Cured. On Columbia
It’s said that cooking made with love can heal the soul. Anna Watkins and Amanda Birdsong have found the recipe to do just that through their new culinary venture, Cured. On Columbia. Brought together by mutual friends while living in Baton Rouge, Anna and Amanda bonded over gatherings of good meals and good company, beginning the journey that would lead to creating their haven in Downtown Covington.
While Anna joined the partnership as a seasoned restaurant professional with a particular talent for exceptional guest experiences, having worked front of house and in operations, Amanda began dabbling in the culinary arts as a stress relief from her job as an x-ray technician. Anna explains, “I started working in restaurants during my early teens and rose to executive positions. I learned about the business and about myself along the way. Along with handling operations and management duties, I grew to understand that the guest experience is key not only to success, but it’s the heart and soul of the restaurant. Amanda quickly took her cooking to an art form and was urged to pursue that gift by the many friends and clients we’ve served. Now, we’ve created a space where we want to be,” she laughs, “which is good because we’re here more than we’re at home. We want to relate to all walks of life and offer new things for guests to try.”
As I prepared to write this May cover story, my expectation of conducting a quiet interview in a modest café at 10 am on a Tuesday was, delightfully, not met. The bright, open concept design that welcomes guests into a living area (rather than a grid of tabletops) was already abuzz with conversation, business meetings and baby coos atop a blanket of coffee machine whirs, clanking dinnerware and retro rock. The microcosm of guests reflected Covington’s downtown vibe, with up-and-comers in Gen Z styles; a car-seat-toting mom taking a break from shopping; an ear-phoned, remote worker tapping his laptop; suited professionals; and aspiring health aficionados in their athleisurewear. Regretting my decision to politely decline refreshments while conducting the interview, the growls of my stomach added to the lively atmosphere.
Over the bustle, Chef Amanda shared the couple’s vision. “We love going on food, wine and travel adventures. Whether a night in the city or a trip to Europe, starting at one place for appetizers, then wandering, exploring and finding new tastes and experiences are what inspired me to become a chef and inspired our menu. Travels in Hungary piqued my interest in cured meats, pickling and charcuterie boards. Our boards have become signature dishes, and they’re a great source of creativity and pride for me and the kitchen staff.”
Using fresh, vibrant ingredients, elevated preparations and out of the ordinary twists are what keeps Amanda passionate about her craft and Cured’s underlying mission. Just as the eclectic café attracts a variety of clientele, the menu selections seek to satisfy a variety of tastes and preferences in an atmosphere that celebrates diversity. For instance, along with charcuterie’s traditional meat and cheese offerings, Cured boards also come in meatless varieties including hummus prepared three ways. The Beats on Beets Board offers marinated beets with beet hummus, honey goat cheese, greens, and brown butter crostinis; the Lox board includes smoked salmon and accoutrements; and there’s even a grilled cheese and tomato basil soup board. The Cured Club, Rye Rye Reuben and Hot Italian sandwiches are a meat lover’s dream personalized with Amanda’s hand-created additions. And speaking of Ruebens, it took less than 24 hours for me to return to Cured, off duty, to enjoy that lunch favorite I spied the day before. Just enough of the traditional tastes paired with bright twists were the perfect bite. Salads sporting less traditional additions such as truffle and chili oil, cured egg, coconut aminos, sliced prosciutto and ginger aioli round out the menu with lighter fare.
“Those dinner parties with friends were the seeds that grew into Cured,” Anna mused. “Food is so tied into to our memories and emotions, and you really can taste the care and personality that a good chef can deliver. After each gathering where we brought a new and unique creation, our friends insisted that this be more than a hobby for us.” Word of mouth grew, parties for clients were booked, and A2 Table and Meals grew to prepping and shipping 300 to 500 meals per week from West Baton Rouge to Florida.
The Next Step
The success of that business propelled them towards their next step. As they considered moving to Florida, the opportunity to occupy what was Susan’s on Columbia was presented. Anna says it was a huge compliment. “Susan was well-respected and emotionally connected to the business, but she wanted more time with her family. It was a big deal for her to choose us to carry on and trust that we’d honor her tradition of a welcoming space with healthy options.” At least a half dozen menu items earn Ocshner’s Eat Fit logo, others qualify as Keto, and healthier versions of food and drink are available. Anna, who is certified as a sommelier, adds that Cured’s wine selections are chosen for their conservative approach to processing with specialized fermentation techniques and less filtration. “The result is a more natural product with a funkier taste that pairs very well with our food.” Along with specialty teas and their own Ethiopian and Columbian Superior coffee blend by Abita Roasting, Cured even offers a healthy probiotic soda of lavender and hibiscus that can be upgraded to a cocktail for those special occasions.
From their personal layout for the interior design and the seasonal menu selections, to the way food is ordered and presented, Amanda says the experience is designed to mirror their favorite food and drink adventures. “The beauty of not having table service is that you can go at your own pace without being rushed. It’s not fine dining, it’s not full service, but we deliver the unexpected which makes for an interesting experience. We invite guests to get coffee in the morning, come back for lunch, wander to the wine case after work, select a bottle to share with a date on our comfy couches – just create their own experience. We aren’t about labels or being put in a box – that would take the mystery and the fun out of it. We’re kid friendly, dog friendly and on weekend nights we turn into a lounge with candles, swanky music and different drinks to try.”
Despite the rigors of bringing their new business to life, including additional challenges from Covid and South Louisiana weather, Amanda and Anna are appreciative of the help of family during renovations and the hectic days leading up to their opening in October of 2020. They overlap recounting their thoughts as they recall the roller coaster of emotions during the process, “We were on the edge of our seat every day during phone negotiations while we were in Florida at the beginning of the pandemic…,” “Are we really going to take this huge risk that’s also our dream?” “Will we be judged in this smaller community?”
A Smorgasbord of Tastes
On opening day, customers tired of sheltering at home came in for a change of scenery and the start of something fresh. Anna says, “We still had hurdles to jump, but we knew we belonged here.” From the beginning, Amanda says, one particular item showcased her personal style and the essence of Cured. “The Smorgasbord is first and foremost an adventurous, one-of-a-kind meal to be shared with friends. It’s our version of a chef’s feed-me where the food selection and presentation will be different every time based on what’s fresh and which chef is creating it. The meats and cheese are sourced from Europe. Everything pickled, the confit garlic, hummus, bark candy and more are made in house. It can be an appetizer or an entrée and is served on a bamboo tray that can go to a table or out to a festival or picnic. It’s bringing different and sometimes unfamiliar things together to make people happy.”
Anna, who serves as the couple’s capable and confident grounding force and Amanda’s cheerleader quickly adds, “These boards are a canvas for her elaborate works of art. I love that at this special place we’ve built together, she can challenge herself to be creative every day while giving the gift of lovingly made food to share with friends. And that I can take my experience at corporate restaurants to realize my vision and be in charge of my own destiny.” Amanda returns the sentiment, “After being in a job that often didn’t embrace the real me, I look around and say, ‘Wow, how did this happen?’ Anna gave me the freedom and confidence to come into my own personally and professionally in this place that reflects us.”
Not only healing for their patrons, Anna and Amanda’s gift of food as the centerpiece of a philosophy of inclusion and acceptance has brought a purpose and fulfillment to their lives as well – one that seems only possible with each other. While the future always brings challenges and the unexpected, they are living their dream. They are – Cured. On Columbia.
Cured. On Columbia is located at 415 N. Columbia Street in Covington. For more information, contact 985-893-0355 or visit facebook.com/curedoncolumbia.