Roxanne Spruance can’t entirely give her family credit for her choice of career. But she admits that she comes from two sets of grandparents who are terrible cooks. “My 94-year-old grandmother still thinks putting pineapple in green Jello is a great idea,” she says with a laugh.
The chef’s dad grew up eating cow’s tongue and calf’s liver. “So, when my parents got together, they decided to stop the cycle,” she recalls. “I was that kid who always just wanted Wonder bread and Skippy peanut butter but my dad made our bread and my mom and I would make jam and jelly in the summer, canned tomatoes, all that good stuff. So I was always that kid who wanted processed foods, and never having it, ever.”
Her father now does the grilling and bakes all the bread at home. “He makes a killer cheesecake. My mom does the pies and pastries. They split the meats up. It’s a real partnership,” she says.
But the owner of Kingsley, which opened in Nolita last year, has always had a hand in the business, too. “I had a little bread pan that I would make my own little loaves in, next to my dad. I had a little pie pan, too.”
The family has a summer home in Michigan and they’d go up to the orchards and get the fruit to make jam and jelly, then preserve it. Her career just grew from there.
“My dad was chairman of the English department at my school while I was growing up and one of his former students, Jennifer Newberry, was a chef in Chicago. She was working for Paul Kahan at the time, who had just opened Blackbird,” she remembers. “So Jen was working for Paul and I was playing field hockey in the summer and needed something else to do. Everybody knew that I liked cooking and Blackbird had just opened. I was too little to cook with the big boys so they put me in pastry and I would go to field hockey in the morning and then I would go down to the West Loop in the afternoon.”
Spruance says she worked 10 hours a day, all unpaid, running up and down three flights of stairs in her hometown of Chicago. “And it was the hardest and best thing that I had ever done. And I just felt, I love this,” she says. “I fell 100% in love with it.”
She notes that competing on the field and cooking really go together. “When I first got to restaurants, it was this very team atmosphere. Everyone’s working together. You’re with these people all of the time and you’re performing. It’s like you practice all day and each night is your opportunity to win that game.”
But that’s not where it ends.
“In each, you strive to get better. You do your best every day to really become a cohesive team. I run the kitchen like that. It’s very collaborative,” she says. “I like to have everybody feel like they are a part of something and not just this grunt worker.”
Spruance says it’s tricky but instilling a sense of ownership in workers is key to getting them to give you their time. “Their life, basically,” she adds. “We’re here all the time for no money, so making them feel like they, a) have the tools to succeed and b) are contributing instead of just being a body makes us a real winning team. I do menu meetings every Sunday and everybody brings ideas to the table.”
Spruance says through it all she started to find her voice as a chef, and as a person, in general. But her experience as an athlete was never far behind. “You kind of become an amalgamation of what you grew up with — what your parents instilled in you, the teachers who influenced you. In my case, the coaches were who influenced me the most. And then you take a little bit of, say, crazy French Christian Delouvrier and you mix it in. You take a little bit of the creative Wylie Dufresne, you mix it in. You take a little bit of the Dan Barber concept, and you mix it in, and you find your voice, based on your experiences,” she says.
Spruance originally thought she might want to go into zoology or biology, something that has to do with the earth. But she found that in cooking. “I always figured, if all else fails, I’ll work for the park service. But I get so much stuff from our local farmers. I work with Cedar Table. We’re getting local fishing. Being able to talk to people about their sustainable practices, their pest control management that isn’t spraying, being able to talk to them about why they’re organic, why they’re not. It’s all related,” she says. “Being able to have some of that background and be on the same page opens tons of doors for me.”
Not afraid to take chances, Spruance came to New York from the Midwest to help out Dufresne when he was Food and Wine Best New Chef in 2013. “They had an open position and I moved out here blind two months later,” she says.
She was at wd-50 for two years and then was offered the sous chef position at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. “That was really the only other place that I wanted to work, at the time,” she notes.
But Spruance says she attributes much of her technique to Dufresne. “I grew up old school. Kahan was very old-school French in the way that he ran his kitchen, even though he worked for Rick Bayless for years. Rick’s kitchen is still very, very French-driven, even though it’s Mexican. Working for Wylie Dufresne, at wd-50 gave me my background which is very French,” she points out.
“But the most interesting thing about wd was not necessarily this crazy shock and awe molecular gastronomy. It’s more thinking about ingredients outside of the box. There was so much manipulation that happened there that had nothing to do with hydrocolloids. There was so much going on and I knew that I wanted to work for him the first time I ate dinner there.”
When she staged in the kitchen for wd, “They literally took Pepperidge Farm hot dog buns and put them through a pasta roller, flattened them out and then just rolled them around the crab meat. And I was like, I want to work for the guy who came up with putting a Pepperidge Farm hot dog bun into a pasta machine.”
Working at Blue Hill was a whole other experience, she says. “People do this stuff out in Napa but you’re kind of expecting it because you’re in farmland. But the fact that they’re 28 miles outside of the city and doing this on this stunning property is really very cool.”
The chef also liked just being in a setting where there were no rules. “There’s no menu, it’s varying-ingredient-driven, while still trying to showcase not just Stone Barns and the property and the little bit that comes from there but everything comes from the Hudson Valley. Everything’s coming from the Barbers’ family farm in Massachusetts. It’s coming from Pat and Ross’s garden.
“It’s so amazing and the fact that they’re doing it on such a large scale – I have a little 65-seat restaurant and that’s what I can contribute. Being able to be at a place where you’re doing 100 covers a night of these incredible tasting menus and being able to affect each one of those 100 people that come into the place is a remarkable gift,” she says.
Though they were two entirely different situations, she took away priceless knowledge and experience from both restaurants. “At wd it was a hyper-creative environment, very collaborative, everything very vetted. We would start working on a recipe with rhubarb in December so that it was perfect and ready to go on the menu a couple months out. At Blue Hill it was, hey, we’ve got asparagus this week. What are we going to do with them? It’s nice because you can still have that creativity, but it lends itself a little bit more to what’s going on that week seasonally and what produce you’re getting,” she affirms.
Though some may call farm-to-table just a gimmick, Spruance sees real merits. “A lot of the concept of farm-to-table is, we can do better than just putting a poached egg over some Brussel sprouts and call it a dish. While delicious, we can be more composed and still focus locally, focus sustainably, and be interesting and delicious,” she says.
Then there was Kingsley. “Kingsley is my middle name and I’ve always known that I wanted to do my own restaurant. I knew that I needed to just do my own thing right now,” she says. “You pour your soul into other people’s projects, and it’s just emotionally devastating when something happens that’s out of your control. And it doesn’t matter whose fault it is because at the end of the day – if the server rang in a medium well steak and you received it medium, that’s not the server’s fault, that’s the kitchen’s fault. So, no matter what happens, it all falls on you, whether it’s your place or not. I wanted to have a small place where I could take this amalgamation of what I’ve learned and train the next generation. I just knew if I was going to do this, I wanted to do it on my own terms and there was no looking back.”
Spruance knew she could not swing it alone financially so she entered into a partnership with a person who was interested in investing in a restaurant, and her. “He was looking in the East Village at spaces and I’d gotten an e-mail about Back Forty being up for sale and I forwarded it to him, not even thinking that it was Kingsley because I was really still looking at places and he responded to me immediately. He said, is this Kingsley, and we started the negotiations and went in front of the community board twice to get our full liquor license. And we got into the space in August.”
It’s like how some girls plan their weddings, Spruance says. “Roxanne plans her restaurant. I knew the exact equipment that we were going to get from Jade. Lex Poulos was part of the project. And then we got everything through BSE Marketing and M Tucker.”
When she’s sourcing food, she’s just as exacting. “My ideal time to get to the markets is 11, to avoid as many of the bikes, babies, dogs as possible,” she says with a laugh.
“I’d love to have a couple of different concepts going on. I’d love to do a French Bistro because I’m so disappointed by French food when I go out – a true steak tartare that’s salty and savory, not just mayonnaise with some ground beef, something with some texture to it. We’re doing our fries with duck fat. I’d love to do some concepts like that.”
Spruance says her menu is completely natural. “We are using some sort of crazy dried chili to look cool. I like playing with some of that stuff. There’s a way to use brussel sprouts and not have it just be steamed or roasted vegetables on the plate. In the winter, you have to work even harder to do that. In the winter, when we only have about 25 things that are available at the market, you have to think outside the box. It’s easier in the summer. You can get whatever you want.”
The chef says the future holds all kinds of unknowns, but it still looks promising. “Yes, New York has tons of restaurants. But it’s not over-saturated with great restaurants. And think that it behooves us all to do a little bit better to keep food brighter. Ten years ago I was all about, oh my God, Food and Wine best new chef. Oh my God, Michelin stars. That’s just what’s ingrained in you. And now that I’m an owner and have worked at all these amazing places, it becomes less and less about the accolades,” she says. “It makes me happier to have every single guest leave here happy every night, and whatever else happens, happens.”