The Art of Making Memories: An Interview with Meik Wiking

One of my absolute favorite books from the past couple years (one that I recommend endlessly to anyone who will listen) is Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living. A book chock-full of ways to make your winters—and your life for that matter—all around lovelier and more cozy. After reading it I was thoroughly charmed and have been avidly following the author’s writing ever since. As CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Meik Wiking is one of the leading experts on what makes people happy— and why. When I heard about his latest book, The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments; I could not wait to read what he had to say upon the subject—for what are our lives made up of, if not memories?  The Prince of Hygge himself happily (of course) answered my questions! Your humble correspondent counts the opportunity to interview him a happy memory indeed!

What was the genesis of this book? How did it get started?

My career and the work we do at the Happiness Research Institute is dedicated to understanding why some people are happier than others and how we can increase happiness and well being. And I could see that creating happy moments and being able to retrieve happy memories are part of the answer to both questions. 

I love the idea of being mindful to curate memories, just like you would be mindful to make your world hygge! Do you think there is  a correlation between the two?

There are for sure common elements. Being present for one. And it reminds me of a woman who recently read my book and told me that it reminded her of a time when she was 8 and had dinner with her mother and sister – and they are laughing and having a good time and feeling happy – and then her mother says: “I hope you remember this moment”. And here we are 30 years later – she still remembers because her mother made her pay attention to the moment. 


Oftentimes, we think that to make memories we must be with others. Do you have any ideas for people who are flying solo?

For the book, we did a huge collection of happy memories from around the world. In a lot of them people are by themselves but often seems to be connecting with nature. I remember one man’s happy memory was sitting on a mountain looking out over the ocean – with no one to answer to. A sense of freedom and connection with the world at the same time. 

If you didn’t know who I was or where I was, what would you suggest  if I walked out my door and wanted to make a memory today?

Ask your friends over for dinner tonight and ask each one to bring a food ingredient they have not tried before. We are more likely to remember first time experiences. That is one of the reasons why life seems to speed up as we get older. We have more firsts in our teenage years than in our forties. 

I’d love to hear a few of your own favorite personal memories! Ones you’ve realized that incorporate the things you’ve learned while researching this book.

I have started to use scent as a memory trigger. For instance, last summer I was spearfishing and caught a couple of fish and was sitting on a warm rock looking out over the ocean and felt happy and peaceful and wanted to be able to remember that moment in the future – so I tied in the scent of the ocean with that feeling and that moment.  That was also something Andy Warhol did. He wore the same perfume for three months and then switched to a new one – that meant over time he had a museum of memories – he could take a whiff of a perfume and then be transported back in time. 

What would you say to someone who is very busy and gets lost in the hustle and bustle of the every day?

Remember one day that life is going to flash before your eyes – make sure it is worth watching. I think the biggest “aha” moment for me in writing the book was understanding that there is actually something I can do to influence what I and my friends and family remember – and I think that role as a memory architect is empowering. 

What’s next? Anything exciting your readers can look forward to? 

You are starting to sound like my editor 🙂

Mr. Wiking’s book is a thought-provoking and interesting read.   The Art of Making Memories gives a new perspective to something many of us may pass by or think is trivialbut could very well be vital! It is a call to action to chart a course to create your own beautiful memories—no matter how big or small they might be. It certainly seems to be a worthwhile endeavor.

Get The Art of Making Memories today!

Follow Meik on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!

And don’t forget The Little Book of Hygge and The Little Book of Lykke too!

KNOW YOUR VLAWG: An Interview with Viva Frei

I first became aware of David Freiheit’s YouTube channel Viva Frei during a crossover episode he did with Desk of J. Dogood alum Stephen Cusato of Not Another Cooking Show. Intrigued, I clicked over to his channel and ended up finding one of the coolest YouTube shows out there. A practicing lawyer in Montreal,  David is best known for his VLAWGS— videos where he translates the latest current events into legalese for the rest of us—in a hilariously entertaining way. Exceedingly fair and apolitical, he breaks down information in a way that lets you make up your mind for yourself—a principle he holds dear and is passionate about. In between informing the public on what’s going on in the legal world, you also get a glimpse of him in the role of goofy dad on his adventures with his wife, three kids, and “Vlawg Dawgs” Barney and Pudge. “No one ever gets angry at seeing a dog in a video!” he jokes. David generously took time out of his busy schedule to chat with me, and it is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to the refreshingly fun and authentic Viva Frei.

The youngest of five, David was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. “Four of the five  kids studied law and became lawyers. My dad’s a lawyer, but it wasn’t the type of thing where we were forced or pressured into it. In the community in which we lived, you grew up with the expectation that you’re going to find a profession or take over the family business—but we didn’t have a family business to take over! I bounced around high schools for a bit before settling down in university to study philosophy. Then I did law in a French University in Quebec City; which, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a town of 150,000 people—85% French, and 15% Alaphone ( English or other.)  It’s a beautiful, old French town. When you go to a Faculty of Law, there’s a dozen or two English speaking kids in 1000 students—it was a totally different environment! So everything’s all in French. Exams are in French! It was  a fun thing getting involved and integrated in a totally new linguistic and social milieu. I wanted to come back to Montreal where my girlfriend—now wife—was, so after I finished I came back here and settled down.

David’s show is the perfect blend of artistry and information; a skill he credits to his previous study of philosophy. When speaking upon the subject, he remarks “My father always said, ‘You have to learn how to think before you can learn how to work.’ In the creative arts, you don’t necessarily learn practical skills; but you learn logic and you learn how to think. There’s no question having studied philosophy, it teaches you how to separate your emotions from your reasoning process, which I think is something that maybe more people should get in the habit of doing. Hopefully they learn that through osmosis from my channel!” he says laughing.

“It’s a tough thing, to not get clouded by your own emotions.” he continues. “ I mean—it happens to me sometimes—which is why to some extent that everybody who needs a lawyer, should NOT be their own lawyer. It’s difficult to dissociate your own problems to yourself; and it’s much easier to give other people advice that you yourself may not follow. But I think if everyone studied a little bit of philosophy before doing anything else, it would be good for humanity!”

David takes his viewers on the go with him throughout his day—walking his dogs, driving his wife to work, camping—all the while giving facts and highlights of the latest legal news of the day. It’s like having a fun and informative conversation with a busy friend, and the non-stop action is endlessly entertaining. He doesn’t use a script, because to him it feels unnatural. The result: videos infused with energy, giving life to subjects that would otherwise be potentially boring.

Sworn in in 2007, David worked in one of Canada’s biggest law firms for five years before leaving to start his own practice after his first daughter was born. “I started on my own, but what ended up happening was after about 7 years, I just couldn’t do litigation anymore, because I wanted to cry every day I had to  go into the office. So, at one point, when YouTube was picking up and I was able to supplement what I would lose by no longer doing litigation, I officially stopped doing it. I still do some transactional work just because YouTube doesn’t pay for a family of five type thing! I have a few good clients who I wanted to keep because I liked the type of legal work I was doing for them. I just don’t do litigation anymore.  I do transactional, corporate, contract review,  legal advice. But I gave up the litigation entirely because it’s just soul crushing and turns people into withered shells of who they ought to be in life.”

When I ask him to expound on this, he says “The litigation practice itself is just one of constant stress and constant fear and constantly looking over your shoulder— for what the opposing counsel is doing; for what your clients are doing!  Half your job is protecting your client from themselves, and the other half is protecting yourself from your client—because the lawyer is the client’s hero one day, and the enemy the next. It was just not a life that I could make for myself. I hit a wall. The phone would ring and my stomach would go into knots. Every time you talk to a lawyer on the phone, you’re always worried about whether or not you’re saying something that’s going to harm your file later or whether or not they’re going to use it against you—if it’s going to be something that hurts your client inadvertently. It’s warfare day in and day out. And I just said, ‘If I’m doing this in another 10 years, I’m going to be very unhappy with my own life.’ That was the decision to wind it up. The transactional stuff, you know, is a little more—I call it value added. At the very least, you’re working towards solutions even if you have diverging interests, whereas litigation, you’re just constantly fighting for victory—regardless of the truth type thing.”

“Some people like it!”he adds laughing. “I don’t want to cast judgment, but I’m always suspicious of anyone who says they like litigation—either the lawyers or  clients!

His journey from lawyer to Youtube extraordinaire started off by doing random, silly videos. If you need a chuckle watch his Wrecking Spartan video where he lip syncs to Miley Cyrus while running a Spartan race dressed in a suit and tie. His first video to go viral was when he managed to hoodwink a squirrel into carrying his GoPro up a tree. Upon viewing, one of his lawyer friends said that his videos reminded him of successful Youtuber Casey Neistat, but David didn’t know who he was. “I think it was November 2016 when I started making videos that were [being] seen—cooking stuff, etc. When I wound up my practice and we went on a road trip, I said ‘I’m going to do a vlog a day for the road trip, and when we get back, I’m going to see how long I can continue it for.’ I went for two plus years just putting up a video a day. Some would be very short, some would be longer; just for the exercise of creating content, editing—all that stuff. And then, what ended up happening is that I started making these videos about my experiences in law, which started getting good traction and interest. It was a natural transition. It’s proved to be pretty cool and pretty organic!

When asked what one of the biggest differences is between Canadian and American law, he says “It’s funny, I would have never have known: freedom of speech issues. I mean, I always thought Canada and the US were, you know, roughly the same. But now that I have delved into these issues in the States, and I see the the responses coming from the American demographic watching my videos, I can really appreciate how much more….what’s the word? Not sanctified…primordial! I mean, how much more fundamental freedom of speech in the States is compared to Canada. I always felt like, ‘We have freedom of speech,’ but you know, maybe some comedians should avoid certain jokes—maybe should avoid certain things. But then realizing what’s going on in the States and seeing what’s going on here and in the UK—which is a similar system to ours—it’s much more restricted or repressive. I’m realizing now that’s the biggest difference in the systems of law. It’s actually surprising to me, because I never fully appreciated it before.”

One hot button issue that David has had personal experience with is the controversy surrounding YouTube’s Terms of Service; ie. what’s permissible, what’s monetized, and what’s demonetized. He says, “That is an interesting subject, and one that is intriguing to people because it brings in all sorts of issues—legal issues, political issues, censorship issues, bias issues. I think people are loving it because it’s such an embodiment of George Orwell’s 1984 to some extent; that people are now seeing the actual embodiment or occurrence of what was otherwise just literary lore. It is amazing. It’s very interesting. And we’re going to see some developments in terms of, you know, the immunities that have been given to platforms versus publishers, to the extent that they behave more like publishers than platforms. In the era of what has been dubbed as ‘fake news,’ where everybody can now undeniably appreciate the the weakness and the death spiral of what they call legacy media; people see the way YouTube and the social media platforms are dealing with it. It lets people’s imaginations run wild as to why these social media platforms are looking to control, censor or otherwise deincentivize certain content, and it shapes the world in which we live. It’s fascinating because it’s been an evolution as to what the internet  started out as say, the Wild West—or less the Wild West as it has a negative connotation—but it was a place for absolute, unbridled freedom of speech and freedom of expression. And the issue now is the crackdown on it—and what appears to be a sort of arbitrary or politically incentivized crackdown. It is making people question the why, the how, and the when.

“On my channel, I think have a pretty decent balance of left and right. I may notice more  conservative comments, but I found that the left and the right, as individuals, as citizens, are fed up and are concerned by the way that things are going—even if they don’t necessarily agree with  their political adversary. They are now seeing how what applies to the right under certain circumstances, can apply just as easily to the left. It’s like what I said in my Tommy Robinson videos; ‘A procedural injustice today against someone you hate, is a procedural injustice against someone you love tomorrow.'”

This philosopher’s philosophy is that he wants to leave a positive existential footprint on the earth—YouTube included! “You know, one day when I pass away, maybe in 55 years, I don’t want anyone saying anything bad about me in my absence!”he says laughing.

You definitely see this mindset resonating throughout his videos, and he admits his channel probably would have grown much faster if he had taken the more mainstream route of an excessive, reactionary, opinionated style.

“For good or for bad, there’s a human tendency that bad reactions spread quicker than good reactions. And yet, all the channels that are very opinionated, very fear mongering, very sassy and name calling, they tend to grow, but then they hit a plateau,  where in order to keep growing you have to keep getting more excessively eccentric and extreme in the commentary. And then there’s a point at which you just explode because it’s not  sustainable. My growth has been steady but slower because I  stuck to the non-hyper-political, non-hyper-opinionated commentary. There’s enough channels out there giving  commentary and opinions; I don’t think the world needs another sassy, witty, opinionated commentator. People could use information and come to their own opinions. And it was one of the learning lessons that I got, actually from one of Casey’s videos which struck me as being totally out of character; and I realized why I hated it so much when he made a ‘Vote for Hillary Clinton’ video. It’s nothing to do with political affiliation, I would have reacted the same if it were someone who was non-political by nature, but giving me their opinion on why I should vote for Trump. I don’t need someone to tell me what to think. And I don’t need someone to tell me what to do. And I don’t want people thinking that I’m telling them what to think and what to do. And nor do I want people relying on me so that they can justify their own opinions! I’d rather people absorb the information and come to their own opinions. That’s much more in line with what I feel comfortable with. I’d rather be the purveyor of information, than the purveyor of my opinion!

When I ask him why he chose the name Viva Frei, funnily enough it comes back around to freedom again. “It was a totally random name! My last name is Freiheit , which literally means ‘freedom’ in German. So, I’m sitting there thinking and I came out with ‘Viva Frei’ sort of like ‘Live Free,’ and it stuck! For the first three years everyone was telling me that I have to change the name because people will think it says Vivian and that I’m a woman—but I’m stubborn! I said, ‘That what was it was born as, and for good or for bad I want to keep it like that! I’m not going to continually rebrand myself in the hopes that something catches!’ That was it: ‘Live Free.’”

Viva Frei recently reached the impressive milestone of 100,000 subscribers, and as far as this humble correspondent is concerned, he deserves several million more! If you are curious about the world around you, and are looking for a fun and informative show;  Viva Frei is the channel for you! Any objections? Well,then…that is just simply out of order! 😉

You can catch David and the rest of the Frei gang l on his channel here!

Keep up with Viva Frei on Instagram , Facebook and Twitter.

Grab a T-shirt while you’re at it!

Senza Gluten: An Interview with Chef Jemiko L. Solo

Are you gluten-free? Do you dream about having chicken parmigiana and fresh Italian bread while you enjoy a glass of wine with friends? How about chocolate cake or tiramisu or any of the other myriad of desserts you’d write love letters to if you could? Well, then;  I’m pleased to announce that your dream has indeed become a reality! Senza Gluten in NYC is an amazing–and completely gluten-free–Italian restaurant that is bound to delight! I surprised my mother with a trip there two years ago, and we both came away enamored by the cozy atmosphere and excellent food. Since then, it’s become a family favorite–gluten and non-gluten family members alike! By chance and funny coincidence, an old friend was able to connect me with Chef Jemiko,  and he was kind enough to grant me an interview. Allow me to introduce you his wonderful restaurant; Senza Gluten.

Tell me about yourself. How did you get into cooking?

My father was an executive chef – kind, dedicated, hard working, professional. He loved hosting parities at home. He would invite close family and friends, greet them with a warm smile, and cook for them with such passion and love. I was his pride. When we made dinner together, I would stand proudly next to him as we received expressions of gratitude and praise. I watched him cook and I wanted to learn from him, wanted to be just like him. It was shocking and unbearably painful when he suddenly past away at the age of 49. I was only 13 years old and all I wanted was to make my dad proud any way I could.

Shortly after, I began my culinary career at Marco Polo resorts Metechi Palace Hotel in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia and worked there for 7 years, starting with peeling vegetables and learning knife skills. There I learned from and cooked alongside some of the greatest chefs in the world. I was so young – they gave me a chef’s hat taller than I was! I kept a journal and recipe book with dozens of recipes I had learned or developed myself, the margins flooded with notes about ingredients and techniques. Even in my young age, I had very clear goals, a passion, and a drive. For many years, I worked as an executive chef in several great restaurants in the city. I moved to the United States with the goal of studying pastry arts professionally. I have a great passion for baking and graduated from the Art Institute of NYC in 2005, specializing in Pastry Art. After completing my studies I worked in various Manhattan restaurants, and my love for Italian cuisine grew. I always dreamed of creating my own Italian restaurant and bakery, and my dream finally became a reality with Senza Gluten.

I am very thankful to all my colleagues and the great chefs who shared their knowledge and passion with me. I worked side by side with professionals who are now my dear friends. I would like to give a special thanks to my first chefs, David Regueiro and Massimo Stecchi, for their professional knowledge and kindness. Without their guidance and support I wouldn’t be the person and chef I am today.

I’d love to know how this whole “gluten free Italian restaurant” idea got started!

I have several friends with celiac disease. They often had difficulties eating out at restaurants because so many places couldn’t accommodate. My friends would tell me about all of the foods they missed the most, and I would surprise them with a homemade gluten free variation. Seeing the spark of joy on their faces was incredibly rewarding, and I knew I had to help bring this food to others. We opened the Senza Gluten restaurant in NYC in 2014 and Senza Gluten Cafe & Bakery in 2018.

What would you consider your food philosophy to be?

Everyone deserves delicious food they can eat without worry. Safety is our number one priority. It’s a wonderful thing to see customers visiting for the first time and realize they can eat everything on the menu.

How is it that you’re able to make such wonderful gluten free Italian food? Or is that top secret? 😉

Gluten free flours have very different properties compared to wheat flour. In order to create a similar taste and texture, we use a specific combination of gluten free flours and incorporate that into our traditional cooking/baking techniques. It’s very much a science. I would say the main ingredient is love.

What is one of your personal favorite dishes to make?

I love every dish on our menu – they are all my favorites! When I have an idea for a new menu item, I work away until it is perfect, until it becomes my favorite. Only then do we add it to the menu officially. Though I am quite proud of our Georgian-style cheese bread at Senza Gluten Cafe & Bakery. It’s a very unique dish with excellent flavor combinations.

Gathering around the dinner table is a tradition that goes back a long time. Do you think this is still important today? If so, why?

I believe this is important on many levels – it develops a sense of community and provides time to truly enjoy food. Everything is so fast paced in today’s society that we sometimes forget to connect with loved ones in person or we’re racing through meals on the go. There is nothing better than enjoying good company and conversation, while also taking the time to appreciate the flavors, textures, and layers of the food we eat.

Tell me some of your favorite customer stories!

We love connecting with our customers. It’s a joy to hear from visitors who come from all around the world just to try our food. Many people tell us they haven’t had a bread basket or tiramisu or lasagna in years, and seeing the happiness on their faces is so rewarding. It makes all of our hard work worth while.

If you’re looking for a wonderful Italian place where the food can be enjoyed by all–or–if you’re gluten-free and visiting the city from out of town, make sure to make a reservation! You’ll have a lovely time!

PS. Don’t forget to order dessert! 😉

Follow Senza Gluten on Facebook here, Twitter here, and Instagram here!

Visit the website here:

Use Open Table to make a reservation or call here: 212-475-7775

Helpful Hint Before You Go: the restaurant takes only cash or American Express.

My assistant.

Lara the Runaway Cat: One Cat’s Journey to Discover Home is Where the Heart is

Almost two years ago exactly, I endeavored to start this website—unawares of what shape it would take or where it would lead. At this time, I was desperately sad as my faithful cat had just passed away, and I was missing her terribly. I’ll never forget seeing the ad for a book called Finding Gobi by Dion Leonard. I was irresistibly drawn to it, and something told me I just had to read this book. I bought it the day it came out and I laughed and cried and read in wonder at the heartwarming story of such a unique bond between animal and human, and it helped me heal and be grateful for my own special connection with my beloved cat. I enjoyed the book so much that—on a whim—I wrote to the author to tell him so, as well as to ask him for an interview and… amazingly—he said yes! I was ever so excited, and Finding Gobi became the very first article posted on Since then, I have interviewed other incredible people and have made dear, dear friends; but that first article will always hold an extra special place in my heart. Dion recently came out with a new book and cheerfully corresponded with me again! His latest is about Gobi’s feline sister and is titled: Lara the Runaway Cat. If I could say one thing that I’ve learned from all of this, it is to listen to that small voice inside you that is pulling you towards a certain something. It could be something as simple as a book; or in Dion’s case—a little animal that suddenly starts following you! I’m forever grateful to Dion, Lucja, Gobi, and Lara. Allow me to introduce you to their first novel!

It’s great to see Gobi again! How is she doing?

Gobi’s doing great, she’s about to turn 5 (on 20th June) and is happy and healthy. We are currently living in Chamonix France which is a beautiful village in the Alps and Gobi has loved the winter and all the snow that came with it. Gobi is really living the dream and loving her new life, its so wonderful to see her adventures and the journey she’s been on since being a stray dog in the Chinese Gobi desert.

What made you decide to write a book about her sister, Lara the cat?

There was a lot of interest in how Gobi a stray dog settled in to her new family life in Edinburgh and how she bonded with her new sister Lara the cat. Lara is a rag doll cat who has lived inside her whole life so this was also a huge moment for her to deal with after being the boss of the house for the last 11 years so I thought wouldn’t it be great to have some fun with a story from Lara’s point of view of Gobi coming into her life.

It seems as if many people are either dog or cat people. I love that your little family includes both. What would you say are the best characteristics of each?

Its so funny to see the two of them chasing each other up and down the hallway one minute to sleeping on the bed together the next. I think Gobi has been good for Lara and given her a new lease of life and Lara has been good for Gobi as she’s had to adapt to understanding that its not just about her all the time.

Why should people should get your latest book?

Its a really fun read on how Lara (feeling unloved from all of the attention Gobi receives) decides to put her comfortable life at risk by taking on an adventure leaving home and is forced to decide between her family loyalties and need to experience her own adventure. I think all of us live this decision everyday trying to get the work/life balance right, and I think Lara’s journey will strike chords with readers of all ages.

How’s the ultra marathoning going?

Whilst Gobi is officially retired from the longer distance racing, I’m still running around the world. I recently won a 200 mile non stop race in Australia and am running 4×100 mile races in the USA known as the ‘Grand Slam’ over the summer, along with competing in the Leadman series in Leadville.

Wow. Excuse me for a moment while I pick my jaw up off the floor from that answer. Congratulations and good luck this summer! Ok, back again. Any news on the Finding Gobi film?

Yes, Things are happening behind the scenes. The screenplay had been written, directors and producers are signed up. But 20th Century Fox who has the movie rights was recently bought out by Disney so we don’t know whats happening for the moment on the next steps. Fingers crossed they love the story and want to continue to make the film.

And finally, any other updates that your fans can look forward to?

We’ve just released Finding Gobi in the French language and this year we will reach 20 languages globally with Vietnamese, Bulgarian, Croatian, Slovenian, and Russian coming throughout 2019. Pretty amazing to think how Gobi’s heartwarming and inspiring story has touched so many people around the world.

Lara the Runaway Cat makes a playful catlike leap from Finding Gobi’s non-fiction style to an adorable fictional tale. A perfect gift for the animal lovers in your life, and a great book companion to accompany you to the beach or pool this summer!

One’s a true story. One is a fictional story. Both are all heart!

Get your copy of Lara the Runaway Cat here.

If you haven’t read Finding Gobi yet, stop what you’re doing right now and buy it here.

And of course, don’t forget to keep up with Lara and Gobi on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter here: @findinggobi

You can follow the J. Behind the Desk of J. Dogood on Twitter and Instagram at @missjennifermcd 😉

Big Wild Thought: An Interview with Laura Bowling

When the film Free Willy hit theaters in 1993, it quickly became one of my favorites. Long story short, the movie is about a bond between an Orca whale who was forcibly taken from his family, and a foster kid who’s having a hard time. The most thrilling part of the movie is when the whale jumps over an impossibly high barrier to freedom. Watching it as a child brought me so much joy, as well as a fondness for Orca whales that lasts to this day. I’ll never forget my dad getting me a stuffed toy Orca—one of my most treasured toys as a child—which may or may not still be stowed away in my closet somewhere…

Free Willy—I believe—stated something that kids innately know; animals are wondrous creations, and as humans we have a responsibility to protect them. As adults, our schedules are crowded with so many other things that it’s easy for the animals that enchanted us in our youth to be forgotten.

One company that is making sure that doesn’t happen is Big Wild Thought. Born and bred in Sheffield, England; they make beautifully embroidered items—with 10% of the proceeds going to a charity benefitting that specific animal. Get a cup of tea and read on as I introduce you to co-founder Laura Bowling, as she tells me about her wonderful company!

I’d love to know more about the genesis of your company! Tell me how Big Wild Thought got started.

Me and my partner (Liam) both have backgrounds in design, and I have always wanted my own clothing line but wanted it to be different from everything else that is out there at the minute. We both have a passion for wildlife and the outdoors and thought while we were putting the business plan together, we would combine the two passions and produce a range that you can ‘Wear and Care.’ There are so many wonderful animal charities out there doing so many amazing projects for endangered and vulnerable wildlife; we wanted to help in any way we could. Regarding the plastic-free packaging—while we were planning the clothing range, we were lucky enough to be up visiting family in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland last year. When we were on the beautiful beaches, we stumbled across so much plastic waste than had been washed up that it made us realise that even in the most remote parts of the world; plastic waste is everywhere. From this, we came to decide that we didn’t want to be a part of this problem and that we would use recyclable packaging.

How do you go about deciding which animals/charities to highlight?

The range started out with three animal designs, an ORCA, a SLOTH and a BUTTERFLY and we chose these because they are personally our favourite animals (I’m slightly obsessed with ORCAs.) And from there we had some other charities contact us wanting to get involved. That’s how we expanded and now are selling 7 animal designs. We wish we could help every animal. There are so many charities out there that need help too!! We do aim to release an animal design for every single animal that is out there—that’s the dream!

What are some ways people can help endangered animals besides buying your cozy merchandise?

There are plenty of ways to help! On our website we have a charities page, which list the charities we support and weblinks to their websites! The charities we work with organise a lot of events for everyone to get involved in. For example, the WDC organises beach clean ups at local beaches across the UK which all the family can get involved it! Also, as bees are declining rapidly, we always advise people to plant as many wildflowers as possible in their gardens. You can buy some Wildflower Seeds off the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website as well as bee posters and books! These are just a couple of ways you can help, but head over to the charities websites and see what else is happening in your local area!

Any advice to others who wish to start a company that gives back?

Make sure that the charities or trusts you decide to work with share the same views as you. This makes you work harder because it’s something you both feel passionate about!

Anything new and exciting coming up that your patrons can look forward to?

We will be releasing some very popular African animal designs soon, and the 10% donation is going to a special UK charity. Additionally, we have been getting a lot of requests for a Shark range, which we have been working with an amazing trust and that should be available later in the year! Also, we will be launching new products this year—from stationary to rucksacks!

Big Wild Thought makes shirts and sweatshirts you can happily wear, knowing they make a fashionable difference for animals in need. It’s almost like taking your stuffed Orca toy with you! 😉 Get yours today!

Follow Big Wild Thought on Instagram here, Facebook here, and Twitter here!

Order your Big Wild Thought merchandise here:


Your humble correspondent modeling the Orca T-shirt in white. Pay no mind to the crazy hair! 🙂

Keep up with my work by following me on Instagram and Twitter as @missjennifermcd!

Pound Dog Found Dog: An Interview with Peggy Kinahan

Are you looking for a small, furry companion? Have you always wanted to adopt a dog, but was nervous about making the commitment? If so, there’s a lovely rescue in Barnegat, New Jersey that may just be the perfect fit for you! Peggy Kinahan’s adoption philosophy is one that wants everyone involved to be happy: human and canine alike. Allow me to introduce you to Peggy Kinahan and her little rescue with a big heart: Pound Dog Found Dog.


I’d love to know how Pound Dog Found Dog was “found”ed. 🙂 What was its genesis?

After working within the rescue community for almost 20 years, I felt it was the right time to open my own rescue. This way I could rescue the dogs I feel need it the most – older dogs, special-needs dogs, and dogs I like to call my “skinny, scrawny” ones who would ordinarily be overlooked in shelters. I wanted to open my home to the “underdog.”

Why should people adopt and not shop?

Sometimes those of us in rescue assume that everyone knows to adopt, not shop when looking for a companion animal; but too many people are not aware of the statistics. Every year millions of dogs and cats find themselves in shelters, mainly because of overpopulation due to lack of spay and neuter practices. A percentage of those animals are adopted and a percentage are reunited with their owners. But the rest (about a million healthy, adoptable dogs) are euthanized simply due to lack of space. Many people believe they can’t find a great dog in a shelter, but nothing is farther from the truth. Not only are there hundreds of thousands adoptable dogs in shelters and rescue groups, but also one-third of those dogs are purebreds. And a reputable rescue or shelter will allow a potential adopter to do a trial period with a dog to make sure it’s a compatible match. Pet stores won’t do that. Shelters and rescues are held to a higher standard than pet stores and breeders. “Backyard breeders” who breed solely for profit are held to no standard of cleanliness or quality of care.

Tell me something that is particular to the small dogs you specialize in fostering.

I take small dogs by necessity. Bilateral knee replacement several years ago allows the larger dogs to drag me face down while on a walk! Our little ones each have a unique backstory. Sometimes we don’t know about a dog’s background, and sometimes we’re glad we don’t. Sometimes a dog’s past is easily reflected in their eyes. Either way, once in rescue it’s amazing to see the transformation of a “pound dog” to a “found dog,” thus our name. We currently have two special needs dogs in our care, one who has seizures and takes medication which keeps them from recurring, and one who has heartworm disease but once treated will be ready for adoption.

Daisy is looking for her forever home! Could it be you?

I love your policy of a one week grace period to make sure owner and pet are happy with their new situation. Can you talk about that?

Once we receive an application for a dog, we contact their vet references (if the applicant has a dog), and we also contact their personal references. We then contact the applicant to arrange for a “meet and greet” and home visit. If all goes well with the home visit and it looks like a compatible match, we allow a trial period with the potential adoptor and the dog. At the end of the trial either the adoption is finalized or the dog is returned back into the rescue. During the trial we remain in contact with the family to help work out any issues or answer any questions they may have. Nearly 100% percent of our dogs are adopted after the trial because we strive to find the best match possible for our dogs based on their needs and whether a potential adopter can provide for those requirements.

Besides adopting, what can people do to help Pound Dog Found Dog?

We never ask for monetary donations even though we exist solely on donations and adoption fees. But we are always in need of the supplies we send off with our adopted dogs – leashes, collars, beds and toys. But more than that, what we need most are temporary foster homes so we can save more lives. The more homes we have the more we can save. Are you on the fence about adopting a dog? Foster one and find out if you’re up to the commitment. Want to teach your kids to respect every living thing? Foster a dog and set an example. Want to learn more about our foster program? Visit our website at or contact me directly at Fostering is free, it’s easy, and you’ll be saving a life!

What piece of advice would you give to someone that’s never had a dog before?

Do your homework! Investigate which breed is best suited to your family’s lifestyle. And have patience with puppies! They are hard work.

Anything else on your heart you’d like to talk about I didn’t mention?

I understand that while rescue is my “thing”, it isn’t everyone’s “thing”. But I can assure you that fostering a dog and saving a life, is one of the most rewarding things you can do – for yourself, and for the one you save. Actually, when you foster, you save two dogs- the one who comes temporarily to your home, and the one who takes its place in a shelter. As the saying goes, fostering isn’t a lifetime commitment, it’s a commitment to save one life. Please consider opening your home, temporarily, to a dog in need.

If you’re interested in adopting, fostering, or donating supplies; email Peggy at

You can keep up with Peggy and her furry friends on Facebook here, and Instagram here.

Saving Cinderella: An Interview with Faith Moore

Did you grow up loving Disney? Did you see yourself in the iconic princesses Ariel, Belle and Cinderella? Did you have the dolls, sing the songs, and dream the dream of a happily ever after? As you grew up, were you told that Disney had lied to you? Had sold you a false bill of goods? Had made you admire helpless women in ridiculously fragile shoes? Sighing, did you believe the critics and hang your head in shame? Well, have no fear! Faith Moore has written the rebuttal to this argument that will shield you (nay!) armor you with the knowledge to take back the Disney princess from the clutches of people who…well…just don’t get it. Curious? I was too! Why? Because I did love them, and I did sigh, and I was made to believe that to love those stories meant I was only someone who wished to be rescued, and not heroic at all. Read on and join a conversation that—while at first glance might seem silly—is actually very important. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Faith Moore and her excellent book; Saving Cinderella: What Feminists Get Wrong About Disney Princesses and How to Set it Right.

I’d love to know about how you ended up becoming a “Disney Princess Addict!”

I had the great good fortune to grow up during Disney’s renaissance, which began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. I was six when that film came out and I remember seeing it in the theater and loving it. But it wasn’t until Beauty and the Beast came out in 1991 that I really fell hard for Disney princesses. Something about that story just latched onto my heart and hasn’t let go. I got to see all those great Disney renaissance movies in the theater when they first came out: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King. I grew up with them. And I knew, even then, that something had changed when I watched Pocahontas and then Mulan. It was only as an adult that I realized what had happened to Disney princesses — that this vocal minority of feminist critics that I call princess critics — had shifted the princess narrative toward “feminism.” And then, well, I had to stand up and fight for these stories I love!

You talk about the history of fairy tales in the book. Can you talk a little bit about their importance and legacy?

The thing that really gets me about the feminist rejection of fairy tales is that fairy tales are actually women’s stories. Princess fairy tales, in particular, are all about a beautiful, and morally strong, woman at the center of a narrative. And they were, in many cases, created and told by women. What could be more “feminist” than that?! Fairy tales are allegorical stories designed to teach a universal truth about life. In many cases they were told by mothers to explain or warn their children about things in life that are difficult, or hard for children to comprehend. Princess fairy tales, in particular, were often ways for little girls to come to terms with the (sometimes frightening) changes of puberty. Many fairy tale narratives, like “Cinderella,” appear in nearly all the world’s cultures and date back, sometimes, thousands of years. The notion that these stories are outdated relics that ought to be done away with completely disregards the fact that they have resonated with human beings for, in many cases, longer than any classic work of literature.

The word feminism has gone through many iterations over the years. Can you tell me what you mean by “feminist” as it applies to your book title?

This is a really astute question. The problem with the term “feminist” is that it now bears no resemblance whatsoever to its original definition. Feminism came about in reaction to actual inequalities between men and women that needed to be addressed. It simply stated that women ought be viewed as equally valuable to society as men, such that, if a woman wanted and was able to do something that was traditionally only open to men, she could. And many women who call themselves feminists today are still referring to this definition. The problem, though, is that the movement — as represented by the media — has morphed into something more sinister. These days, the feminist movement has come to embody the oppressive tactics which used to be associated with “the patriarchy.” The movement is now about women telling other women that, in order to be successful and achieve “equality,” they must act like men. These are the feminists I’m referring to in the book’s title, because it is film critics and other cultural commentators who call themselves feminists who have gotten Disney princess movies so wrong.

What is the most glaring error feminists get wrong about Disney princesses?

The entire feminist misunderstanding of Disney princess films — and fairy tales in general — stems from the fact that they take them too literally. Feminists don’t understand that fairy tales rely almost entirely on symbolism. Because fairy tales are designed to be very short narratives expressing complex but universal truths, they operate within a symbolic language that’s consistent from story to story. In my book I call this concept “fairy tale shorthand,” but other people have called it other things (mythographer Marina Warner calls it a “symbolic Esperanto,” for example). So a forest, for example, always represents the protagonist’s inner turmoil. And a princess represents the ideal of womanhood. She is high-born and beautiful not because we must all be those things, but because those things represent her inner grace and beauty. Feminists don’t get that. They think Cinderella, for example, is a story about a girl whose clothes were so pretty that a rich and powerful guy decided to marry her. But that’s so obviously not the case! The story is about a girl who is given the opportunity to wear her inner goodness on the outside so that a man of worth can recognize instantly what kind of person she is. It’s this literal interpretation of fairy tales that has completely derailed the Disney princess narrative.

I love the idea that femininity has its own strength that is completely different than a man’s—yet just as strong. Could you talk more about that, and about how the feminist movement encourages women to abandon feminine traits to be (ironically) more like men?

Men and women are different. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement but it is. And their differences cause them to be better at, or more interested in, different things. Men are physically stronger than women, and they’re more interested in action, adventure, and getting things done. Women are more focused on emotions, relationships, planning, and nurturing others. None of these traits is inherently better than any others. But, because men have historically had power over women, feminists have adopted the mistaken notion that masculine traits are superior to female traits. Or, put another way, that if women want to wield the power men have historically enjoyed, they must adopt the traits of men. But that completely sells women short! Women are strong, brave, and powerful. It’s just that their strength, bravery, and power come from different places and look different to men’s. Insisting that a princess is more feminist if she wields a sword than she would be if she cleans a house negates the very real strength, and discipline it takes to be a homemaker.

As you mention in your book, there are recent Disney princesses that you don’t think are ideal role modes for young women. Can you talk about one of them and why?

The worst example of this, by far, is Merida from Brave. Brave is a perfect example of what happens when people who don’t understand fairy tales try to tell a “feminist” fairy tale. The movie uses fairy tale tropes — particularly the imagery and narrative arc of Beauty and the Beast — and tries to make them be about mothers and daughters instead of men and women. The result is a pretty creepy mess. Because the film is actively trying to make a case against marriage and men, Merida’s arc — which ought to be away from her mother and out into the world to follow her dreams — sends her right back to where she started, a child in her parent’s sway. Merida makes a whole bunch of terrible and selfish choices and never seems to understand that her issues came from trying to change her mother and not herself. The whole thing is a Freudian psychiatrist’s dream. Ick!

What would you like to see from Disney regarding princesses in the future?

There are two things I think Disney needs to acknowledge if it’s ever going to create good female role models and stories again. The first is that women can be strong and brave in ways that are different than men. And the second is that romantic love doesn’t make you weak. If they could keep those two ideas at the core of a new narrative, I’d be okay with them branching out into some new types of princess stories.

And last but not least, who is your favorite Disney princess and why?

That’s easy: Belle. I love the story of Beauty and the Beast particularly because it shows how, by never compromising her true self for anyone, a woman can inspire a man to become worthy of her love. Belle is bookish and quirky (like me) but she never even tries to behave like the people around her, even though they’re all pressuring her to be less “odd.” And, in spite of that (or, really, because of that) she finds a man who loves her for her true self. It makes my heart sing.

In a day and age where conversation and debate have virtually disappeared and been replaced by disrespectful lecturing, it’s refreshing to read Faith’s case for why something as innocuous as a fairy tale matters. In every chapter, she braves to defy the “princess critics” and their current assessment of how princesses are out of date and less than extraordinary. With excellent writing and humor, she casts her spell; and as far as your humble correspondent is concerned, rescues her princesses from a fate worse than a poisoned apple or everlasting sleep—but from irrelevance. It certainly seems she has no intention to yield her argument and “Let it go!” 😉

Buy Faith’s book here.

Check out Faith’s website here:

Follow her at Twitter here: @FaithKMoore

Join her Facebook group Disney Princess Addict here:

Faith also has a great YouTube channel called Princess State of Mind. Catch it here!

The Order of the Crystal Daggers: An Interview with C.S. Johnson

C.S. Johnson spins stories of adventure and fantasy. With several books and series under her belt already, she seems to be a non-stop writing machine. In her Order of the Crystal Daggers series, she says she seeks to inspire people to think about truth. What is it? Is it absolute? And while her books are for everyone—young and old alike— she specifically hopes that her works will help quell the fears of young people as they face the slings and arrows that come with growing up. Also, she wishes to make heroes that are more relatable, joking that “Superman doesn’t do laundry!” In between keeping up with her antics on Twitter, I was able to speak with C.S. about her latest trilogy, just before the publication of the second book; Prince of Secrets and Shadows.

How did you get into writing?

I started writing very young. I really liked reading and writing as a kid, and because I was shy and more than a little quiet, writing provided a way for me to order my thoughts and put them down so others could read them. One of my constant complaints from teachers was that I “didn’t speak up enough,” because they always liked to hear what I was thinking when they made me. I have to laugh at this some, because when I finally started talking, people were astounded to hear exactly what I thought – and they were amazed at what I remembered, too. More than one person was caught off guard when I would talk to them and ask them about things from our elementary grades.

Writing stories became more important to me as I grew older, and I wanted to both figure out what I was experiencing, and also share it with others.

Your book is set in a particular place and time. Could you tell the readers more about where you set your book and why?

I set the story in Prague, in Bohemia, around 1870. There were—as there usually always is with me—a variety of reasons for it. My family’s heritage played a large role in the story itself since my father’s family has ties to the Czechoslovakian and Polish areas, with my mother’s family more from Western Europe, with Scottish, Irish and English bloodlines. That was part of it. The other part was largely that I love Victorian literature—who doesn’t, really? It is a very popular genre, but most of it—like almost 99% of what I have read—is set in London. I get that, because it was the home of England and it remains the place where the British Empire began. But I wanted to work in a world that had its own flavor, and while London can seem fairy-tale-esque at times, especially in the Victorian setting, I wanted a more fairy-tale appeal. Prague is actually known for this today, as it has kept a lot of the history and built around its past with modern times.

You’ve got quite a few books and trilogies under your belt already. What makes The Order of the Crystal Daggers series special?

There are a couple of unique features about the book series, for sure.

The first distinction is that the series is more of a coming of age trilogy for girls (though boys will be entertained as well). When I first started out writing, I wrote the Starlight Chronicles mostly for boys. At the time, I was teaching high school and noticed that boys had a harder time finding something they liked to read, so I wanted to write something for them, and something that would speak to them as they grew up. Some of my girl readers (because while that series is for boys, the girls are also entertained) were asking about a series for them. So, that’s part of it there. The story is written in first person, with the world being delivered to the reader through Ella’s eyes; offering her perspective and her reactions and reflections to it, and it carries a little of her unreliability—as she becomes more certain, the world around her does, too.

I specifically wanted to draw in the question of truth, since as a culture, there are so many [people] saying we live in a post-truth world. I see it as more of a chasm than a conclusion, especially because—if we live in a post-truth world, that means that statement in itself would be nullified.

So for the book, the idea of putting a girl in a position where she had to live in perpetual second-guessing and distrust means figuring out the truth becomes a survival skill for her. I like to think my readers, even if they don’t notice that sort of teaching element, will be encouraged not only to think about other people’s perspectives, but also to help them find the real truth, too.

The story draws on Cinderella. Tell me about that.

I really love the story of Cinderella. Among fairy tales, it is a favorite of mine, and I like it for personal reasons almost as much as I have problems with it for personal reasons.

When I was three, my dad (with whom I have had a complicated relationship, thanks to both his depression and my own) went out to buy it for my third birthday. He had to go to three stores just to find it, and I remember this story as my heart aches. Having my own husband now, I am so happy that my daughter sees him as a hero; I did not have that many times in my life, and this one particular instance—on so special an occasion—remains one of my favorite stories about him.

While I do like the story, I do have problems with some of it. My main problem with it is not in the story itself, but that when people think of it, they don’t realize that the majority of the story takes place over like three days, tops. Cinderella spends ten years of her life working hard, dealing with people who are supposed to be looking out for her but instead are abusing her, and suffering as a result of losing her father and mother. It is a tragic situation, and one that is glossed over for the majority of the story. Cinderella has worked, both at keeping her household clean and her heart hopeful, for a long time before her life changed in three days. That’s a lot of investment and determination to pour into three days.

So when I wanted to use the story as a fairy tale adaptation, there is no easy transition between real life and allegory. In Kingdom of Ash and Soot, Ella’s own transformation takes place over several weeks. Her character development—while it does follow more of a fairy tale arc in terms of seeing her inner-princess self come to be realized on the outside—includes the development of trust in relationships, confidence in her actions, and moral ambition to not only discover what she is made of (because she knows that) but to what degree. Her goal is not to be a literal princess—although that connection is hinted at—but to be free. I liken that to several levels, including the political, the personal, and the spiritual in the book series.

I know you have a few characters that pay homage to people you admire in real life. Would you like to tell the readers who and why?

Haha, yes! I do have quite few people that have real-world connections. While Ella’s story is not my own, a lot of those who have helped me personally be free and find love have been added to the story. When I set out to write the story, I did not write to please anyone but myself with it—most of it is an homage to my heritage, after all. I was actually pretty surprised when a publisher expressed interest.

The one connection I am most open about is Amir’s character. I absolutely loved Nabeel Qureshi, and I wrote this book partially just to have a character based on him. I started writing this while he was sick with his cancer back in 2016. I was so desperately hoping that I would be able to send him a copy and tell him how grateful I was for his work and his life. His memoir, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, remains one of my favorite books. I have the audio book and I cannot listen to it without crying. While Amir is definitely his own character, and there is only a little overlap, I wanted a mentor figure for Ella that allowed her to see there was more to fighting when it becomes a matter of fighting for truth and love. There are others, of course, whose elements have inspired different characters. I don’t consider myself a very “fun” person, so the idea of screaming, hopping up and down, and asking for autographs is largely foreign to me. But there are exceptions to this, and the other side of my personality is more than a little embarrassed about it.

If you could boil it down to one thing, what do you wish to convey to your readers through this adventure series?

Freedom is complicated. Being free means taking responsibility for your own life, and that is something I have so struggled with; it’s actually embarrassing. It’s so easy to blame the world for your troubles, and legitimately, it does lend us problems; but while life is unfair, it is unfair in the best and worst senses, and it remains up to us individually to decide whether or not we will be fair to others in return.

What would your advice be to aspiring authors who are starting out?

I have two and a half major points of advice for new writers:

1. Take courage … and take a grammar refresher (1/2). Reading as much as I do from the internet, I know that alone will not a grammar expert make.

2. Know—and I mean, really know—who your friends are. Professional jealousy is one of my more prominent emotional barriers as a writer, and it, quite frankly, sucks. The best way I have learned to deal with it is to know who your real friends are. When you have a lot of writers in your circles as I do, it can be hard to remember that not all of them are your friends, and it can be even harder to remember you don’t need their approval. Several of my best friends are writers, and I know for a fact they are my real friends because I am genuinely happy for them when they succeed, and they are happy for me when I do. In contrast to this, I know too well how it feels to find out others would prefer you fail.

When will book three be available?

Hopefully, book 3, Heart of Hope and Fear, will be out sometime in the summer of 2019. It might have a later date, but I will definitely let everyone know (if they don’t hear me screaming it from my rooftop that I am finished with the book!)

Anything new and exciting your fans can look forward to?

This year is already shaping up to have a few new books and different things out. I’m working on my first non-fiction book, and I have a couple of series I’m hoping to finish, and a couple of new series I’m hoping to start. The Princess and the Peacock is going live January 25th. The companion novella to The Order of the Crystal Daggers—where we get to see more of Amir’s relationship with Ella’s mother—will be out in late February.

This humble correspondent can’t wait!

Sign up to receive C.S. Johnson’s newsletter here.

Get her books here.

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Keep up with her on Facebook here, Instagram here, and (my personal favorite) Twitter here.

Get book one today!

Arden + James: An Interview with Bri Brant

Sitting down with Bri Brant at Chadd’s Café, I was struck by the amber, honey-colored eyes looking back at me. With her face also framed by long copper-colored hair, I couldn’t help but think of the parallel between the natural beauty of the artist and the leather bound creations that she is famous for. Designing bags and wallets of the highest quality vegetable tanned leather, she describes her work as a blend of industrial and craft-based design—informed by natural materials. Bri was gracious enough to sit down with me over coffee to talk about her award winning company; Arden + James, as well as her family’s newest passion project: the Chadd’s Ford Barn Shops.

Photo by Parikha Mehta Photography

How is working with leather different to other creative disciplines?

It’s really expensive, so you have to be really careful! If you make a mistake, you make that piece into something else. You can’t afford to have any waste. I only work with natural materials, so no matter what you do, it’s always beautiful because the material itself is beautiful.

Do you have any favorite custom orders that you’ve done?

Yeah! The Brandywine River museum, their founder Frolic Weymouth was having an exhibit of a bunch of his paintings—it was in the Spring when they had it— and they asked me to do a special bag with Virginia bluebells, which were his favorite flower. He also has this really famous painting with Virginia bluebells, so I did a special bluebells design thatI etched onto the leather, and they sell them at the museum. I also do special botanical bags for Longwood Gardens and those are really special. And then, everything on my website is semi-custom, so people are getting exactly what they want. They’re choosing their own options— like their sizes, colors and strap style. That’s really fun being able to give people something custom and made-to-order, but still being able to be in control. It’s not something I can’t make or hardware that I don’t have. It’s like, here’s your A, B, C, D, but it’s still a super custom bag that nobody else is going to have, but I can handle it as a one person business.

You’re a mom. Is making your craftsmanship part of your routine helpful in balancing the busyness of raising young kids?

You have to be really flexible with your schedule, because you never know what they’re going to need, and they always need something! Now both my boys are in school from 8:30–3:00, so that’s how I’m able to do this. It’s like a nice vacation!

Bri also makes lovely beeswax candles that smell heavenly.

Any advice to anyone who wishes to start working with leather, but is a little bit nervous try it or be creative in that realm?

You have to really love the material—whatever material you’re working with. Whether it’s leather, clay, paper—anything—you just really have to love the material, because that’s going to inspire you. Otherwise, you’re just going to be bored, you know? So you have to really love the material! Not loving the final product that somebody else makes—that’s not going to inspire you. You have to love the material yourself and come up with your own design. So, it’s that first. Then with leather, you can buy scraps if you go on Etsy or even eBay. Buy scraps of really good stuff and work with the good leather, because that’s going to give you better results.

I’d like to know more about the Chadds Ford Barn Shops and how your family is bringing it back to life. How did it get started?

Well, I grew up down the street and my first job was in a Wawa in Chadd’s Ford— so I worked there and it was like the town general store. I got to know everybody in town— basically all our neighbors were the only ones that ever came in because it was like the smallest Wawa ever! So, I got to know everybody and it was so fun—I enjoyed it so much and it really changed me as a person. When the Wawa closed 10 years ago, I always missed it and the whole community really missed it. We never saw each other anymore. So, it was always in my head that we needed a gathering place.

So then, when our family started the rejuvenation project on this little village a couple years ago, it was always our plan to have a café, because we knew that the only way to get people to really come and hang out is with coffee! So, we did that, and I put my store in the front there so that I could be part of the whole thing too.

The Barn Shops have been here for almost 50 years— next year it will be 50 years. And when they were built, tour buses would come in; they’d go to Longwood Gardens or the River Museum—and Chadd’s Ford became a shopping destination. Then, people stopped coming over the years and started going to different places when all the malls popped up. I think people are ready for this again. The past couple years—it didn’t need anything major, it was always nice. We just wanted to bring the attention back to it, so we have been adding things in, like the cafe and more stores to bring people in and have a reason to make it a destination again.

It was more of like a marketing project. Everyone goes really fast down Route 1 and totally forgot that it was here. So, we just had to remind them, that’s all. So, I’m like all Instagram and Facebook and everything’s getting the word out, and I’ve done that for a bunch of different businesses. This is my home town so I really wanted to put my energy into this.

What’s really interesting is that there is this community of artisans on Instagram that are super supportive of each other. For me, I tended to think of the negative side of social media for a while, but there is this wonderful, awesome upside to it too! What has that been like for you, to interact with customers and people that love your work?

Social media is amazing, as long as you always keep it positive. And if you do, people pick up on that positivity and you attract the right crowd. You don’t get the kind of people I call ‘time wasters’—you know with all the junk. We’ve been able to attract so many people. My business completely started on Instagram. That’s how I got every one of my wholesale customers and got the word out on everything. But you just have to be consistent about it and post all the time. But as long as you’re being honest about it, and putting your true self out on social media, then you attract the right customer. You get the results that you want. You get the customer that you want, not a customer that’s not great for you—which is almost even worse than no customer at all. For my bags, I’m always attracting people who understand my brand, because they can look at my Instagram and see what the mood of it is, and the style and the materials and they can know all about it without even ever having seen a bag in person. Versus, if you’re putting advertising stuff out there or paying for ads and all that, you attract a customer that’s not necessarily right for you, and they’re a customer that may not be happy with what they get.

So just to keep it simple, you have to be really authentic and put your authentic self out there—and that’s true with everything. Otherwise, you end up with a life that you don’t want. You just have to be honest and authentic and then you’re fine. That’s what this[café] is too. This café is authentic to the Barn Shops. It’s nothing more and nothing less. That’s why it’s called Chadd’s, because we’re not trying to be fancy. We’re not trying to be hipster. We’re not trying to attract any particular group. It’s a café for everyone. The Barn Shops are for everyone. We’re not trying to be exclusive or fancy or any of that stuff. That’s why I think people are responding to it, because it’s a happy place and everyone feel comfortable.

I think a lot of places, especially restaurants, you almost feel uncomfortable with who they’re trying to attract or the image they’re trying to portray. It’s almost insulting in a way. You feel like you’re not worthy of being there or eating there, and it attracts a strange customer that thinks that they are worthy of being there. Do know what I mean? That customer—we don’t want that customer! You know, like they like deserve to be waited on[hand and foot.] It is what it is! It’s self-serve for the most part. You know, here’s what we have, we have to keep it simple. It’s like a barn! That’s how we feel, and it’s family and friends that work here—you better be nice to them!

Within an easy distance of both Longwood Gardens and the Brandywine River Museum, The Chadd’s Fords Barn Shops are well worth a visit with it’s cozy atmosphere, wonderful coffee and unique shopping items. I know this humble correspondent can’t wait to go back!

Follow Bri on Instagram here and Facebook here.

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And don’t forget to head out to Chadd’s Fords Barn Shops and follow them here!

Not Another Cooking Show: An interview with Stephen Cusato

Stephen Cusato’s Youtube channel; Not Another Cooking Show is as delightful as a home cooked meal. The title proves to be true; as it is as warm and inviting as the host himself. A wizard of food and photography, he eschews the idea of a “perfect meal,” and instead encourages people to cook with love. Mr. Cusato was generous enough to chat with your humble correspondent about his roundabout journey to creating his wonderful show. Bon Appetit! 😉

Stephen Cusato has always loved watching food. Growing up at a time when the Food Network was barely a thing, he would fall asleep to reruns of Japanese Iron Chef, and remembers being fascinated with watching the short order cooks across the counter at the local diner.

“Food wasn’t something that I was obsessed with, so I just assumed that I would study business and work in advertising like my dad. My dad worked in advertising in a day where people had offices with Nerf guns in them— it was a cool kind of world to work in. My dad worked on the Hess account, so I would always get  Hess toy trucks every year. He asked me one year to be in a Hess commercial and I was like, “No, God, No!” I wish I did it now!” he says laughing.

While at Fairfield University, he studied abroad in Florence his junior year, and says the food culture  left an impression on him. After graduation he headed into advertising, but the business had changed a lot since the time he was a kid.

“The reality of the industry by the time I entered the workforce in 2008—with the financial crisis— companies weren’t doing well. Advertising was changing with social media. I quickly realized, this is not the golden days of advertising. This is totally changing.”

After three years at the company, he ended up giving his two weeks notice after he got a permit approved by the Parks Department to operate a food truck. What was next on the menu? Grilled Cheese!

“I decided to get into food and start a food truck. I also started a food blog while I was developing it  to build my name. My food truck ended up being called Food Freak’s Grilled Cheese. I wanted this dichotomy of a weird name matched with this tastefully designed, cute little cart—with really thoughtful food that was not grotesque in any way, but refined. I wanted to be very mature, like we’re a restaurant inside of a food truck. What I loved about that was the service aspect. One of my big food influences is Danny Meyer, (the restaurateur legend who owns Union Square Café, Grammercy Tavern, and Shake Shack) and he wrote a book called Setting the Table. Hospitality has always been a big thing for me, so I just loved interacting with customers and showing them we really cared. I knew when our customers were on vacation or when they were sick. We did that for a while—it was great—as well as huge music festivals, other events and catering.”

The Food Freak Grilled Cheese food truck even had its share of paparazzi, when Anne Hathaway stopped by on the day she got engaged, along with her fiancé! The food truck’s days, it would seem though, were numbered.

“We were stretching ourselves thin and not really building anything, and after a few years the city changed regulations on the cart sizes that were legal. When our permit ran out, we were faced at a crossroads; and we decided to stop. That was pretty hard for me. I had loved it and hated it. We were working 14-17 hour days, and it felt like we were shackled to it in some way, but it gave me cooking chops. My two partners were formally trained chefs and had base knowledge, so I was exposed to the basics and proper technique. And though I never went to culinary school, it’s like—you don’t have to.”

I know what you’re thinking. What’s being served up next? Here’s a clue: “Say cheese!

After spending some time trying to figure things out, a former advertising colleague asked him if he could take photos for their client, Tribe Hummus.

“They knew I could work with food, so they asked me, ‘Could you stage some photographs ? And I was like, ‘Yeah. Sure!’ I wasn’t a photographer or anything like that.  I did a few things and they were pretty good. So I decided to figure out how to use a camera. I went on YouTube and learned as much as I could.”

And just like that he went from making—to photographing food!

“I would do 10 photo shoots a month for them, and worked with them for four or five years, along with some other clients. Over time, I did thousands of photo shoots that developed my camera skills and they got better and better. Then video became a big thing, and I was like, ‘I have a good eye for photography, it makes sense that I could also do video.’ Video is a different skill, but I find it to be more interesting than photography .You can do more with it.”

He found that doing a Youtube show was just a natural outgrowth of all his experience thus far.

“I found getting a camera was the final puzzle piece, I think. What’s funny is, when I was growing up—I forgot to mention—for some reason, I also wanted to be a director. I was obsessed with Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park and all these movies. So what’s funny is—I’m 32 now, and lo and behold, I’m sort of like a director working in food, you know what I mean? The show is literally an extracted pure version of who I am. And what I’m most proud about is, it’s allowed me to just fully embrace my identity in a way that I probably never have before. It’s just me telling the world who I am: I’m the guy who loves food and films it.”

When asked what he thinks is special and timeless about sharing a meal around the table, he says, “ I think it’s important because it’s one time where you can just slow down with your day. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re famous, or if you’re middle class, lower class, upper class—everybody eats every day. And you know, everybody has people in their lives that we don’t spend enough time with. The purpose of food is to bring people together. It’s just not the same if we do it alone; it’s so much better when you share it with other people. There’s just nothing better than a home cooked meal.”

He says what makes his show different is his goal to make food the star of the show; not himself.

“When I look at traditional TV cooking shows, especially on the Food Network; to me, it seems like everything around the food is perfect and scripted, and the food is more of an afterthought. So for me, I wanted the food to be perfect— and everything around it to be a little rough around the edges.”

“There’s just something about cooking to me that I think people are missing out on so much! And  I’ve had people over to eat, and everyone says, ‘Oh, you eat like a five star restaurant every night.’ Through this show, I’m showing people it doesn’t take that much. It’s not like I’m doing anything that other people couldn’t do.”

“We’ve  stopped cooking like a Grandma has, you know? There’s no love or attention or care in it—everyone wants to be fancy and show off. That’s why I focus on the basics; because nothing is more impressive than when you can absolutely nail a pasta. One of my favorite things that I made on the show that I love to eat is the Cheesy Gordita Crunch Taco Bell tacos. There’s just something about it that is so good because you made it yourself, and you can enjoy it knowing that it used to be something that was so bad for you.

He says one of the gratifying things about doing  his show is being 100% in control of the content.

“I think that’s why I’m flourishing now, because for so many years, I would work for other people’s approval. And what’s cool about the show—and YouTube in general—is,  if you approach it genuinely, it sort of exposes you, and you gain a better understanding of who you are in a weird way.”

“What’s funny is, I realized halfway through making the show that I was literally mimicking the same user experience  that I had when people came to visit me on the food truck. There was a cutting board, and you had to kind of lean down to get on their level. And so I would lean in and talk through a square rectangular frame and talk to people casually.

What I love about Not Another Cooking Show is that its specific cinematography and friendly style give confidence to those who are a bit nervous to try their hand at cooking. As for Stephen, he’ll be continuing to put out videos that instruct, inspire…and make us hungry!

Follow Stephen on Facebook  here,  Twitter here, and Instagram here.

Catch his awesome food show here!

You can support his Patreon account here, and also buy his great merchandise here!