One night in 2018, Jasmine Michel had an epiphany: She wanted to create a new kind of restaurant.
“Dreamboat was literally created on the couch, talking to one of my friends as I was working at a restaurant,” Michel says. “I said, ‘I’m going to do this, and it’s going to be based on recipes that I was raised with.’ It was also my transition in realizing that the food industry is fucking Eurocentric. I was tired of feeling like I was wrong for that being my standard of food—beans and rice and plantains and curry.”
That vision has come to life as Dreamboat Cafe, a pop-up meal service that Michel runs out of her kitchen in Durham. The concept is a bit hard to summarize, but spend a little time on Dreamboat’s Instagram and you’ll get a better picture.
There are the bountiful photos of food that we’ve come to expect from chefs, but the account is also full of zine excerpts, Golden Girls clips, and thoughtful primers on food apartheid, sustainability, and decolonization. Dreamboat Cafe, which also offers bake sales and virtual cooking classes, seems to sit right at the intersection of art, food, and politics.
“The whole point of doing pop-up dinners was to have an extremely intimate gathering and have this kind of sacred intimacy amongst people,” Michel says. “I try to keep that, now that we’ve transitioned during COVID into pop-up deliveries and pickups.”
Michel, born in Southern Florida, has “always been cooking,” according to her sister Jackie Morin, who owns a gourmet cotton candy company, Wonderpuff. Morin describes Michel as a “Gene Kelly in the kitchen,” keeping burners and pots and pans organized and clean and looking at peace while doing it.
“I’ve always been inspired by Jasmine,” Morin says, “She’s able to create something from nothing. It’s all rooted from love. That’s how we were raised at home, and her ultimate goal is to make people feel loved.”
In 2012, Michel moved to New York City to study at The French Culinary Institute. It was a change of pace from her conservative Muslim upbringing, she says, but working in the pressure cooker of the city’s kitchens, she fell in love with pastries.
“The one piece of advice I got when I moved to New York, from a family friend, was to ‘get myself lost,’” Michel says. “And find my way back home.”
After she graduated in 2014, that offhand advice became a philosophy over the next few years. Michel traveled throughout the Southeast, working as a chef, and then moved to Hawaii in 2017 to farm. In Maui, she says, she felt “safe to be Black and Brown and extremely angry.” Here, she also began to dream about Dreamboat.
In 2019, she moved to Durham to be near family, including her sister, brother, and parents, who have all settled in North Carolina. She found a home back in the South and began to experiment more with the foods she grew up cooking and eating, like snapper, which she says has been her biggest pilgrimage home.
The process of starting Dreamboat might not have panned out as expected, given 2020’s unique curveballs, but her original model of pop-up dinners at places like Jeddah’s Tea made for a natural transition to pop-up dinner deliveries. As restaurants around the country have scrambled to find new takeout models in the pandemic, pop-up dining experiences have become a particular symbol of the moment.
Events usually take place once or twice a week and stretch between 20–30 orders. They sell out fast. Some have themes—one was themed after Matilda; another was a tribute to Sara Baartman, the South African Khoikhoi woman who was enslaved and exploited at 19th-century freak shows—while others are crafted around dietary needs or bulk orders. A recent family meal for four included, for $50, a whole roasted chicken, herbed potatoes, salad, and brownies.
That menu, according to Michel, has all the basic building blocks of a family meal: meat, a starch, a “piece of green land,” and something sweet. This is the Dreamboat approach to food: You don’t just order a few items off the menu and call it a night. You’re being nourished by a tradition.
In July, at a Golden Girls inspired pop-up with a pick-up at the LGBTQ Center of Durham, cars lined up to get $30 meals inspired by Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia: fried shrimp wontons, green papaya salad, roasted plantains, and Wonderpuff cotton candy.
“Every time I’ve come across someone who loved Golden Girls as much as I did, it was because it was healing and funny,” says Michel, who has a warm, easy laugh. “You weren’t thinking while you were watching it, and somehow, these women were your friends. That whole pop-up dinner was circled around what we’re doing to heal ourselves and how we’re taking up space while hurting. Because everyone inevitably is.”
Bake sales and meal deliveries do the job for now. But Michel has a vision that extends beyond the pandemic: a physical home, a brick-and-mortar American diner and French bistro where everything on the menu is “ethnic as hell.”
“[Cooking] is how my family cared for people, and it’s how I want to care for people,” Michel says. “I want those I serve to feel freedom from pain because existence for many is incredibly painful, now more than ever.”
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