Sepia chef Andrew Zimmerman is up for a James Beard award tonight for the first time. In the second half of our conversation (which began here), he talks about how his career led him to this point, the strangest kitchen equipment he's had to deal with, the importance of not sloshing soup, and why he starts to panic every October... as Michelin time rolls around.
We talked earlier about you kicking around in your twenties, not really taking cooking seriously and still hoping to become a rock star. You must have become a serious chef at some point, because I know people like Rob Levitt talk about you as a mentor. When did that happen?
I think it was at Del Toro, which is where Rob worked for me. My career really coalesced for me when I came to this city from Jersey. I'd been working these knucklehead jobs for a while, and then I worked at a really good Italian restaurant, small, me and the chef basically, everything from scratch every day. That was sort of the litmus test for me as a cook, am I going to be able to do this professionally. That went well, I went to culinary school in New York, and then I took what was, in retrospect, a not particularly clever sous chef job in my hometown opening a restaurant. So on the one hand it was good because I got to see an opening, on the other hand, it probably would have been better if I had taken a line cook job for somebody super-serious and toughed it out a couple more years.
So after doing that for a couple of years I moved here with my wife. And once Terry Alexander hired me for Mod, things started to get rolling. And when we opened Del Toro, even though it was only open for a short time, I got some good cooks who stuck with me, who liked what I was doing and liked the way I did things, like Rob, or Miles Schafer who's the chef de cuisine for Daniel Patterson at Plum [in San Francisco] or one of my current sous chefs, Adam Zosak, who worked for me at Del Toro, helped to open Publican, and then came back to me here. If I am mentoring people, it happened at Del Toro where I met these guys who wanted to work with me for the long term and we saw eye to eye.
There will be cooks who come through your kitchen, they're totally good people, they're nice, but they're just not as receptive or as interested, and those people, hopefully they get mentored enough to do the job that I want them to do, and maybe take a few good lessons along. But they're not going to get totally onboard with the mission and the vision of the place that I'm running.
Your first real high high end spot was NoMI.
Actually, I had been in the banquet department at the Park Hyatt when I first came to Chicago. It was only because they offered me a job and I had run out of money. But the people I met there, A, introduced me to Terry Alexander which was great, and B, when Del Toro closed, Christian Ragano who'd been a sous chef when I was there, had moved up to executive sous chef and they needed a chef de cuisine, so he called me and said do you want to do a tasting. I did, and Christoph David hired me. And the guys who worked in that kitchen with me— Danny Grant was a cook, now Food & Wine Best New Chef, no help from me— and all the guys working over there were really talented and I was just really lucky to work alongside them.
NoMI was the first place where I had access to everything. We had combi ovens and copper pots and like five Pacojets and an anti-griddle, we had some kind of European vacuum cooker, what's it called...
[looks it up on his phone]
A Gastro-Vac. It's only $5900! A lot of these things are kind of one-trick ponies, frankly. Unless you're going to make Grant Achatz's recipe, I kind of don't know what you're going to do with an anti-griddle. None of us did. Like one time Christoph bought this thing called an ultrasonic mixer that could emulsify anything. So we put like oil and water in it, and turn it on, and— okay, it emulsified it, and it made a ton of noise like a jet plane, and we're just like, so what do we do with it now? A lot of these things just went onto a shelf.
But in the end, NoMI was a place that could attract really top-level people, which was terrific. And it's something that we try to provide here at Sepia, an environment that can attract that kind of talent. At the end of the day, no matter how good I am, these guys are the backbone of what happens, and the more they can contribute, and they're personally invested in the food that we're doing— if they can make contributions from a creative angle, they want to see that things are done properly, and it creates an environment where everybody's trying to do their best work. As opposed to me being a dictator and saying, I want this and this and this, now go about your business, son.
So let's talk about Sepia. You took it over after it had been open for about a year and a half, which is kind of a perilous time for a restaurant, it's not new any more and a lot of customers have decided what they think about it. How did you approach making it your menu and your restaurant?
One of the things that was important to me was that, even though the restaurant had had a great opening and been really well received and gotten a lot of attention, I needed Emmanuel [Nony, the owner of Sepia] to accept the idea that we're going to have to change everything. There are no sacred cows, I'm not a custodian, if you want me to take this job I have to make it my own. I'm not going to do it in one immediate thing and freak everybody out, but sooner or later, all those dishes that everybody likes, they're going to be replaced.
In the same way, I came in and there was an entire staff, perfectly good people, and the fact that I was taking over wasn't on them. So I had to see who they were, and what their skill sets were, and who could push the food into the direction I wanted to go. Over time, some of them wanted to stay, some wanted to go, we brought in some new people. And it took almost the first full year before I felt I'd made a significant enough change that I felt I'd really asserted my style, my food.
What was it that you were trying to change, exactly?
The food that Sepia opened with was much more... on the surface, it was a lot simpler. There were fewer components— everything was built around being a very very casual neighborhood restaurant.
Part of it is that maybe I'm just not as good at keeping it that simple. In my head it's simple, honestly. I look at it a plate and hey, it's just a couple of things. But we make all of these things ourselves— like, we have a ravioli on the menu right now, which is an English pea and brandade ravioli. It's glazed in a little thyme butter, and it has pea shoots and a hazelnut-chicory crumble on it. And it's not some complicated fussy dish. Except, the first thing you have to do is buy the cod, so you can make the brandade, so you can fold the brandade into the pea puree, so you can make the ravioli. And you have to make the hazelnut and chicory crumble thing, which kind of stands in for breadcrumbs, because you wouldn't put cheese on that, it'd be gross. So just for that one pasta dish, it takes a couple of days of thinking it through and making sure you're organized, because if you don't buy the cod to salt the cod, you're screwed.
And there were some service things I didn't care for— I don't like watching someone carry a bowl of soup to a table. It sloshes around, it looks sloppy. In the first month, I came to the pre-shift meeting and I set out a bowl with a little garnish in it and I had a pitcher and I said, we're going to do it like this now, because this is a real restaurant. And we've had all this great press about what a wonderful restaurant this is, and it's time we started making an effort to live up to it. I felt like some of the standards for the restaurant didn't quite meet the restaurant that I'd read about. I wasn't trying to make it stuffy, or aim for Michelin stars, I just thought, this is a really nice-looking restaurant. It's very nicely designed, I think. And the food and service should be as sharp as the place looks. They should match the place.
And then you did win a Michelin star, and you could win a Beard award tonight.
The first year with Michelin I was just dumbfounded— this is awesome! And then October started to roll around, and I got nervous— the food's better than last year, I know the food's better than last year— you're fine, it's going to be okay— because I can't imagine, it would just be such a bummer to lose it.
And the double-edged sword of getting the Michelin star, or this Beard nomination, one of the things that comes with that is, the guests show up, rightly so, with the heightened expectation of their experience. What you were doing last week is no longer good enough. They're going to be more critical, their expectations are going to be higher. And you have to be able to deliver.