Bibliochef: So, we met at the 5th Annual Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty Dinner in Geneva but you were there for Felicia’s Atomic Lounge in Ithaca. Could you tell us a bit about the lounge and what brought you to Geneva for the dinner?
Amelia: As my partner Leah Houghtaling likes to say, “Do one thing, and do it well.” Felicia’s does cocktails. Because we focus on creating what we call “Farmers Market cocktails,” developing a drink for the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty dinner made sense. This year, we brought our Killer Locavore Sangria made with local peaches and Shaw Vineyard’s Libella Pinot Grigio. Last year, we served our popular Sage-Riesling Cocktail, a muddled drink with sage from our garden and Bloomer Creek Riesling. I know, it sounds risky, but it’s an incredible drink. The individual flavors come together symbiotically to create a whole new superflavor.
Bibliochef: You told me that night a bit about how the Lounge came to be. Care to repeat the tale for Cooking with Ideas readers?
Amelia: I was working as a social worker when Leah became infected with the idea to open a Lounge. She had experience in the food service industry, but opening a bar never occurred to her until after New York’s smoking ban was implemented. She always has ideas, and she talked me into this one while we were on a ten-day trip together in the Maine wilderness. I didn’t even know how to make a gin and tonic.
Bibliochef: I know the Lounge is known for its wonderful mixology! How do you come up with the drinks at the lounge?
Amelia: Leah creates most of our drinks. She bases the drinks on food concepts. She’ll try a dish at a restaurant and wonder, “How can I get these flavors together into a cocktail?” Like chipotle and oranges, or pineapple and cilantro. Sometimes she’ll take a flavor she isn’t fond of, and take on the challenge of trying to make a palatable drink from it. Like Campari or beets, both of which are now ingredients in some popular cocktails at the Lounge. She likes to see people’s faces light up when they taste something incredible made with ingredients they couldn’t imagine being in a cocktail.
Bibliochef: Some, like those at the Culinary Bounty dinner are made with local ingredients including local wines, bitters, and distilled products. And I love that you serve a bit of food too with the tag line that you “may have even stolen stuff from your garden,” truly emphasizing the locavore. Can you tell us a bit about how this emphasis came to be?
Amelia: We inherited some wacky liqueurs when we opened the Lounge, so some of our original drinks were born of those misfits, like a Banana Split Martini made with banana liqueur, strawberry liqueur, vanilla vodka, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It tasted like the liquid sludge left at the bottom of your sundae. After only a few of those, you never want to see any of those ingredients again. Trust me. During a trip to the Ithaca Farmers Market not long after we opened, Leah said, “Why not use fresh strawberries if you want strawberries in a drink?” And the seed was planted. We believe the sustainability of small businesses rides on using produce and products from as close to home as possible. We need to support each other and re-define the concept of a “neighborhood.” We are on a first-name basis with our farmers.
Bibliochef: Would you be willing to share a recipe – for food or drink?
Amelia: We have a lot of recipes on our blog at www.feliciaspeakeasy.com, and have had a few recipes published in books and magazines. Only a couple special ones have remained secrets. Someday I’ll publish a book and perhaps reveal them. (Any particular one you are interested in?)
Bibliochef: Well, I'll let that go -- check out the wrebsite and. . . . Meanwhile, could you describe a day at Felicia’s Atomic Lounge? What’s it like to be involved in running the place?
Amelia: Leah and I try to split jobs. She is in charge of the back of the house: creating, prepping, ordering, receiving. We call her the “Kitchen Bitch,” especially on Fridays when she is serving up our nearly-famous Drunken Dogs, hot dogs boiled in beer with spices and garnished with homemade toppings. I focus on the front of house: staff training, schedules, marketing, music, and publicity. The staff call me “The Task Master.” I also bartend a bit. Leah and I both feel it is important for us to be behind the bar and interacting with customers. They are always thrilled to see Leah, and want to taste her most recent creation. A typical day starts with Leah prepping and me on the computer, but once we open, Leah is hollering in the kitchen, I’m scurrying to the market for a forgotten ingredient, and staff are whipping up the cocktails. We’re like an orchestra: me as the conductor, the staff as the talented musicians, and Leah as the brilliant soloist.
Amelia: My writing started with irreverent weekly emails, which I often wrote on a little sleep and a lot of vodka. People said they found them hysterical and wanted to know what else I was writing. I don’t remember how Felicia’s Speakeasy started. Maybe someone wanted a recipe, maybe I was jumping on the blogging train (I think blogs are an excellent way for a business to generate free publicity). But Drink My Words is a whole other creature. As writing became an addiction for me, I needed a place to plant my other non-mixology writing. Currently I’m a humor columnist for The Ithaca Post, and most of my work on Drink My Words (including some cartoons) is re-posted from that publication.
Bibliochef: Can you talk about the relation of mixology to writing and cartooning, both of which you just discussed? Do you see them as in any way similar?
Amelia: Leaving social work to become a small business owner has helped my creativity flow. At least, I’d like to hope it’s not just the martinis I drink. For me, opening the Lounge has been like pulling my finger out of the dyke and having the whole dam break. I’m much less likely to censor myself now, as I think my writing and my cartoons show. Frankly, I’m having a damn good time.
Bibliochef: Felicia’s, of course, is a woman-owned business and you have a link up, for example, to Women Ties. How do you see issues of women and gender as important these days? For business? For all of us?
Amelia: I’ve been a feminist since the second grade when the girls decided all the boys had cooties. We carried invisible “Boy Spray” aerosol cans that we disinfected each other with if the boys got into our space (“Pffffffht…”). As an adult, I can only see the business world through the eyes of a woman. Though some people say that the recession has evened things out by cutting management positions typically held by men, I cannot celebrate anyone’s unemployment as progress for women. I’d like to see women on a more even playing field as men in the business world. Small businesses perhaps offer that opportunity. Leah says, “Don’t get me started. Women need to get out there, find one thing they do well, and do it.” She believes in taking risks. Obviously.
Bibliochef: And now for some of the questions I ask all of the people I “speak” with! What’s the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Amelia: Leah’s a phenomenal cook. Her spaghetti and meatballs. Or her spinach cakes. Hazelnut Kitchen in Trumansburg is where I’ve had many of my all-time favorite meals. You’d think that you’d find the best Thai dish in a Thai restaurant, but you’d be so, so wrong. Hazelnut Kitchen’s green curry is to die for. I had some lamb balls there one time, too, that were out of this world. Not balls like rocky mountain oysters, but balls as in meatballs, ground lamb with spices and a cucumber-dill sauce.
Bibliochef: What music, films, books related to food would you recommend? Why?
Amelia: Eat Drink Man Woman is probably my favorite movie about food. And Hannibal. Just kidding on the second one. Sort of. Leah likes the book Ratio (by Michael Ruhlman) as a jumping point for making up recipes, as well as The Food Lovers Companion; She appreciates reference books. I know I should be telling you I liked Julie and Julia because Julie Powell is a fellow blogger, but I didn’t. While I absolutely respect her work as a writer and blogger, I find her to be exhaustingly whiney. My favorite food blog is Serious Eats.
Bibliochef: What do you eat for comfort food?
Amelia: Before my dairy allergy, it was my mother’s macaroni and cheese. Now I’d say mashed potatoes and chocolate pudding, not on the same plate, but both made with hazelnut milk (or coconut milk for the pudding). Guess it’s a texture thing. Actually, I love any style of potatoes. I also love to stuff myself with Leah’s pasta dishes.
Bibliochef: You likely already answered this but do you have a favorite restaurant in the Finger Lakes region? If so, what is it?
Amelia: Hazelnut Kitchen remains my favorite, hands down. And not just because we can walk there from our house. The chef (CIA trained) is amazing, and the service is top-notch. Leah and I are also both quite fond of Dano's Heuriger on Seneca. Karen makes the best apple strudel I’ve ever tasted.
Bibliochef: What am I not asking that I should? What question have you never been asked that you have always wanted to be asked? What's your answer?
Amelia: What keeps you looking so young and vibrant? Martinis. Martinis and writing. Though I haven’t made up my mind about getting a facelift someday. (I wrote a great blog post on this one).
Bibliochef: Well, that's a great way to end! And a great question/amswer. Thanks for doing this. And I know my readers will be looking forward to a martini one day at Felicia's Atomic Lounge.