I made a joke the other day to someone in the industry that I am absolutely clueless when it comes to knowing what is going on in the culinary world outside of New York City. A few years ago I was far from knowledge base I have now and sheepishly admit there was even a time when I did not know who Jean-Georges was.
Which now seems utterly absurd, yet also extremely refreshing.
Somehow in the wild beauty that is this world I started making money building recipes and writing for the internet, and as I got better at both and exposed to the professionals of the culinary world, I naturally became curious more about the person behind the chef than in what I could create on my own.
How do we connect with each other? What do we value? How do we give to the world with the talents and skills we have?
Every time I go into a kitchen I try to quantify the energy. Because kitchens – and their chefs – differ greatly. Some are ample and spacious and gleaming and teeming with a hierarchical army of cooks, like Daniel Humm’s at Eleven Madison Park. Others are tiny and intimate and movement is precise and literal, like Gabrielle Hamilton’s at Prune.
Then there are those that completely defy why you expect. And recently, in Sarah Simmons’ CITY GRIT, I found just that.
Set in an old school house in the “Nolita” area of NYC, Sarah plays hosts to visiting chefs from all over the country, when not cooking a tasting menu of her own. It’s not a convenient design for a working kitchen – refrigerators are several rooms away from the range and ovens – but it’s sure as hell spacious. And while runners have to carry full sheet trays around corners with a warning yell, over door dividers and up a flight of stairs to the antique-store-by-day dining room, from the guest perspective you’d have no idea that you weren’t in an anything other than a top-notch restaurant feasting on the menu of a very enthusiastic chef.
Last week, that chef was Jason Dady of San Antonio. I’d never heard of him, but we’ve obviously established that my lack of recognition was no fault of his. Dady took SanAnt (as this party of one calls it) as his own when he was 24, opening a fine-dining restaurant that was one of the city’s first. When the economy dipped, he scaled down with a new small plates and wine spot; again one of the city’s few. Now a food truck is in running. He’s got skills, and a team, and a name.
So Sarah welcomed him back to New York.
At last week’s dinner, the theme was that there was no theme; Moroccan, Indian, El Salvadorian, French… it was all on the menu. While my job wasn’t to critique but to just snap away and document the process, I did snag a bite or two: silky bone marrow mousse smeared with cherry jam in a macaron; the flavor contrast of roasted and fresh figs with eggplant and a confited potato; shrimp with seven-step pork belly. I have no idea what the journey was for the upstairs crowd, but downstairs I was having fun.
Jason and Sarah’s teams joined for a calm, fluid dance during service, their chefs and cooks working conveyor-belt style to get the 50 plates out in a matter of minutes, course after course. Runners shlepped to servers. Mary Frances made sure that plates were minimally touched, chipped plates were replaced and counters were consistently wiped clean. Other than to come down and shake off some M&M-fueled energy, Sarah perched by the dining room door to direct plates to tables. Those tables were awash in candlelight, and the warm first night of summer played a part in the feeling that you were at a dinner party thrown by the swankiest friend you know.
Jason marks the first chef I’ve worked with outside of New York City. And the first time I can smirk and say with only just a touch of the wry New Yorker in me, “God Bless Texas”.
When figuring out how to visually pull this story together, it was clear that I just wanted to focus on hands; the muscular and deft work that hands to do put food on plates strongly, specifically and with speed.