Students cook creative dishes, host affordable brunches in apartment
Fourth-year students Conor Cusack, Jack Vorster, and Margaret LaGaly (left to right) host pop-up brunches in their apartment and backyard. They build their brunches around an encompassing theme, such as “Brunch on the Playground” and “‘Twas the Brunch Before Christmas.” (Joe Akira/Daily Bruin)
Feb. 21, 2018 8:13 p.m.
Conor Cusack and Margaret LaGaly fervently discussed eggs for an hour while cleaning up after their pop-up brunch in November.
Cusack, LaGaly and their friend Jack Vorster – collectively known as JACOMA – plan and host brunches in their apartment. The three prepare and serve in their apartment and backyard savory and sweet dishes all built around common themes, such as a Christmas one, that influence their ingredients. Most recently, their brunch featured live jazz performed by Cusack’s friends and beverages from a pop-up coffee vending service, “The Spare Room.”
JACOMA’s menu items are meant to be affordable for college students, as the group does not host brunches with the intention of drawing in profits, said LaGaly, a fourth-year English student. Their pancakes, for example, cost $7 and their scones cost $3.
“We’ve never kept track of who’s paid,” LaGaly said. “It’s an honor system.”
As the group members planned their first brunch last November, they prepared two to three meals a week to experiment with new culinary ideas, said Vorster, a fourth-year earth and environmental science student. Once, when attempting a second edition of the hand pies they made for “Brunch on the Playground,” they added rose water to their icing. The rose water cut the tartness introduced by the strawberries and the balsamic, and brought nuance to the pies, said Cusack, a fourth-year geography and environmental studies student.
“We were really getting into the idea and making food together and trying new things,” Vorster said. “It sounded like so much fun.”
When planning a brunch, Cusack, LaGaly and Vorster first pitch their ideas for an overarching theme, such as “Brunch on the Playground,” which was inspired by a youth soccer team LaGaly coaches. After settling on a theme, they then plan and name their dishes around it. “Brunch on the Playground” featured menu item names such as “Michelle Obama’s School Garden Pizza,” a pizza with pecorino, leek, goat cheese, thyme and arugula, and “Leggo My Eggo,” a buttermilk waffle.
“I think we’d all agree naming the dishes is our favorite part,” Vorster said. “We have a lot of fun with that.”
About a week before each brunch, Cusack, LaGaly and Vorster finalize their menu and post it to their Facebook event page. Over the week, they source ingredients from both Costco and the local farmer’s market in preparation for cooking on Saturday and early Sunday.
JACOMA’s Christmas-themed brunch last December, titled “’Twas the Brunch Before Christmas,” incorporated dishes such as the “(Only Divisible by Itself and 1) Rib.” The trio flavored the prime rib with rosemary, horseradish and dijon and served it with beets. To complement their savory dishes, JACOMA prepared sweet fare such as their “Egg-nog! Who’s there? French Toast!” a maple French toast with pecans and fruits.
Elliott Desai, a fourth-year sociology student who has attended all three brunches, said he prefers brunch menus that begin with a savory menu item before moving on to a sweet one. He appreciates how guests can see the dishes as they are being prepared in the apartment’s kitchen as well as the cozy ambience of the brunches, he said. Vorster’s apartment, where the brunches take place, houses a kitchen and dining room that look out into the backyard.
“When you walk inside you can smell whatever they’re cooking for that day,” Desai said.
Cusack, LaGaly and Vorster draw inspiration from a book called the “Flavor Bible,” which LaGaly said defines ingredients for chefs to use. The book, referred to simply as “the Bible” or “the text” among the group, defines ingredients and suggests pairings, such as the strawberry and balsamic flavors they added to their “Schoolyard Pop Tart.”
Cusack, a former Daily Bruin staffer, said one of his favorite menu items was the grapefruit brulee they served at their first brunch. They cut the grapefruit in half, coated each surface with sugar and caramelized it using an industrial blowtorch donated to the group by LaGaly’s father, who works as a contractor.
“It was the most intense blowtorch you could have,” LaGaly said. “And we’re using it to throw little flames at a grapefruit.”
Over time, the group has also formed connections with the butchers and produce vendors they purchase from, something Vorster said helps them appreciate where their food comes from. They are not professional chefs, but can still put time into making food that they enjoy, he said. Cusack said he has often heard the idea that good food is out of reach in a college apartment setting; however, he wants to show people it isn’t.
“These aren’t flavors you might often usually experience,” Cusack said. “But you could go home and make this.”