Meet Sarah Simmons, the chef and founder of City Grit, a New York “culinary salon.” After being named America’s Home Cook Superstar by Food & Wine magazine in 2010, Sarah made the transition to a full-time cooking career, developing a unique concept for her restaurant: At City Grit, she invites out-of-town chefs to come and cook in her space, serving a group of guests in a one-time ticketed dinner event. Now, City Grit is a draw for talented people all over the country, and Sarah has become known for her ability to identify the best up-and-coming chefs.
In the meantime, she’s also expanding the City Grit brand, reaching new cities and finding creative ways to champion chefs she admires. Later this year, she will open a new restaurant, Birds & Bubbles, in New York, focusing on fried chicken and Champagne. And did we mention she’s curating exclusive gift baskets for Williams-Sonoma?
Sarah recently took a break to chat with Taste, sharing the story behind City Grit,what she looks for in a chef, and how she’s taking City Grit on the road. Oh, and her secret to the ultimate fried chicken. Read on!
Tell me about your background and where you grew up.
I grew up in North Carolina and was really fortunate to have a mom who was an avid cook. When I was in first, second and third grades, my mom had a catering business. It was awesome because I got to go there and see things happening and cook with her. It also taught me a lesson that the food business is so hard, at a young age. I never had any fantasies about working in the food world.
But it’s funny, because I’ve been obsessed with making food and with flavors and writing menus since I was a kid. I used to write menus for birthday parties. We had this house at the lake, and my birthday is in October, but I would spend the summer planning the theme and the menu. I was like eight years old. So we should have known that at some point I was going to make the switch to the food world. I was always really curious about flavors and technique, and my mom did me the biggest favor ever, teaching me the foundation of cooking.
Did you cook with her when you were growing up?
I didn’t really cook with her that often. I cooked a lot on my own, just playing around on Saturday mornings. I remember, I used to make myself scrambled eggs, a piece of toast — a balanced, beautiful plate. I would get a piece of deli ham out of the meat compartment in the fridge and sear it on both sides. Not normal! I would plate my breakfast and sit and watch cartoons, eating this breakfast I made myself.
Any other special food memories from your childhood?
I have so many food memories from my whole life. You have these different stages. Originally, when I started cooking professionally, I wanted only French food — really high end. And then I realized it kind of bored me. I lived in Japan and I’m Southern, and the last two things I wanted to do were Asian food and Southern food. Now, if you look at my best dishes, they are all either traditional Southern dishes with Asian flavors or Asian dishes with Southern ingredients. It didn’t work out like I planned.
How did you make the career transition from business to cooking?
I was a retail strategist, so my job was all about marketing tactics and the capabilities that technology enabled, and helping companies build long-term business strategies around that.
Food & Wine magazine had a contest looking for the nation’s best home cook – the search for the Home Cook Superstar. I entered, and I won, and they sent me on this amazing trip with these awesome chefs who all said, “You should be cooking.” So I thought, maybe I’ll figure this out.
For me, it was having a lot of amazing opportunities to eat in awesome restaurants and taking really good notes on what I ate, texture-wise, flavor-wise, and asking questions of the chef or server. Then, coming back and trying to replicate those. It gives you a really strong foundation. Plus, I worked at it! I wanted to learn how to break meat down. You see the scene in Julie & Julia, where she cuts all the onions – I did that with chickens. Even with our fried chicken, the recipe we use for Birds & Bubbles – I made fried chicken every day for 30 days, trying to find my voice. It’s just that drive and commitment to learning that gave me a vast repertoire.
So then what happened?
So I came home and said, what am I going to do? I spent some time trying to figure it out. I knew I wanted to open a restaurant. I was terrified of opening a restaurant. I spent some time traveling around the country and cooking in kitchens with some chefs that I knew and staging here and there. Every time I went somewhere, someone in that kitchen would say to me, “I’ve always wanted to cook in New York.” So I thought, I’m going to open this place where the consumer is used to coming in and not knowing what the menu is. That gives me the flexibility to make whatever I want and to give these chefs the opportunity to come cook in New York. That’s how City Grit was born.
Did City Grit start out of your apartment?
Because I traveled for work my entire career, it was hard for me to see my friends. Living in New York, your friends are your family. It’s important to maintain those relationships. So every other Sunday I would have people over for dinner.
City Grit originally was the idea for a cookbook, just about grits. My best friend is the founder of Foursquare, so City Grit became the “location” of my apartment. We were just having dinner parties. That’s why we decided to name it City Grit when we moved into a professional environment.
What happened to the cookbook idea?
I’ll write it one day. I certainly have enough recipes.
How did you start drumming up business? Was it just you, or did you have a staff?
I had a sous chef – she was with me part time and ended up coming on full time. And an office manager, part time as well. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I didn’t know anything about running a kitchen. I’m lucky that I knew a lot about running a business, because that’s why I’m still in business. But honestly, all I remember from the first year was that it was miserable. And every day I would wake up and think, I can’t believe I have to get out of bed and do all these things today.
Did you question yourself?
I did, a lot, but I believed in the concept. And so many people told me it would never work that I just wanted to prove them all wrong. And I wanted it to succeed. It wasn’t just about backlash – it was a good idea! Being a chef is hard. Being a young chef is even harder. If you can give someone a leg up because they get exposure to someone – media, or an influential diner – then I’ve done my job.
So that was one of your goals, starting out?
Tell me more about the City Grit concept and how it came about.
I was using a kitchen in Nolita for catering while I was trying to find a restaurant space, and the owners of the building offered me what is now the dining room. Just around the same time, I met the guys from WRK, who design and source all of this furniture. They were looking for a showroom. I knew we weren’t going to do breakfast and lunch, so we came in together and shared the space. They just moved out, and it’s just us in the space now. There are pros and cons; we have the space to ourselves now, but all their awesome furniture is gone, so we’re having to furnish it.
It was exhausting, because every day we had to not only set up the dining room, but we had to set the store back up every night. By the time the servers were done they were ready to get home, but they had an hour more at least of work setting the store back up. Now, it’s nice to have our own space.
Did you know from the beginning who you were going to invite to come cook?
I definitely had a top five. I would meet someone and just be blown away by their food. We can’t have anyone cook there without having tasted their food. Anyone can make something pretty. I didn’t realize how much work on my part it would be to scout and vet the chefs. I spend about a week every month traveling to a city, eating in like 30 places, scoping out the scene and putting people on the list to be invited.
What do you look for?
You can walk into a restaurant and nine times out of 10 we can decide if someone’s a good fit based on the service we have before the plate hits the table. That sets a tone for how things are managed and how difficult or not difficult a chef is going to be, leading up to it and during service.
It’s about the vibe. You can be in a place and you can feel it – these people are engaging with one another like our customers do. Someone can make amazing food but if they’re super stiff, it translates. The servers are listening to that chef during lineup and if they’re super stiff and reserved, unfortunately the servers aren’t as excited about talking about the dishes to the guests. We don’t want that to happen. We want our servers to be salespeople and talk about these dishes and be really excited about it.
And of course it’s the food, and how complicated and precious the food is. If you’re putting 80 plates out, it’s banquet style – they’re all going out at the same time. You don’t want 15 components on the dish.
When you first started, was it tough to get people interested in coming? Was there a credibility hurdle?
Oh yeah. I was a nobody. People would meet me and I would tell them about it and they would give me this, “Bless your heart, what a sweet idea.” And now a year later those same people are like, “When are you going to invite me?” It was definitely a hurdle. Making a name for yourself in the culinary industry in general is hard, and in New York there’s just so much competition. It’s really challenging, but I’m so grateful that we were able to find people that loved us and told our story for us.
Tell us about a typical night at City Grit.
It’s funny – I got to eat in the dining room Friday night, and I had a really bad migraine, but it was so important and I’m glad I didn’t bail and go home. The food was delicious, and it is so awesome to see how excited people are to be there. That is worth getting out of bed every morning to be able to see. I take it for granted, actually. I’m usually in the kitchen so I don’t get to see it, but to experience it and feed off of the excitement and have guests come up and tell me how much they love the concept – still, after almost three years, it’s awesome.
Why are they so excited?
There is a certain level of excitement because it’s something that happens once and doesn’t happen again. That night, we were having Claire Handleman cook, and she’s opening a Thai restaurant. She’s a part of a program called The Next Big Thing, where we really help support chefs that are going out on their own for the first time. I think there’s excitement there – everybody has a story about seeing a band two or three years before they were popular. It’s the same thing with chefs. There’s an excitement to taste someone’s food who’s putting their food out publicly for the first time ever. When the restaurant opens, they have bragging rights.
How do you think the communal dining setup changes the experience?
Fortunately, everyone that’s there is like-minded. Obviously you have to have some kind of open attitude about dining, because you’re going to a place where you’re not choosing what you’re eating. You don’t even know what you’re eating most of the time. People make friends with each other, and that energy – I wish I could bottle it and sell it.
What are some of the most memorable dinners you’ve had?
Last year in June we had John Currence, who came and brought chefs with him who were up and comers. He was the headliner and they were the opening acts, and they all did a course. A lot of them were friends of mine. That night I got to sit in the dining room, eating their food and holding John’s baby during dinner. He had a newborn. I’m holding this sweet, beautiful child and eating this food in my own restaurant that my friends had made – it was such a great moment.
Also, I love it when my mom is there. It’s so special.
How would you describe your food?
Definitely Southern inspired, and I use a lot of Asian flavors. I’m torn, because Asian is really hot right now, so everyone is using it. On one hand, I’m like, I’ve been doing this forever, but part of me is like, it’s about time people appreciated this amazing culture. I want to make sure that my food is still unique.
You spent time in Japan?
Yes, I lived there in college. I loved it so much.
Any specific memories or discoveries?
So many. I had whole milk for the first time. On the northern island the land is green and lush, and the cows are well fed and the dairy is just better. I had this amazing bowl of cereal my first day there. I remember feeling robbed because we had skim milk all my life.
Japan changed me. I couldn’t have been luckier. I had a friend that we met and we’re still friends – I was in her wedding. I had what I think was my first love there. I had this amazing family that taught me how to make food, and I experienced all these different flavors for the first time. This was an entire month of tasting new flavors, like uni and squid ink and Japanese curry and really tasting wasabi. Daikon. So many different things. It was a magical time.
How did it taste the way you cook?
I started to crave those flavors. I found myself tucking the flavors in here and there because I was craving them.
Are there logistical challenges of cooking with different people every night?
It’s like opening a new restaurant every 48 hours. We order all the ingredients for them; some of them bring things because they want to use local ingredients and tell a story about where they’re from. But we have a staff that is there, we augment their staff, and we change the wine list every night based on what’s being served. We change the music in the dining room.
Do the guest chefs have a say in all of that?
Of course. We change the room around, based on the seating. You don’t get in a rhythm the way you do in a restaurant because the rhythm is changing all the time. We solved a bunch of problems and created a whole bunch of other problems.
How does that affect your creative process? Do you work on the menu together?
Now, Mary Frances, our culinary director, really focuses on planning the menus with the chefs, and she’s really good about not constricting them from a creative perspective. We are in the business of making them stars. She guides them to put out dishes that are easy to put out with our equipment, setup and timing. She’s such a good leader. Before, I was doing all of the things I do for the business and all of that, and cooking a lot of the food, and now it’s good to have someone who’s really focused on that and really great at it while I focus on the other things.
What are some of the things you’ve learned from watching visiting chefs?
One of my favorite things is cooking with Paul Qui. He is so smart and talented. He left a bunch of uni, and he had used dehydrated uni on something, so I started dehydrating uni. It’s such a great trick to use. When you need to add salt or depth – it’s like cheese. It tastes like an awesome, sea-driven Parmesan cheese.
John Currence left some dehydrated country ham, and we used the ham powder blended with stuff as a rub for our ribs. So it’s like pork on pork on pork.
What’s fun is that we’re always testing stuff too, so we get to teach chefs stuff too and show them spices that we love. It’s really sharing at its ultimate.
Why do you think chefs are excited about coming?
Who doesn’t love cooking in New York, or just being in New York? I think that has a lot to do with it.
Who are some of the up and comers you’re excited about right now?
Lee Gregory is a chef out of Richmond, Virginia that I think is so talented. Kyle Itani, who is the chef at Hopscotch in Oakland, is also really talented. His food hits home to me because it’s very similar to mine – Southern-inspired with Asian flavors. I love that. Peter Dale is an amazing chef in Athens, Georgia. Jamie Malone is not really an up and comer – she’s a Food & Wine Best New Chef from last year’s class. But the amount of information she knows about food in general is mind blowing, so I can’t wait to see where she does next. The possibilities are really endless for her.
Why do you think people are becoming more interested in Southern food?
It’s always been hot to me! A lot of the superstars are in the South right now. It makes sense. You go to culinary school or work your way up in a major kitchen in New York or Chicago, you get a lot of experience, and then you want to do your own thing. So you move where that’s cost effective. The South is a better opportunity, less saturated. The long growing season – they just went through their first crop of strawberries. They’ll have another one. There are two tomato seasons. It’s so awesome – we’re just finishing root vegetables in New York.
How did Birds & Bubbles come about?
We started serving fried chicken once a month for Sunday supper. And we actually started drinking Riesling with fried chicken, and then someone brought me a bottle of really nice Champagne, and I was like, “Let’s celebrate!” Someone was like, “What are you celebrating?” and I said, “We just finished serving – that’s what we’re celebrating.” It started this whole idea of celebrating the small things. Someone brought me a bottle of Champagne and I wanted to open it, and someone thought I was crazy because I wasn’t waiting for a special occasion. Just that moment is a special occasion.
And it’s such a good food pairing. It pairs well with so many different things. I just kept thinking about it in the back of my head. I called it “my fried chicken and Champagne restaurant” for so long, and then one day: Birds & Bubbles. I called my publicist and said I’d found the name. I got on the phone with an IP lawyer immediately to make sure no one else had it.
So you knew you wanted to open another restaurant?
I actually wanted to open the fried chicken and Champagne restaurant on a ski resort. I love to ski more than anything in the whole world, and nothing would be more amazing after skiing all day – because I don’t like to stop for lunch, it’s a waste of my ski time – than that. I would love to eat as much fried chicken as I can eat and drink Champagne après ski. My plan was not New York, but to go straight for opening it at a ski resort.
Then we were looking for a new space for City Grit – I was actually skiing at the time — and one of my colleagues texted me saying she’d found a space. I went back and went to see it the next day and I walked out and said, “This is not City Grit, this is Birds & Bubbles in New York.” Now we’re opening it. That was just in January.
Is City Grit moving?
Yes. We want a bigger space. We want to do retail and have more flexibility. Part of our relationship with Williams-Sonoma is that we curate the gourmet gift baskets for holidays, and I go to all of these cities scouting and vetting guest chefs and I meet these amazing artisan food makers. We collect things all year for these baskets that we’re distributing exclusively through Williams-Sonoma, and we’d love to have a showroom for that. We want to have our own gourmet takeaway food. We want to have a bar. When you’re paying the rent prices you pay in New York, you want to be able to utilize the spaces during the day.
We are expanding in a lot of different directions. We are really focused on food experiences, whether that’s something we host in New York or we host in other cities. We find cities we feel like are undiscovered or don’t get enough attention. Sacramento, I think, is one of the hottest food scenes in the country. In two years, it’s going to be a destination. I want to be able to bring attention to those places. Our first step this year is that we’ve hosted a series called City Spotlight. We’re focused on the Bay Area; Richmond, Virginia; Nashville; and Philadelphia. Over the year we’re bringing chefs from those cities to City Grit, but also next year we want to host City Grit dinners in those cities and bring chefs from New York there.
We eat hard! We know where to eat and what to get. With our dining guides, we want to be able to share that information and bring exposure to the small guys we meet. We can’t necessarily bring the taco guy to City Grit for a guest chef dinner, but we can try to get you as a customer to go to the taco guy when you’re in one of these cities. We are asked all the time on our opinions about what gifts to get, what trends are coming, what chefs to watch, so we’re working on a couple of initiatives that help us tell those stories.
We have learned a lot about running restaurants. We’re opening our own restaurants. City Grit has been a test kitchen for me for the past three years. Every dish that I put out has been a test for an idea I had for a restaurant concept. So we’re going to be opening more restaurants. And then we’re hopefully going to be able to help other chefs who are opening their own restaurants for the first time. Chefs are not necessarily businesspeople; they just want to cook food and make people happy. And that doesn’t usually involve payroll and permitting and all those things. We want to be able to help operate and open those restaurants with chefs.
We are going to be doing events in other cities and maybe opening an actual brick-and-mortar culinary salon in another city. We’re opening some restaurants in South Carolina probably in the next 18 months to 2 years, and then I’m focused on Vail next. I don’t want to look too far in the future, but I’m definitely thinking of other concepts in other cities.
Last question: what’s the secret to the ultimate fried chicken?
Salt. You have to season the flour – that’s the most important thing.