The winds of change blew through the mass of curls on my head as I trotted up the couple of stairs that lead to the glass front doors of the Whitney Museum of American Art. I bought a ticket and roamed around three different floors, each more artsy than the last. I found paintings and sculptures on the seventh floor, I saw artist Mary Corse’s first solo museum survey on the eighth floor, and I found office spaces that I was clearly not supposed to be in on the fourth floor.
But all of this was not because I was itching to take in some culture on a Thursday afternoon, it was because I had time to kill before my meeting with the Executive Chef of the intimate yet open restaurant on the first floor of the museum. The Chef is Suzanne Cupps and the restaurant is Untitled, Union Square Hospitality Group’s newest offering for seasonal American cuisine. I got the privilege of sitting down with Chef Suzanne to talk about the benefits of a STEM background in the kitchen, creating a new kitchen culture, and …well, hot dog buns.
The Chef’s Connection: Chef Suzanne, can you give us a quick 60 second bio?
Chef Suzanne Cupps: Sure. I am currently the Executive Chef at Untitled Restaurant. We’re located in the meatpacking district on Gansevoort Street in the Whitney Museum of American Art and I’ve been here since it opened three years ago. I just took over about a year and a half ago. Before untitled, I was working at Gramercy Tavern, which I loved and is still very close to my heart and we cook a lot in the same way that Gramercy does. The chef there, Mike Anthony and I came and opened Untitled together so it feels like my baby has grown up in the past few years. I’ve been working for USHG for 7 years, before that I was at Anissa restaurant for a little more than five years working for Anita Lo. She was my first mentor and an amazing teacher. She taught me how to cook everything. Prior to that I went to ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) for culinary school and that was really my first time being in a professional kitchen and my first time learning cooking techniques.
TCC: So, you’ve had the ideal ascension that every cook dreams of having but before that you were a math major, which is what got me interested in your story as somebody with a STEM background that transferred into cooking. Did you know you wanted to be a cook before you decided to major in math? And if so, how did you come to that conclusion?
SC: So growing up, I had no interest in cooking. I had very little interest in eating different types of foods. My mom cooked dinner for us every night so that was family time that we were expected to go and sit around the table together and I think that shaped a lot of my childhood. But in terms of what i was eating and the preparation of it, it was not interesting to me. My grandfather in central Pennsylvania had his own farm. I loved being there and eating his produce but I never was curious about the gardens or helping pick anything unless it was one of the chorese for the day. So I feel like I grew up around some foods but it wasn’t on the forefront of my mind. As i got older in middle and high school i liked a lot of things, with sports and school work i never latched on to any one thing, I kinda liked to do a little bit of everything and I did fairly well but never had a passion for one thing. So when I was going to college at Clemson in South Carolina, I had to choose a major and I had no idea what to choose but I was especially good at math. I liked that kind of logic and puzzles that go with math, more so than the number part of it. I liked that things worked out and equal each other. So I chose math and education for my major. My only stipulation for a profession was that I didn’t want sit at a desk. I wanted to be up and about and the only thing that I could really think of was math teacher. But I found out in higher education, math is not quite the same. It’s not as fun when you go into all of those theories and you have no numbers any more. I finished 3 and a half years at Clemson and only had to student teach to graduate. But I was miserable . I didn’t want to student teach. So I thought if I feel this miserable, why would I become a teacher? Especially with math, kids have a hard time so you have to be 100% behind that. At that point I switched to just being a math major, and even more math classes to graduate.
TCC: That’s a long self realization journey. I can definitely relate. I started as an aviation electronics major, thinking I’m good at math. And like you said, I loved the logic. I loved that everything made sense every time and it always worked out. And I liked planes. So my junior year I though “everything’s going so great, let me take another major, so i picked up electrical engineering, it’ll be fine.” but no, it was not fine. I drug myself through that after graduation for 2 and half years until I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. Going on, I know we definitely agree about math making sense and the importance of logic, how do you feel like that STEM background, that understanding of 1+1=2, how do you feel like that helps you or hurts you?
SC: Some people naturally think that if you’re a math major and numbers are important to you, then you would be good at measuring and baking and even maybe the science behind cooking, but that was definitely not what interested me when I first started cooking. I really latched on to the repetition and a lot of math and science people tend to be more perfectionist. I loved the idea of cutting something into a perfect square and doing it better every time. I loved the shapes of food that I could make with my knife. And later on and now I love the shapes of food as they are naturally and I try to highlight that. At first I wanted everything to be a perfect square, a perfect rectangle or tourne or whatever it was. I also love the repetition of doing something over and over again and having a method. I think because my brain works that way, having a math background really helped me to become good. My knife skills were really good, very quickly. I still don’t like to follow recipes and I still don’t like to measure but my brain still works in that methodical way.
TCC: So moving on a bit, I read an article that mentioned you were trying to shift away from the dictatorship style of running a kitchen. I wanted to know how do you feel that management style will effect Untitled and set an example for other restaurants over time.
SC: I think that’s interesting because I never experienced that dictatorship in a kitchen. I was very fortunate to just work for two really good mentors. In their kitchens there was a lot of respect and collaboration and it was a lot of teaching versus telling or yelling. So I’ve really never worked in an environment that I felt someone above me is telling what to do and upset if I don’t do it right. I know that’s not everyone’s experience in cooking and I’m not naive or blind to it but it’s never been apart of my personality or the people work for so I’ve been very fortunate. I do think it goes back to not just my math but my teaching background, I love to show and explore with other people rather than me getting to do all of the fun creative things and then demanding that others work the same way. I actually really learn from the cooks, the sous chefs, everyone that I work with. And for me that’s a much more interesting discovery and a more interesting way to work. Our kitchen is very open, we stretch across the whole dining room so it wouldn’t work for me to yell. I also notice that when you don’t raise your voice to much or you don’t put people down, and you have a calm demeanor, then other people follow in that way. They listen to you a little bit more. Our cooks really respond to being treated like adults.
TCC: That’s a refreshing take. I guess we can only hope that restaurant kitchens will begin to adopt that model if it works for them. I know you’ve been the executive chef here for a little while and the role of the executive chef is so much more than the creativity required to produce at a high level consistently and there’s a lot of administrative and logistical moving parts. How do you think a cook can prepare to take on a management role and do you think a STEM education should play a role in that?
SC: Yeah, I think that’s one things people don’t realize. Being a chef isn’t just getting to do fun things and cook and create all the time. Most of my job is spent behind a computer or looking at the financials or following up with people every day. There’s so much that goes into running a restaurant and to making sure all of the numbers work and making sure the guests are happy and monitoring the level of execution thats coming out of the restaurant. One of the things i really love about USHG is that they’re very transparent with a lot of the financials of the business and they want us to share with our line cooks and our porters how we’re doing month to month. They want us to talk about food costs so that’s something we discuss. Food cost sometimes seems scary but it can’t just be the chef that’s thinking about it. It has to be the prep cook who’s peeling the vegetables and understanding how to do it correctly so there’s little waste. It has to be the cook who’s not over-preparing the mise for their station. I think we’re giving our cooks experience with how to be a manager early into their careers here. It’s just one part of the job but it’s a big part. It’s also making the food taste good, labor numbers, guest comment cards, and making sure everyone understands the big picture of what’s going on.
TCC: That is very important for a smoothly running restaurant. Do you have any advice for anybody who is going to make the same sort of career transition you made?
SC: Sure, I think plenty of people don’t go to culinary school and I’m actually really excited to hire cooks at Untitled who have no training whatsoever. Habits are a really big thing for people wanting to come into the industry. You can’t cook well if you don’t work cleanly. And just the attitude of wanting to learn is really important. I felt like I needed to go to culinary school because I wouldn’t have had the confidence or even known what to do when I set foot in a restaurant. It depends on your personality and your background. I think it’s an easy transition because chefs are really just looking for smart people to hire. There are so many jobs open that it just takes putting your head down and giving it a try. Trail at a lot of restaurants. Go to a big restaurant, go to a small restaurant. Taste the food and see what speaks to you.
TCC: That’s my favorite part about the kitchen, getting to meet people that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise met. You mentioned tasting the food…do you have any ideas that you want to give us a sneak peak of for upcoming late summer and early fall menus?
SC: I’d love to tell you actually, we’re launching a full new menu on July 19th. At Untitled we’ve just grown and our theme for the the food has always been cooking local and seasonal ingredients, relying very heavily on the farmer’s market to drive our creativity and what we’re doing. And we’re keeping that so there’s no change in the types of produce that we’ll be working with but we’re actually moving to a small plates menu. In the past we’ve had a menu that included appetizers and entrees and we’re moving towards a less formal menu. People can come in and have one dish or come with a friend and try three or four dishes. I love the idea of small plates because you can.have ten bites of one dish and ten bites of another dish. It’s fun getting to taste and try without being overly full. We want our food to be light and beautiful. At the same time, we want people to leave satisfied, but not feeling like they have to take a nap! Even though the driving factor for the menu is the seasonal produce, we’re not a vegetarian restaurant. We have plenty of vegetarian dishes but se love seafood and meat as well. The whole menu will be changing and I’m excited about a couple of different dishes and the idea that even though we’re contemporary American in our translation, we have people from all over that work here and visit the Whitney so I love using techniques and flavors from all over the world and doing them in what feels like a contemporary american way. Today we were working on a Japanese style pancake with grilled squid and that’s one of my favorite dishes. I’m also trying something that I’ve never done before. It’s been a little popular craze and I’m interested to jump on the bandwagon. We’re going to be doing a veggie burger. We have a cheese burger on the menu that I love but we’re going to do a veggie burger as well. We want to have options for everyone that comes here. It’s going to be a fun, playful menu with a lot of beautiful flavors and seasonal produce.
TCC: Well that’s so exciting. I think small plates are the best. You can try so many things at once in once sitting. Also, I’ve been on a life long quest for a veggie burger so I’ll definitely be back to try that. Do you have a current ingredient obsession?
SC: Everyone actually makes fun of me because my ingredient obsession is carrots. When I was younger I only liked raw carrots. Back in the early 80’s we were eating frozen bagged carrots and they’re not so delicious. I never like glazed carrots, only raw. As I moved to New York and found out about farmer’s markets and got more in tune with products, I found that I love carrots when you roast them. Roast whole carrots, with a little olive oil and salt until they’re tender but not mushy. Something about how the sugars change the texture and the flavor makes them so great and a canvas for a lot of great flavors.
TCC: Do you have any ingredients that you absolutely can’t stand?
SC: There’s a few. I have an aversion to some herbs and spices. Parsley is one of my least favorites. I cook with it here but when I cook for myself I don’t use parsley and will avoid dishes that are really heavy on parsley.
TCC: Well that’s the last thing I thought you’d say. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a chef downtalk parsley. With the exception of a culinary school teacher I had that through curly parsley was an abomination. Do you have an ingredient that you want to change people’s minds about?
SC: I don’t think there’s one specific ingredient. I think just vegetables as a whole. Im not here to tell people to eat their vegetables or to try to trick people and mash them up and put them in something. I actually really love to showcase the vegetables in their natural form. The local farmers we work with are growing such amazing vegetables and in such nuanced ways they just taste different, they taste better. They’re delicious on their own with just a little manipulation. I love the idea of not forcing people to eat their vegetables but just highlighting them in a way people have never seen before so people are drawn to them and they come to love the dish on their own. I think beets are one of the most polarizing. Some people love beets and some people hate them. We have a beet dish on the menu right now with roasted beets and tahini, some crispy grains and strawberries and i think that people are more surprised about that dish than anything on the menu. People that are sharing it for the table take a bite and they’re really blown away by how good a beet can taste. I love that surprise factor of people discovering vegetables that they didn’t think they liked.
TCC: Do you have a deepest darkest food secret or guilty pleasure?
SC: Guilty pleasure…well I’m an American so I probably have a lot of guilty pleasures! I still love Oreos and now that they make the thin Oreos, I’m really obsessed with those. Some of the things I thought I liked as a kid I don’t like as much as an adult. I still love Papa John’s pizza every once in a while with those banana peppers. When I go home to South Carolina there’s a lot of those kinda chain places that get me from time to time. I can’t do Taco Bell though.
TCC: Well after college Taco Bell becomes a no-no. Who’s the one person you want to cook for living or dead?
SC: I’ve been lucky enough working for Mike Anthony and Anita, I’ve gotten to cook for a lot of people as a kitchen team. Maybe not as the chef but we’ve cooked for Ferran Adria, Daniel Boulud, Grant Achatz and all these great chefs. It’s fun to see a celebrity come by. We’re in New York. Jimmy Fallon used to come into Gramercy a lot. But it’s really the chefs that come in that are really cool to cook for. The one person that I haven’t cooked for at Anissa, Gramercy or Untitled is Thomas Keller. I would really honored if he ever decided to come to Untitled.
TCC: Sounds like an invitation to me Mr. Keller. Every kitchen that I’ve worked in, I’ve seen cooks MacGyver up some tasty things just from ingredients lying around or mise that’s going to turn into family meal. What’s the craziest concoction you’ve ever seen or made yourself?
SC: In a restaurant a lot of times you have bread building up and I remember one time we had all these hotdog buns. I was begging for someone to use the buns and one of my sous chefs made the most delicious chocolate bread pudding that I’ve ever had and you’d never know that it came from hotdog buns!
TCC: That’s the best part about working in a kitchen, the stuff that’s off menu. Thank you so much for taking the time to sit with me and I’m looking forward to the roll out of your new menu!
SC: Thanks! Enjoy!
Untitled is located in the Whitney Museum of American Art on 99 Gansevoort St, New York, NY 10014. The small plates menu will debut on Thursday, July 19th, 2018.