Chef Sara Jenkins is a True Renaissance Woman
An Interview by Laurie Ulster
By the time Sara Jenkins was a teenager, she’d already been all over the Mediterranean, in conditions from elegant to rustic, traveling with her erudite parents. Career-wise, she’s already been a photographer, a cook, an author, a blogger for The Atlantic, and an app creator, in addition to running two restaurants simultaneously.
Early in her career, Jenkins worked in the kitchen alongside chef Todd English, and was the chef at I Coppi (earning the restaurant 2 stars from the New York Times), then Il Buco, Patio Dining, and 50
Carmine. In 2008, she opened Porchetta, an East Village sandwich shop featuring spiced roast pork sandwiches, a popular street food in Italy, which promptly earned four stars from the New York Times. She followed that up two years later with Porsena, a quaint pasta restaurant featuring authentic Italian recipes made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. While her restaurant may seem modest, her experience is anything but: Amanda Freitag says it’s Jenkins who taught her how to make pasta, and if you Google her, you’ll keep hitting that Mario Batali quote: “She is one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat.”
Despite her multiple talents and impressive accomplishments, she is remarkably relatable, and has a hearty, contagious laugh.
The Chefs Connection (CC): So what did you learn from Porchetta that helped you with Porsena?
“I don’t know. I don’t know! [Laughs] Take the money and run?” [Laughs harder]
CC: Well, what would you tell someone else who wants to open their own restaurant?
“Well, I would tell them that they’re going to need more money than they think they’re going to need. And one of my standard pieces of advice is you should learn something about electricity and plumbing, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), because I don’t know any of that, and I am constantly having to call people and pay people to deal with that stuff for me.“
CC: D you have a lot of regulars here from the neighborhood, people that you recognize?
“Absolutely. We have people who have been coming here since we first opened.”
CC: And what would you say is the most popular thing that your customers order?
“The anelloni with lamb sausage. That and the escarole salad are the two top hits, over and over again.”
CC: The menu is small; there aren’t a lot of items on it. Do you rotate dishes out a lot?
“I do. I usually change two or three dishes every day. It kind of depends … sometimes we were so slow the night before that [we] only change one thing. But I try to change everything except for the anelloni and the escarole. And that’s actually something new that we started doing this year, in January. We used to have a more standard menu that we changed seasonally, and I got kind of bored with it, honestly. And I was always kind of scared to do a daily menu here, because I felt like it was going to be so much more work. But it’s the good work, it’s the work that I really enjoy, so it’s kind of not more work. So then it inspires me, then I don’t feel like I’m some drudge, constantly figuring out the cost of things and doing inventory, and scheduling, because what I like to do is create food.”
CC: Do you cook at home?
“I do … probably not that frequently. I like to cook at home because I like the food I make. I’m a picky eater, you know?”
CC: You’re a picky eater? Tell me what you don’t eat.
“I don’t eat eggs. It’s not that I don’t eat eggs, or I can’t eat egg food. I really don’t like eggs, so I don’t like egg on top of something, I don’t eat eggs for breakfast. Um … I’m not a big fan of chicken …”
CC: Oh! That’s really strange.
“Right? [Laughs] And then, you know, cooking at home is a chance to do stuff different [from] what you do at the restaurant. I actually eat a lot of stir fried rice at home, ‘cause I really love Asian flavors, and I crave them. And it’s easy stuff to make at home.”
CC: Is your son a good eater?
“No, not really. [Laughs] You know, it’s funny. I was a picky eater as a kid, and my parents were like, [in a low serious voice] ‘You have to eat this, you have to have an egg for breakfast. You have to have a glass of milk for breakfast. You have to have this and that.’ It was a big rebellion for me. So with my kid, I don’t let him sit around and eat nothing but peanut M&Ms, but I’m not going to battle with him, I don’t care — kind of — whether you eat 18 different types of sushi, or you’re happy eating chicken, day in and day out.“
CC: I’ve never met a chef who’s a picky eater, and you’re making me feel so much better, because I’m a picky eater.
“No, I think in some ways you become a cook, or you’re interested in food, because of course you’re a picky eater, you’re kind of focused on it. And it’s not like I’m a picky eater like I won’t go out and try all kinds of things; I’m experimental, and I love all kinds of different flavors in foods. But yeah, I’m pretty rigid about what I will and won’t eat, you know?”
CC: So do you cook chicken dishes here at all?
“Sometimes. We have a pheasant on the menu right now. You always feel like chicken should be a thing, but then we had chicken for a long time and we really didn’t sell it very much, so in the end, we got rid of it. And now, sometimes we have a chicken, sometimes we have a pheasant, we usually have some kind of poultry. Duck.”
CC: So given that you’re a picky eater, and you went to school for fine art, photography, how did you know that you wanted to –
“– to cook? [Laughs] I was working as a photographer for a really crappy suburban newspaper, as a stringer, and being sent on assignment to photograph the high school ice cream social, and stuff like that. The Eagle Scouts. I couldn’t get out bed in the morning to go to my shoots. And I started cooking with a friend of mine. I had cooked in kitchens a bit here and there, like you pick when you get out of college and stuff like that. It had never been something that I was really focused on.
“I went to cook with a friend of mine in her restaurant; it was the first time I really got to be creative in a way, you know? I would read cookbooks, and I would come in, and eventually I just decided, like, oh my god, this is crazy, I want to get up in the morning and read cookbooks and go to work. And I’m like, let’s make this, let’s make that, and I’d go in and I’d work crazy long hours that I didn’t even get paid for, and … something’s going on here, right? Like, I can’t get out of bed to go to my photo assignment, so …”
CC: So then, how did you get your next job cooking after that?
“My friend was the chef and she left, and I came in and did everything she did, and they made me chef. And that was the beginning of it all.”
CC: So you grew up traveling all over with your parents, and then you came to the States at 15? And went to high school? Where do you guys move to in the States?
CC: And what was that transition like?
“It was horrible. And that’s another reason I always say I learnt to cook. You couldn’t get olive oil up there. The food I was presented with, even. I remember going down to Little Italy in Boston and it was all very Italian American food and I didn’t recognize it, I couldn’t identify any of it. So I grew up with all these flavors that I didn’t think very much about, and then I was put in this environment with no access to them at all. And I had to learn how to cook, so that I could recreate them.”
CC: And then how did you do socially, because where you had been living was pretty different.
“Right, well it was boarding school, so everybody’s kind of taken from somewhere else and thrown in, you know?”
CC: But you were in Italy right before that, right?
“Yeah. I went from Rome to a little tiny New England town on the border of Maine and New Hampshire.”
CC: It’s just, high school is really rough anyway …
“Yeah, high school was really rough. There were friends of my parents who were wondering if they should take their kids back to Texas, and these were half-Vietnamese half-American children. Should they take them back to Texas for a couple of years of high school before college? And I was like, ‘No! [Laughs] Just send them to college, because in college, everybody will be from somewhere. If you put them in high school in Texas, they’ll be, like, the freaks.’”
CC: You’re involved in so many things. You’re a writer too. I know your mother is a food writer –
“My mother is a food writer and my father’s a journalist. And [my mother and I], we’re working on a cookbook together; we just signed the contract about a month ago. It’s ‘The Four Seasons of Pasta.’ It’s a pasta-centric book, it’s all about pasta, and it’s approaching it as a seasonal thing. Spring pasta recipes, summer pasta recipes, fall, winter.”
CC: And how do you get along with your mother while you’re doing this?
“Reasonably well. [Laughs] We have a few moments of like, are you kidding me? It was a lot to write the proposal. We have the same agent, who she has left and gone back to a number of times. I love my agent, and I’m not a writer by profession, so in some ways I listen to my agent maybe more closely than my mother does. And so she has a slightly more contentious relationship with him. ‘I can’t! What are you talking about? I don’t even understand!’ And like, ‘No no no, I’m not doing that!’ But we got through writing the proposal.”
CC: And do you guys relate to each other the way you used to as a kid when you’re doing that stuff, or is it different now?
“No, it’s a little bit different. But we can always push each other’s buttons right back there. [Laughs]”
CC: What does she do to push your buttons?
“Disagree with me! [Laughs] We’re both really strong, opinionated people.”
CC: And you’ve also created an app. What was that process like?
“Well, I met these guys who were app developers, and I was really interested. It was a point where I was talking and thinking a little bit … you know I have one cookbook that I wrote, that came out in 2008, and I was thinking, what do I want to write next, what do I want to do next? There was a lot of discussion about apps and online reading versus books and publishing; it was a little bit in shambles. And what I really think is that it’s a little bit almost like the invention of the printing press, right? Like, the information and the telling of stories isn’t going to go away, and the sharing of information, but the medium is changing. And I was really intrigued.
“My kid has an app that is linked to ‘Cars’ the movie, and there are little cars he buys that sync up. He drives them over the screen, and that’s amazing. What if you could do that, what if you could move a sauté pan around the screen and see what happens, and how long it takes? So I was really enamored of the idea of using the app as a way to get information that one doesn’t always get out of a cookbook. What does it look like when the onions are actually wilted and browned in the pan?”
CC: Have you gotten good feedback on it?
“Yeah, actually, I get great feedback on it. ‘Cause that’s also the feedback I got on my original cookbook, which started out being about how to build and create flavor, one of the things that I tried really hard in that cookbook. And it’s hard, because you’re trying to write a precise recipe for somebody, that they can follow, who may or may not know particularly well how to cook. But at the same time, I find people get so bogged down, like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t have black peppercorn, I can’t make this dish. I don’t have arugula, I can’t make this dish.’ I’m trying to communicate: You know what? Think of it as a bitter strong salad green, and now there’s 18 other things out there that you can substitute. You can substitute watercress. And so I’ve had a really good response to my book about that, and it was kind of what the app was about. This is the Italian pantry, and if you stock your pantry with these things, it’s easy to pick up an eggplant at the farmer’s market or the supermarket and have something to do with it. And you’re not racing around, buying 18 different ingredients for one dish, but then you’re never going to use those again once you’ve made the dish.”
CC: Do you like to look at other cooking apps that are out there?
“I looked at some. The cookbooks that I tend to read are usually about a cuisine that I’m not super familiar with, or Italian cookbooks IN Italian, because that’s information that I can’t just find online, necessarily. None of the apps that I’ve looked at, well, they’re either selling a product, or it’s like, Giada’s collection of recipes. And I’m not really interested in Giada’s collection of recipes, you know? She’s a fine person, and her recipes are fine, but …”
CC: I did see one app where you could turn the pages of the recipe without touching the iPad, you’d just wave your hand over it.
“Oh wow, that’s great. I think there’s a lot to be done with [that technology], you know?”
CC: What are some other things you’d like to accomplish, when you look ahead?
“Well the biggest thing that I really want to accomplish is: I want to write the book about my family’s farmhouse in Tuscany that they bought in 1971 and we still have. It’s this arc of a story for me. We went to this village and people were essentially living a subsistence farmer type of existence; they’d just gotten electricity the year before, in the village. And in 40 years, that’s completely transformed and changed, and people have cars, people have electricity, people have central heating. People have fully entered the modern world. And there’s things of course that I mourn romantically of the old way, but also, their lives are incredibly, vastly improved. I mean, my neighbors didn’t have indoor plumbing until the mid-80s. And we arrived and it was this intensely rural, agricultural lifestyle. It’s still very rural, and people have gardens, but they’re not necessarily living off the land the way they used to. And rather than simply turning out house into a vacation house, which it is, we invested in the land and planted 150 olive trees and we go every fall now, and pick the olives and press them. And we don’t make THAT much olive oil, but enough for the family’s supply for the year. And I love that, that we’ve maintained the value, the agricultural priority value of the land. So I want to write that book.”
CC: I want to read that book!
“But I don’t know what all the stuff is in the middle. And now I just sold this pasta book.
“And I guess the other thing is, I’m a gypsy, right? I’m a traveler and I like to travel and be out on the road, and owning restaurants has really changed that for me. There’s the restaurants, there’s the kid, there’s all these responsibilities. And so I really miss that ability to just, get on a plane and go to Vietnam.”
CC: I was just going to ask how you juggle having two restaurants, writing a book, and a child.
“It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. And I take great comfort in the fact that apparently every woman who works out of the home is suffering the same things. And I may think my particular situation is harder or whatever, the working nights get more and more complicated. We’re three years into school now. Before that, I could just hang out with him in the day and then take him to a babysitter and go to work. Now I take him to school first thing in the morning. If I don’t come home in the afternoon, then I don’t see him until first thing the next morning.
“I found that I’ve had to be particularly strict about being home on Sunday. It’s really easy to wind up doing events on Sunday, whatever kind of events, somebody calls you up and they ask you to participate in this, or do this, or do that, and there’s a ton of those, and you always want to, but I’ve discovered that I have to be like no, absolutely not, it’s a Sunday. At the very least, Sunday I’m home.”
CC: I know exactly what you’re talking about.
“Yeah. It’s funny, I was talking with another female chef a couple of weeks ago, and she has three kids. We were talking, you know, what do you do? And she [said], ‘Yeah, I send my kids off sometimes, and in the morning, Dad drives them to school, and it’s like okay, see you tomorrow!’ She [said], ‘At least what I try to do, is when I’m home, I’m home with them, I’m not on my computer.’ And I was like really? Because I’m on my computer! [Laughs]”
CC: Me too. Perfect segue though, because there’s a lot of talk, always about “women chefs.” How do you feel about that as a topic?
“I resented it as a topic for a long time, because I’ve always been of the, you know, hey I just do what I do, and I do it as well as I can. But, I’m really good friends with Anita Lo, and her whole thing is, if we don’t talk about it, nobody talks about it, and it doesn’t go away. So I’ve kind of embraced that. I do think the raising kids thing is a huge issue. There’s the media not having interest in women anyway, across the board.”
CC: Except for us [at The Chefs Connection].
“Right. [Laughs] And then there’s not necessarily paying that much attention to female chefs. Amanda Cohen at Dirt Candy, she’s always like, ‘What is this no female chefs thing? I can sit here and name 15 female chefs off the top of my head right now in New York City.’ So then that is like, what’s going on? The media just isn’t interested. So how do you change that without sounding whiny?
CC: Do you feel that there is a boys’ club out there, of chefs, or is it the media?
“It’s a little bit of both, right? Not that there’s a boys’ club out there with a bunch of chefs sitting around being like, ‘Let’s exclude those girls.’ But they hang out with each other, in the same way that there’s an old boys’ network [with] lawyers. They do, they hang out together, and then when the opportunities are being handed out, who do you think of? You think of your friend next door.”
CC: And do you think it’s harder for mothers than fathers?
“Yeah, because dads, you know … let’s be real. Male chefs can have their wife give birth, spend the entire labor, maybe take off two days, and then go back to work 15 hours a day. And for women, it’s just physically impossible. You do need to take six weeks. Six weeks, my god, I was really lucky. I took close to seven or eight months before I even started to go back to work. And that was just great because I got my book money that summer, it all worked really well. But I couldn’t imagine having, at six weeks, to have to go back to work.”
CC: You seem to live in a lot of different worlds. You have this very nice casual place here, and you have a lot of friends who are well-known chefs at high end restaurants. How are you so comfortable in all of those worlds, which seem so different to me?
“Because of the way I grew up, I grew up with both incredibly wealthy people who never were going to have to work a day in their [lives], right? And I worked with people who worked every day in the fields in order to get food. And so I’ve seen everything, and everything in between. And everything has a value, everything has a reason. There’s good things and bad things in it all, I guess. So I don’t know. I like to seek out the good in things, I guess, and enjoy and embrace that.”
CC: Would you want to run a high-end, fine dining restaurant?
“I don’t think so; I don’t think that’s really my specialty. And there’s a level with food where it gets really expensive. I always talk about going to eat at Per Se. I had an amazing meal. It was absolutely fantastic and I’m so happy that as a chef I went and experienced that. But it was 500 dollars a person, and that doesn’t really make me very comfortable in a world where children go to sleep hungry, to spend 500 dollars on a meal. And some of those really high end restaurants, people owe so much money. I owe a manageable amount of money here. We opened this place for about 300,000 dollars, maybe even a little under that. People are opening restaurants for millions and millions of dollars.”
CC: Back to food. What’s your perfect last meal? You don’t have to think about health or anything, just what to you is the most fantastic meal you could have?
“It might have to be my neighbor’s potato gnocchi with her meat ragout. That’s kind of my comfort go-to dish. There was a while where every new restaurant I went to work at, it was the first dish I would put on the menu, whether I ran it as a special, or … you know? We loved it, so it was the dish that she made for us often; it was always on the table at special feast days and stuff like that. So there’s something really primal there.”
CC: And how about desserts? Do you like sweets?
“I’m not a big sweet person. I like good chocolate, very intense good chocolate. That’s really about it. Ice cream. But … you know … [laughs]”
CC: What’s not to like about ice cream?
“Right. [Laughs] Right!”
CC: And wine, you seem to know quite a lot about wine.
“Well I grew up in Italy, and you grow up drinking wine, and then one of the things I did in Italy for a while, I worked at a winery, helping them run a cooking program. So [I] got even more sucked into it. And when we opened here, I didn’t really have a wine person or a wine director, and I reached out to a sommelier friend of mine who helped me pull together the list. And then I discovered that I actually really loved and enjoyed buying the wine, tasting the wine, deciding, and that it’s an important part of matching my food, too. So it’s funny because one of my original investors owns Bar Veloce, and he was always like, ‘Why don’t you let my guy do this for you, you’re going to get bored of this, you don’t want to do it,’ and I was like, ‘Sure, let me start.’ And then I never really wanted to give it up.”
CC: And in terms of the look of the restaurant, this is the kind of place you’d go to, I assume?
“Yeah. You know, I didn’t want it to look like it was a restaurant in Italy that we picked up and brought over here. But I wanted it to reference that kind of comfortable, not super glitzy design-y, you know … it’s about the food.”
CC: Traveling-wise, is there any place you haven’t been that you’re dying to go to?
“Latin America. I’ve been to Mexico, but I haven’t been and I’m dying to go to Argentina, and Chile.”
CC: And I assume you like that food, too?
“I don’t know that much about the food, actually. I know Peruvian food is getting big. I love Mexican food. But I don’t really know that much about Latin American food.”
CC: Have you been to Asia?
“I’ve been to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. Never been that interested in China, really. Japan always seems really intimidating. I’d love to go back and spend more time in Vietnam. I love that food.”
CC: Do you try to cook food like that?
“Sometimes. Before I had a kid, I was much more likely to have a big crazy dinner party once every two months, and I’d spend two days cooking something I’d never cooked before. Now I’m like, if I can get people over for Sunday lunch, I’m doing pretty well.”
CC: So what was your very first job in food ever, at any level?
“I worked at a restaurant in Italy one summer, when I was 20 years old, and they were friends of the family, and it was really an excuse to spend the summer in Italy. But it was an amazing restaurant. They were growing most of their own food. This was 1985 and one of my jobs in the afternoon was to peel and seed the tomatoes. The gardener would bring up the crates of plum tomatoes in the afternoon, from the garden, still warm from the sun; just slip the knife off them. My first American restaurant job, my job was also to peel and seed plum tomatoes, and we had to take them, put them in hot water, then put them in ice water, and they were hard, and nasty, and I didn’t quite understand what was wrong [Laughs] but I knew it wasn’t the same.”
CC: Everything that you’re making here is very fresh, and you use a lot of seasonal foods. Are there any really junky, crappy foods that you like to eat?
“Kraft singles. I have no idea why. But at one point I would go visit some friends of mine, and they had small kids. And they’d all go to bed, and I’d be up, bouncing around, and I’d go into the fridge and I’d have Kraft Singles.”
CC: Just plain? Right out of the wrapper?
“Yeah. Just plain. Or honestly, my favorite junk food dish, [when] I’m hung over, or I’m out on the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing to eat, is a grilled cheese sandwich with Kraft Singles.”
CC: The one last thing I wanted to ask you about, was the Chefs Boot Camp in Louisville. Can you tell me about that experience?
“It was really intense. It was really interesting. They have this shtick to it, where you all wind up being present while they kill an animal.”
CC: Had you ever seen that before?
“I actually did, because I spent a lot of time in slaughterhouses, in college, photographing the slaughterhouse. So I was actually probably more upset than anybody else because I knew exactly what I was in for. It’s not really something I’m that into, even though I eat meat, and I think you should definitely be able to understand what your meat is and what it comes from.
“And then we all cooked together. It was really fun. It was a big mix of strong egos and people and experiences. It was great. There was this one guy, we were together two nights, and there was one guy, the first evening, it was the chef from Seattle. And the first night I just wanted to hit him, I was like, I hate you. And by the end of the second night, we’re all screaming on the bus, we love you! So it was really great, that way.”
Interview and Photos by Laurie Ulster