I have been planning menus since I was a child in North Carolina. I remember planning my birthday parties. I would fake-plan parties every year, so I could have a different theme and a different menu, even though I knew that they weren’t all going to happen. That was the first indication that I love feeding people.
I went to the University of Georgia, spending some time abroad in Japan during school, and then lived in Atlanta after graduation. Seven years later, I was a retail strategist with a focus on technology marketing and business strategy. It was awesome and I liked it a lot: I was making great money, and felt like I was really at the top of my game from a career standpoint. But one day, I realized that if I stayed in Atlanta for another year, I would never leave: I would be 85 years old and had only lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. So, I decided that I had to move—to New York City. I continued to work as a retail strategist but soon realized that eventually I would have to leave my business career altogether because I didn’t have the passion for business that I had for cooking.
This impetus for changing my career, and my life, actually came from the Food & Wine magazine “Home Cook Superstar” contest. I had seen the notice for the contest and thought, “I’m gonna win this.” I virtually made winning it my job. I think secretly I wanted to win because I thought it would open up doors for me.
And I won! As part of the prize, Food & Wine sent me to the Cayman Islands for their Food & Wine Festival. I attended these amazing events and spent time with chefs like José Andrés, Eric Ripert, and Grant Achatz. When they found out why I was at the festival, they asked why I wasn’t cooking professionally. So I thought, “Well, if they think I should do it, maybe I should do it!” I was single with no children: All I had was a dog to take care of and I had savings in the bank. It was the right time/right place to just give it a shot. If I hadn't, I would just be kicking myself right now.
So in 2010, I quit my job. And I spent every single day cooking and trying to figure out what my style would be. I spent some time trailing at Gramercy Tavern and Empire State South and doing some catering jobs. But mostly I cooked, cooked, and cooked. I spent all of my time cooking, and getting better, and learning, and really pushing myself. It was kind of like culinary school boot camp in my own kitchen—with nothing but me, the internet, and some books. The time I spent in professional kitchens was really more about absorbing how things were operating—processes and organization.
I opened City Grit on Prince Street in New York City in September 2011. I like to call City Grit a “culinary salon.” The idea for it came when I was traveling around for a year, meeting with chefs, and staging. So many chefs would say to me that they wanted to visit New York City to cook. So I envisioned a place where I could cook half the time and have other chefs come in and cook with me for the other half. But really, it is a way for me to run a restaurant without having to serve the same food every day. I think that’s what I loved about cooking: I’m doing something different all the time, learning new things, and experimenting with new flavors.
I really like the pairing of Asian flavors with traditional Southern ingredients. It's funny because when I started thinking about what my point of view would be on food, I was really trying hard—actually pushing against myself—to steer away from Southern food as well as the Japanese food that I had grown to love from my time studying abroad. But Southern food is just what I do, as hard as I have tried or not to steer clear of that. It's who I am and I can’t not make that food. The recipes here combine my Southern and my Japanese worlds, while also blending my past life with my present life.