! But the way he describes things in “The Cooking Gene” – wow. [It] was my inspiration to recreate the African Soul Fried Rice. We did African soul fried rice, and the rice was significant as a talking piece because I read if the slaves broke the rice they were punished for it. Their punishment was to eat slugs off the back of the tobacco stalk. That was unsettling because I couldn’t imagine having that as a punishment. And to think of all the things we went through to curate food – it hit me hard in India because I was reading about Africa and in the setting I was in I saw women carrying crops on their head from village to village. I was able to sympathize in a way with slaves and that level of understanding was eye opening.
Now that I know that, that entire meal takes on a whole new meaning. But that experience and that setting, what did your average day-to-day look like?
B: We walked absolutely everywhere— to the restaurant and home from the restaurant, which wasn't far. They had a siesta, where everyone literally everyone returns home for lunch or mid-afternoon and then returns back to work at night.
V: We’d prep for brunch, serve brunch while prepping for dinner, and then everyone would retire for the siesta during the hottest part of the day. From 3-6pm we’d explore and visit other restaurants with our suite-mate, walk to the beach, or explore the local market. And then we’d return to work and would hustle until midnight or sometimes later, depending on the restaurant traffic.
B: We did that for six days a week, and the day we had off was reserved for laundry— which was all done by hand in a bucket and dried on a line. And any adventures we could squeeze in.
Wow. Was the kitchen open? And what items did you make?
B: We cooked American food for the most part and learned how to make things with an Indian-inspired flare, all while being exposed to the elements at all times.
V: There were mosquitos and geckos everywhere, and monkeys would jump on the roof during brunch. Dogs are always close by waiting for scraps.
As for what we cooked, this notebook is filled with recipes from India. We had radish sauces and mango sauces, and we learned to make parathas and chapati with Didi (auntie in hindi).
B: We featured a lot of what we learned at our Detroit Experiment popup in India. We made smoked fish and our bread for sliders from scratch. V made this pickled red cabbage slaw that went on top of it, and avocado aioli. We did a Detroit chili cheese fry with no meat but it had cheese and chillies. We learned how to make this tomato gravy that you would put chilies in – which was the play on chili in the chili cheese fries. And the corn wheels people really liked.
B: People love our corn normally. But for this we did a play on the Motor City wheel, with different sauces. One was a basil salt and lime, chimichurri aioli, and avocado aioli.
V: Roasted corn is actually really popular in India. There’s a man who walks around with his cart. There’s a steel bowl with coals that he lights, then he starts to fan the coals so that they ignite, then he shucks the corn, saves some of the husk for later, and places the corn on the coals. After a few rotations, he takes his lime and dips in your seasoning. Delicious
B: People come to this cart, like a drive-thru, on their scooters and it’s absolutely delicious.
Photos via B and V
Education is a big part of Relish’s mission. Were you able to participate in that conversation in India at all?
V: While we were out and about one day, we ended up bumping into a teacher of an alternative yoga school called the Yogi Art Center. They were covering the US in their lesson, and she wanted to teach her kids how to cook. So of course we volunteered.
B: The whole time I was there, I kept saying we needed to get into a school, to get in front of kids, and to talk to them about cooking in America. Relish advocates to teach youth— to inspire them and encourage them to pursue their dreams. This school was an alternative school that had children from all different countries— their parents moved around a lot for work or leisure, so they were there for a few months at a time.
The school is surrounded around yoga, permaculture, and it is self-sustaining – its education is through real-life experiences and not just from a book. She had a group from ages 7-9 that were doing a tour around the world, and they were learning about different countries. They had just gotten to the American segment and we were going to teach them about American food. Of course we had to introduce American Food in a healthy way, so we did all vegetables.
V: We did okra as fries, sweet potato patty, kale, watermelon and feta salad, and a dark chocolate coconut bark. Our Didi taught us how to machete a coconut, scrape the coconut out, and grate it, so we melted chocolate and made bark. They loved it.
B: But they were so into the salad, especially the feta, and everyone wanted to take it home to their moms or family so they could share with them. It was so darling. They were very open to trying new things and descriptive with their taste buds. It was beautiful to see. They were cutting their own watermelon, spritzing lemon on top, and they were so engaged and excited by the whole process.
Photos via B and V
You mentioned a name, Didi – was that who you were staying with in India?
B: No, we didn't stay with her; we cooked with her at Verandah— for sure my absolute favorite. Our Didi and our Maushi— In india you refer by their status and their respective positions in the family, not their names, so Didi means Aunt in Hindi and Maushi translates to Mother’s Sister— two of the most beautiful humans you will ever meet. They have been with Verandah since the beginning.
V: Our Masi did the dishes, gardened, laundry, home maintenance, tended to the animals, and was the breadwinner for her family.
B: It was an amazing experience to be in contact with women who barely spoke your language but you relate to. To see their resilience in comparison to America, we expect a lot to be done for us versus in India they just do it. Such humbling setting to be surrounded by.
V: And neither of them could speak English, so we made do.
Any lasting impressions from India that you didn’t have a chance to mention yet? I’m sure there’s so many, so let’s make it centered around one particular dish or beverage you had that really had an impact.
V: My last favorite thing about India, because I have so many, was the chai tea. Every morning our Didi and our Masi always had chai.
B: Actually this was their snack, because they had already been awake and had breakfast in the morning. This was their break time and they would have their chai with their bread and sit and talk on the floor. Eventually, we became a part of that daily treat.
V: मझ चाई चा हए
mujhe chaee chaahie means: I want chai.
What an amazing opportunity and learning experience that I’m sure has impacted you both as individuals and as chefs. After making your way back to Detroit – how do you see Relish existing in the food narrative, and how did Relish originally come to fruition?
V: I have a food marketing degree from Western Michigan (go Broncos), and from there I started working in this grocery store in Cleveland. I had to go through a leadership-training program, and in one of the stores I bumped into my first mentor Elaine who ran their kitchen. She was the first person who taught me how to hold a knife properly, and I started learning a lot about the culinary world. Eventually, I oversaw food sales in one of their locations in Chicago— and I was telling my manager at the time I was interested in culinary school. In Chicago, one of the schools I was interested in had a fishbowl. I was walking by one day and saw students in the class setting and I immediately walked in and straight to admissions, and told them I was ready to enroll. I told her about my background, applied, and the next day I was accepted!
I’ve been around food my whole life, and it didn’t really set in until culinary school, when I had to understand WHY I wanted to cook. I discovered that WHY at Chef Camp 2015. As time progressed, it was as if I was working on my business project, and I think I actually have the notebook on me now, and I wrote out twenty or thirty names that I could think of to name my business. I was flipping through a magazine and saw the word Relish – it had that ring to it - being in the moment, or pickling (I was obsessed with pickling by now because I worked at Perennial Virant in Chicago). From there, I started going by Relish and sat down and sketched out this very farm-to-table sketch of what I thought Relish was.
At this time B was wrapping up her service in the Navy in North Carolina.
B: I learned my culinary skills from the Navy, but I realized from working as a chef with the Navy that cooking always came naturally to me. After that, I worked as a butcher at the Eastern Market, then I moved to Chicago to work as a butcher at Heinens with V. I pursued all these things while attending school. My hope is to become a physician, where I can be sure to show how health and food consumption are one in the same.
V: We’ve been close friends since 2009. However, our paths never crossed to work together until 2015. I had done a few catering jobs in Chicago, and driving to Detroit for a few. In 2016, we decided to move back to Detroit. At that time, Relish was catering on the side for parties held by family and friends. We had the idea of becoming a food truck that was focused on bringing healthy fast food options to inner city neighborhoods, but we didn’t have an exact direction.
I managed Starbucks (Woodward & Mack), and my friend Candice, kept talking about this lady but couldn’t remember her name, but she just kept saying she was all over food in the city and that I needed to connect with her. One day, Devita Davison is sitting in Starbucks and Candice whisper-pointed, “that’s her right there!” – I refused at the time to just go over and introduce myself.
Eventually, the stars aligned and we properly were introduced to Devita, Ederique, and Foodlab Detroit.
B: This all came at a critical time for us because we kept getting asked what kind of food we were cooking, and at this time we felt as if we were supposed to fit into some type of genre. We didn’t want to. And now we’re in a place where we’re able to be unapologetic about not having a specific type of food. We know we want to do globally-inspired, locally-sourced food with our spin on it. That’s what Relish is. It’s a mood— pleasing to the soul, your best childhood meal memories, or even pickled vegetables. It can be all of those things. We are really pushing for a lifestyle change, and we’ve done that most recently by working on ourselves. The more I continue to learn about medicine and food, the more I have to offer my community.
V: We have been captivated by people and how much they love us, how much they love our food, and how much we’re changing the dynamics of how people view food. That’s important. Food is love. It’s communal. Everyone deserves fresh, healthy food.
Photos by V.W. Photography
Any push back or challenges you’ve faced while being back in the city?
B: We get some pushback. There’s this perception that if you’re young, you don’t know how to cook. Or if you're not cooking a certain type of food, you're drowning yourself out. I can cook, I've always enjoyed quality properly cooked foods, and I enjoy sharing that.
V: We’ve been accepted with open arms since being back in Detroit. I’ve really taken my time to get to know the city again, understanding where we have been, and how I can be a piece of a puzzle to move forward. Moving forward now, we’re pursuing a shipping container/hoop house garden in Detroit and being accessible to everyone, especially the community.