Greenpoint came on strong in 2013: One innovative restaurant after another threw open the doors, fostering a destination-worthy culinary community with no shortage of fans despite the fact that reaching the area, at least by train, is challenging. One leader in that charge is Glasserie (95 Commercial Street, 718-389-0640), the Middle Eastern spot from Sara Conklin that packs crowds into its charming digs just a block off of the Pulaski Bridge.
Helming the kitchen there is Sara Kramer, whose culinary education started during her childhood in Nyack, New York. “My mother is Peruvian-Israeli, and my dad’s from the Bronx,” she explains. “We had a food-centric household. My mother was a great home cook, and so was my grandmother. Many of the things I do in the restaurant stem from them.”
When she was young, though, Kramer was more concerned with the health-related aspects of food than she was with anything else: She was a musical theater performer with her sights set on Broadway, and she toured the country, working her way through the professional musical theater ranks. “I’d always focused on food from a health perspective,” she explains. “It was about how to best fuel my body that was my product and how to support me as a performer.”
Her interest in what she ate heightened, though, and feeling unfulfilled by performing — and feeling charged by food activism — she gave up the stage for NYU, where she took a number of courses on food. Eventually, she became attracted to the idea of becoming a chef — “It was omething that was a challenge, and something that I wasn’t sure how to go about,” she explains. “It wasn’t something many women were interested in doing — it was hard, it was challenging, and I was told that it wasn’t a woman’s profession.”
She landed in a culinary program and then at Blue Hill Stone Barns for an externship, where she stayed three or four months beyond her requisite 10-day stint until she landed a permanent spot on the line. “I’m persistent,” she says with a laugh. “I know what I want. There’s no way to get by in this industry if you don’t have a backbone.” After nearly two years at both of Dan Barber’s spots, she moved over to Andrew Tarlow’s restaurants, where she added butchery and high-volume kitchen experience to her resume.
Shortly after she took over the executive sous chef role at Reynard, mutual friends introduced Kramer to Conklin, who was looking for a chef for her new concept. “It became painfully obvious that it was a really good match,” Kramer says; the duo shared a common vision, and they forged ahead to open Glasserie in June of last year.
In this interview, she talks about a gap in the New York restaurant industry, how her personal food philosophy plays out in her restaurant, and her goals.
Tell me the story behind the vision for this restaurant.
Sara Conklin is half Lebanese; I’m half Israeli. I wanted to do a seasonal, Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant without it being explicitly Middle Eastern or traditional. I looked at Zahav in Philly, Aziza in San Francisco, Ottolenghi [in London], and Levant in Portland, and I didn’t see that being done in the same way in New York or in this area of Brooklyn. From a seasonal perspective, it’s harder to pull off.
You definitely have what feels like a fresh take on that part of the world. Could you freestyle a bit on how this cuisine fits in to the broader New York industry?
Part of what’s paved the way are all the Asian-inspired restaurants — people are much more willing to try things that they might not try before. Nothing we’re doing here is that out there, and we package it in names that aren’t super ethnic, but people are more willing to take the risk. This is also just a way that I like to eat. I like vegetable-focused meals. I like a lot of different things. I enjoy eating with family and friends and picking at so many things and feasting as opposed to having individual plates. This is a big gap in what’s happening in New York right now — it’s sad for the city to not have any concept of what this food is. We’re scratching the surface here, and we have a long way to go. But the reception is overwhelmingly warm.
What lessons did you get from Blue Hill and the Tarlow restaurants that helped you here?
The lessons are immeasurable, and they go beyond the experiential aspect (I wouldn’t have known how to cook or work in a restaurant). At Blue Hill, I learned what it’s like to work in fine dining. At Diner and Marlow, I learned a fast-paced, grittier, rawer way to look at food. Glasserie is a combination of those perspectives. I didnt’ want fine dining, but I wanted to do more than just dishes with a one-pan pick-up. I wanted thoughtful food and a chance to do something new and interesting. I could have gotten better technique at other places or learned any number of ways to approach food, but I knew my style was more natural, and I wanted to take a product for what it was and not turn it into something it’s not. Both of those restaurants helped me cement the ability to respect the product for what it is.
Talk to me a bit about your food philosophy.
I have always felt really strongly about sourcing and finding good products from responsible growers and the local community. I like supporting people who do good, honest work. These are people I tend to like and have similar beliefs as. From a more holistic perspective, I want to see smaller agriculture become a bigger part of our supply in the U.S. and globally. Restaurants play a large part in that because we can buy so much more. In the restaurant, I want to be as responsible to my beliefs as possible, to the people we support as possible, and to my employees as possible — it’s hard to throw new things at cooks and waitstaffs every day. It’s not possible to be ideologically perfect.
Could you freestyle a bit on the controversy over women in the kitchen? And you have a lot of women in your kitchen — do you think women cooks gravitate toward working under women chefs?
Having women in my kitchen was an interesting phenomenon — I started out with only guys, but very quickly, I added girl after girl. I don’t know, maybe women sense the fact that it might be a nice change of pace. That and they like the food they’re doing. I’d never worked with a female chef, and I’d like to just to see how it’s different. I feel like it shouldn’t change anything so explicitly, but I know that my style here is purposely very different than anywhere I’ve worked. It’s friendlier and less competitive, and this is a less cutthroat environment. I’d been around the other way for so long, and I think it inhibits our best work. It affected even the way I presented myself — I didn’t want the prep guys to think of me in any kind of sexualized way. So I cut my hair short and acted as unfeminine as possible.
Should the kitchen dynamic change? How?
There’s no question that it should, but I don’t know if it will, and I’m not sure I could offer up a way to make that happen. As we transition from fine dining to less fine dining to less formal establishments, there’s less of that old guard cocky attitude toward work. [In the kitchen] you always hear, “Well, that’s what was done to me.” There’s this aggressive, pushy attitude toward people under you. But there are more restaurants like this one that not only want to change how people eat food — offering a more casual, shared dining experience instead of a cold, plated, individual experience — but that support a more communal atmosphere in the kitchen. A lot of kitchens function on the principle that iff someone is going down on their station, you don’t help them. I just don’t agree with that and I never have. Some struggle is important to build yourself and build confidence, but not so much so that someone feels like a failure.
You guys do all of your own PR — what is your perception of food media here?
I think that we’ve lucked out. Because of the location, because we’re providing a high quality experience, and because we’re people no one had heard of previously, we created enough buzz. It was surprising and validating and really welcome. It’s surprising how much people place their own thoughts into food media. I want to tell people to trust more than what they read and not be so swayed. I’ve never really been a part of food media in a big way — I follow it from a very cursory perspective. Details of the Cronut craze seem like energy poorly spent — it supports the faddish gimmicks. That’s a different world than the one I want to exist in and create.
Where does the restaurant industry go from here?
I feel like it might go fast food, to be honest. All the big chefs are doing fast food concepts. And for the smaller guys out there, it’s more casual eateries. The days of appetizer-entree-dessert are sort of over unless you’re going to a classic hotel. I don’t think that is the future — everything getting looser, more casual and fun. I think people don’t want to be so buttoned up about food any more.
What are your goals?
I don’t know how anything will end up playing out, but I would love to be involved in more aspects of the food world than just cooking — I would love to be able to write, contribute to interesting publications, do something along the lines of what Bill Telepan does with food in schools, and extend the reach of good food for more people. I don’t know what my goals are as a chef, but I definitely see a bigger future — there are social issues and environmental issues with food that inspire me as much or more than cooking.
Best place in the city for a coffee:
Abraço. I worked for them. They’re lovely, very quirky people, and they put out a consistent product
Best place for a beer or drink:
Alameda. The proximity is great. The space is great to be in — it really has a lot to do with enjoying a place. Nice to be in a space where you feel welcome.
Best place for a special occasion:
How special? The special-ist I can imagine is Blue Hill Stone Barns, especially if you go during the day and take in the beauty. That’s a really special experience — there isn’t another one like it.
Best place to be when you have nowhere to be at all:
Diner. I also really like Pok Pok. And Xi’an Famous Foods, especially now that they opened up a Greenpoint takeout location. I want to eat that all the time.
Pressing industry issue:
Line cook wages — it’s heartbreaking. I think you know why you’re doing it, and you feel like a martyr for the cause. We try to be as fair as possible, but for the amount of work and time and passion put forth, I wish there was an alternative. I would like to see a grander policy shift in the industry in general to support our army of workers.
Something you love about the restaurant scene here:
The community. Being able to go to places and being recognized or recognizing people and those constant “Whoa, it’s good to see you! I didn’t know you were working here!” moments.
Something you wish you could change:
Being able to provide a setting for a more interesting, sustainable restaurant that didn’t require you to be open for so many hours. In LA, there are a lot of restaurants open from Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 10. That’s amazing. Here, it’s 5:30 to midnight seven days a week plus brunch — that inhibits you from having balance in your life and balance in your restaurant.
Person you’d most like cooking for:
Person you’d most like to have cook for you:
Alice Waters. She’s a pretty big bad ass. I really respect her. I also really like Caroline Fidanza.
Person you’d be most nervous about cooking for:
My grandmother — she died when I was 9, but she was THE cook in my mom’s family; she’s the standard everything gets compared to. It would be a surreal experience if it were possible. It would be nerve-wracking, but also very satisfying.
Dish you could eat forever:
Fried eggs with rice and Israeli salad. I always feel great about that meal. And I love eggs.
Person without enough credit:
Dave Gould at Roman’s. It’s hard to have a good impression of something that doesn’t have a consistent menu — you have a different thing every time you go — but that’s part of what’s great about Roman’s. There’s something very admirable in taking that risk every day. I think that he does a really good job in general. Roman’s is probably my favorite restaurant to eat at.
Any part of your story that feels untold?
With the food, they’ve focused a lot on the rabbit — I wish they focused a bit more across the board. Other than that, I don’t know. The media has mostly been very fair, and the things that are critical aren’t inaccurate. It would be selfish to want more.