Saltie and Little Chef's Caroline Fidanza: We're No Longer Making Progress in the Seasonal Local Movement
Over the course of her two-decade-long career in New York City's restaurants, Caroline Fidanza has both witnessed and shaped the ever-evolving conversation about the place of local sources and sustainability in food: After stints at local sourcing-focused Savoy and almost every single one of Andrew Tarlow's restaurants, she opened Saltie (378 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-387-4777), a vegetable-forward sandwich shop, and Little Chef (600 Eleventh Avenue, 212-582-7944), a sustainability-oriented take on a lunch counter.
It was a post-college job at the MOMA that sent her scurrying into the food world (despite the fact, she says, that working in restaurants was just barely becoming a viable career path), and after graduating from the Natural Gourmet Cooking School, which was then offering a macrobiotic curriculum, she worked for a couple of weeks under Mario Batali at Po, and he helped her land her first job with Peter Hoffman at Savoy. "It was a great teaching kitchen," she recalls. "It's what I'd imagine Chez Panisse would be like, and Peter certainly gets compared with Alice Waters. He invested in farm-to-table before anyone else. The cooks all had days they had to go to the greenmarket. It was challenging and really fun."
In her three-year tenure there, her philosophy on sourcing solidified, and after a respite spent working in Europe and then at the Greenmarket, she signed on with Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth to open Diner. She spent 11 years in what would become a Brooklyn empire, known for its application of a fine dining-like good ingredient mindset and nose-to-tail cooking to more casual restaurants.
She left to do some soul searching: "I wasn't burnt on the business, but I couldn't deal with the constant need to find good staff or work with the health department," she says. She was also over the fetishization of meat -- even well-sourced meat -- she was seeing in many of New York's restaurants, and she wanted to take some time to figure out what she was going to do next.
It wasn't long, though, before a space dropped into her lap: An old co-worker was looking to sell the lease on her bakery so she could move out of town. Fidanza wasn't sold -- she wasn't a baker -- but another colleague, Rebecca Collerton, was bent on acquiring the address and wanted Fidanza as a partner. "I said I'd do it if Elizabeth Schula would do it since she's the baker," she says. Schula agreed, and the trio put together Saltie, which quickly evolved into a sandwich shop, light on meat in the beginning only because they didn't have the refrigeration necessary for storing animal protein.
After three years, Gotham West Market approached her about opening an offshoot in Hell's Kitchen, and she agreed, though she demurred on opening another Saltie. "Court Street Grocers is doing sandwiches here," she explains. "It was important to give this a different name and direction." She built the Little Chef, which she says is more of a lunch counter focused on good ingredients than it is a sandwich shop.
In this interview, Fidanza weighs in on the state of sustainability and local sourcing in the city, where the industry is headed, and what she'd like to accomplish before retiring to Mexico.