Where did your passion for food come from? “I’ve loved food since I was born. In first grade I went to a friend’s birthday party and her mom had made cupcakes. I remember eating the icing with my finger and asking her mom what was in the icing.
“[As an adult] it came to the point where I had to either try it to make a living, or never try it. I’m almost 40 and I already feel my body hurts standing 18 hours a day, every day. I was 34 at the time, at the end of my really useful years.”
What were you doing? “I was consulting in retail strategy and marketing for many years, working for Pokémon, and retailers like Wal-Mart. I would fly to these companies, spending months in cities around the United States and it gave me an opportunity to try new foods. One of my jobs was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one weekend I was snowed in, so I went to the store and bought a ridiculous amount of groceries and cooked. On the Monday I went into the office and it was like, ‘It’s 8.30am, have a leg of lamb.’”
How did you make the career change? “I was so naive but that was probably for the best. A lot of careers are exhausting, but this one you put your heart into every plate and into training staff. You can’t work in a restaurant with a team for 14 to 16 hours a day without having any emotion for them. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional drain. I’m still learning but I think I’ve figured out the hard things.”
Did your mother influence your career? “She was a caterer for three years and worked all the time. She taught me how to cook, but she also taught me I could be whatever I wanted to be as long as I worked hard and tried hard enough.”
You spent a school year in Japan. What was that like? “I went to Hakodate, in Hokkaido, while I was in college. It was my first time outside the US and I didn’t think I would like the food. But the first meal we had after we arrived was breakfast and I had cereal with whole milk – I had only drunk skimmed milk up until this point – and I thought it was the best thing I’ve eaten in my life!”
Tell us about City Grit . “The idea was that I wouldn’t make the same food every day, and I met a lot of chefs who wanted to cook in New York, so I thought we should open a place for them to cook and have a few nights off. To train properly, I asked Michael Anthony, the chef at Gramercy Tavern, if I could come and work for free as a stagiaire so I could watch what was happening in the kitchen. Then I went to other kitchens in the country to see how they worked.
“I opened City Grit in 2011. It was like opening a new restaurant every three days. Not only did we change the chef, but the menu, music, wine list and the layout of the dining room. We closed the physical location in 2014 but now it’s a brand where we give dining recommendations and have a line of food products. We’re now in the chef discovery business.”
How did Birds Bubbles come about? “My grandfather made fried chicken for Sunday supper and family occasions. When he died there was no recipe and no one knew how to make it, but we remembered he used a cast-iron skillet to pan-fry the chicken. At City Grit we used to have a Sunday supper once a month, serving fried chicken, as an homage to him. One night a guest brought in a bottle of champagne because she knew I liked it. I opened it and everyone was so shocked – why open a bottle of champagne for no reason? At that moment I thought, ‘I’m going to serve fried chicken with champagne every day so you don’t have to wait for a special occasion.’ The theme of Birds Bubbles is about celebrating every day, we even have birthday cake as dessert.”