c o u n t e r  s e r v i c e

Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

Nicolle Borrero


I’ve made it to 28.  

Now older than my mother was when she brought me into this world, I struggle to wrap my head around what my life’s trajectory looks and feels like. How and with whom am I spending my time? Why? Am I becoming more patient? Or am I rushing through life? In my early 20’s, I certainly tried to rush through most things; a few fragile things that required much more care and consideration than I was prepared to expend. My marriage was one of those things... the most fragile, probably. Now entering my late 20’s and facing the advent of my peak years (that’s what everyone says about your 30’s right?), I find myself mostly concerned with attention to detail in every form. From the work I do, to the friends I keep, the people I sleep with, how and why I eat, drink, write, speak. What are the patterns in my life? In the spirit of “saying yes more” and “leaning in,” I am making an effort to pay attention to all patterns. If I see something, I’ll say and do something. But it doesn’t always have to be so... heady!!

Case in point, activated charcoal has been following me everywhere lately. Over the last couple months, I’ve come across it as an ingredient in some of the most unexpected ways. I suppose it all began with a supper club outing in early March. A few of my best girlfriends and I met up atHoney Badger, an avant-garde mom and pop spot in Prospect Lefferts Garden. Fjolla Sheholli and Junayd Juman (mom and pop, respectively) are using activated charcoal in their bread service. I was  startled and pleasantly surprised. This is the best way to describe what it’s like to eat there. Everything is handmade, including the details in the physical space itself. No joke, the tiles were made by their six year-old daughter. Between thought-provoking attention to detail, bizarre ingredients ranging from blue algae to regionally sourced ostrich, and the warmest service I’ve had in recent memory, I’m still at a loss as to how to describe what happened to me there in that dining room. Magic, maybe?

Since then, charcoal has permeated my life. It’s in the locally-made Apotheke hand-soap andcandle at work. It was in the lemonade I bought at my favorite health-food store in Prospect Heights. It’s in the Norður volcanic lava salt a friend gifted me from a recent trip to Iceland. All signs point to activated charcoal. What is this stuff? It’s applications seem endless. On the morning of my 28th birthday and in the spirit of seeing something and saying something, I went down to Prospect Lefferts Garden to drag my good friend Matt Mancuso, a pastry chef by trade, out of bed so we could play with activated charcoal. (On a Saturday, no less! You’re the real MVP, Matthew!)


Allegedly, activated charcoal can be beneficial to your digestive system. It’s porous composition and alkaline properties bind to poisons, preventing absorption into the body. It’s what the hospital will give you when you’ve hit the sauce way too hard. It is not meant to be eaten in large quantities, or often. So what were we going to do with it? What application relates to us? Some people swear activated charcoal can cure hangovers. I am not one of those people. The only thing that can cure a hangover is time and lots of water. Yet, as restaurant industry pro I find myself waking up with a headache not too infrequently.

I first met Matt while we both worked at a popular Brooklyn restaurant. He had previously worked at Blue Hill Stone Barns for years, as a pastry chef at Per Se, and even moonlights as a nutritional meal-planning guru. Matt is one of the few people I can get to order the entire menu with me when we sit down to eat. He’s become my partner in food crime. It’s great to have a friend who loves to try new things with you, although Matt is slightly more obsessed with bakeries and pasta than I am. (The kid doesn’t stop eating and I always tap out early. Our appetites compliment one another very well.)  We try to make room in our schedules for exploring anything food-related. In fact, just last month we took a trip down to Gowanus to see Wynne at Noble Ceramics Studio. Matt is always on the hunt for new plateware to use for recipe testing. Wynne makes beautiful, sturdy, one-of-a-kind pieces that can be found in many popular restaurants across the city. We picked up some ash-grey plates that day and kind of forgot about it, until Matt suggested we make pancakes. I realized our flapjacks would end up looking exactly like those plates. Pancakes it is then!

I was thrilled to discover that, in the silliest of ways, small things in my recent life came together in this moment. Sure this is certainly not ground-breaking or earth-shaking stuff. But not only am I becoming more aware of signals in my immediate universe, I am learning to respond accordingly. After feeling somewhat stagnant in recent years, post-divorce and whatnot, this means the world to me.

Charcoal Pancakes

200g flour
8g baking powder
Pinch of salt
45g sugar
180g milk
2 eggs
3g activated charcoal

Volcano Blueberry Compote

1/2 cup blueberries
Juice of one lemon
20g sugar
Pinch of Norður volcanic lava salt

You know how to make pancakes. After whisking your ingredients together, let the batter sit for a few minutes. According to Matt, “you gotta let the baking powder wake up.” Be careful of how much charcoal you add. A little can go a very long way. Seriously! We absentmindedly ate too many pancakes and carried charcoal babies around in our bellies for a solid 24 hours. The operative word being “solid.” Lessons learned.