By Tammy Scileppi
Good food brings people together, and knowing how to cook well is a true talent.
It turns out that cook-author Julie Powell, of Columbia Pictures’ “Julie and Julia” (2009) fame, and Min Chen, chef and manager of Long Island City’s popular eatery, Lounge 47, are the best of friends.
It may have been karma that brought the two L.I.C. neighborhood foodies together, leading them to join culinary forces as they teamed up to revamp the menu at the artsy Hunters Point spot to “reflect the changing neighborhood, and draw in adventurous new eaters,” said Powell.
Nearly 30 in August 2002, Powell decided to chronicle her double life in her Julie/Julia Project Blog, based on an unusual cooking adventure she was launching avec iconic chef Julia Child’s cook’s bible, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961).
The blogger describes herself as a “government drone by day, renegade foodie by night… Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment. 365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen.” The couple has been living on Jackson Avenue.
Ultimately, the challenge paid off big time with a hit book and movie starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.
“Min and I became friends at the Murray Park dog run,” said Powell in an interview. “Her Lhasa Apso, Schatzi, is friends with my Cane Corso, Beatrice. We quickly found we had a lot in common, including our voracious appetites and passion for fun, unpretentious, unusual food.”
Chen, who is single, 50 “and looking,” lives three blocks from Lounge 47, 47-10 Vernon Blvd., known for its retro décor with ’50s era vinyl booths, a great wine selection, scrumptious appetizers/tapas, salads, burgers and the rock-filled back garden seating area.
At one time, Chen worked for an investment bank and said she had become so disenchanted with corporate life that she quit her job and volunteered at a women’s organization called Hayden Hall in Darjeeling, India for more than two years. She came back to Queens to open Lounge 47 with two partner-friends in the summer of 2003. She sold her share in 2008 but returned in January 2011 as manager and chef.
An obsessive recipe collector, Chen said she has eaten her way around the world and cooked with ladies who live on Park Avenue to ladies who cook over charcoal stoves in some remote Kyrgyz village while picking up pointers from both sides of the divide.
“Min is really the driving force in the kitchen. She is also a great collaborator, taking the best ideas of her kitchen staff and friends like me and folding them into her own,” said Powell.
So they dreamed up a new menu but kept some of the standard faves, like burgers and deviled eggs, to please their loyal regulars. “We’ve built a family here. Most of our customers are locals from the ‘hood and probably live no more than five blocks from us,” Chen said. They get a cool crowd of professionals and artists — some with kids.
“People are more open and friendlier here than anywhere else I’ve lived. During the summer, neighbors congregate on their stoops to have a chin wag. I seldom need to go into Manhattan. I play and dine right here and love it.”
While Chen heartily confesses Powell is the brainchild behind many of the restaurant’s creations, she prides herself for the being the vehicle for their success.
“Julie has all the wild ideas and I try and come up with ways to adapt them for Lounge 47,” said Chen. For instance, Powell was testing some General Tso’s Chicken recipes and since they wanted wings on the menu Chen suggested using her idea. It was a big hit with customers. “While we were testing our way through our cocktail menu, Julie suggested a more robust — um, ‘manly’ — cocktail over the frou-frou-tinis and presto the Piggyback was born. It’s a shot of Pig’s Nose Scotch backed by a shot of homemade pickle juice,” said Chen.
While still keeping Julia Child’s techniques in mind, Powell said she doesn’t cook with as much butter or cream and places “more emphasis on freshness and local ingredients than JC was able to do back in 1961.”
But when she’s cooking for family and friends, she often turns to the comfort food cuisines of her Texas youth: Southern, Mexican, Cajun. “I like big pots of things, and I like it hot and spicy.”
Food for healing
A while back, Powell decided she wanted to take up butchering, apparently a great outlet for working through an illicit love affair that almost ruined her marriage. What better way to get out your frustrations than by cleaving, right? The name of her recent memoir, “Cleaving,” is a story about marriage, meat and obsession.
So, what else is she up to these days? “Well, like all freelancers, I have a couple of super-top-secret projects in the air, including a novel that is coming very slowly. The story will allow me to explore my geeky side a bit more, so that will be fun,” said Powell. “I have other torches in the fire, but it’s bad luck to discuss them. I’m superstitious, so I don’t like to talk much about my projects until they’re ready to go.”
Both Chen and Powell agree that they’re not trying to create haute cuisine at Lounge 47, and don’t aspire to be Top Chefs. “We’re just two very enthusiastic home cooks. ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ is our motto.”
Learn more about Lounge 47 at www.lounge47.com.