City Grit's Sarah Simmons: "You Can't Be in the Boys' Club if You're Not a Boy"
City Grit chef-owner Sarah Simmons yells out questions about an upcoming event, looking up from her laptop in search of an answer from one of the members of her team. She's seated at a long, rickety table on one side of her basement kitchen, and every once in a while, she'll call out to Matt Jennings, who traveled in from his restaurant Farmstead in Providence, Rhode Island, and is standing with a team of cooks tasting cured meats. She's clearly in charge of the kitchen, but she's leaving the details to her guest chef, as she will with another guest chef tomorrow and the next day because that's how often someone new stops in to helm the burners here. "It's like a new restaurant kitchen every 48 hours," she says.
Running that arrangement would be tough for any chef, and Simmons also doesn't come from a formal restaurant background. "I was a retail strategist, traveling around, eating in a bunch of awesome restaurants," she says. "Every other weekend I would come home, make dinner, and have people over. The food started getting more complicated, and I started using different ingredients and trying to re-create dishes."
But she didn't think about going pro until 2009, when she was named the nation's best home cook by Food & Wine. Part of the prize was a trip to the Cayman Islands, where she talked to people like José Andrés, David Chang, and Eric Ripert. "They would ask me why I wasn't cooking for a living, and they said I should. I spent a year trying to figure it out."
Rather than open a restaurant or work her way up in a kitchen, she began to entertain the idea of building a place to showcase chefs from around the country. "I was meeting with chefs, staging, and traveling around, and the chefs kept saying to me, 'I want to cook in New York City,'" she says. "So I decided to open a place where I could cook half the time and have other chefs come in and cook with me the other half."
And so she opened City Grit in September 2011, turning the old schoolhouse that's the daytime home to furniture shop WRK into a culinary salon at night. Over the last two years, she's hosted rising stars and award-winning chefs for one-time-only dinners, and she's built the City Grit experience into one of this town's most compelling ways to experience the work of chefs outside of New York.
In part one of our interview, she talks about who inspires her, a food she loathes, and why she wishes there were more women in the kitchen.
Describe your culinary style.
Southern-inspired is a loose term for describing my food, because I also cook a lot of ethnic cuisines. I lived in Japan, so I cook a lot of Japanese food, and I use a lot of Japanese flavors. Sometimes I'm using Southern ingredients but making something Italian, French, or Japanese. Sometimes I'm using Japanese ingredients but doing a Southern dish. For instance, we're doing these mobile clam bakes in August, and instead of doing a traditional clam bake, we're going to do one with Asian flavors, Singapore chile, and jerk seasonings. It was those different types of flavors that set me apart five years ago, but now everyone and their mom is using shiso and yuzu. I think that's awesome. It's bringing a lot of attention to this cuisine.
Describe your kitchen.
The model of our business is that we bring in these amazing chefs from out of town and let them run the show. So I ride guest chefs and make sure that they have their prep together, but I don't give feedback. There's a fine line between stepping on someone's toes creatively and giving them guidance on how to best execute dishes from our kitchen. I was not aware how much coordination and planning went into running the kitchen when I started this, and I've heard that kitchen Sarah is way less fun that real-life Sarah.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
I have the luxury of not having to have a signature dish because our dishes change all the time. With restaurant menus, you use high-margin dishes to offset low-margin [dishes]. We set prices based on exactly what we're making and serving. Because we're doing one-moment-in-time dinners, we get to keep our food costs consistent and make sure we have the highest-quality ingredients available. It's an opportunity to have really harebrained ideas and bring them to life. I did a dinner that was essentially, "If I were to open a Southern tapas restaurant in Tokyo, this is what I would serve." I worked on those dishes for two years, and I may never serve them again.
Who inspires you?
So many chefs. Sean Brock [of Charleston's Husk] because of his core knowledge of food and his ability to create ideas and execute them quickly. Matt Jennings because he went from a big city to a tiny town, and he's still making a huge impact. It's scary, and I don't think I'd ever be able to do it. He still has a presence in these large cities, and the fact that he's keeping that momentum in a smaller community is something I admire. Kelly Fields, John Besh's pastry director, is just awe-inspiring.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
Michael Anthony [of Gramercy Tavern], because he's the country's best chef and nicest human being. He's a great teacher. Working with chefs who come out of his kitchen is a totally different experience.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
I have to trust my own palate a lot, but: my kitchen team. And my culinary director is pretty awesome. I work harder on dishes before I put them in front of her than I do sometimes for the guests. Her palate is so sharp. Technically, she's an amazing chef, so the precision has to be there. I don't want to let her down.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
I use a number of knives, because my knives keep getting stolen. I don't think it's on purpose. I'm going to get a pair of hot pink knives, because it would be a little more difficult for a chef to mistake them for their own. At least I think that's what's happening. But I also have a Korin chef's knife that I hide.
What's the most underrated kitchen tool?
Your dishwasher. Also, I feel like I will have arrived when I have a tilt skillet. Most people don't have the space for it. Maybe a meat slicer too. You can use it for so many other things.
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in?
I get my spices custom-blended, and Lior [Sercarz, owner of spice shop La Boîte] got me hooked on this smoked cinnamon that's really fun to use in sweets, soups, and braises. When chefs come in here they're always like, "Oh, wow," when they use it.
What's the most underrated ingredient?
Salt gets a bad rap, but people don't realize that it's crucial in everything, from curing and preserving to brightening and adding depth.
Is there a food you won't eat?
I loathe olives. But I cook with them. I'm not cooking for myself.
Is there an ingredient you won't work with?
I try not to work with unsustainable seafood. I'm really having a foie gras issue in my head these days. I think foie is mean. But we have a lot of it. It would be most unsustainable of me not to use it now; it would be worse to toss it.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
Lately, everything that I've wanted to order has had a tapenade in it. I don't want the olives to be the new Brussels sprout. That would make me so sad. But I'm not a hater. I know what it takes to put a menu together.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen?
A bottle of Pappy [van Winkle].
What's your local?
It just closed. It was Joe's. I'm so heartbroken. I really like Mother's Ruin.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
Women. It's really hard. I watch chefs interact with other male chefs, and they treat me differently. There's a lack of respect and, in some instances, a lack of giving a shit because you can't be in the boys' club if you're not a boy.
What do you wish would go away?
What's next for New York restaurants?
Something that I'm pretty excited about is that chefs are still using modern techniques, but a lot of them are taking a step backward and looking at how food was being prepared 100 or 200 years ago. They're cooking a lot over fire. We've been obsessed with liquid nitrogen and chemicals and circulators, and now people are like, This is awesome when you cook things over flame. I think we'll see that more in the next year. We'll see kitchens being designed around that.