Leah Guadagnoli whisks creative pursuits together
in the studio and the kitchen
By Kate Mothes
Inspiration comes in a wide variety of flavors for artist and self-taught chef Leah Guadagnoli. An avid gardener, cook, artist, and community facilitator, she taps into a long-held desire to bring people together through good eats and creativity. Growing up in Chicago, she found comfort and security in the foods that her mother and grandmother—who she lovingly calls Omi—prepared for the family. Some of Guadagnoli’s most treasured memories take place in the kitchen, and the desire to bring people together and celebrate love through the language of food is an integral element of her popular series of communal dinners.
In between preparing ambitious, home-grown monthly dinners, the founder of Fancy Feast Supper Club describes how she navigates the relationship between an art practice and cooking, finding and building community, and her favorite snack.
Dovetail: What made you decide you wanted to invite others to join you at these dinners, especially on a large scale?
Leah Guadagnoli: My desire to cook at this large scale initially started when I hosted my first Friendsgiving at my home in Hillsdale, New York. After years of having this annual celebration in small apartments across New York City, I was excited to finally be able to fit all my friends together in one room! But even in grad school at Rutgers, where I had a tiny studio apartment, I would still invite everyone over from the program for dinner and cook huge feasts in my kitchen, which was once a small closet. I just had a mini-fridge, but made do. People sat on top of and under the bed, on the fire escape, and even in the tub. Food is just an excellent excuse to get everyone together. It is a way to form connections and memories through a shared experience.
In a beautiful essay on your site, you describe how cooking connects you to family and has provided a means of healing trauma. Is there a dish that you make now that ties you to your experiences cooking or baking with your grandmother?
As funny as it may sound, one of my favorite foods my Omi would make would be microwaved popcorn. It was how we would wind down for the night. The hot and steamy kernels would complement a game of “Kings in the Corner” on the living room floor as something played on the TV in the background. She even had an automatic shuffler she got at a garage sale so she wouldn’t chip her nails when dealing the cards! The smell of popcorn takes me right back to this moment, and it is one of my favorite foods for this very reason. Simple and delicious.
“Food is just an excellent excuse to get everyone together. It is a way to form connections and memories through a shared experience.”
Where do the ideas or recipes for the dishes—or the themes—come from?
My experiences in the world! Traveling. Eating. Listening. Sharing meals with others. Limitations and abundance from what I have grown in the garden. Inspiration and intuition. Going out to eat. I’m constantly gathering ideas and taking note of the food I love and the experiences surrounding them. The recipes come from a combination of cookbooks I collect, recipes passed down from friends, the internet (thank you, World Wide Web), a lot of trial and error, curiosity about what could be delicious, and a combination of all the above.
When I make food for others, I want them to feel welcome and transported to a moment they’ve never experienced before. Although I am not a vegetarian, my Fancy Feasts always are. It feels the most inclusive and best way to creatively utilize the food I grow while being sustainably mindful. My dinners usually start with a list of vegetables, herbs, and flowers I am growing or that are in season and then working outward from there. I think of food in color, texture, and layering unexpected flavors together, and I often look to how other cultures have approached plant-based cooking for inspiration.
Dinners take place in different venues, including your own home. How have these collaborations come about?
My experience in Upstate New York has been one of open arms and generosity. I became friends with my neighbor at Springhill Farm when I first moved to the Hudson Valley. During the first winter of the pandemic, we dreamed of hosting a large group of people on his bucolic property for dinner. He has a gorgeous barn where we put on several food and music events. I slowly realized how much fun I had menu planning and making food on this larger scale. I also have friends who live close to The Pines in Mount Tremper. They introduced me to the owner there. When he realized I had a passion for cooking in addition to making art, he generously asked me to be a guest chef this past summer for one of their industry night dinners. How could I resist? Working in that kitchen was a dream! It was one of my favorite places to cook.
I started getting into a rhythm. As soon as one dinner ended, I started brainstorming to do another. Now it’s become a monthly endeavor, and I’ve never felt more inspired and energized. I was very excited when Little Cat Lodge in Hillsdale, New York, asked me to do a dinner in April 2023, after inviting them to my next event. There seems to be momentum and enthusiasm for what I am doing, and I am just rolling with it!
You’re an avid gardener, too! Do you garden with the dinners specifically in mind?
I absolutely do! I live off my land for most of the year and incorporate items from the garden in all the meals I create for others. The winter is when I start planning what I will grow the following spring—looking through seed catalogs for new varieties to try and design the layout. What will look beautiful but also taste delicious? Each year the garden gets a little bigger. I get a little more knowledgeable. Just like cooking and making art on a large scale, I enjoy the physicality of maintaining the land and the labor of love that goes into it.
Epic salads are one of my signatures, and I am convinced it’s because of the wide varieties of greens that I grow that are hard to come by at the grocery store or even the farmer’s market. This year alone I grew eight types of kale, for example, some varieties that continue to thrive through February uncovered. Produce is surprisingly way more flavorful when you grow it (yes, I have done a taste test), and many frost-tolerant plants become sweeter in the colder months since they convert their starches to sugar to protect against freezing. I love to grow edible flowers and use them as vital components in my dinners: borage, nigella, nasturtium, bachelor button, violas, marigold, and so on. I grow decorative flowers for pollinators and eventual table settings. I select breeds of chickens based on their shell color. I feel like an artist this way, thinking of my homestead as combinations of color, texture, and forms similar to my studio work.
Do you view cooking as an extension of your artistic practice, or do they keep to their own creative paths, so to speak?
I used to think they were separate, but I’ve learned to grow and accept that they are connected—very connected. Living in Upstate New York has allowed me to expand my medium to community organizing, growing, and making food—not just physical objects. My creativity has evolved into other outlets that have always been present, but I have finally started to give them the attention and care they deserve.
Is there an upcoming theme or dish that you’re extra excited about?
Yes! My next Fancy Feast will be titled “Winter Escape” and is a Mexican-inspired dinner on January 21, 2023. The goal was to create a meal for people to look forward to after the holiday; right we realize the cold months are here to stay for quite some time. It’s hard to choose what I am most excited about, but this meal will start with persimmon habanero salsa and edamame guacamole served with tajin spiced rice paper puffs. It will be a dramatic presentation with bright blue horchata azul made with butterfly pea flowers and an electric orange carrot ginger margarita. I’ve been saving my dried marigolds for this cocktail since the summer and will blend
them with Himalayan salt for the rim. I made a variety of lacto-fermented hot sauces from homegrown chili peppers, onions, garlic, and beets. These spicy bottles of summers past will be featured at the table as well!
Header image: Nam prik platter for Kebersamaan, November 2022. Photo by Sarah Wallach
1: Mezze Night, December 2022. Photo by Courtney Dudley
2-3: Equatorial Feast at Springhill Farm, July 2022. Photos by Faolan Sugarman-Lash
3-4: Mezze Night. Photos by Courtney Dudley
5: Guadagnoli’s studio, photo courtesy of the artist
6-7: Kebersamaan. Photos by Sarah Wallach
8: Equatorial Feast. Photo by Faolan Sugarman-Lash
9: Mezze Night. Photo by Courtney Dudley
10-11: Harvest Moon, September 2022. Photos courtesy of the artist
12: Cucina Yoshoku at The Pines. Photo courtesy of the artist
13: Guadagnoli in her studio, Fall 2022, photo courtesy of the artist