Tamy RofeRestauranteur, Colonia Verde

INTERVIEW Althea Simons

PHOTOGRAPHS Sasha Turrentine

"We have this saying with all of our projects: 'la comida compartida sabe mejor,' which means 'food tastes better when shared.' That is our mantra with everything that we do. It's not that food and drink is secondary, but it's for the purpose of letting people open up."
– Tamy Rofe

Tamy Rofe is a three-time (at least) entrepreneur. She and her husband Felipe started their journey by hosting dinners at their house. They now run Colonia Verde, a favorite neighborhood restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and a catering company, Comparti. I sat down with Tamy at Colonia Verde one morning before the restaurant opened.

Althea:Before starting your first restaurant Comodo, both you and your husband worked in marketing – you were branding and he was in advertising. Tell me a little bit about your background and how you two met?

Tamy:We actually met in Mexico City. That's where I started my career as a strategic planner and he was an account guy. We met in the elevator back in the day when we used to smoke cigarettes, so we would go for breaks together. We became good friends. I was dating somebody and he was dating somebody, so nothing happened there but that's where we met. And then life took me to Miami, and he ended up in Miami. And then life took him to New York, and I ended up in New York, and many years later we started dating. But we were very good friends before.

I started my career at Ogilvy, and then worked for a couple of advertising agencies in Miami. Here in New York I was at mcgarrybowen working with big brands. Felipe and I were already married by then. We started doing dinners at home because it was obvious that Felipe did not enjoy what he was doing, and I could see that he was not fulfilled. He loves to cook and he has such a natural talent for it, he is untrained but the flavor was always there. We just started throwing dinner parties at home. We had this rule of always inviting different people and always using different recipes, and I would write about it.

A:What made you want to write about it?

T:That was sort of what I did as a brand planner. You do ethnography; there's a sociological and cultural aspect to it. I was very intrigued by New York and how it brings together so many different people from all kinds of backgrounds. That was a draw for me to come to New York – we’re all misfits with very different stories. I was very intrigued about what happens when you combine people from different backgrounds. We would invite a woman that has been living in New York forever, a 50 year old that did sound engineering for theater, and then like a young ad guy – and with that mix of people, what happens when you eat and you drink wine? People just open up and tell their most intimate stories.

I would write about what happened that night and who was there. It was just a fun project for us, without a goal, just to fulfill ourselves. And then it just catapulted because New York Magazine came up to one and they wrote about it, and then the health department showed up at our house because we were serving to the public, so we had to shut that down. Then we started doing pop ups around the city, and then we were like “let's do it.” That's when we opened our first restaurant Comodo on Macdougal street. It was like an experiment. It was 20 seats and it felt like a dinner party. I was doing advertising during the day and hosting at night. Felipe had stopped working, and I did soon after. It was too fun being at the restaurant.

I remember I was pitching my last project to [a fast food chain] and we got it. It was thrilling to get the job because we came up with this big idea, but then on the other hand I had Felipe making everything from scratch at Comodo. It didn’t feel right. So I quit and said “let’s go all in.”

Soon after that, we found this place in Fort Greene and we fell in love with it. There was no sign or anything; it was shuttered. We fell in love with Fort Greene. There's something very beautiful and interesting about Fort Greene, with the diversity of people. Being an immigrant and coming here and seeing so many different people coming together, we felt like we had found a home or a hub for us to continue doing what we had been doing, from our house to the pop ups to Comodo in the West Village. We said “ok, it’s too soon to open something else, but we can't pass up this opportunity. This place has something.” And that was it.

A:I want to go back and talk about specific moments that you touched on. It's a big deal to go from having a dinner party at your house to opening a restaurant. Tell me how that came to be; what made you really go for it?

T:I think by the time we were doing pop ups, it had clearly become what Felipe had to do. It just made so much sense for him. When we were doing the pop ups, he was still doing advertising at the same time, but he hated it. Then he got laid off, and that just pushed him. He was already doing something he loved, so he said “I'm going to give [cooking] a shot. I'm not to jump into another job in advertising.” And I said, “I’m with you, let’s do it.” I wanted a partner that was super passionate about what he did.

He started looking for real estate. He walked through Macdougal street one day, and he said “I think I found the spot”. That's how it happened. He was pushed into it a little bit, but then decided to just go for it.

A:It was clear that this was his passion.

T:It was a super clear combination of passion and skill. Felipe is a chef and we are restaurateurs. You have to be a people person but you also have to be very talented with food. It's a weird combination, you either have it or you don't. It was very clear to us that he had it. So he jumped; he started.

A: It's interesting to be a both chef and a restaurateur, that's not always the case. Sometimes those are different people; it's rare to have them both in one person.

T:There are some great chefs who are very meticulous and introverted, and that’s a different breed. Felipe is truly split. He really is a talented chef and he loves the hosting part, what happens on the floor when people get together. I feel that's the root of what attracted the two of us to being restaurateurs. There is an artistry to it, to people opening up and what happens on the front side of a restaurant.

We have this saying with all of our projects: “la comida compartida sabe mejor,” which means “food tastes better when shared.” That is our mantra with everything that we do. It's not that food and drink is secondary, but it's for the purpose of letting people open up. They're going to be moved by conversations and by having a shelter where we can really connect in a city that's crazy and busy, where you never have time to sit down and connect and talk about life.

A: That's so important, especially in the city, and in this time. You guys have been doing it for a while, but it seems even more relevant today.

T:You have to step back a little bit and we hope that this place gives people that. That’s our ultimate goal.

A: I was wondering about the open kitchen, and if that kind of allows Felipe to be more involved with the diners.

T:He stands right there (gestures to the area between the kitchen and seating). He truly is more front of house than back of house, just based on where he physically stands. He stands on this side and expedites.

A:And where are you?

T:My job now happens much more during the day and leading up to the dinner. That's when I do trainings and talk to my team. I focus on training my staff and having the staff be enthusiastic and passionate. I am here during the day, I do trainings and then I take off. I sit and watch, and I am on the floor less than I used to be. We also have two kids – both of us cannot be here every night. I have two nights that I'm here, and Felipe stays with the kids. But I observe, and I talk to the neighbors, and I'm constantly training the staff on wine.

Throughout this journey, since the dinner parties, I started getting into the world of wine. I always loved it, but I also wanted to add to the product of the restaurant and it was definitely not going to be in the kitchen. It's clear that Felipe has the kitchen talent and I don’t (laughs). I started becoming very intrigued with the wine aspect of the restaurant. I got certified as a sommelier. It was a year and a half [of study] and very intense but I loved every single second of it. That became my thing. I became the wine person.

Now I'm very intrigued with the world of natural wines. I want us to be bringing down the barriers of wine and making it more accessible, fun, and work for everybody. Wine can be so stuffy, and it's not how I am. I have made it my mission to make wine a little bit more for the people and more fun, to go with the food. The world of natural wine does that, in general. I jumped on that wagon.

It tastes better with friends

One of the things that makes Colonia Verde so special is the garden in the back of the space. It is one of those rare Brooklyn real estate gems that makes you feel like you are somewhere else entirely, say a farmhouse in South America.

A: Tell me about your wine program, what your philosophy is, and how you execute it.

T:I created this wine list called “The Renegade List.” It's a rotating wine list that changes every two months and focuses on different themes. It shines a light on the rebel wine makers, the ones that are doing things a little different, or going back to the good old days of how wine used to be made – with less additives, made less for scoring the big points and more for showing what their region has to offer in terms of terroir and taste.

We just did female winemakers; I did a list that focused on females around the world who are making incredible wines. It gives us a way to continue to learn internally as a team and for the neighborhood to come and try. What I tell the staff is: “I want this to be like a candy store for adults.” You come in and you try something, you see if you like it, and you try something else. You try it with the tacos, and you try with the steak. It just becomes more fun and explorative versus “correct.” The food menu doesn't change dramatically, so the wine is what keeps revolving. It’s fun for the neighbors because we have a lot of regulars and they’re like “Oooo, what’s on now!” They get to try different wines from all over the world.

And then we have our list by the bottle, our small list of things that are very allocated. I work with a lot of small vintners. A lot of the times great wine arrives to New York and it flies; there’s only like 10 cases, so I grab one. That’s where the allocated list comes from; it’s just very special bottles of wine. But I make sure everything is under $100, because it’s a neighborhood joint. Although people do come here to celebrate, it still goes back to bringing wine to the table and making it more accessible for people, and fun.

A:When did you do your sommelier training? Why did you decide that you were going to be the wine person?

T:It was six months after my first daughter was born. It was crazy. She was six months old, I would leave her with a part-time nanny, and I would go to study wine and taste wine – spit wine, obviously.

This goes into a whole other topic – when you have a kid, you have to sort of reinvent yourself. Your daughter or son is born, but you’re also reborn in a way because all of a sudden you're split into two. You have to find your place within yourself and your work, as a business owner. I wanted to attach myself more to wine, and I just leaned into it and went for it without really thinking. I was very lucky to be the owner of our restaurant versus having to work the floor as a sommelier. I skipped all those steps.

I'm still learning; I try to learn every day. I read, I taste; it's infinite. The world of wine is truly infinite. When you get that certification you’ve just opened a can of worms. So you're like: “there's so much more that I can learn!” And I’m always bringing it back to the people, bringing it back to a language that people understand and can relate to.

A:I love the way you talk about how being a mom changed you. Tell me a little more about what it's like to be a mom and business owner.

T:That was when I had the first one and now I have two, so it’s like, really on. It turns your world upside down. As a parent, as a mom, you want to do it all and build it all, but, at least for me, there was a moment where I gave myself permission to make it very messy and be okay with that. There is always something that falls through the cracks, messes up or that gets lost in translation. That’s how it is with having kids, you can't really control it. When I started seeing that I saw how it could add to how I manage, how I build my business, and it really helped me give up control a little bit. How does it add to my creative process rather than taking away? I've been working on that, and it's fun because in business sh*t happens all the time. How you deal with it defines whether you're going to succeed or not. I’m embracing the mess a little bit more and the beauty, how it’s beautiful as well.

And then the balance, I’m always trying to find the balance; that's the difficulty. How am I present and involved in my kid's life? But how am present here [at Colonia Verde]? And does that mean I give up a couple of nights here to be with the kids? Am I getting too far [from the restaurant]? It's always this balancing act. You have to stay present. There’s also how Felipe and I connect; there’s all of these different connections that you have to manage. It's beautiful and the most challenging thing in the world at the same time.

A:Because you work with your husband, does that become difficult and another element to your relationship?

T:Yes, for sure. We have a date night that we honor- it's like our religion because we need it survive as a couple. We spend a lot of time together but a lot of it is business. We need that day when we just go out and we talk about us and the world, not even the kids. We have to check in with each other all the time because it's easy to become a business partner or just a mom, but there’s this other aspect of you. You become a little bit of a split personality because you have to be these three people. At home we try not to talk about work because if you don't set those boundaries it can just eat up your whole day.

But we also get so excited about it. We have the Sunday Asados here, and it almost doesn't feel like work because we're throwing a party. Every month [in the summer] we throw a party with a chef from London or Mexico or California. We’re thinking about the playlist, and what’s the wine? It's like inviting people to your home and throwing a party. So the lines are becoming a bit blurred between what's work and what's not? We're not so hard on each other. If we start talking about work, it's because we were really excited about it.

A new Tamy

Tamy saw motherhood as an opportunity to reinvent herself as a restauranteur, and as a sommelier. She did her sommelier training when her daughter was six months old.

A: How did the Asados come to be?

T:I feel the Asado is a continuation of how we started. Colonia Verde is a consistent, beautiful neighborhood spot, and that has become a whole other art, the art of consistency and measurement, which took us a while to get to. But then we have this pop up thing about us – the dinner parties, that’s how we started. The Asado sort of brings us back to that.

The space [at Colonia Verde] really led us to the barbecue because it’s like the finka from Columbia, it's like a Latin American farmhouse with the garden, and we have this grill in the back. We're all about rituals around food. We love the ritual of barbecuing and grilling because you're drinking while you're cooking the food, and it's almost the excuse to get together. It's so intriguing how people find ways of connecting. We're waiting for the food, and that’s the excuse to drink a glass of wine and talk. We were very intrigued by that ritual. There's barbeques in Argentina or Colombia, and then barbecues in the U.S., and in Africa; everybody has their grilling and it’s like an animalistic thing, gathering around the fire.

Felipe was invited to cook in Mexico and we met these two great chefs there. We wanted to find an excuse to get together again, so we thought: “let's do a pop up where you guys come and you cook.” And then it’s like, “if we're going to do that, let's do a series of them.” Let’s just invite friends to cook, and now this is our fourth year of doing it and it’s become this party for the neighbors. It's fun because it's very chill, it’s a similar thing I’m trying to do with the wine. You have world class chefs cooking, so the food is very elevated and very high quality, but the environment - people are eating with their hands, we're passing around the steak - is very relaxed. So it's fun to play with that.

A:So fun, I love that. Tell me about the design of the space and your South American farmhouse aesthetic.

T: When we opened Colonia Verde, and even Comodo, I felt that there was only one interpretation of Latin American design and what it looks like. There is this very bright vibrant aesthetic and it is a little over the top. But there's this aspect of Latin Latin America that's much more natural, subdued. For me as a Mexican, going to Columbia is really cool because it was this other world. You go to Columbia to a farmhouse and there's this whole other palette of colors that is just as expressive but much more natural. No one was really doing that. It connects to how people want to eat right now, more natural and more organic food. We envisioned the garden first and that informed the rest, the space is like a progression all the way to the garden, which feels very much like the finka, the farmhouse.

I have really great friend Celestine who is married to Matthew Maddy, who's a great contractor-designer, he designed Lilia and many other restaurants in Brooklyn. He just has a beautiful aesthetic. I talked to him about our affinity to Latin America – he would go hiking in Guatemala, so he knew that side of Latin America – and it was really nice to connect and for him to really understand what we wanted.

The brick on the floor he actually took from another project he was doing in Bushwick. He had all this leftover brick and he put it on the floor, which is very Hacienda-like, very warm. He totally nailed it. I have to give him the credit for building that greenhouse to open it up, so you see the garden.

I have had really great partners who have helped me. I have these two women from Red Hook that do all the plants – they're called Mavena, they are incredibly talented. They just brought the space to life with the plants. So much of the visual identity here is the plants because it's Colonia Verde, it’s the green neighborhood.

It just kind of came together with Matthew, and with Megan and Vanessa who help me with plants, and also a girl who was a server at the time who had a beautiful aesthetic. She helped me a lot with the finishing touches. I don’t think it’s ever me, I just think I have been lucky to have all these people that buy into this idea. It just keeps evolving. It's going to be the sixth year; every year it feels more lived in and it just adds to the character of the place. I think the most beautiful restaurants are the restaurants that look lived in – used. People have been there, you know? That’s why we have such a hard time thinking about opening another thing. There’s no worse feeling and that feeling of new. No one wants that, you know? You want to go to your joint, the one that’s been around.

A: It's funny because New York is so about that newness, that it's actually so nice to go to a place that is not new. Not new is the new new.

T:It’s about something else. There's more true conversations, it’s about life and comfort. It keeps evolving, and I'm curious to see how else it will evolve.

We just did the armory show where we popped up and we basically took the whole aesthetic and said: “what would this look like inside an art fair? Let's have a place in an art fair where people can relax and feel like they're in a finka.” Together with Megan and Vanessa that help me with the plants, we used these hammocks to hang these humongous plants so that they almost looked like chandeliers. We used these ceramic lamps from this artisan from Mexico, and now I’m thinking about putting them in the greenhouse [at Colonia Verde]. Like, maybe year six means these lamps. It keeps evolving, and for me that's the best kind of design. It's a living organism.

Shared rituals

Tamy loves exploring different ways people connect over food and wine. When she and her husband first started hosting dinner parties, she would write about the night from an ethnographic or sociological perspective, which she learned from her days working in branding.

A: Was that project part of your catering business? Because you also have a whole other company that we haven’t talked about yet.

T:(laughs) Exactly. That was all managed through Comparti, our catering arm, that was born out of necessity actually. We had a fire here [at Colonia Verde] in year one, actually a week before turning one, and we had to shut down. We wanted to keep the team, so we started catering. Now this year we're slated to do more than 47 weddings for 2019, and there will probably be more added. Some weekends we do two events. We have our tasting room in the East Village; that's where we manage it from. We do galas, we did the armory, we do weddings, and that’s a whole other thing (laughs).

A:How involved are you personally with that?

T:I'm a managing partner. I do all the wine programs. I do the wines for events, and then I do what I call the “love wines” for couples. Finding their wine, and what they want to serve for their wedding, that's super special. It’s really nice, because it’s like the wine tells a story; because of the producer or something caught you, that’s what you serve and that’s what you remember. So I do the wine but I’m also the owner, so you know how it is.

A: You get involved with everything.

T:HR, management of people. It's a great team; it’s a super fun team. Catering can be so awful; I don’t like lame pigs in a blanket. We're trying to reinvigorate it and create a wedding where the food is actually really delicious. You get a review from a couple that their family loved the food, and it’s the best feeling.

A: It's really different from what you do here.

T:Completely different. You have one shot to get it right. You have to build everything that day. Sometimes you have to build a kitchen that day. But it goes back to our events, to our beginning. We’re sort of built that way. Felipe’s style of chef is very much like that. It’s almost as if he started in catering.

The Asados are very much about catering. It’s cool because the chefs land here, from Mexico and London, and wherever, and they do all their prep in the catering kitchen in the East Village. It brings all this energy to our catering team for because all of a sudden they have a chef from Mexico and he's doing posole and ceviche, and the chefs are like, “what's this?” They get to try it. So they're learning, everybody's learning, and it's injecting energy into the kitchen over there.

A:What is your philosophy for hiring and what you look for in the team? I feel like it’s a family in a way.

T:It totally is. Most people have been with us since the beginning, since Comodo days, so they've been with us for seven years. We fall in love with people, almost to a fault, and it's also beautiful. It's good and it's bad, like everything. It really feels like a family and there's people that have grown with us.

I think for me as a manager, I’ve come to learn that the most satisfying piece of managing is to see people grow, to give them permission to grow into their roles. They've also seen me grow; I was not born a manager at all. I used to be much more nervous and stressed. Now I trust my team to do their thing and to grow. We are very hands off. We have them enjoy and buy into what we're doing, and that'll reflect in how they serve. If they're really enjoying their work, it is going to reflect in how they interact with people. I think hospitality trickles down. How you treat your servers is how they're going to treat the guests.

We've just been very lucky, truly. Our team is our strength. They’re our ambassadors, they’re our voice. When I’m not here, they’re here representing me. It's like a gut feeling when you meet somebody. It's a cultural fit a lot of the time. It’s been a hurtful process because of that, because a cultural fit doesn't necessarily mean that you've been doing this for ages, and you either have in your bones to be hospitable or you don’t. It doesn't matter if you've been a waiter for 20 years – if you don't enjoy it, you don’t enjoy it.

It's fun because it's a super young crowd full of artists, and fiery personalities. Being a server, working in a restaurant, is a rush, so it already [attracts] personalities that are like that. We have a new director of service, whom I adore. She’s all about “bring your personality, bring who you are to work” because if you don’t do that then you’re split, you’re not really enjoying your work, which always reflects [in the service].

I think being a mom has helped a ton; I am more patient, more open to growth, and I enjoy all the characters that we have, because we’re characters too! I’m more receptive to all kinds of people. It's a work in progress.

A:Do the kids like being here?

T: They LOVE being here. It's like their happy place. Natalia comes in like she owns the place. She goes straight to the kitchen and she asks for her papitas, her fries. She sits at their bar and asks Jorge for lemonade, she talks to Jorge, our bartender who – back to our team, our family – started with us as a dishwasher. Now he has grown into a bartender and he’s an integral part of who we are. People come in and they hug him, that's how important he is to this restaurant

So yes, she sits down, she opens her book, she starts coloring, goes to the garden. It's like their second home. To the point where – we’re always thinking about what’s next, there’s always something on the horizon – I remember we were talking to her one day about maybe opening another restaurant and she said “no, why would you do that? We have Colonia Verde, that’s it!” It’s so special to her, it’s almost like “why would you do another one, this one is it, this is the special one.”

We went to her school the other day and they did this thing about who you are in the community. She did this project where she was a server at Colonia Verde. She had drawn Colonia Verde and gone through all the things that you do: “I get the forks and knives. I set the table.” She’s really into it. Hopefully she'll take over the family business. She is smart. I'm ready to put her to work, and she's five. Soon enough she’ll be hosting here.

One big happy family

For Tamy and her family, Colonia Verde is a second home. In many ways, Colonia Verde is a second family.

Wine to the people

Tamy's goal is to bring wine tasting down to earth, to the people. She speaks about wine in a way that is not intimidating nor condescending, but rather exciting and intriguing.