This is Right at Home, a series in which Eater explores the home kitchens and cooking habits of fascinating food people. To kick things off, inside Francesca Chaney’s Brooklyn apartment.
The big party speaker in Francesca Chaney’s snug Bushwick apartment sits in a corner of her living room, but she wheels it into the kitchen when she cooks. The vibey, rich tunes of South African DJ Black Coffee reverberate from the speaker as Chaney’s oven preheats and the windows fog with steam. The 2019 Eater Young Gun is greasing a cornbread pan when she realizes she’s missing cornbread mix, and pretty much every other ingredient she’ll need. She just moved into this apartment, her first without roommates, and the kitchen is still relatively bare, the fridge unstocked.
This kind of realization would be a catastrophe at Sol Sips, the Bushwick-based vegan cafe Chaney opened when she was 22 years old. But at home, it’s not a big deal to switch into sneakers, shrug on a coat, and pop over to the grocery store. In Chaney’s kitchen, cooking is an act of improvisation, and the stakes are never too high. “When I cook at home, I can be in an experimental state,” she says.
Freewheeling dinner parties used to be routine for Chaney, when she was still in school, living with her family, before her little cafe took off and demanded all of her time. But with Sol Sips to manage, days at home filled with cooking became less frequent. “I was mostly in the restaurant,” Chaney says as she chops a just-bought apple directly on her dining room table. She’d come home to a kitchen full of roommates (and dirty dishes), and in the constant daze of exhaustion, the magic seemed to drain from her own kitchen.
As she prepares to open her second restaurant, it’s easy to imagine Chaney cooking at home even less often. But in this new apartment, she’s excited to cook in a way she hasn’t been in a long time. Last month, she also announced Sol Sips would be closing for six weeks, until her new restaurant opens. “It’s sad, mixed with so many other feelings,” she says of the decision. “What do I need for me, personally? That’s been a recurring theme in my life recently. How can I take care of myself?”
Along with a bit of rum and more than a little dancing, the answer lies in plenty of home-cooked meals. “I have this kitchen to myself, and it’s big,” Chaney says. “So recently, I’ve just been baking sweets.” Cornbread, cookies, cakes, and muffins stream out of Chaney’s oven. In her past apartments, a rotating crew of friends came and went, eating whatever Chaney might have cooked that day. Now, Chaney texts her friends in the neighborhood to let them know she’s got food, but often, the invite is to pick up the freshly baked treats wrapped to-go. “I’ve just been cooking for myself,” she says. “I really don’t want anyone coming to stay for too long, because they might not want to leave after they taste the cornbread.”
When this batch of cornbread is done, Chaney cuts a slice, but pauses with fork hovering over plate. Recently, she’s been thinking a lot about how owning a restaurant has changed her position in the world, giving her privilege she didn’t always have. Where she used to use the less expensive Jiffy cornbread mix, she’s switched to Bob’s Red Mill, she notes. It’s a little thing, but it represents a lot for the young entrepreneur and cook.
“I have to always recognize where I’ve come from and also the privilege to be able to even make a meal in my kitchen,” Chaney says as she takes a bite. “Even though it sounds simple, it isn’t. Because this kitchen is a very meditative space that I have available to me right now, and it feels liberating.”
From Anita Baker and Summer Walker to Megan Thee Stallion and booming Afrobeat like Wizkid, there’s always music coming from Chaney’s wireless speaker while she cooks (and dances). “I’m generally a chill person,” she says. “So I love to have some type of music to hype me up. If I didn’t have any music, I’d just be standing here.”
A small wooden table draped in a crisp white cloth fills a corner in Chaney’s entryway. On the table are pictures of her family, as well as earrings, silverware, and other family memorabilia and heirlooms. “These are people that cooked for me growing up,” she says. “They may not be here anymore, but now that I have my own apartment, I want them to be in my kitchen as I was in theirs.”
Chaney doesn’t typically set the table with her grandmother’s silverware, but she keeps it in her kitchen, where she can easily pick the pieces up and turn them over in her hands. “I keep them tucked away,” she says. “These were passed down, so maybe I should pass these down too. I don’t want to think about it too much or get too sentimental, because at the end of the day it could also be something I keep for the rest of my life.”
A bright rug greets friends and family at the entry to Chaney’s kitchen, but the slightly chipped tiles are exposed throughout the rest of the room, much like the ones lining her family’s kitchen in Belize. “Because of the high ceilings and tiled floors, this apartment reminds me of Belize so much,” Chaney says. “They’re imperfect, but they fit really well into the space. It just makes me feel really good.”
Restaurants require all kinds of well-kept machinery and plenty of equipment. At home, Chaney is happy to measure her ingredients by feel and use a plate as a pot lid, something she’s been doing for as long as she can remember. A hand gingerly placed on the plate tells her how hot the food within is getting. “When I’m at the restaurant, I have to make sure that everything is fully up to par, stainless steel, and wiped down,” she says. “When I’m home, I’m just relaxing. No one is going to see.”
Chaney has yet to buy spices or fully stock her refrigerator since moving into her apartment, but she made sure to have a great cornbread pan on hand as soon as she settled in. Though she grew up eating the Belizean-style cornbread of her mother’s family, Chaney has integrated some tricks from her father’s Southern side of the family, such as mixing whole kernels of corn into the batter that pop with sweetness in each bite. “I wouldn’t make cornbread at the restaurant,” she says. “It’s a home meal.”