Chatting With Sara Jenkins: Fake Olive Oil, Jumping on the Greenmarket Bandwagon, and Williamsburg Restaurants That Feel Like Bars
Yesterday, we spoke with Sara Jenkins about Porsena, the pasta restaurant she's planning to open down the street from Porchetta next month. Today, in the second part of the interview, the chef discusses how she ended up settling in New York following her European upbringing, her thoughts on the Williamsburg restaurant scene, and chefs who jump on the Greenmarket bandwagon.
After traveling around so much while you were growing up, how did you end up settling in New York?
I went to the Rhode Island School of Design and had friends who moved to New York. They lived in a tiny studio apartment, and all of their paychecks would go to the rent. I didn't get it at all. I thought: I hate New York, New York is crap. I went back to Italy for three years in my early thirties. It was really difficult -- it is a socialist mindset and so you don't get rewarded at work for doing a better job or penalized for doing a worse job. Everybody's trying to game the system -- your employer is trying to game you, and you're trying to game your employer. And it's hard as an American, because what could you possibly know about Italian food? So it reached a certain point where there were too many battles. I asked myself, 'Where am I going to go?' I don't know why, but New York appeared like a light bulb in my head. I knew I could get off the plane and get a job as a line cook. I called a friend who knew of I Coppi and put me in touch. [The owners] were totally excited and I came and it was really exciting. We had fun -- we got two stars in the Times and I was like, 'Oh, my god, I love New York, New York's the best!' [Laughs.] New York's the best kind of random, but it worked. Everywhere else I ever decided to live in America, it was ultimately too American. In New York, I never feel that way. If I do, I go down to East Broadway in Chinatown.
You live in Astoria, right?
I moved back to Williamsburg about a month ago. I like Astoria, but the commute was kind of killing me. In Williamsburg, even though I'm too old for the hipsters, the commute is wonderful. I spent 10 years living in Williamsburg; Diner opened when I first lived there. I love Diner and I love what they've done and how they've grown.
What do you think of the restaurant scene there now?
Williamsburg has always been bar-centric. It always feels like the food is an afterthought, with a couple of exceptions like Diner. Even Fatty 'Cue, where the food is really delicious and [Zak Pelaccio] is doing great things, is like a loud party scene. I'm not 32 anymore, you know? Having said that, I haven't made it to Zenkichi. I want to try that.
What are your favorite Italian restaurants in New York?
I love, love, love Il Buco. And I always like whatever Cesare [Casella] is up to. But it's terrible -- it's a question I get asked all the time and I want to be supportive to so many great Italian cooks in the city. But it's the food I know best so that's what I cook at home. When I go out, I want something I don't know, like Chinese or French.
Speaking of food you know, did studying at RISD influence your work as a chef?
What RISD was really good at teaching was problem solving. In restaurants, the ability to problem solve is huge. You spend all day solving problems. And I am a visual person, so I like things to look pretty on the plate. Although I don't like to muck up stuff too much.
Italian ingredients have become so popular in both restaurants and home kitchens, but are there any you feel are underrated?
I have to say that most people don't get olive oil. I used to deep-fry in olive oil at events to make a point, because it's amazing. Obviously you can't fill up a fryolator with extra virgin olive oil. Well, you could at Per Se, probably. But I sauté everything in olive oil. I also think people eat really bad olive oil; it's still something people are puzzled by and don't quite get. I try to do olive oil tastings at events and classes of oils I think are good -- I love estate-bottled Tuscan or Umbrian olive oil. But the olive oil system of production is so corrupt and so bad, it's horrifying. I'm talking more about the stuff you buy in a big can -- inevitably, most of it isn't really Italian. Sometimes it's not even olive oil. There was an article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago that found [some producers] were using hazelnut oil and coloring it green. I steer people to Greek olive oil a lot because they don't have any reason to fake what it is.
Did you think Porchetta would take off in such a big way?
Listen, I thought I had a good idea and people would like it. But that we would sort of define porchetta in the city, that's amazing. The other thing that was really flattering was in the spring I was out there doing the Brooklyn Flea next to the guys from Mile End. [Noah Bernamoff, Mile End's owner] was like, 'You were a big inspiration to me.' That's awesome. That's one of those things people would say that you don't have in New York. The camaraderie between chefs?
I wouldn't say that all chefs are buddies, but I've always had chef friends and people are supportive. On Monday, I did an event for Second Helping of Life, an ovarian cancer benefit. It was all female chefs, and it was really fun and energetic. We have such a reputation -- 'oh, those catty women' -- and yet everyone in the room was so supportive.
Do you mean that women chefs or women in general have that reputation?
Women in general! There's not enough of us [chefs] to have that reputation.
Do you hang out with other female chefs?
Alex [Raij] over at Txikito is really great. She's somebody to call up when I need stuff. Same thing with Anita Lo: I know I can always call her up and go, 'Where did you get that piece of equipment?'
First, I'm very lucky that I found space two blocks away. I set up Porchetta as something that wouldn't demand that I be there all the time, mainly because I have a kid who's three-and-a-half and didn't want to spend hours and hours in a restaurant kitchen. So how I got sucked into this, I don't know. But now [my son] is a little bigger and more independent, so it's different, and I do love being in a restaurant. So I'll be monitoring what's going on at Porchetta, but I have a great crew there; my cousin is my partner.
Any culinary or dining trends you're tired of?
It's terrible to bash molecular gastronomy, I must say, but I don't get it. I really don't. I guess I like seeing more farmers' market stuff, but at the same time there's a lot of jumping on the bandwagon. I'm really tired of listening to people talk about how they're going to grow vegetables in their backyard -- it's a whole different job! But I love places that are honoring it, like Northern Spy. I go in and it's not a lot of, 'I'm buying this at a farmers' market,' but everything is seasonal and well put-together.
There's some place on First Avenue that does a breakfast special where you get sunny-side-up eggs and for $2 extra, you can get an organic egg. There's no way you're having two different kind of eggs, and no way the cook is running downstairs to the walk-in for organic eggs! That drives me crazy. It's marketing. I used to find that Italian chefs would come over from Italy and think it was enough to speak in an Italian accent and sprinkle Italian pixie dust all over the place, and they weren't putting out good food. It's the same thing: I'll sprinkle Greenmarket pixie dust over everything. At this point, if you're doing good food, you're doing good food.
Have a tip or restaurant-related news? Send it to email@example.com.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.