Momofuku Ssam Bar's GM on Working Clean & A Secret Menu
Dublin native Sara Jimenez has been GM of the ultra-popular East Village mainstay, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, for the last four years, helping to dish out Momofuku’s haute-meets-street food fare — including the savory-sweet pork belly buns that put Chef/Owner David Chang on New York’s culinary radar — to the hippest foodies and in-the-know diners south of 14th Street.
Sara Jimenez. Photo by Gabriele Stabile
Prior to joining the Momofuku team in 2011, she spent several years working both front-of-house and back-of-house positions at restaurants in the UK, including Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s and Fergus Henderson’s St. John Bread & Wine in London. We spoke with her about her most memorable night of service, what it takes to be a successful restaurant employee and Ssäm Bar’s vegetarian menu.
What’s been your most memorable night of service at the restaurant?
It was a few years ago. I think maybe 2011 or 2012, the whole block had a complete power outage. It was my first experience of it in New York City. As a growing company, we have lots checklists in place so that you know how to deal with an unusual situation. Service obviously had to end, but for those who were still eating, we let them enjoy their meal. And so we broke out the candles. It actually looked very romantic in the restaurant. And I guess the most important thing was to keep calm — both for the servers and for the guests.
Momofuku Ssam Bar's interior. Photo provided by Momofuku Ssam Bar
What would you say are the characteristics people should have to be successful in restaurant roles?
Outside of technical requirements, I feel a lot of the qualities that are needed are the same for both front and back of house — organization, cleanliness, time management, good and very clear communication and focus.
In both areas we have to multitask, and so paying attention is very very important — because there’s a difference between listening and hearing.
And especially in the back of house where orders are being called out constantly to cooks, that ability to listen and actually physically do what is needed of you is so important.
Is there one particular quality you think is super important?
Working clean cannot be overemphasized.
Not only are you working with other people and it’s courteous to leave things how you would like them to be found but when you get really busy, always maintaining that cleanliness and organization helps avoid chaos in your mind as well as on the physical side of it. Being a team player and having a strong work ethic — we say, “Cutting corners cuts character” here, which I think is very important.
Whole Rotisserie Duck. Photo provided by Momofuku Ssam Bar
Since you’ve worked in restaurants in both the UK and US, how would you say the European dining scene (and diners) compare to those in NYC?
I think the pace is slower in Europe for sure. They don’t have the same kind of waits — I’ve never experienced the 2- to 3-hour waits that can be quite common here at the very busy, popular spots. There are also higher expectations of service staff from U.S. diners. I mean, at the end, I think fundamentally in terms of service everyone wants the same thing — friendliness, attentiveness and just to have a nice dining experience.
To what extent has social media affected your operations or influenced any of your decisions?
I don’t think it influences the menu at all, but we have an awesome team that handles media for the restaurant. I think in this day and age it’s very important, especially when you’ve been around for a long time like Ssäm Bar has. There are so many other restaurants and you know, a kind of hotness about where to eat. It’s definitely important to maintain a media presence so whenever we’re doing something like a new dish or an event, social media is a way to kind of bring attention to the location again. So I think in that sense, it’s very valuable.
What’s the most challenging thing about being the GM of such a popular spot?
There just aren’t enough hours in the day. But I think you find that’s the case with most people in New York. For me it’s all about the team — the managers and the hourly staff — making sure everyone is happy, understanding the importance of having a balance between work and personal while still setting expectations for the business.
I think it’s important to constantly keep the team motivated and challenged, to always remind everyone that some people travel and save and have anticipated a visit to Ssäm Bar for a long time, and that that’s very special.
So constantly being aware. You know, we work in service but for guests, they’re just having one meal. It’s that one experience for them. In terms of motivation, Momofuku does a great job of organizing excursions and educational events. Like we go to Blue Island Oyster Farm, and stuff like that. So that’s really fun for the staff and the managers.
Momofuku Ssam Bar's exterior. Photo provided by Momofuku Ssam Bar
What is the best thing about your job?
Affecting change. I think it can apply to introducing a guest to an oyster if they’ve never had one before, or a pairing, or giving someone who’s worked in the kitchen an opportunity to come on the floor and work their way up. That sort of stuff is what I value the most.
On the flip side, what is the worst part?
Probably having different days off than people who aren’t in the industry. Like weekends — I have a weekend, but it’s just not on a Saturday and Sunday, when my non-industry friends are organizing. So if anything, that’s probably the worst part.
Is there anything that you think people might be surprised to know about ssäm bar?
We have a vegetarian-vegan menu. Someone tells us they’re vegetarian, we go get that menu. So, yeah. I’d say that’s probably the most surprising thing.
Any favorite NYC haunts?
For restaurants, I would say the places that I frequent the most would be Four Horsemen, Estela and Prime Meats. And actually I love Bunker, a little Vietnamese place in Bushwick. It’s amazing.