The gregarious ginger-haired Sarah Simmons sat two rows in front of me on the airport shuttle to the 2010 Cayman Cookout, her wide-brimmed white sun hat resting comfortably on her head as she chatted with her accompanying friend. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Simmons was there as a guest of Food & Wine that weekend, enjoying the perks and posing for pictures as winner of the magazine’s Home Cook Superstar contest. She introduced herself somewhere along the way, her true Southern charm shining through, and we became friends, both newbies to the Hollywood-ish world of celebrity cheftitude.
In a mere two years, Sarah Simmons has utilized her win as an incredible springboard, becoming an active member of the New York culinary scene, and securing her spot in the kitchen world properly, evolving from home cook to bonafide chef as owner and chef of CITY GRIT. One of the hottest tables in a city of hot tables, the “culinary salon” offers a members-only supper club unique to both diners and chefs, with an array of custom furniture filling the cozy dining room and Simmons leading the kitchen, and a rotation of guest chefs, through a series of themed dinners.
Off to the City
Q: What’s your current role?
A: As the chef and owner of CITY GRIT, I really have my hands in a lot of pieces of the business. My main two roles involve overseeing the strategic direction of the company and orchestrating the culinary programming – which could be anything from developing and testing dishes for my upcoming dinners, researching and seeking out up and coming chefs for the guest chef program, or working closely with the guest chefs to make sure their dinners are flawlessly executed.
Q: How did you get started with CITY GRIT?
A: About seven years ago I started hosting casual Sunday suppers in my apartment with the intention of turning my new northern friends into fans of grits. Preparing for these dinners led me to collect and create over 100 grits recipes of which I one day planned to publish in a cookbook called CITY GRIT. Eventually these casual suppers began becoming more formal and featuring ingredients more expensive than just grits. So friends began bringing more friends who all chipped in for ingredients and CITY GRIT went from the name of a future cookbook to the name of an underground supper club.
After being named Food & Wine magazine’s Home Cook Superstar a couple of years ago, I decided to make the leap into the food world. I was on the fence about opening an upscale southern restaurant in NYC because I didn’t want to cook the same food day in and day out and the thought of running a restaurant was completely overwhelming. Then a friend suggested I considering opening a spot where I wasn’t cooking 100% of the time and the concept of CITY GRIT as a culinary salon was born.
Q: What’s surprised you about running CITY GRIT?
A: There are so many answers to that question! When CITY GRIT was just an idea in my head I knew it would be pretty cool to work with all of these amazing chefs. But what I found to be most pleasantly surprising is that it’s far more rewarding than cool. It’s amazing to cook with such great talent but the real rewards come with creating unique opportunities for our guest chefs and diners.
For example, Ty-lor Boring’s been cooking in NYC for a long time but had never served his own food. Last month our guest chef program provided him with the opportunity to serve his own original dishes in public for the very first time in NYC. It was such a special event to be a part of.
And earlier this year we worked with Drew Robinson, the executive chef at Jim ‘N Nicks barbeque, on a dinner series promoting their new Fatback Pig Project – a program to raise purebred Mangalitsa and Berkshire hogs on farms intended to reconstruct a self-sufficient economic foundation for local farmers. It’s a game changer because it redefines sustainability to not only encompass our food sources, but also the communities that produce our food! It was really inspiring to participate in the launch of a program we whole-heartedly believe in and a tremendous honor to work with the Jim ‘N Nicks’ team to give the first tastes of this amazing pork to the diners at CITY GRIT.
Q: What do you think has made CG so successful?
A: I think we’ve been successful so far because we’re laser focused on the overall experience. My business partner, Jeremie Kittredge, defines southern hospitality. It’s his sole mission to create an atmosphere – from the music (he creates a playlist for each dinner based on the theme) to the seating – that ensures our guests are happy, relaxed and feel welcome.
It was very important for our wine program to be as simple as possible. We have about 30 different small batch, boutique wines in our cellar. However, we only offer five to six at each meal because we don’t our guests to have to think too much and want to make sure that whatever they order pairs nicely with the meal. We also offer 90 percent of our bottles for under $40 because we want people to feel more comfortable trying new wines without feeling like they’re breaking the bank.
For the past six months, I’ve been focused on the chef’s experience. It’s my goal to make things as smooth as possible for visiting chefs. I spent the first few months building a culinary program that enables turnkey dinners. Now I’m working on partnerships with hotels for heavily discounted hotel stays and access to the Uber car service to make it as easy and affordable as possible for them to stay in town.
Coming Down The Line
Q: Who are your dream chef collaborators?
A: If I’m dreaming I’d have a dinner starring my heroes: Frank Stitt, Sean Brock, Grant Achatz and Alex Raij. They’ve each opened my eyes, changed my life, or inspired me greatly and it would be beyond an honor to cook with them.
But in all honesty, I’m really most excited about working with chefs that not everyone has already heard of.
I staged at Empire State South last year and have been obsessed with having Executive Chef Ryan Smith up ever since. He’s one of the most talented chefs I know and I want our diners in NYC to see that for themselves.
Chef Peter Dale of The National in Athens, Ga is an old friend of mine from college – and I can’t believe I never made him cook for me back then! He’s like a hidden gem tucked away in a tiny college town.
I recently met Chef Aaron Deal who is about to open a spot in Roanoke, Virginia, called the River and Rail about which I’m pretty excited. He speaks my language when describing his dishes and the overall concept. Listening to him made me want to apply for a job working on his line. But having him at CITY GRIT would be the next best thing!
La Condesa in Austin, Texas is hands-down one of my favorite restaurants in the country. Everything on the men, from the cocktails to the savory dishes to the desserts, is flawless. I know because I’ve tried everything. I’d love for Rene Ortiz, the Executive Chef, and Laura Sawicki, the Executive Pastry Chef, to come back to NYC and showcase their amazing talent with us for a night or five!
Though most of these chefs are Southern, my goal is to host talent from across the country! I’m currently planning a series of trips out west as we work on the fall line-up because there are so many exploding food scenes out there. I’m really excited to check out Ricardo Zarate from Picca in LA, Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen in San Francisco, Gabriel Rucker from Le Pigeon in Portland, along with about 60 other names/restaurants on my list!
Q: What’s up next for Sarah Simmons and CITY GRIT?
A: Now that we’ve launched the guest chef program, we’re focusing on testing out the next phase of CITY GRIT which involves creating an incubation program for artisan food makers. Launching a food business is hard for many reasons but the cost of commercial kitchen space and the lack of a business background are the primary hurdles for most folks. Before I started cooking, I was a retail strategist. So our program will not only provide access to a commercial kitchen, but I’ll serve as an advisor to the participants to provide guidance from a business and marketing standpoint.
We’re beta testing the program right now and plan to roll it out, along with our own line of CITY GRIT gourmet foods, by the end of 2012.
*Photo credit: Erica Gannett