Colonia Verde's backyard dining area.
Courtesy Colonia Verde

How Brooklyn Restaurant Colonia Verde Uses Food to Connect People at Home

By Tiffany Jow
August 17, 2020
7 minute read

Tamy Rofe, a sommelier who owns Brooklyn’s farm-to-table-y Latin American restaurant Colonia Verde with her husband, Felipe Donnelly, operates by a matra borrowed from her mother: “La comida compartida sabe mejor.” In English, it means, “Food tastes better when shared.” From the eatery’s lived-in aesthetic to its signature Sunday Asado Series, in which star chefs take over its grill for a backyard barbeque, pretty much everything Colonia Verde does centers on comfortably bringing people together, transporting them from their busy lives to a place where they can be present and open up to each other. When the pandemic forced the restaurant to close in March, the couple transformed it into a “general store,” selling and even delivering nearly every ingredient on its menu alongside prepared meals and grill boxes—a way for Colonia Verde to provide not just food, but elements for people to easily create meaningful dining experiences at home. This fall, the initiative will re-launch as a more permanent, well-rounded offering called Casa.

Tell me how the idea for the general store came about.

Out of necessity. We used to have a restaurant, Cómodo, in the West Village, that we closed down because the rent was getting higher. We’re familiar with the cycle of restaurants coming to an end—normally you just close the loop, and start a new one. With the pandemic and Colonia Verde, it was shocking: Things were good. All of a sudden, we had to close. Staying open didn’t feel right, anyway. The reason we do what we do is to connect people through the conversation that food starts. The virus is the opposite of that.

A lot of restaurants turned to delivery, but that felt so short-sighted in terms of the spirit of the experience. There’s an emptiness about it: You eat the burger, and then what? There’s no real, soulful aspect to it. So we wondered how we could truly feed the home—and our first instinct was to sell everything. From our best cuts of meat and fish, to things that take two steps to cook. It’s all around the idea of setting the table. That’s been my lifeline through all of this: Felipe and I eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at home with our two kids every day. It’s beautiful.

It’s true. I recently sat down for dinner with my mom and dad at their house—the first time we’ve done that in my entire adult life.

That’s wonderful. I think relationships are going to grow deeper because of the virus.

Did you have to furlough any of your staff?

In the kitchen, we pretty much kept everybody. Early on, two cooks got sick, but they rejoined after they recovered. For front-of-house, we have three incredible people who decided to forgo unemployment and stick around. And they killed it. They’ve become the heart of the restaurant.

Alongside fresh produce, cured meats, dairy and pantry items, and wine, the general store offers grill boxes, prepared meals, and D.I.Y. kits for tuna tostadas, lamb sliders, and rainbow trout ceviche. How did you decide what dishes to include?

We’ve always served what we want to eat. Maybe that’s not the best way to go about it from a commercial perspective, but that’s what we do. When the pandemic started, this belief became more true, because we test these things out on ourselves at home. Recently, Felipe was thinking about a barbeque shrimp dish he ate with his late father in New Orleans. Normally we wouldn’t put something like that on the menu, because it isn’t Latin, but he had the memory of it and wanted to do it. So we made it, packaged it up, opened it, set the table, and found out how it tasted as a family. It’s on our menu now—it’s called shrimp al ajillo: pan-seared shrimp in a garlic oil mixed with spices and guajillo flakes.

In September, Colonia Verde will launch Casa, a more permanent version of the general store. What else are you doing to replace the community-centric aspects of the restaurant?

We have these musician friends in Austin, Texas, who are in a band called Lady & West. In April, we were talking about how much we miss sharing songs and wine—that’s what we do when we get together. So we decided to launch a wine club you can do at home. We’re on the third “episode.” Each one revolves around three specific bottles of wine and a theme—the first was “Resilience,” then we did “Powerful Female Voices,” and now it’s “Uncharted Territories.” You tune into a Spotify playlist, where I do a voiceover about the wines and their makers. Then our friends pair each one with a song and talk about its relationship to the wine. The experience is like a sobremesa, that drawn-out part of a meal when you’re done eating and just drinking, talking, and listening to music.

The restaurant also has its popular Sunday Asado Series. Are you still doing that?

That series is anti-Covid! There’s no way to do it: people share passed food, eat with their hands. Hopefully it will come back next summer. But we’re incorporating a bit of it into Casa by offering sauces developed by chefs when they were making food for previous asados. Magnus Reid, an Australian chef from London, made a Szechuan sauce for grilled watermelon. And Alfredo Villanueva, a chef from Monterrey, Mexico, who’s the king of rice and fresh salsas, made Salsa Veracruzana. Our kitchen will prepare both using their recipes, and you can buy them at Casa.

Colonia Verde is all about providing a place where people can gather, have honest conversations, and take a break. Tell me more about how the general store and Casa relate to the idea of bringing people together outside the restaurant environment, and the role that food can play in slowing people down.

Food connects you with one another because it puts barriers down. It democratizes everything. During a pandemic, it’s different: You have to connect at home with the people you live with. To do that, you have to go deeper. That’s the silver lining to the virus: It gives us the ability to sit around a table with people you see every day, and talk. Eating food and drinking wine naturally slows you down, so you’re able to listen to one another and forge a real connection.