Artist Janna Coumoundouros and Chef Matthew Baldridge transformed their pop-up dining experience into Ferndale’s artsy restaurant The Conserva.
By Janna Coumoundouros
When my husband, Chef Matthew Baldridge, opened his restaurant The Conserva in downtown Ferndale, I was very excited to have a place to hang art.
I have been a fulltime artist since I graduated from the University of Michigan with an art degree in 1998. I met my husband about five years ago when he was the executive chef at Cliff Bell’s in Detroit. On our first date, we realized how well art and food go together and talked about how a meal is about more than just food. It’s about the entire experience of conversation and the surroundings. Sharing a meal with someone, or even alone, should be an experience.
I had never known a real chef before. The way he talked about food sounded a lot like the way I talk about art. It is a true passion and calling. Why else would anyone spend crazy hours in a kitchen (usually without windows) until late hours, being constantly critiqued by the public, rushing around trying to complete many tasks at once, all while missing time with family and friends?
After dating for a while and realizing this is the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I came up with an idea: to combine food, art and music and create a fun experience unlike a regular restaurant. I asked my friend, Derek Dorey, who owned The Storefront Gallery, a local gallery in Ferndale, if we could do a pop-up dinner there. And that is how it started.
We called it Dinner Club Pop Up. In the beginning, it was just our friends and family coming to pop-up dinners that featured an artist on the walls, music playing, an incredible four-course dinner, a Kung-Fu movie silently projecting on the wall above everyone, BYOB and great conversation. Then we offered tickets to the public and started expanding to other venues like Supino’s Pizzeria, Always Brewing coffeeshop and even a fancy apartment complex in Columbus, Ohio. Some of these places had kitchens, but most did not, and my husband had to build a pop-up kitchen in the back. In Columbus, the little oven in the common area broke down and he finished the last two courses with me holding a blow torch below a pot! And it was still delicious.
I realized in all these unconventional working conditions just how professional and talented my husband is under pressure. I also started to understand the kitchen culture. And I started trying foods I never thought I would ever try — and found that I love them. With a set four-course menu, he opened not only my mind to new and exciting foods, but every diner who bought a ticket.
We made sure to seat people at large communal tables so that conversations would happen. By the end of the evening, complete strangers were hugging goodbye and exchanging phone numbers. We had created a space for people to connect and be a part of the energy of creative juices coming together. We won awards for our pop-up dinners and had created a really fun experience for people.
As an artist, it was a way for me to show my work and sell my jewelry as well as create exposure for new up and coming artists. Many of the artists sold pieces during the dinner. All of this was a way for my husband to test dishes he always wanted to create and finally have the freedom to cook the kind of food he wanted.
Naturally, the next step was to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant and continue the food+drink+art fusion in a restaurant setting. Matthew opened The Conserva in downtown Ferndale about a year and a half ago. The restaurant has a great feeling of a quaint neighborhood bar with friendly staff who make you feel at home. We don’t have the large communal tables (although one is available in the private wine room for large groups) but continue the feeling of community by offering large sharable plates. It really is a family atmosphere at the restaurant — from the staff always greeting each other and ending the night with hugs, murals on the wall by my husband’s brother, Steve Baldridge, an oil painting my mom painted of our dog hanging behind the bar and beautiful barn wood tables my dad made in the wine room. For me, it was a space to continue hanging the art for longer than just one evening.
I started with my own photographs on the walls, and I hung a collection of quirky and funny framed cards in the bathroom. Then I started curating monthly art exhibits with art openings on the third Thursday of each month. We host had a variety of local photographers, painters and illustrators. We don’t take a commission from the artists and encourage sales if anyone is interested in purchasing. We want to support local artists by giving them a space to show their work while also keeping the walls interesting with revolving artists. We have featured artists who have never had a show before and artists who are seasoned professionals.
Local photographer Josh Carroll of Fixed Position Photography shoots with a box camera that he constructed himself out of wood called an Afghan camera. He brought the camera and set it up outside the patio and offered portraits with it. The photographs are unique and one-of-a-kind because he shoots directly onto photo paper.
Another favorite exhibit was by Mark Moreno, a graphic designer who starts with digital illustrations of comic book-like characters that he creates and then paints on canvas using brilliant colors and metallic gold. I learned so much about his thought process for each piece by talking with him the night of the opening. Each painting had a story behind the subject matter, usually a female superhero living in a universe he created in his mind. That is another wonderful part of having these art openings — the opportunity to talk and discuss the work with the artist while enjoying a meal and a cocktail or glass of wine.
The cocktails at the restaurant are unique and artistic in their own right. Bartender Jarrod Kassis comes up with concoctions the way a chef comes up with a dish. He builds flavor profiles and isn’t afraid to try new and exciting things. You also won’t find wines you will see on other menus. That is what we try to create at The Conserva: unique and different food, drinks, and art — minus the pretentious attitude.
201 E. Nine Mile, Ferndale
4 p.m. to midnight
See the work of Sanda Cook through July 14.
Born and raised in Botosani, Romania, Sanda Cook is an award-winning artist and sought-after spiritual advisor. Sanda’s first art show, at the age of 13, was well-received by the press and public, and she spent the next six years in study and practice with her mentor, the late Mihai Bejenaru, winning several art prizes along the way. Sanda studied law for five years before entering Brasor School of Arts. She received her fine art degree in 1998. Sanda has travelled extensively through Europe, Japan and the United States, settling here in 2004. She has exhibited at The Scarab Club, The Detroit Artist’s Market, 555 Gallery, Ariana Gallery and many local galleries and art spaces.