Make Ursula part of your world – James Beard nominee re-opens eatery in Brooklyn

Chef Eric See behind the bar.

Chef and restaurateur Eric See understands that food and community go hand in hand, the same goes for the LGBTQ+ community.

The New Mexico native puts queer community first when it comes to creating restaurants. See is the owner of café and eatery Ursula nestled in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Named after his grandmother, the 2022 James Beard Award-nominated restaurant hosts a staff that’s majority queer and boasts a selection of coffee and teas paired with New Mexican-inspired faves, like burritos, stuffed sopapillas, and assorted pastries, like concha and biscochitos. To ensure New Mexican flavors and spirit flow through Ursula’s food, See imports red chiles, green chiles, and beans from his home state by way of his mother.

But running a restaurant can come with many surprises. For starters, See’s previous eatery The Awkward Scone closed in 2020. A casualty of the pandemic, the Williamsburg restaurant offered an assortment of desserts and donated proceeds of sales to LGBTQ+ organizations like Immigration Equality and the Ali Forney Center.  

The Awkward Scone’s closing inspired See to take a road trip to New Mexico with his dog. Reconnecting with his roots during this visit home gave him an epiphany – he could start over again. So, he did in September 2020 with Ursula.

Things were going smoothly but with new challenges. See soon saw that a new location was needed. See documented this process in the Heritage Radio Network podcast Opening Soon. In its second season, Opening Soon is hosted by podcasters Jennifer Goodman and Alex McCrery and follows restaurateurs as they take ideas into full-fledged restaurants. This time around, the entire second season is dedicated to following See’s journey of taking Ursula from its original location, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, to Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

While there were plenty of trials that See encountered in the process, he never lost sight of Ursula’s ability to serve its neighborhood and its queer community. GayCities spoke with See about working for Beyoncé (yep, you read that right) demystifying restaurant misconceptions, and building queer community in restaurants.

What inspired you to take on a culinary career? 

I really enjoy feeding and taking care of people. I enjoy being in a community with people, but I have also been in the hospitality industry for 25 years. It’s been in my blood since I could have a job.

You’ve had some interesting points and clients within your culinary career, like Beyoncé. Who were some of these clients and what did you make for them? 

I wasn’t directly involved in that relationship and conversation, but it was often that someone from their creative team was making decisions and I rarely met them. Like, when Rihanna first launched Fenty Beauty, the company I worked for was tapped to produce the event and the food for it. I was the pastry chef for the company, so I was involved in conversation with their team intimately to come up with desserts that were reflective of her first collection; like making edible lipstick in the colorways of the collection, or little cheesecakes in the shape of her makeup containers. 

For the event with Beyoncé, I had to make a cake for an event her and Jay Z were doing with Samsung, if I recall correctly. But, I have also made desserts for Mariah Carey’s events and for her assistants’ kid’s bday and for Kanye West’s manager, a cake emulating 4 different Frank Gehry buildings. One of the most interesting projects was a giant cannoli stuffed with smaller cannolis for Cyndi Lauper’s birthday. It was presented to her at the Logo Trailblazer’s Awards a few years back. I had to go buy an air duct at the hardware store to shape a cannoli big enough and then find a fryer large enough to fit it into. Even though I wasn’t always present for the event, It was kind of wild to be sitting at home and be like, “Oh sh*t, Kim Kardashian is eating a cake I made right now.”

How did your New Mexican bakery and café, Ursula, come to be?

Ursula was a pandemic pivot for me. I had lost my previous cafe, The Awkward Scone, at the beginning of the pandemic and that was really hard for me. I had thought of throwing in the towel and moving back to New Mexico, where I am from originally. The pandemic had everyone’s stress and anxiety levels through the roof and I had been going through a pretty contentious dissolution of my last business with an ex-business partner so I was pretty drained. But, I knew I was going to need a job at some point to pay rent, and I knew I could sell enough breakfast burritos through a take-out window to make ends meet for a while. 

I went home for a few weeks and was buoyed to come back and try out a fully-fledged New Mexican concept that leaned into my history and heritage. I named it after my grandmother, Ursula, because where I was at in my life at the time, I was just really feeling connected to and inspired by her own resilience and stubbornness to not give in. It was also a deeply personal concept and uniquely tied to me…so shady ex-business partners couldn’t lay claim to the concept or the name.

What do you consider the queerest food item in a bakery? 

My initial thought would be an oatmeal cookie. It’s one of the only bakery items with queer-dietary sensibility in mind, with that little extra fiber. And if you’re lucky enough to come across conchas, that would be my second vote. I find them to be rather flamboyant and flirtatious.

You’re featured on the new season of the podcast Opening Soon where you discuss the process of moving Ursula to a new location. What are misconceptions that people have around running a restaurant?

That restaurant owners have money. If you have the opportunity to open a restaurant, especially in a market like Brooklyn, there is definitely a privilege you hold. But I think a lot of consumers have the idea that the chef or owner is making a ton of money, or has a lot of financial security or backing. It’s rarely true. I’ve had a couple reviews left where someone has said something along the lines of us being another trust fund-backed plaything. And I’m like damn, I wish that were true for my sleep cycle and my bank account.

In an interview, it’s stated that 80% of your staff are queer. What are the ways in which you cultivate an LGBTQ+-friendly environment at Ursula?

You can’t tell people they can feel safe inside a space, if they look around and don’t see themselves in the space. We have worked with queer artists for our walls, a queer designer Win Collier of the design firm Smith Hanes, queer cocktail and wine consultants, and queer-owned spirit and beer companies to try and keep as much work and money in our community as possible. We will start working on programming to start up here at our space. Next month we have a Queer Speed Dating night co-hosted by Friends and Family Bar in Oakland and am looking forward to getting to have one of our staff, Nick Blankenship put together Queer Horror Film nights.

With your focus on preserving queer food spaces, what are ways in which others can support and uplift queer food spaces?

Find them in your town or on your vacation and give them your money! Using the resources you have available to you to support them in any way. If you are a journalist or work in media, talk about them! If you are a brand and work on content, collaborate with them. Hire their services for events year-round and not just in June.

The Ursula team posing outside the eatery's new location in Brooklyn.

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