From Group Homes to Posh Restaurants, Sandy Dee Hall Has Overcome the Odds
Sandy Dee Hall (left) and Macnair Sillick
Photo courtesy Black Tree
Sandy Dee Hall didn't grow up eating good food. An orphan who was never adopted, he was shuffled around from group home to foster home and back around for most of his childhood. He dined with a band of eight or so kids, eating macaroni and cheese, baked ziti, and shepherd's pie from industrial hotel pans. "It was very Oliver Twist-ish," Hall tells the Voice. Like many kids who grew up without regular family meals, as an adult Hall managed to find his way into the world of food. With little formal training, he's gone on to open three affordable locavore restaurants in the Hamptons and NYC. After the success of Black Tree in the Lower East Side, Hall and his partners opened North Sea Tavern and Raw'r Bar in Southampton this summer and a second Black Tree (261 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn) outpost, just last week.
Throughout his younger years, Hall was unsatisfied. From the ages of nine to 13, he lived in more than a half-dozen homes. In the span of one year, Hall even moved to four different residences. "I grew up without much," he says. "I missed out on how good food could be. The only times I ate at restaurants was McDonald's or Chinese take-out."
While many of his friends and acquaintances were getting into trouble with gangs, drugs, or other nefarious elements, Hall somehow managed to stay above the fray. Numerous teenagers in the homes wound up in jail, several died. Hall wasn't exactly a saint through this adolescent years; he admits he was "very angry, too smart for my own good," but through sheer willpower managed to get out of it. "You're sitting there like these people are capable of [going down a bad path] says Hall. "You self-realize, 'I could do better.'"
After high school, he joined the Army, then put himself through college and graduated with a degree in finance. Initially, his goal was to work on Wall Street, but after landing a gig in the service industry, he realized that world wasn't for him. Hall waited tables and tended bar instead. One server position influenced Hall more than any other. "I fell in love with food at The Breslin," says Hall. "I was kind of overwhelmed. I had never worked at a chef-driven restaurant. It's totalitarian; the chefs rule."
Hall never worked in April Bloomfield's kitchen. His interactions with her were limited to serving her tea at table 40, but he watched, took mental notes, and eventually translated Bloomfield's style and work into his own philosophy. Where he differs, though, is cost. With more than a dozen chefs in the kitchen, the price-points at the Breslin and other culinary hot spots are steep. Hall aims to make good food accessible. Knowing what it's like to have little money and lots of processed food, Hall saw a discrepancy between the cost of local produce at farmer's markets and the price that's charged per plate at farm-to-table restaurants. "Even as a bartender, I couldn't afford it," he says.
During one late-night conversation with his best friend, neighbor, and fellow part-time bartender Macnair Sillick, the pair got to talking about food, restaurants, and affordability. That gave them an idea — they could lower costs by cutting back on kitchen staff. They wanted to source ingredients from the same purveyors as the top restaurants, but they wanted to offer dishes for a fraction of the cost. With the help of Matthew Roth of the Crown Inn, Hall and Silick decided to start with a pop-up sandwich shop in Crown Heights with a focus on keeping ingredients within a 300-mile radius of the city. The only problem? Hall had never cooked.
Farm-to-sandwich at Black Tree
He did a four-month stage with Robert Barry at Monument Lane while working as the restaurant's bar manager. Then, they opened the doors. The concept did so well, two years ago, Sillick and Hall decided to open a brick-and-mortar location in the Lower East Side, which has garnered a huge fan base for what they call "Urban American" fare. Hall mixes flavors and ingredients from a wide range of ethnicities like steak tacos ($14) with pumpkin aioli, blueberry, and cilantro, and a braised goat belly and rabbit bahn bao ($13). Like the original pop up, Black Tree started off with sandwiches, but quickly shifted into a whole new beast. Literally. The first winter the spot opened, Hall found himself bored, so he decided to buy a whole pig. He researched, butchered the animal, and pulled off a pork-centric menu. Next, half a cow. The place now switches out whole beast-based menus on a weekly basis. "Sandy's got an incredible brain," says Sillick. "He does his research and he's passionate about food."
That's part of how he's managed to keep it affordable. Aside from a $64, 33-ounce ribeye, nothing on the menu rings in at more than $20. Because of that, the restaurant has developed a steady crowd of regulars, many of whom visit multiple times per week. When Hall and Sillick decided they wanted to extend the brand, some of their customers stepped up to the plate to invest. While looking for a location for a steakhouse, one investor with a second home in the East End found a good location in Southampton. Less than a season later, North Sea Tavern and Raw'r Bar was ready for business. Hall switched from beasts to seafood and has created a similarly diverse menu there with items like an excellent crab roll on a brioche bun ($19) and fluke tacos with crèma, peach and herb chimichurri, and chili ($16). Over the summer, he served an outstanding seared tuna bao.
Opened at the end of September, Black Tree Brooklyn follows the same premise as the original location with the addition of a chef's tasting table. Inevitably, they've had to increase the size of their kitchen staff. They've hired on another chef who loves to work with Asian ingredients, so there's more of that influence on the menu. Hall wants the kitchen to be a collaborative environment. "We're constantly assembling an awesome team who totally buys into the concept," says Sillick. "Sandy is incredibly open, but it's still his menu. He likes to include people in the discussions."
Given the length of his cooking experience, it's surprising that Hall has managed to learn so quickly while creating a fan-base. Sillick believes that Hall's lack of experience is what has lead the team to its success: "It's been beneficial to us that he hasn't been classically trained. He has a wild spirit, not bound by the dogma of cooking this what or that way. We're very proud of what we're doing."
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.