Ivy Ackerman, the founder of Butter and Egg Road, is not a chef, but she certainly knows food. She’s also a champion–if not crusader–of the lost art of hosting, a 1950s-ish term that brings to mind visions of aprons and beef Stroganoff. If lobster Thermidor is what you seek, you probably won’t find it at one of Ivy’s events (although anything is possible, and you just never know), but you might find Ivy herself, ready to introduce a chef, explain a dish, or tell you the history of a given neighborhood or restaurant. To engage with Butter and Egg Road is to truly jump into an urban adventure, one that’s founded on food, friendship and a very sophisticated kind of fun. To learn more about Ivy and what she’s up to, read on!
You started off running a private, member-based supper club, and now you’ve moved into a more event-focused business. In what ways has the evolution of your company surprised you?
What surprises me is that I continue to be energized and creative. I realized that I love creating the concept behind an event. Every time a new request comes in from a client, I get re-energized. And every idea feels like the most exciting one I’ve ever had. It’s like the first event I’ve ever done. You think, “Oh, I want to start repurposing,” but I’ve never repurposed an event. Ever. Each one is truly custom-designed. Truthfully, repurposing might be easier from a scaling perspective, but to design new is what I love most. You have to entertain in a creative way that’s strategic to what the client is looking for, thinking about their business objectives, their entertaining needs and their vocation.
It’s funny. One of my favorite photographers, Imogen Cunningham, when asked which of her photographs was her favorite, said, “The next one.” That’s kind of what you’re talking about.
Every event I go to is my favorite. People ask me to describe my favorite events, and while I can think of them, I’m always thinking about the next one. So I have to sit and pause for a moment while I remember what I did the week before. The next request is what keeps me moving–the next opportunity to create. At an event I did yesterday, I had this idea for a purveyor-driven dinner, a Union Square Greenmarket dinner. When I sat down with the client, he told me about how he loves to buy organic, and he loves to go to farms on the weekend. He goes upstate to the Hudson Valley and buys organic meat and all of this stuff, so I thought to myself, here he is, working at a financial institution, looking to entertain clients, but what would bring this dinner to life in a way that brings him to life, and would make him not only excited, but feel ownership over it? So it became about creating something outside the scope of what his business is, something that really touched on his personal passion. It allowed him to bring the two together. That’s what made the event deeply personal and strategic.
And was the event successful, do you think?
It was. He was so excited to share it. Something was created that maybe wouldn’t be exciting to the client I have next week, because that client might not be passionate about farmer’s markets. That client might be passionate about eating bagels all day long.
Have you ever had a client who has been passionate about eating bagels all day long?
Not yet. I have created events for people who love breakfast, but if there’s a client out there who’s dying to do something with bagels, then bring it. I’m dying to do a pizza bagel midnight dinner.
Where do you get a good pizza bagel in New York?
Blackseed Bagel does pizza bagels on Thursday evening from 10pm to 4am. I was just chatting with the owner last night—he’s also one of the owners of The Smile—about how I want to do a pizza bagel event. Pizza bagels are actually what I want to eat tonight. They are the ultimate comfort food, and the original fusion food. What I love is creating things that are right in front of you but experiencing them in new ways. A pizza bagel isn’t the fanciest dish, with foams and nitrogen and that kind of thing, but they delight you and surprise you and make you look at the food differently. That’s wonderful.
How do you apply that to your own work?
Well, that’s what I was saying before about what I try to do. I try to combine what delights and surprises with what’s deeply personal–finding ways to express my clients’ personalities through culinary experiences. And that’s the 360 approach. The evening I did for this gentleman was a portrait of him. It brought to life everything he loves. Hosting is another thing that I really pride myself on. Being able to marry your passion and your personality with a culinary experience, and adding the strategic piece as well, I think that’s interesting. That’s what excites me, and I think that’s what delights my clients.
Let’s talk a little bit about hosting. It’s a lost art.
It’s a part of entertainment that we’ve lost these days. It’s having someone who is dedicated to making sure that everyone around the table is engaged, not just enjoying their food but enjoying the energy. When the meal is done, you want them to feel like they’re walking away from something elevated. When I’m curating an event, I suggest that my clients sit in the middle, not at the head of the table. If you’re truly going to be an exceptional host, you want to prepare everything in advance, because you don’t want to be in the kitchen, you want to be sitting amongst your guests. You should also be sitting in the middle because you want to broker conversations and introductions within the group. You need to be aware of when you should shift and pivot too. It’s a talent. You need to be able to have a conversation with the person across from you, sincerely, by which I mean that you’re listening, and you’re replying, and showing the person that you are acknowledging what he or she is saying. You also need to be aware of what’s happening on either side of you, so that if conversations are falling flat, you can alter the course of the conversation to include them or introduce them to the person you’re speaking to. It’s about managing the flow of conversation. I also use seating arrangements. And place cards. I’m not just about the food at these things. It’s experiential dining. As the host, you’re the ringleader, you’re orchestrating it, but you’re also being sincere. You also have to go with the flow. If people are engaged in conversation, and they’re not ready to go onto the next course, don’t go on to the next course.
When people ask you what you do, what do you say? How do you define your profession?
I generally say that I host.
How do people understand that?
Well, when people ask me I say that I’m a culinary curator, which is to say that I produce culinary experiences. If I’m keeping it short, I say I host culinary experiences. But more and more, clients want me to set the stage and make an introduction to their group. They want me to set the stage for what the theme is of the evening, what the narrative is. And then I step aside.
But you used to host everything.
The company launched as a private traveling supper club. The idea at the time—the tagline at the time was “Be a local anywhere.” We focused on one neighborhood at the time, and we hosted really offbeat culinary experiences for sixteen people or less. Part of it was about meeting people, but another part of it was about meeting the chefs and the restaurateurs and the barmen and really feeling like you were a regular.
And the move to private events happened because of what?
I started having club members approach me about doing events. They’d say, “I’m doing an closing event near week. My clients are flying in, and my executive assistant has us booked at X place. Again. Can you maybe repurpose the five-course tasting menu with wine that you did on Avenue C? I think it would set my dinner apart, and hopefully set my company apart.” It’s a little more strategic now, and that I really like. Now it marries creativity with specific goals. Like I said, I love to create. I love people. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do—to create something that contributes something different. I wanted to contribute in a way that used my passions and talents.
Last but not least, what are some of the food trends you’re most excited about right now?
I’m interested in Persian cuisine. I think there’s going to be a big boom—I’m seeing pop-ups and things. Obviously, the bagel was the biggest thing to hit New York City this year. I call the Lower East Side the bagel belt. Forget the borscht belt, it’s the bagel belt. It’s about discovery. It’s introducing people to things that have always been there, but they’re discovering them for the first time. It’s really exciting.