The culinary world has changed a lot since the award-winning Chef Katy Sparks arrived on the culinary scene at the legendary Quilted Giraffe in New York City in the early 1990s.
Now as the industry is adapting to the new normal with COVID-19, she’s helping businesses adjust to the times by empowering, inspiring and making positive change to the culture of kitchens while creating new business models with her culinary consulting business. Total Food Service sat down with Katy Sparks to discuss her inspirations, latest culinary operations, and what she sees for the future in the industry.
Tell us about your background in the industry.
After graduating from Johnson & Wales University, I headed to NY and began working for Barry Wine at the legendary Quilted Giraffe. In 1991, I was on the team that opened Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. Bobby quickly promoted me to Sous Chef and introduced me to the illuminati of the NYC food world. It’s a world I have loved to be a part of ever since.
I truly found my own, personal culinary voice when I was hired to be the Executive Chef of Quilty’s in Soho in 1996. In 1998, I was named the Food and Wine Best New Chef and Wine Spectator Rising Star Chef. It was there that I decided that all of my cuisine experiences to date (Italian, French, German/Austrian, Japanese, Southwestern) would be part of what colored my own personal expression and I have never looked back. I am truly a product of the New York City multi-cultural celebration of cooking while relying on local and seasonal ingredients.
What are the three core features of the culture of the kitchens that remain the same?
- Learning the skills required to be a good cook takes time, patience, commitment and focus.
- Listening to feedback can be hard but is necessary for growth.
- You will achieve breakthrough moments in your skills and abilities that will be thrilling and long-lasting.
What has changed?
The awareness that we need to change some parts of the culture of kitchens to invite in more diverse people with different ways of learning and contributing and start to dismantle the top-down, “Yes Chef!” culture that doesn’t serve anyone anymore.
What’s the new model from your perspective?
There is the beginning of a new emphasis on cooks and others learning in a more cooperative fashion and this will ultimately be a more durable model than the one I came up in. We don’t want to throw out the strengths of the old model, which rightly respects the expertise and knowledge of the senior leadership, but we can introduce more respect and dignity into the process of teaching new skills
So where are we now with culture and staffing?
One challenge has not diminished: how to attract and retain great people as staff.
And by great people I mean some magical combination of committed, open-minded, kind, centered, talented, motivated, sharing, communicative and hard-working. Since no one person embodies all of these traits we are sure to wind up with a diverse team. And in diversity is strength. It is leadership’s job to bring out the best in each team member and provide the guidance and pathway to reach for more skills.
We have much to learn from the younger Millennials and Gen-Z. I think they naturally look for more of a work-life balance after bearing witness to some of the not so appealing results of a single-minded quest for achievement, fame or fortune. These are fine things to pursue, but not at the expense of one’s health, well-being, or relationships.
I propose that we take this moment of renewal as an opportunity to reimagine the relationships between leaders and staff. It is time to invest as much in building our teams as we do in building the physical structure of the dining room, developing the products we sell, or hiring a powerful Marketing and Branding firm. We can redesign how we welcome, encourage, support and train our people so they are skillful and passionate ambassadors of our brands. We can take it as our duty to promote each team member’s well-being in and out of our kitchens, restaurants, hotels and market places. If we start from this place- that it is our role as the experienced elders in our industry to create positive, supportive and diverse staffing landscapes- then we will indeed be sharing our wisdom and providing solid ground for the next generation of hospitality leaders to build on.
Tell us about Katy Sparks Culinary Consulting.
I founded KSCC in 2007 because there was a real need in the food world for expert culinary guidance in launching a sustainably and locally sourced new food business or refreshing and revitalizing an existing one.
This is how our work typically proceeds:
- Discovery: What is the story you tell about your food and your cuisine? What makes your approach special? Where are the opportunities to hone or re-craft your message?
- Assessment: Are you connecting the dots? Is the culinary experience supported and amplified by the skillful staff members in both the FOH and BOH. Is the décor, tabletop design and atmosphere welcoming, appealing and inspiring?
- Planning: Once we see where work could be done to bring all the parts of your business together in a more dynamic and harmonious way, we will make a plan to get there.
- Creating and Developing: Building on the plan, we will create the magic- whether it is a new culinary narrative and new recipes, or re-energizing your greatest asset – your staff!
- Launching or Relaunching: In partnership with communications experts, we ensure that your message is delivered to your target market, and that the message generates the kind of excitement that reinvigorates your brand’s important role within your community.
- Measuring Results: We follow up with custom-designed metrics to measure how this program is performing across many domains. You will see where there’s been progress with increased revenue, the guest experience, quality and consistency of your product, and of course, improved margin.
Tell us about the changes you were able to make to the business models for your clients to survive during COVID-19.
In mid-2019 I was hired as consulting chef at Dixon Roadside in Woodstock (NY) to create the menu and recipes, train the kitchen staff and design the kitchen for the second restaurant for Mike Cioffi who launched the super popular Phoenicia Diner. Because of Mike’s success at the diner, I knew the concept would be solid and exciting and exactly what people wanted. What I couldn’t know is that the concept of a largely drive-up take-away menu focused on updated comfort or road food sourced from local, sustainable Hudson Valley would be exactly the right restaurant for the COVID-19 era. We had originally created the concept to appeal to travelers and others who wanted to come up to the Catskills to relax and didn’t necessarily want to begin their trip by shopping and cooking. We had family sizes of our fried chicken, smoked beef brisket and rotisserie chicken with season side dishes plus the staples like mac and cheese, coleslaw, cornbread and buttermilk biscuits.
Thankfully I had a long-standing client to keep me engaged and useful as the Pandemic hit. I have been working with Juliette Britton at JJ Hapgood General Store and Eatery in Peru (VT) for seven years as her advisor on her unique and charming business. Her business is a fantastic blending of what people imagine in a VT Country Store to be but updated for 21st century tastes and sensibility. While there is penny candy, there is also craft beer, global wines, kombucha on tap, a wood-fired pizza oven and well-curated groceries, largely sourced from Vermont makers. It’s always been a great source of pleasure for the customers to be in the space- it’s such a charming spot- so it was a challenge to figure out how to pivot to curbside pick-up only. We really had to think about how to maintain that special connection with the customer at the same time not letting them into the store. We did a lot of interesting work with e-commerce, the user experience on the website, while at the same time not losing the warm sense of hospitality. I think we found the right balance and the business is staying strong and has found new sources of revenue to offset the loss of in-store café dining such as frozen packaged family meals made from VT ingredients and killer burritos too!
To learn more about Katy Sparks Culinary Consulting, visit her website.