A Brooklyn Chef Comes to Terms with Her Gentrifying Neighborhood

Chef Ella Schmidt built her restaurant in Bushwick to evade gentrification, only to realize that it’s coming for her next.

This story is part of 1 Minute Meal, a documentary series that uses food to reveal the communities, legacies, dreams, realities and unseen forces that shape life in New York City.

Maite, a Bushwick restaurant run by chef Ella Schmidt, is a Basque word translating to “one who is loved and gives love.” Schmidt, a Colombian American raised by Basque and German parents, chose the name to reflect her personal history. And true to her word, she built the business as a labor of love—not just for food, but for an environment where she and her guests could feel at home.

After building her chops cooking in some of the most respected restaurants in New York City, Schmidt was eager to hop off the ladder of fine dining. She moved into a bodega in the southwest corner of Bushwick, worked hand-in-hand with neighborhood contractors to transform the cramped store into a spacious dining room, and put up a chalkboard to display her daily menu. Maite doesn’t take reservations, doesn’t watch the clock on tables, and encourages people to stay as long as they want—for a couple of Aguilas or for the globally inspired, skillfully refined dishes that reflect a diverse personal history.

Schmidt admits that Maite’s success and character will fade as this part of Brooklyn becomes part of the development wave that’s been steadily moving inland from Williamsburg. The business is breaking even as it is, with Schmidt herself in the kitchen every day. With  7 years left on her lease, she’s unlikely to see a business-killing spike in rent; still, every day she sees a little more of the neighborhood turn over, bringing in higher costs of living and changing the face of who walks through her doors for dinner. This deceptively slow simmer of gentrification reminds her that if she wants to continue running her own restaurant, she’ll eventually have to remake Maite into the less relaxed, less personally connected space she set out to create.

© Music by Dorian Love.

Through September 1, Edible Brooklyn is collaborating with Edible Manhattan, Edible Queens, Edible Bronx, and the Staten Island Advance to debut 30 new videos about food and life in New York. Subscribe to 1 Minute Meal to see a food films from all five boroughs.

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James Boo is a multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn. As Editor-in-Chief of Real Cheap Eats, an independent filmmaker, and a freelance food writer, James has devoted his storytelling career to the intersection of food and culture. You can see more episodes of this web series at oneminutemealfilms.com.