Having come to professional cooking later in life after a career in management consulting, this chef/owner of Birds & Bubbles and CEO ofCITY GRIT Hospitality Group is no stranger to making things that seem disjointed (fried chicken and champagne, for example), go together. She recently spoke with us about the passion needed to survive as an NYC restaurateur, the value of data-driven decisions and the magic of once-in-a-moment dining experiences.
Could you talk a little about your background?
I grew up in North Carolina and moved to South Carolina when I was 14, so I think it’s safe to say I grew up in the Carolinas. I’ve been cooking since I was a young child. It’s something that always interested me, but I never had the confidence to make a career out of it. I’ve lived in NYC for the past 11 years but have really only been cooking professionally for the last 5 years.
In terms of your culinary style and preferences, what have been your biggest influences?
I think that when I first started cooking I was actually shying away from Southern food, thinking I would make traditional French food or pasta, but it just seemed so inauthentic to me. And then I received Frank Stitt’s Southern Table as a Christmas gift and I really, for the first time, had a different view of what southern food could be. It made me open my eyes to what possibilities were available when using either southern ingredients to food from other ethnicities or or vice versa, using global flavors in traditional southern dishes.
How did you develop the menu at Birds and Bubbles?
I think that what is interesting about CITY GRIT is that it was not only a platform for other chefs to cook in New York but a way for me to have a test kitchen. When I started serving Fried Chicken Sunday Supper [once a month, fried-chicken dinners], I had a year and a half of serving a wide-variety of side dishes with it. I tested them, got feedback, refined them. So by the time I opened the restaurant, I’d already vetted and tested everything.
Are there any New York-specific challenges you’ve faced as a restaurateur?
I’ve yet to own a restaurant outside of NYC yet, but I think that I wasn’t aware of how weather would really drive dining here since it has no impact on how I make dining decisions. I didn’t know how many people make reservations 30 days out for Saturday night at 8:30pm and then cancel at the last minute or don’t show up for those reservations. When the weather is bad — I knew it impacted dining, but I wasn’t prepared for how drastically your Saturday night could go from being slightly overbooked to being able to accept walk-ins at 8:30pm because people don’t show up for their reservation. For us, we’re a small restaurant and we tell people “no” all week long, and then when people that have been holding those prime time reservations don’t show up — it’s a real bummer.
To what extent have tech tools and social media platforms impact your business?
I have a management consulting background so data is king for me. Any piece of data that we can collect we do. Every week I put all these data points together into a number of reports, and it drives the production schedule of the kitchen, the labor schedule or how we’re staffing and feeding the guests. Every decision is based on data. At first everyone [who works at the restaurant] was like “all these spreadsheets, I don’t really care,” but now they see how it makes us more efficient and make better decisions. Social media is really interesting. Just a couple weeks ago I posted something on Sunday morning — a dish on the brunch menu that’s good for hangovers, and 45 minutes later there were two separate guests who came and asked for it. It was our green eggs and ham.
Any advice for people who want to open their own restaurants?
I think that the first thing that’s most important is that people think restaurants are so sexy and that we live this glamorous lifestyle. I’m fortunate that I get to go to some amazing dinners and hang out with awesome chefs, but it creates this false fantasy about the day-to-day life of running a restaurant. It’s got to be more than fun that gets you into this business because it is so hard. It is an 18-hour a day, 7-day a week commitment when you are the owner. And I think that people just see the glitz and the glamour and don’t understand that it really takes a passion that is deep within you to serve people or change people’s day to give them an amazing dining experience. To survive the day-to-day, sometimes you’ll be washing your own dishes or bussing tables and running food or jumping in because one of your cooks is sick. The behind the scenes is way less sexy.
With City Grit, what was the inspiration and what do you hope people take away from those unique dining experiences?
CITY GRIT was really in the beginning a way for me to have restaurant where I didn’t have to cook the same food every day. Cooking the same dishes day in and day out seemed really boring to me. I saw a need and demand for a place for chefs to come and cook in NYC, and it evolved into what we called a “concert hall for indie chefs” to come and perform — with me actually being a side act and cooking alongside them and letting them be the stars. What is magical about CITY GRIT is that these dinners happen, and then they don’t. They’re a once-in-a-moment occasion. You feel the energy in the room because of that. It’s more than just a dinner, it’s an experience. At Birds & Bubbles we’ve been able to capture that magic in the dining room. We do a toast every night at a random time in the evening, and everyone has a shot of champagne. Those are the kinds of things that change people’s dining experience — hopefully for the better. We can feel the magic of the CITY GRIT experience at those moments.
Could you describe your fried chicken?
The best thing about our fried chicken is the chicken itself. We start with these amazing happy chickens. We work with D’artagnan who helps us source Amish chickens from Pennsylvania. So the product to begin with is really excellent.
Our secret is that we have a spice blend that we actually season the chicken with and we let it sit for about 48 hours before we fry it. You can make great crust, but after the crust is gone the chicken still tastes really good. Rosé would go well with it. I drink rosé all year but tend to drink more in the summer months.
Any favorite NYC haunts or go-to spots?
I really don’t have a lot of time to eat out or go out really, so I usually go to the same four places: Charlie Bird, Estela, Morgenstern’s & Fifty Paces — which has really great snacks and amazing wines and is really close to my apartment.