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Published Monday, October 26, 2015

More Than a Meal

By Matt Robinson

Jeanie Gruber improvising in the kitchen

When the mother of the bride or the bar mitzvah boy’s parents are getting shpilkes, award-winning caterer/restaurateur/psychotherapist Jeanie Gruber is ready to respond. Not only can she provide something comforting to eat, but she has the background to talk them through the entire process.

With her unique combination of Southern charm (Gruber was born in Louisiana and returns often to pick up new recipes and to slow down again) and Northern sensibilities (she simultaneously runs her own café – Newton’s popular Improv Kitchen – while also running a catering school, writing books on starting a food business and being a devoted wife and mother who still counsels many family and friends in her “spare” time), Gruber can make customers and clients feel at ease even as she balances more hats than a haberdasher.

Growing up the granddaughter of a rabbi in Baton Rouge, Gruber may have had trouble finding kosher food, but her sense of Judaism was strong.

“There were no bagels, kugels, lox or matzah ball soup to be had anywhere,” she explained, describing her “small, yet vibrant” congregation. “Gumbo was the Jewish community’s food of choice!” As one of only nine Jewish children her age in the state capital, Gruber became heavily involved in the synagogue youth movement, SOFTY.

“We had great times together meeting up with kids from smaller southern Jewish communities – socializing, writing services, singing along with Jewish guitar music and exploring our feelings about G-d and life,”
she said. Her Southern Jewish background may explain why Gruber gives 10 percent of all simchah proceeds to Jewish charities.

“It just seems like a win-win for everyone,” she said of this long-time practice. “It feels odd to just take in the money and not pay it forward.” Oftentimes, her clients choose the charity. Over the years, she has donated thousands of dollars to various causes.

Gruber developed a love for working with and around food during her years working as a waitress while attending graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. By the time she got to her second waitressing job in Atlanta, she was emboldened enough to ask the owner if she could make soup and, further, to name her creation after herself.

“My first one was named Tomato Pressburg,” she said, revealing her maiden name.

A sandwich from Improv Kitchen

When she moved to the Boston area, Gruber took a cooking class with Brookline-based chef Stephanie Elkind. “Her love of food, herbs, spices, [and] fun unique recipes intrigued me,” Gruber said, hinting at the creative cooking that would become her trademark as a caterer and proprietor of the aptly-named Improv Kitchen, where she takes whatever ingredients come to hand and draws on them for daily inspiration.

As enduring as her love may be for food, Gruber also spent many years soothing other people with therapy. In both scenarios, she suggests that an openness to other people’s ideas and unique ways of doing things is essential. As many customers and clients will attest, she loves to hear people tell all about themselves, as well as their favorite foods.

“I was always a good listener,” said Gruber.

As her fascination with food continued to grow, she found herself torn between two career passions. While she was able to keep both going for a time, the balance became too much when she received a cancer diagnosis of acute leukemia 13 years ago. After six months of intensive treatment during which time she ran her catering company, Miss Jeanie’s, from her hospital bed, she bounced right back to catering over 100 events per year.

“I love creating parties while joining into a creative process with my clients,” Gruber said. She devised the concept for Improv Kitchen and the restaurant’s open-ended cookbook in which customers improvise with “Miss Jeanie” to create their lunch recipe, because she doesn’t like to do the same thing every day. “The same menu, even for a season, feels non-creative and slow. What’s better than challenging myself to come up with new food ideas with our customers on a daily basis?”

While many customers return to Gruber’s Improv Kitchen again and again, she will, of course, prepare their favorite reliable if they insist. Otherwise, their imagination is encouraged to run wild.

“It takes a second for some customers to get it,” she admitted, “but the smile that comes to them makes me feel incredible!”

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