NEW YORK — Norma Kamali invented parachute dresses and sweatshirt clothes, but culinary treats were never high on her agenda.
"My stepfather had a candy store in the Fifties in New York," Kamali recalled. "I had to work in this candy store and hated every minute of it. I never really was a pastry lover. I was eating olives and pickles, and things like that. I would just set up all the candy bars according to color."
Coming full circle in some ways, Kamali is adding a new feature in her signature store on West 56th Street. The designer has opened the Wellness Cafe in the lower back area of her multistory boutique.
She cooked up the plans because of her fascination with olive oil and its beneficial effects on physical and spiritual health. Her obsession with olive oil goes back to childhood. With a Lebanese mother and a Spanish father, olive oil was practically part of her daily routine, from cooking with it to eating a tablespoon daily and using it for her hair. When Kamali met an olive oil importer from Barcelona at a New York Yankees game about two years ago, her fascination was rekindled and led to journeys through Europe's olive orchards.
"It became a serious endeavor and I became an expert in olive oil…I would talk to the women and ask, 'What would you do to the olive oil?' It wasn't anything about miracle concoctions,'' she said. "It was simple stuff from the land. Not only were we covered with olive oil and bread crumbs, but we had all of this incredible stuff.
"We were driving through Grasse in France and I met with a perfumer there and said, 'I am crazy about olive oil and think there should be a scent that's olive and lemon and olive and lime,'" she continued. "He smiled and opened his wallet and showed me an olive branch. He was already developing this scent for himself. Everything just came together."
Kamali said the cafe came about as "a way to show if you want to try popcorn, for instance, the best way to do it is with olive oil. It was the idea that olive oil can be more than just for salad."Back home, she contacted Town restaurant and the Bryant Park Grill to develop special pastries for the cafe. Town developed things such as olive oil ice cream, and a light olive oil and lavender short bread — garnished with lavender leaves. The Bryant Park Grill is supplying an aromatic rose meringue parfait, olive oil cupcakes with a hint of spice and lavender marshmallows that are as light as air.
Various drinks are offered as well, such as Lavender tea, Rose Petal tea, Jazmin Pearl tea and Olive Leaf and Lavender tea, or soda in flavors such as lavender, jasmine and rose.
"You can mix it with Champagne or vodka or just have iced for the summer," Kamali said. "It's not about organic, but there is a wellness message here. Even if you go into Champagne or desserts, there is another way to do it."
The olive oil available in her cafe reaches beyond the edible. She is also offering the Extra Virgin label — featuring fragrances, first press olive oil massage oils, moisturizers, liniments and even facial scrubs made from crushed olive pits. A wall displays little bags of all-natural floral bonbons, crystallized flowers as candy, olive oil popcorn and lavender honey drops.
"We are looking at wanting to find ways to take care of ourselves and it's simple," Kamali said. "It's an easy concept: I need to de-stress and feel calm. It doesn't matter if you're out in a farm somewhere or in the middle of the city. Everyone is feeling the universal pressure. I don't think there is a person that doesn't get that this is a time we need to do things in a different way."
But don't view Kamali as a pastry chef.
"I don't know why, but I really am at a big deficit in the kitchen," Kamali said. "It's not a restaurant. You don't hear any knives and forks. But there are times in the afternoon I just want to have a cup of tea or meet with someone and relax."
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