"I really think what we're doing is having a large impact on the food community and is giving an opportunity for chefs...It's really been awesome."
Sarah Simmons has an awesome concept running down at City Grit Culinary Salon. Depending on the night, you might sit for a four-course menu of Sarah's "Southern Comfort." Or possibly a collection of chefs working with John Currence before they all smoke and grill their best for the crowds at the upcoming Big Apple Barbeque Block Party. Or you may meet "the next best thing," where the most skilled hands behind some major chefs take the spotlight with carefully crafted menus of their own.
No matter the night, Simmons' sense of homey hospitality will permeate the expertly prepared menu. Hers is a story many drool over making their own—after six years of hosting bi-monthly supper clubs in her home, she won Food and Wine's "Home Cook Superstar," which brought her the notoriety she needed to transfer to food full-time. Now she's always in motion, with the full gamut of restaurateur responsibilities on her back. Oh, and she does it in a space that is an antique store by day in a building that was once a public school. So there's quite a bit of extra responsibility tucked in.
We caught up with Simmons on what it really takes to jump from one successful career into one that is highly volatile, extremely physical and (often) poorly paid, and how she gets inspiration from bringing outsiders in.
You've had a good amount of success transferring careers into the food world. What skill set do you feel you had that increased your chances? I think that having a solid business background is critical, and it's why I'm still open. People often fail because they follow their passion—which is awesome—but everyone has to pay their bills, so you have to have some form of income or sustenance to make that passion-following viable. And you have to be really scrappy; you have to take jobs that you wouldn't normally take and do things that you wouldn't normally do.
Did your work as a consultant specifically help? Consulting gives you the ability to come into an existing business and look at it with different eyes. My goal was always the same—to open this culinary salon would provide a platform for younger chefs. But I realized at the beginning that no one knew who I was and no one really understood the concept, so I couldn't, out of the gate, start introducing chefs that no one really knew. A lot of people would have said, "Oh, no one's coming to these dinners, so it's not a good idea." Being able to look at it with consulting eyes enabled me to kind of take a step backwards and take the emotional attachment out to see what was working and what was not—I had to quickly change the immediate goal to build the brand. I believed in what we were and what we wanted to do, but in the beginning I could just see that it wasn't going to work quite that way.
Was there a hurdle that you had to overcome that particularly surprised even you? I had this Pollyanna vision in the beginning that we wouldn't charge chefs a fee; it would be a total partnership and collaboration and a total win for them. And then I realized that we're all really busy people, and chefs aren't the most organized of folks. And quite frankly, a lot of them aren't budget-conscious. So this guest-chef fee that we created isn't a money-maker for us, it's just a way to hold chefs accountable. Because it's not a Pollyanna world. People behave differently—I behave differently—if there's a financial skin in the game. So just sharing that risk with chefs wasn't something I hadn't considered when I opened. And it's not a negative or positive thing; it's just a reality.
Are the chefs that you're bringing in more green in experience or notoriety? Some of them are both. Some of them have been working for 15 years in other people's kitchens but are the "man behind the curtain." There's no way for the executive chef to make every morsel that comes out of that kitchen, so there have to be people that are excellent chefs in their own right. And that's what I just discovered. Sometimes the support team that would come in here for these better-known chefs could cook everyone under the table. And I really wanted to give those guys the opportunity to shine.
What is the greatest motivator for the chefs coming in here? Has anything moved you personally? Everyone is so excited—it's humbling and adorable. All of us are in the kitchen for a reason, but some of us just don't like to be the center of attention. And sometimes the most anti-social and shy chefs are the ones who are the most excited about coming. They aren't even honest with me about how much time they spend on their menus, but I find out through one of the other cooks or their publicist: "Oh, he's so proud of this dish because he's been working on it for six weeks." I'm just thrilled that they're working that hard in advance of coming here because they want to shine, and it's great to give them that opportunity.
You're known for your southern sense of hospitality, but what makes New York the right city for this concept? I think the bottom line is the number of food writers that are based in New York— I feel like it's the food media capital of the world. It's hard to get your name out there and it's hard to get recognition—you can't fly ten of these people to where you are and have them eat your food—so I think that's what makes it exciting in addition to the sparkle of cooking in New York City. Here there's a good chance that you're going to have four to six food writers that are highly influential and have the ability to bring recognition to your name in the dining room eating your food.
Have you noticed any difference between some of the cooks that come in here with their chefs versus young cooks here? The talent that comes with every chef in here are... if I were unethical I would poach them all and have this army of cooks. Because they're phenomenal. And they seem to be working for those chefs because they believe in what that chef is doing and are excited about what they can teach them. And I have seen cooks run personal errands for these chefs, and take care of details that I would never ask of someone, and their chefs aren't even asking. These cooks are traveling with these chefs to make sure that all these details are being taken care of for them—everything. And I do think that that does happen in New York, but I think it takes a long time; you have to have a really solid reputation as a leader and a teacher and a mentor to have that following because of the constant churn that we see.
City Grit is your first restaurant, and despite your years with your supper club you didn't exactly have restaurant experience of your own. Did that make it hard for you when staffing? I had a cook that was working with me and I couldn't have done it without her. I fell in love with her for her knife skills. We had a hard time finding people that stayed regularly, and between the two of us we worked like a team of four or five people. I may cry... I never could have gotten this business of the ground without her. The intention had never been that she was going to be with me for more than a couple of months—she was at that age where it's hard to break in in a fine dining kitchen, and she just needed to do that. So when she left there was a gap, but at least it wasn't a gap where I had a kitchen full of ding dongs. It was a gap with a kitchen full of people we had trained together. But it was hard.
My team now is perfect... knock on wood so that no one quits today. But until six weeks ago I was making almost every morsel of food and every idea from a culinary standpoint was mine, and the testing of everything was all on me while my cooks were executing other things. So bringing in the right people has enabled me to grow the business. It's super hard.
I read somewhere that you equated running a restaurant and being a chef to running several marathons weekly. What keeps you going when maybe you want to just live in an Epsom salt bath for a while? It's hard to say this about your own idea and your own business, but I really think what we're doing is having a large impact on the food community and is giving an opportunity for chefs. And aside from that, the guests hug me every night. Someone told me on Sunday night it was the best chicken he'd ever had in his entire life. And those are the things that get you out of bed in the morning when you just want to sleep, or stop you from drowning yourself in the Epsom salt bath. The amount of love and support from the community doesn't hurt either. It's really been awesome.