Jezabel Careaga brings the rich flavors and traditions of her northwest Argentinian home to West Philadelphia. Drawing on memories from her childhood for inspiration, Jezabel is building an empire that includes her Café, Jezabel’s Café; her boutique/tea house/demonstration kitchen, Jezabel’s Studio; cooking classes, and dinner series. Sabrina Carter from FEASTIVAL had the opportunity to join the chef, furniture maker, and owner of Jezabel’s Café and Jezabel’s Studio and her friend and colleague, Gabriel Machado for lunch to discuss her journey.
Jezabel on the Café
“The Café brings the food component—the northwest Argentine cuisine that I grew up in. It brings the flavors from my childhood [and] the traditions from my family and my grandmothers to the table,” Jezabel explains.
“We’re very specific. We do northwest Argentine food because if you go to Argentina and have an empanada in Buenos Aires, it’s going to be different than the one you have in Mendoza, [which] is going to be different than the one you have in Jujuy or Salta, the main provinces in the northwest part of the country.
The food [in the northwest] tends to be a little more spicy: paprika, cumin, chili flakes. I like to add raisins to all those spices. So, [for example] with a traditional beef empanada, you will have raisins in it, some olives, scallions…”
On the Studio
“When I opened the first space [Jezabel’s Café’s previous location in Fitler Square] in West Philly, I wanted to do something a little bit different that would allow me to engage more with the community. That’s when we came up with the cooking classes and some other events that we host. That also allows me to share not only the traditions or the food but the techniques and little tricks that I use in the kitchen every day that I think would be useful for everyone.”
Once Jezabel considered her other interests–her love of tea, the furniture that she hand makes, the Turkish towels that she uses in her own home–the Studio became a place where customers could “stop by and purchase something for [their] house, attend a private cooking class, host a private event, and enjoy the beautiful furniture with a cup of tea.”
Jezabel and Gabriel on what they love about food
“I think food brings everything together,” Jezabel says. “There’s a hospitality component to food when you’re offering it to people. When you’re creating the spaces, there’s hospitality involved.
We [Jezabel and her team] take our job seriously, but we try to have fun in the meantime. Food brings [up] the memories you had when you were eating a dish [before] and lets you create new memories. It’s a beautiful thing to bring everything [food, memories, friends, family] together.”
Gabriel continues, “And [food’s especially important] to our culture. Latinos, we’re descendants from Spaniards and Italians. Everything that we do is around food. When we meet with friends, [we ask] ‘What are we going to eat? What are we going to cook?’”
“‘Or I’m making pizza, come on over,’” the chef adds.
“Exactly, let’s have fun, but in everything that we do, food is at the center. We love food because we love to eat!”
“[That’s] one of the things I enjoy the most now when I get together with my friends, with Gabriel, with my sister. Something [that] I’m trying to do more often is the act of cooking with someone else, which isn’t the same as when you get to someone’s house and they have the food ready. I appreciate both. When someone feeds me–if you give me a hot dog–I’ll be happy. When someone treats you to food, it’s something special no matter what it is. But I think sharing the act of cooking is something I’m a little more in the pursuit of. I actually have been asking my friends now, like Donna, ‘Do you cook with your other friends?’ She normally has everything ready. She’s like, ‘I don’t want you to cook when you come here.'”
“But that’s what I want to do!” Gabriel throws his hands up in mock defeat.
“You know, there’s a beauty in enjoying that process of chopping [something] up and having mindless or mindful conversation about something. That’s how you actually connect.”
Jezabel on her inspirations
“I follow so many people on Instagram,” the table erupts into laughter, “I’m kidding…”
“The strong women in your life?” Gabriel prods.
“I look up to many people. I try to grab the best of everyone.
I think my parents, for sure. I’m not sure if he knew it, but I always looked up to dad as this career-oriented person. He was like this is what I do, this is my living, and I respect that. He was very proud of what he did.
My mother has a little more of this spontaneous personality. Just getting things done.
My grandmother–she was the one who raised me until I was five because both of my parents were at work. She was always this strong, put together, humble woman. I think they’re my main inspirations in who they are as human beings.
Then you have Steve Jobs and Oprah of course… Gabrielle Hamilton, Ellen Yin. A little bit of everything”
On her favorite memories with her grandmother
“She used to make bread often. We had what we called an horno de barro, which is this Italian style flat brick oven,” the chef begins.
“Wood fired,” Gabriel adds.
“So she would make bread there once a week or once every other week, maybe. [I’d] just [be] running around in the backyard while [my grandmother’s] making the bread and shaping the bread. Always asking for a little piece of dough and making my doll out [it]. She had a vineyard in her backyard and a table that my grandfather made. So it’s those very things that are tied to what I remember…the smell of wood burning…the fresh bread…that’s pretty much [my favorite memory], among many.”
On the IfMyGrandma Were To Cook You Lunch/Dinner series
“My grandma used to cook lunch everyday. [The series] started as If My Grandma Were to Cook You Lunch. That’s it,” Jezabel explains
“A one-off. She wanted to honor her grandmother on her birthday last year,” Gabriel recalls. “But we were like that’s a great idea, so instead of doing that idea as a one-off, why don’t we make it a series.”
“[The inspiration for the food] came out of this lunch that she would put in front of my face Monday through Friday: this rice with lettuce, tomato, onion salad, and some milanesa or some kind of protein next to it.
Then I looked [the handle] up on Instagram and ‘IfMyGrandma’ was available, so it was like ‘OK, IfMyGrandma it is.’
I never said, ‘Let’s create this big thing.’ I just wanted to create the food. It was a straight translation from a feeling to what is going on the table.”
Machado explains how this simple idea became a full-fledged, sold-out dinner series. “[We decided to] start with Hispanic chefs just to bring to the forefront of the food industry in Philadelphia that Latino food is much more than we probably think about or even know about. That’s when we reached out to Cristina Martinez from South Philly Barbacoa, she is from Mexico, and then Anna Caballero, her father was from Honduras. Now we have someone from Spain, Barcelona, who’s going to cook the paella that his grandmother used to make for him. In June, we’ll have food from Argentina. And in July, we’ll have food from Uruguay.”
“It’s different backgrounds,” Jezabel adds.
“But the idea is the same,” Gabriel finishes her sentence as only a real friend could. “Just those childhood, cherished memories being shared around food. People appreciate that someone is cooking from the heart. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Just good food cooked from the heart.”
On what’s next for Jezabel and her businesses
“[We’re opening] another sister business, the atelier. It is going to be a showroom for furniture that we don’t show here [in the Studio]. These are going to be the collections that I started making for my house. There will be different materials, [so] people will have more options. The idea is that people will get to enjoy these places [Jezabel’s Café and Jezabel’s Studio] and then be like “Well I would like to have this table for my house. Can you customize the size … or the wood? The idea is to keep it within the aesthetic of what the style is.
That is going to bring [everything] full circle. My grandfather used to make furniture. Not fancy furniture but the furniture we used every day and things like that.”
When you combine the handmade furniture with the white walls that are modeled after the white walls painted by her grandmother in Argentina, “it brings the environment where I grew up to a modern setting. I think the essence is the same. It’s bringing it full circle.”
Gabriel takes us right back to where our conversation started, “On the website, that’s exactly what we say. It’s a modern expression of northwestern Argentine traditions.”
Thank you to Jezabel, Gabriel, and Jezabel’s Café and Studio for talking to us!
Jezabel’s Café and Jezabel’s Studio are located at 206 + 208 S. 45th St, Philadelphia, PA 19104. Jezabel’s Atelier will be located directly next door to the Studio at 204 S. 45th St. Follow the businesses on Instagram at @jezabelscafe, @jezabelsstudio, and @jezabelsatelier.
The next installments of IfMyGrandma Were To Cook for you will take place on Friday, May 17th, June 21st and July 19th. For more information, please visit https://www.jezabelscafe.com/ifmygrandma! (They sell out, so get your tickets early.)
**This conversation has been edited for clarity.