Name: Sarah Simmons
Profession: CEO, CITY GRIT Hospitality Group –
In 2015 she opened Rise Gourmet Goods & Bakeshop, her first counter-service concept in her hometown of Columbia, SC.
In 2017, Simmons relocated the CGHG companies to Columbia, SC to focus on economic development, workforce training, and community growth in the city where she serves on the city’s Food Policy Council and is spearheading a Culinary Training program for non-college bound youth from high poverty areas.
– Recognized by Food & Wine magazine in 2012 as one of “America’s Best New Cooks”
– Recognized by the Charleston Wine + Food Festival in 2013 as a “New & Notable” chef
– Named one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” in 2013 by Fast Company magazine, which called her “the chef cooking up the most exciting dining experience in New York.”
– Named one of the 50 best chefs in New York City in 2014, by FOOD & WINE magazine
– Simmons is a recurring guest judge on Food Network competitive cooking show, Beat Bobby Flay.
Down Home Cooking
Five ingredients always in your pantry:
- benne seeds
- jacobsen’s flake salt
- fish sauce
Five ingredients always in your fridge:
- our homemade chipotle hot sauce
- almond milk
- aged parmesan
Favorite local seasonal produce right now and why?
Field peas – nothing compares to North and South Carolina field peas. I love them as a side dish, with rice, in a salad, pickled, curried. They are so flavorful and precious and reminiscent of my childhood.
If you had to choose one last meal, what would it be and why?
I think I’d want Jason Stanhope, the Executive Chef at Fig Restaurant to cook my last meal because four of my top ten favorite dishes – coddled egg, tomato tarte tatin, cottage cheese, gnocchi – come out of his kitchen.
If you could only have one cookbook, what would it be?
Frank Stitt’s Southern Table. This book changed my life. It was the first book that put southern food in a perspective that was greater than canapes and meat + threes. Frank’s approach to refined cuisines using southern ingredients helped reframe my perceptions of “southern food” and helped me establish my own culinary voice.
Who are some up and coming culinary names in the south … some visionaries we should be looking out for?
BJ Dennis, Geechie Gullah chef from Charleston. He’s doing a fantastic job sharing the stories of his ancestors through food. We need more chefs like BJ who are determined to preserve their foodways and history as trends and farming practices continue to shift.
Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha – The brother/sister team behind a number of restaurants in Raleigh immigrated from Laos twenty years ago and opened their first restaurant Bida Manda as a tribute to their family back home. Their second restaurant was a Bon Appétit
#10 Best New Restaurant and was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Their story is so inspiring. And their food is remarkable.
What is your “signature dish”?
Shrimp & Grits seems like such a basic answer but it’s the truth. My first food memory is from eating Shrimp & Grits at Crook’s Corner as a child. It blew my mind! So when I began working on my own version, I set out to create a dish worthy of that memory.
People who have been eating this dish all of their lives eat our version often tell us it’s the best dish they’ve ever eaten. That is when you know you’ve hit the mark!
To Market … To Market
How did you get into the culinary business?
I majored in Japanese and Telecommunications at UGA. I’d wanted to switch majors to Public Relations but it was too late in the game for me to be able to graduate on time. So I hustled. I took every opportunity during the last 18 months of college to learn everything I could and build the skills outside of the classroom required to compete for the same jobs as PR graduates. I worked so hard I ended up winning the Georgia PRSA’s prestigious Harry Malone Scholarship, awarded to the student in the state of Georgia who best exemplifies excellence in Public Relations. I was the only non-PR major to apply. It taught me early there is more than one way to get want you want – but sometimes you just have to hustle harder and faster and smarter to get there.
This lesson came in handy when I made the decision to quit my day job to cook professionally. I had no clue what I was doing. But I hustled like I’d never hustled in my life and, eventually, I figured most of it out.
What do you wish you had known going into the culinary business?
I wish I’d had better training in leadership. In my first professional life, I was trained to manage people with MBA’s. It’s really easy to manage highly-educated, driven people.
What I didn’t realize is you have to lead the team in a restaurant. I failed miserably in the beginning because I was trying to use management tactics to motivate people who needed leadership. I’m still learning.
If you could take over an Instagram account for the day, who’s would it be and why?
I’d like to takeover Speaker Paul Ryan’s Instagram (@speakerpaulryan). I’d like to tell the stories of the farmers and children most impacted by the Farm Bill so they would possibly be top of mind when drafting legislation which has a life or death impact on them.
If you could ask one person or brand to take over YOUR Instagram account, who would it be? Why?
Hairy Dawg – I’d want to him post photos of him posing like he’s eating our food!
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