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Rosemary Liss’s mother was right: learning Photoshop turned out to be essential, although not in a way either of them could have predicted. The Baltimore native attended Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts (where she mastered Photoshop) for her bachelor’s degree in studio art, then returned home and strung together a living in Baltimore as a freelance artist and working in restaurants. 

In 2014, when Liss was working for the Belvedere Square-based Hex Ferments, she saw the episode of the show The Mind of a Chef in which chef David Cheng visits the prestigious Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, Denmark. On a whim, Liss emailed the lab and found out they weren’t taking interns, but when they reopened the application later that year she was ready. In Copenhagen, Liss did a residency at the lab and was introduced to natural wines, which were not yet popular in the United States. “We were eating at some of these really cool restaurants that were part of the scene at the time and they were pouring these crazy wines,” Liss explains. “Some of them are orange and the bartenders were talking about biodynamic agriculture but they never called them ‘natural.’ Later on I learned that’s what I had been drinking. I had always thought wine was the stuff that my mom would get from the grocery store where it’s, like, super oaky, big Zinfandels and I thought, wine is gross.” In Copenhagen, “I realized that wine didn’t have to taste like that.”  

When she returned to Baltimore, Liss got a job waiting tables at Bottega and met Will Mester, then the chef de cuisine and now her business and romantic partner. The next year Mester went to France for two months and spent time at the Le Comptoir du Vin in Lyon and worked in the kitchen there. After visiting friends in Copenhagen, Liss wound her way to see Mester in Lyon and insisted they start seeking out natural wines immediately. “At the time, Will was just drinking five Euro Côtes-du-Rhône he bought at the grocery store, so I said, ‘We gotta go now!’” Liss recalls. “[The wines we tried] blew his mind and then we were on this mission to find natural wine.” The couple decided pretty quickly after that trip that they wanted to open their own business centered around natural wines.

 

Baltimore is home for Liss and Mester, so it was instinctive to open up a place of their own here, as fate would have it, in the exact same storefront where Bottega had been. Liss says Baltimore’s restaurant scene is based in camaraderie and mutual respect. “Baltimore is so small in that regard that it feels like this little community anyway,” she explains. “That’s always nice, having people that you can lean on for advice when it comes to running a business, or I’m just like, ‘Oh, are you running to the restaurant store? I’m out of C-fold napkins. Can you pick me up a box?’” 

Now on its third or fourth COVID-19 pivot, depending on how we count them, Le Comptoir du Vin is poised to survive the pandemic, thanks in no small part to Liss’s Photoshop skills which she employed back in the spring to completely reimagine the restaurant’s website as a bottle shop, allowing customers to peruse the cellar from home. Survival seems additionally assured thanks also to an extremely loyal, and some might say obsessed, fan base of customers. Prior to COVID, the restaurant was booked many weeks out, which Liss credits to Le Comptoir’s inclusion on Bon Appetit’s list of 10 best new restaurants in 2019. Now they’re making it work through a grab-and-go storefront selling sandwiches, hearty stews, and baked goods to go.

SUBJECT: Rosemary Liss, 31
WEARING: Jacket/Shirt Combo: Carhartt. Blouse: Town Clothes. Jeans: Vintage Gap Jeans from Bottle of Bread. Boots: Blundstones
PLACE: Zoom

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Rosemary Liss: All-time important books: The Body Artist by Don DeLillo and Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. Before COVID I hadn’t finished a book in almost two years. Here are some favorites from quarantine: Everything is Under Control by Phyllis Grant, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, and Writers & Lovers by Lily King. What I’m reading now: The Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon.

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

I’ve gotten, “Are you sure you want to open a restaurant?” a lot, but I think honestly it was a valid concern. Best Advice: Don’t answer the phone. If it’s important they will leave a message. 

If you couldn’t live in Baltimore, where in the world would you want to live and why? 

Malmö, Sweden, it’s like a Scandi version of Baltimore. It is an underrated city that is very affordable, allowing for unique opportunities. There’s a potential to start your own business or raise a family in a way that’s different in a larger city like Copenhagen or New York. Also one of my favorite restaurants, Lyran, is there.

How would you describe your relationship with failure? As an educator, I like to talk about it with my students a fair amount, is there any advice you share with people interested in getting into the restaurant industry and dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of a career in such a competitive field?

My art teacher in middle school had “mistakes are treasures” pinned to her wall and I think about this sentiment all the time. I make a lot of mistakes first: I’m really bad at reading instructions or following recipes, but I just go for it and then figure out what I did wrong.

For me, the biggest thing is realizing when you’re making things harder for yourself by trying to push through a task that’s obviously not working. Often if you step away or take a break that issue will resolve itself on its own. I try to get in a good flow and stop when the flow stops, but I’m also a workaholic, so this is a work in progress.

Have you always been interested in food and how did your relationship with it evolve over time? How did you know? For a while, you were making more traditional fine art and exhibiting in Baltimore. Was there ever a third career path (beyond restaurant work and fine arts) you considered or were encouraged to pursue?

Food has always been on the brain. I took food and culture courses in college. I read books by M.F.K. Fisher and watched films like Tampopo. I traveled with a focus on restaurants and specific dishes over museums and monuments. I even struggled with my relationship with food at one point. As I learned more about nutrition I also learned to fear certain foods. Then I had some unlearning to do. 

My art practice remained very separate until I was working for Hex Ferments. I was so inspired by that space: the colors, textures, and flavors and everything began to blur and blend into something whole and complete. Food installations grew out of that time. Then the act of nourishing people became a focal point. Then the desire for a permanent space. Then the restaurant took form.  

How did you decide you wanted to open your own restaurant?

I knew I wanted to work for myself; as an artist and freelancer, I was tired of working for other people. For Will, if you’re a cook, you can only go so far in a kitchen. Often even in high-end places, you’re working long hours for barely any money. Opening his own place was something he had wanted to do for a while. I actually came on board a bit later, but then things moved really quickly. We signed a lease in June of 2018 and opened that November. All of our shared ideas about food and atmosphere came together with the central focus being natural wines.

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for? 

I drove a two-toned Honda CRV for years using a screwdriver. 

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it?

I honestly have no idea, but because of COVID many fine dining establishments are realizing their models aren’t feasible anymore and are making permanent changes. TikTok is also taking over so whatever the next trend is, it will definitely be started on TikTok. Like cats making drinks.

What are some of your favorite local restaurants and what is your go-to order when you get to eat out?

We mostly cook at home these days, a luxury we did not have while running the restaurant. We don’t eat out much, but get carryout once a week from Yama. My go-to is the Gold Fish Roll: salmon, avocado, and spicy tuna. I’m also obsessed with their Macgyvered takeout window. It’s genius. 

What would you say is the biggest misconception people have about natural wine? How do you change their minds?

That natural wine is funky kombucha juice! Luckily now we have so many folks coming in knowing how much of a spectrum natural wine can be. As a restaurant, I would pour a customer a taste until they found their perfect match. With the bottle shop, we have a great range of wines so now it’s all about verbal descriptions and working with customers to find the right fit.

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun? How did you get into that?

It’s hard for me to make time for hobbies, I’m still struggling with that life/work balancing act. My guilty pleasure, however, is watching movie trailers to decompress. Not actual movies, just the trailers. 

When we closed the restaurant back in March I was able to start doing projects at home. For most of the summer I had a little spoon carving station set up in the kitchen and whenever I would walk by I’d whittle for a minute or two. I also started doing Form Drawing exercises on my iPad using a drawing app called Procreate which has been very meditative. Unfortunately when we reopened as a shop in August our hours expanded and it’s been hard for me to keep up some of these practices.

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

Blundstones and jeans everyday of the year. I have this short-sleeve button-down shirt from Uniqlo that I wore almost every night when the restaurant was operational. Now running a shop I’m more casual and usually wear a T-shirt or sweatshirt. I found a sweatshirt I like and have it in five colors. I’m obsessed with the idea of the cartoon character wardrobe, but I haven’t found that one ‘fit that works for all seasons.

What material do you use so much you should buy stock in it?

There is this magnesium deodorant that changed my life. It’s the only natural deodorant that actually works for me and the magnesium chills me out. I’m also obsessed with anything by Maude they make unscented and PH-balancing body products. When I got diagnosed with endo last year I got rid of anything scented. Fragrances can mimic hormones and interfere or disrupt your endocrine system.  

What are the last three emojis you used?

💛 👽 🙃

 

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get started working in restaurants with the goal of eventually owning one?

If you want to open a bar or a restaurant that has a liquor license take a hard look at your relationship with alcohol. It’s tough to have a healthy relationship with booze in this industry. I constantly have to check myself. I don’t always do a good job, but my time is sacred and feeling present and alive is a priority. 

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?
Cancer Sun, Aries Moon, Leo Rising. I used to be obsessed with reading my horoscope, but it started to make me paranoid. I’d take things too literally and it would negatively affect how I moved through the world. I am a strong believer that our thoughts and formations directly impact our lives. 

I’d rather spend the mental energy visualizing what I want than worrying that something will happen based on my chart. I do, however, love Chani Nicholas because her horoscopes are more like guideposts than premonitions.

Who are your career heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

Salimatu Amabebe, who I met in Berlin at a residency a few years back, has a dinner series called Black Feast. This summer they started Love Letters to Black Folks which provides vegan desserts, letters, and care packages to the Black community of Portland. I stumbled upon the artist Meech Boakye (@ghostboi) on Instagram and I’m obsessed with everything they make.

What have you learned about recently that blew your mind?

Trump’s campaign press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping—you can’t make this stuff up.

What would your teenage self think of you today?

I think she would be pretty bummed to see how much time I spend on my phone, but I’ve also done a lot of self work in the last few years. I hope she would be proud to see the positive relationship I now have with my body and my sexuality. 

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

My first waitressing job was at Grill Art on the Avenue in 2008. I guess it was like getting thrown into a pool and being forced to learn how to swim. My most formative job was working at Hex Ferments. It was incredibly inspiring to see how Meaghan and Shane Carpenter turned a tiny storefront into a microbial wonderland. It’s where I realized I could have a job that combined all the things I had thought were separate entities of myself into one. Lastly, working for years in the film industry has given me some of the greatest skills for running a restaurant. You learn how to keep everything together with duct tape—every day is a problem to solve and every night is showtime.

***

Le Comptoir du Vin has transformed into a specialty shop with natural wines, house-made focaccia sandwiches, and French and Italian imports for the foreseeable future. They also have arguably Baltimore’s best chocolate chip cookie.

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