Many people dream of breaking free from the shackles of corporate life and pursuing something they’re truly passionate about. But even among those who actually pull it off, few career-changing fantasies are marked by the kind of serendipitous, rapid-fire success Sarah Simmons has experienced.
The North Carolina-bred retail strategist was stuck in a fast-paced New York grind for more than five years when Food & Wine magazine named her the champ of its America’s Home Cook Superstar contest in 2010. The win encouraged her to open City Grit, an informal culinary salon in New York’s Nolita neighborhood, tucked behind a funky furniture showroom in what was once an old schoolhouse.
“Now that we look back on it, my family and I laugh that I didn’t start cooking professionally earlier,” she says. “There were signs. When I was a little kid a friend’s mother made cupcakes with peanut butter and cream cheese frosting and I asked for the recipe. My birthday is in October, and over the summer I would write elaborate menus for birthday parties. Then, every time I moved further into my professional career and got frustrated I would write business plans for a restaurant. In 2010 I decided I was at the age where I have to do it now or never.”
The diner should never walk in expecting the same food.
She chose now. Piggybacking on the beloved supper clubs she hosted in her apartment, Simmons launched City Grit in 2011. Here, guests show up in jeans, the menu is scrawled on the blackboard, and mismatched chairs are found at communal tables. One night, Nick Balla and Cortney Burns from San Francisco’s Bar Tartine may be in the kitchen; on another, it might Leah Cohen from nearby Pig and Khao behind the burner. There are also Sunday Suppers in which Simmons’ fried chicken is the centerpiece, as well as City Spotlights that lure in chefs from up-and-coming dining destinations like Richmond, VA.
“I spent time traveling and meeting chefs and everywhere I went they would tell me they wanted to cook in New York, so I thought maybe I would open a place where I cook some nights and for the others I bring chefs in to give them the opportunity to cook here,” Simmons says. “It was important to me to not have the same menu every day. This way the diner never walks in expecting the same food.”
Given her love of collaboration and knack for curating culinary talent from around the country, it’s no surprise that Simmons is like a sponge for great ideas in cooking. From shrimp and grits in Chapel Hill to her local New York favorites, here are 10 of the dishes that have helped fuel the City Grit.
Shrimp and grits at Crook’s Corner (Chapel Hill, NC)
Bill Neal may have been the first chef to get recognition for putting shrimp and grits—a dish that was a fisherman’s breakfast—onto a dinner menu. I can’t remember how old I was when I first ate it, but I was pretty young. It was my first memory of layers of flavor: the creaminess, the sharpness of the cheddar, and the savory salt of the bacon. I thought, “Food tastes like this?” (Photo: André Baranowski/Saveur)
Frank Stitt’s squab with redeye gravy
Reading Frank Stitt’s cookbook, Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill, made me rethink my approach to Southern food as more than simply meat-and-three. In particular, his squab with redeye gravy and grilled grits, made with bourbon, country ham, and espresso beans, changed my definition of Southern cuisine. Using redeye gravy, something usually seen at breakfast time, in an elegant dinner dish is spectacular. (Photo: Artisan Books)
Octopus at Le Bernardin (NYC)
The octopus at Le Bernardin is perfectly cooked and served in a black bean-pear sauce spiked with jalapeno peppers. It remains the best dish I’ve ever eaten. I’m not a fan of black beans at all, but these were fermented and didn’t taste like anything I had had before. There was just so much flavor in that dish I didn’t want to swallow; I kept chewing it so it wouldn’t end. (Photo: Michael Turek/Food & Wine)
Warm autumn vegetable salad at Hearth (NYC)
I get really sad when it’s no longer corn and tomato time, and Marco Canora’s warm autumn vegetable salad—delicious squash and sweet potatoes with toasted pumpkin seeds and maple vinaigrette—singlehandedly makes it okay. The way it’s composed, with the ricotta on the side of the bowl…it redefines salad. (Photo: marcocanora.com)
Cauliflower salad at Joseph Leonard (NYC)
I can’t go to Joseph Leonard without ordering the cauliflower salad. I haven’t brought anyone there who hasn’t loved it. It mixes thinly shaved fresh pieces and caramelized florets with pickled red onion, tarragon, capers, pine nuts, and a lovely herb vinaigrette. It’s just one of those remarkable dishes with amazing texture, beautiful colors, and the perfect amount of acidity. If they ever take it off the menu I might riot, cry, or do both. (Photo: yijiagu.com)
Razor clams at Charlie Bird (NYC)
The razor clam crudo at Charlie Bird is the perfect bite to open the palate. With fennel and pickled chilies, they are a little bit spicy and sit in their beautiful shells. I want to eat them before every meal anywhere for the rest of my life. (Photo: Toure Folkes)
I learned how to make goma-ae when I was living in Japan from my Japanese mother. It’s a simple dish, with ground sesame seeds, soy, sugar, and sake—it’s served over spinach that is more similar to kale than American spinach. It tasted a bit like peanut butter, sweet without being super cloying, and we ate it for breakfast. When I came back to the U.S. I was craving it. Whenever I cook a Japanese meal, I always include it as a tribute because she taught me so much about cooking with Japanese flavors. I make a version of it with kale now at City Grit. (Photo: shichimi.wordpress.com)
Dulce de Leche Pudding Cake at La Condesa (Austin, TX)
Laura Sawicki’s molten dulce de leche cake is filled with buttery caramel and tastes like saffron. I’ve had it with cream-cheese ice cream and it’s delicious, but nothing compares to when she served it with butter popcorn ice cream. It’s the best dessert I’ve ever eaten. I love it so much that one time when it wasn’t on the menu they called me a day later to say, “Swing by before you leave town; Laura made cake for you to bring back” (Photo: Zagat)
Arctic Char at ABC Kitchen (NYC)
Every dish at ABC Kitchen has influenced me, but none like the arctic char. It’s always on the menu, always in a different preparation, and I always have to get it. One of my favorites is slow-cooked with roasted cauliflower, mint, lime, and chile breadcrumbs. It just shows that eating at ABC Kitchen in general is a lesson in perfect execution, thoughtful plating, and letting ingredients speak for themselves. When I’m there I write down everything and take notes on how to be a better chef. (Photo: Urbanspoon.com)
Duck Meatballs at A16 (San Francisco, CA)
My friend has a buckwheat allergy so I took her to A16, knowing exactly what she could order there. We got the delicious duck meatballs, which I had tried a few years ago on a recommendation, and I remember tasting a sort of fatty, savory element I couldn’t put my finger on at first bite. Then I looked across at my friend, and she was clearly having an allergic reaction. In the middle of this amazing culinary memory and bottle of wine we had to go to the hospital. We found out that just that day they changed flour purveyors and started using buckwheat, but I also learned what made those meatballs so delicious: duck liver. Both were good lessons for a new cook. (Photo: The San Francisco Chronicle)
Learn more about Sarah Simmons’ City Grit culinary salon here.