“Being sick and surviving a pandemic magnified everything for me,” says Farish House owner Lori Hassler. “I remember the first time we shut down, last March, I was in the kitchen, prepping some food and thinking, ‘If this is the last time I get to do this, that’s okay.’”
She pauses to collect herself, then apologizes for crying. She’s phoning from a clinic where she’s taking the last of the chemotherapy treatments she’s endured for several months.
“That day, I decided I would do what I could do while I was able to do it. And that really changed the way I thought. About everything.”
Hassler, who grew up in the Valley, had a similar shift in thinking — about food and how to eat it — after studying abroad in the 90s.
“In America, life was all about go go go, but in France and Italy, your life is about dinner,” she believes. “What you will eat, who you will eat with, where you will eat, the conversation you have once you get there. That experience changed me.”
A mostly self-taught chef, Hassler worked for a caterer in Italy, settling there and marrying. When she and her husband returned to Phoenix, she brought back memories of dining and cooking abroad.
“I’d learned to love a neighborhood bistro, and I’d taken some courses with a Spanish chef,” she says. “So what I envisioned for Farish House was a menu of comfort food that isn’t precious.”
Hassler had previously worked in import wine sales and as a translator for a phone-card company, but those fond memories of working in restaurants stayed with her. Three years ago, she began looking for a building that could be home to her dream cafe. “We found this great place that has historic designation with the city,” she says of Farish House’s Third Street home, named for William Farish, Phoenix’s first city manager and built in 1899.
She likes to tell people that Farish House serves food your immigrant grandma might prepare. “I say it’s country French and American comfort food,” Hassler says with a little laugh. “But no pretense. When people ask me what cassoulet is, I say it’s fancy pork and beans with meat in it.”
Like most local restaurants and cafes, Farish House shut down last March. Much of its staff stood by, ready to return when Hassler reopened. In the meantime, federal funds from the Paycheck Protection Program helped, as did switching to a quickly arranged take-out-only plan.
“It was me cooking and my daughter walking the food to the door,” Hassler recalls. “We made it work. But then after other places reopened, our to-go service began to drop off.”
Not long after, and only a few weeks before her 50th birthday, Hassler was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“I chose not to talk about it for quite a bit,” she admits. “Restaurants were closing, and people were dealing with the pandemic, and I didn’t want to play the pity card. I also didn’t want people to doubt that Farish House was on solid ground. Maybe that was wrong of me. But a few months into treatment, I began to feel well, and I started talking about my cancer.”
These days, Hassler is trying her damnedest, she says, to spend more time with her 14-year-old daughter. “I like to work,” she says with another laugh. “So sometimes I have to take her along with me on restaurant errands. But at least we’re together.”
Farish House is busier than ever, she reports. “During the pandemic, we expanded our patio for outdoor seating, and it’s been booked most nights. We’re sometimes getting four seatings per table.”
She’s looking forward to launching her new summer menu and is determined to stay focused on being grateful.
“I feel like I just missed being on a sinking ship,” Hassler says, some caution in her voice. “And I am not going to forget how easy it could have been to lose everything.”