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  • Chef Introduction

    Katy Sparks

    I grew up on a farm in Vermont where my parents were always entertaining. My father was a professor at Middlebury College, and there were always international people from the Spanish, French, Italian, and German schools coming over. And they all loved good food. I loved the way they viewed food. They weren't obsessed with it so much as it was just another thing to celebrate. That had a big affect on me.

    I grew up on a farm in Vermont where my parents were always entertaining. My father was a professor at Middlebury College, and there were always international people from the Spanish, French, Italian, and German schools coming over. And they all loved good food. I loved the way they viewed food. They weren't obsessed with it so much as it was just another thing to celebrate. That had a big affect on me.

    I didn’t think about being a chef until much later. I had followed the normal path of kids from my background, which was to go to college. But as I got to be around 19 or 20, I thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing here.” I wasn’t really enjoying school and had no sense of direction.

    So I dropped out and wound up cooking in a small café in Middlebury. I was a waitress, but would put together simple salads and other dishes. At one point, the owners, who didn’t really have a kitchen, asked, “Can you use your mom’s kitchen and make some soups?” And so I did. The first recipe was from, I think, the Baltimore Junior League Cookbook, a curried green pea and chicken soup. I brought it in and people responded very positively. It became this power I had, finally: I had felt disempowered at college because I was so clueless. Making people happy was so empowering and addictive. I found that cooking—bringing happiness and delight to people—gave me the direction I was missing, and that’s why I became a chef.

    Surrendering to the idea of going to a trade school wasn’t easy. I come from a very academic background: My brother and sister both went to Princeton and my father was a PhD, so I struggled a little bit with being the trade school girl/daughter. But once I surrendered to it, I maximized it. I wound up graduating summa cum laude from Johnson and Wales and had my pick of internships. I chose Al Forno, a great Italian restaurant in Providence that emphasized superlocal foods and full, rustic flavors, and became their very first intern. This focus on fresh and local whole foods set the tone for my career.

    After Providence, I came to New York to work with Barry Wine at the Quilted Giraffe. This is when globalism hit me like a ton of bricks. We were doing Japanese/French fusion, which was mind-blowingly exciting. It was the end of the 1980s, when restaurants in the United States were becoming more and more inspired by the rest of the world. It was an incredibly rich and expansive time to be cooking. Through this incredible exposure to the ingredients and techniques of Japanese cooking, I learned to use restraint and delicacy when working with seafood and vegetables. Japanese cooking also puts a premium on the quality of the raw materials, which echoed what I had been brought up knowing about good food.

    The people who came into the Quilted Giraffe every night included stars like Warren Beatty, Madonna, and Jasper Johns. That was just normal clientele. One night Paul Bocuse came to the restaurant. He was surprised to see how many women were in the kitchen—there were five of us. We’d heard that Bocuse had said, “A women’s place is in the bedroom, not in the kitchen.” So we ran upstairs to our lockers and put on lipstick and earrings. We dolled ourselves up as much as possible. When Bocuse came into the kitchen, there we were, all tarted up, very feminine, making the point that women were in the best kitchens, cooking refined and celebrated cuisine. We all had a laugh while he posed for photos with us.

    After Quilted Giraffe, my journey led me back to American food when I opened Mesa Grill with Bobby Flay. I started as a line cook but he immediately promoted me to sous chef. I dove deeply into the Southwestern thing. But I also realized that all the techniques I had learned in the French arena, the Japanese arena, and the Italian arena—all these served me, and I began to see so many parallels between cuisines. The way the Japanese make tempura batter, for example, is not so different from an Italian fritto misto or a Southwestern battered chile relleno. Once I learned the basic techniques of each of these cuisines, I felt freed up to improvise.

    When I hit my forties and became a mom, I started to eat differently and cook differently at home. I spent two or three solid years doing nothing but studying nutrition. A lot of that was driven by my father’s death from cancer and just feeling like, Geez, I wonder if we could have supported him better with nutrition? All that research led me right back to the food I grew up with, which is whole food, unprocessed food, natural food in its natural state. This became especially important to me as a mother. I realized that making food that is appealing to my son is just as important as getting him to “eat his veggies.” I didn’t want dinner to be a battle every night, so I strove to find ways to please his palate while making the food as whole, nutrient dense, and healthy as possible.

    Now as I go back in to a professional kitchen with the amazing platform of Tavern on the Green in New York City’s Central Park, I love having the control of sourcing, purchasing, and creating wholesome food and feeding people. And all the while I’ve kept Vermont in my back pocket. Growing up on a small farm, raising animals and growing vegetables—all that is still deeply a part of me. And finally, the best chefs and the best restaurateurs are very much aware that we are telling a story through the food, the décor, the style, the service, everything. But within the same thrust is the sense of “come to our house, we’re sharing ourselves with you and we hope you’ll like it.” That just reminds me of my childhood. Come to our house. We’re going to cook real food. We’re going to make things that are meaningful to us.

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