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A Conversation with Michelle Brown, Co-Owner of Teaism

Teaism banner“There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life.” — Lin Yutang, The Importance Of Living.

I despise coffee. But oh, how I love tea! Tea is soothing, fortifying and luxurious. It represents to me the best of a beverage that can engender wonderful conversation and connections between people. When I discovered that Teaism was coming to Old Town, Alexandria, I was ecstatic. Yeah, the warm ginger scones served with apricot jam had something to do with my enthusiasm.

One day, I had the good fortune to meet a dear neighbor of mine there – Cheryl Mirabella of Living Whole Health  – who introduced me to Michelle Brown. Michelle is the co-owner of Teaism with her partner Linda Neumann. Michelle is passionate about healthy food and sustainable food systems. Thanks to Michelle’s kindness, I’ve met many folks in the DC farm to fork and sustainable agriculture scene. As a small token of “thank you,” I wanted to tell her story on my blog.

Eighteen years ago, Michelle had a revolutionary idea for bringing people together in the nation’s capital: a tea house. A lifelong professional in the culinary world, Michelle became bored of what was then considered “fine dining” – lots of beef fed to mostly white men in dark suits and red power ties. So, she started looking for a location and when she found the 1400 square foot space at 2009 R Street, N.W., just off Dupont Circle, Teaism was born.

HH: Why a tea house?

MB: “A tea house was a no brainer for me. I had been married to a man from India and knew how to make chai the traditional and correct way. The population in and around Dupont Circle is beautifully diverse and a tea house appealed to that diversity. In particular, embassy staff embraced the Dupont Circle Teaism as a place that resembled the tea houses in their own countries. Even with a Starbucks right next store, Teaism was an instant success.”

HH: You call Teaism a “fast, casual” dining establishment. Your menu really focuses on wholesome food. How did you develop the menu?

MB: “To start the food menu, I began working with friends in the business, home bakers, and ultimately a dear friend of Japanese descent. The menu had to be Asian inspired because tea comes from Asia. Yumiko Yoshida has remained our consultant all these years. She assures we are being sensitive to Japan’s cultural rules on what should be served together or apart. We used the terms ‘wholesome’ and ‘healthy’ from the beginning because we wanted our food to be accessible and give our customers the opportunity to eat clean. I’m proud to say, our current Chef is Alison Swope. She was also my opening Chef at New Heights, that fine dining restaurant referred to earlier.  She, interestingly, has a long history with Old Town.”

HH: Teaism is the original host of “Chefs as Catalysts for Change,” an event associated with Food Day that brings chefs out of the kitchen and gives them a chance to share information and learn about the food system. What is the focus of this year’s event?

MB: “’Chefs as Catalysts for Change’ will be held on Monday, October 21st. We asked chefs what they wanted to talk about this year and the resounding feedback was that they want to know what is in the food they are serving to customers. In other words, what is in the food that arrives at the door of a chef’s kitchen?”

That subject happens to be near and dear to Michelle’s heart. In the early 2000’s, Michelle really started paying attention to the ingredients in the product being used in Teaism’s kitchen. She was shocked by the amount of high-fructose corn syrup in a number of items. So, she started contacting her suppliers and asking for products without high-fructose corn syrup. She then started tracking genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the ingredients arriving at her kitchen door. And that brought her face to face with the real issues of sustainability.

HH: Your interest in finding food that is as clean as possible really burgeoned. How do you find the ingredients you want to serve?

MB: “I drive my Chef crazy!  She is on the phone to suppliers constantly making sure our food is sourced correctly. As an example, we need yeast for baking bread. Typically, yeast is grown on a substrate of sugar beets or corn – GMOs. Who knew? We found GMO free yeast. We wind up having to buy a year’s supply as it is not readily available on the East Coast. We also buy GMO-free rice vinegar. I hope our guests appreciate the healthy food. It’s important to press suppliers for cleaner ingredients. If you don’t put it out there, what you want, then you will never make progress.”

HH: But it’s also a lot of work.

MB: “Oh yes. But, I get a great deal of satisfaction knowing our guests are happy with their experience at Teaism. It’s definitely the hardest work, longest hours and least pay I’ve had but it is the most satisfying.”

HH: Any last words?

MB:  “We like our guests to know that there are a lot of different ways to use your Teaism. You can come daily and have scones and chai, or a salmon bento box and sake, or have a meeting surrounded by the serenity of a tearoom. From our famous Salty Oat Cookies to teaware from our shop, we serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days per week. Each Teaism location belongs to you, the guest. Discover all the ways to use your Teaism.”

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