NEWTON — Jean Gruber, a therapist-turned-caterer, decided that if she asks customers what they want to eat, she’d never be stuck with a dull menu.
So she opened Miss Jeanies Improv Kitchen, part of Miss Jeanies Catering and Events Co., and gives customers the option of ordering off the nine-item menu, which includes caprese meat loaf with fresh mozzarella, chicken salad that varies with the season, or a PLT with prosciutto, arugula, roasted tomatoes, and cheese. But most prefer to improvise with her or with head chef Lisa Finneran. “It’s a way to make sure that we keep tossing out ideas,” says Gruber. “Asking customers for what they feel like eating keeps new ideas constantly coming my way.”
Gruber opened Miss Jeanies in a tiny, white stand-alone restaurant in the Nonantum section of Newton last summer. Its mission is to serve “fresh, unboring” dishes, as her website states. The improv part starts with a customer’s general request — something with chicken or a salad that’s sweet and savory — which is built with what’s on hand. Caitlin Moyer, who works nearby at a construction company, experiments regularly. On one memorable visit, she says, she enjoyed a tuna sandwich with jalapeno, avocado, raisins, and pepitas. “The raisins I never would have guessed,” she says. “It was amazing.”
On a recent midday, Moyer brings Gruber a copy of a handwritten recipe for a smoked salmon and mango sandwich her husband has concocted. “It’s what won me over when we were dating,” says Moyer. Gruber promises to have smoked salmon on hand for the next day’s lunch. “We’ll do it tomorrow,” she says.
Regulars like Matt Kumph order off the menu, knowing Gruber will produce a stacked turkey sandwich to his liking. It comes with slices of the bird, sriracha aioli, and herbed cheese. “Whatever you put together,” he tells Gruber, “I’ll eat it.”
Repeat customers know what to expect when Gruber asks them to improvise as they step up to the counter. But new ones require a little education on the unusual ways of the cafe. “It’s sometimes a little deer in the headlights,” says Finneran.
Adds Gruber: “Sometimes they don’t take it where we offer to take it.”
Gruber uses gentle prodding and encouragement to convince some to experiment. The suggestion of bacon usually helps. “It’s like going to someone’s house you know,” says Stephanie Elkind, a longtime customer. “And sometimes you end up [in the kitchen] with her.”
During a recent lunch, Miss Jeanies offers two starter bases for soups. One is butternut squash bisque with bourbon, another is lentil Louisiana gumbo (a nod to Gruber’s Southern upbringing). A tray of macaroni and cheese is in the oven. To an order of the gumbo, customers can add shrimp, collard greens, or smoked sausage, while the macaroni and cheese has its own enhancements: turkey sausage, sriracha, and apples.
The improv element is reflected in the decor. Walls are painted bright red, and Gruber’s work clothes are festive — polka dot tights, a pair of cowboy boots, and bright orange and fuchsia eyeglasses. Food arrives at one of the two tables with bold striped napkins and striped bags of homemade pita chips. “Last time I almost left without paying because you feel you’re at someone’s house,” says Karen Babine, who works in the neighborhood and visits Miss Jeanies on a weekly basis.
That level of comfort and ease is imperative for Gruber, who had a private psychotherapy practice for 20 years. After taking a cooking class at Brookline Adult & Community Education, she started catering for family and friends while keeping her practice for another decade. “In my younger years, I had worked as a waitress in a restaurant. I loved counting the money in my apron. I loved the environment. I loved serving. I wasn’t obsessed with food until that class,” she says.
Gruber, who had two young boys at the time, started catering birthday parties for friends or for an oneg Shabbat (a celebration on the Jewish sabbath) at her synagogue. In 2002, she opened a commercial space but a leukemia diagnosis set her back. When she was in remission, Tony Russo hired her to help set up the catering department for A. Russo & Sons, his family’s Watertown market, and she opened the Newton space four years ago.
The caterer also helps aspiring cooks and entrepreneurs focus their dreams by offering culinary classes and coaching on topics ranging from pricing to recipe development, and pop-up space to test their products. Last month, Newton firefighter Tim Killilea and his girlfriend, nutritionist Shanel Sinclair, took over Miss Jeanies to test their concept for a gluten-free bakery called Augusta Street Kitchen. “The pop-up kitchen concept is wonderful. It gives us the chance to show the community what’s out there,” says Killilea, who served Augusta’s signature trampolines — chocolate-chip cookies with cranberries, sea salt, coconut flakes, and sunflower seeds — and a protein granola called Double Dutch.
The bubbly Gruber hopes to help other food businesses, and it’s that same energetic personality that feeds the lunchtime crowd. Joan Rachlin, who stops in for lunch after her physical therapy appointment, is one of several customers begging Gruber to set up a tip jar. “I want to thank them with an exclamation point,” says Rachlin.
If Gruber’s customers love the creativity, so does her staff, when they aren’t stressed about the timing and the fear of keeping a customer waiting. “I get tense at eight minutes,” says Finneran. “We’re takeout, but we’re not scooping egg salad and tuna salad.”
Customers don’t seem to be in a rush. “We come so often. Today we could have walked, but we drove,” says Babine. “because we want more time here.”
Miss Jeanies Improv Kitchen
223 Adams St., Nonantum, Newton, 617-964-6775, www.missjeanies.com
Jill Radsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.