Chef Chat

Chef Chat: Sarah Grueneberg on Being Adopted By The Italians

Chef Sarah Grueneberg making pasta.
Chef Sarah Grueneberg making pasta. Photo by Galdones Photography
Initiate tractor beam to try and get chef Sarah Grueneberg back to Houston for good. The highly accoladed Chicago chef returns home to cook an Italian dinner with chef Chris Shepherd on June 27 at One Fifth.

Pretty cute actually, after the eager Art Institute student repeatedly called Shepherd, who was then a sous chef at Brennan's, he hired her. She was tossed back and forth, left and right, strengthened by the fire until becoming the youngest sous chef in Brennan's history. "From the beginning, she had an insatiable drive and quest for knowledge. To this day, she's constantly pushing to be better," says Shepherd.

It didn't stop there. In 2005, Grueneberg landed a spot on the line at famed Chicago Italian standard, Spiaggia. In 2008, she was named chef de cuisine and in 2010 she was officially running that ship. Under her tenure, Spiaggia was awarded one Michelin star three years in a row.

In 2015, Grueneberg opened Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio as chef/partner with friend Meg Sahs. In terms of best new restaurants, Monteverde is pretty much the Margot Robbie at Oscar after parties; she's on all the lists: Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Eater, GQ, Chicago Magazine. Just last year, Grueneberg was awarded the James Beard award for Best Chef: Great Lakes as well as making Eater's 38 Essential Restaurants. With 2018 off to a good start, Monteverde has already won restaurant of the year from the Jean Banchet Awards.

As far as television goes, she was, legit, the first chef to beat Bobbly Flay on the very first episode. Got to love that. She was also runner-up on Top Chef: Texas and competed on the Food Network's Iron Chef: Gauntlet.

The Houston Press caught up with chef Sarah Grueneberg on her cell phone.

HP: You still have a 713 number!

SG: Oh yeah.

HP: Yay.

SG: It's as hot in Houston here in Chicago, too.

HP: That's funny because it's raining here. Do you still have your, y'all?

SG: Oh yeah, I even text with y'all.

HP: Yessss. Congrats on the Beard!

SG: Thank you. It was kind of a surprise, it was my first nomination.

HP: So awesome. Good call going to Chicago, how did that come about?

SG: "You know, I was at Brennan's, and I was kinda at the top of where I thought I was going to go. Chris (Shepherd) pushed me and said, 'you should go and do more, you need to experience a lot.'  It was the right timing, I was still pretty young. So, I went to Chicago and started cooking at Spiaggia.

HP: What was it like climbing the ranks there?

SG: "Well, the first six months were really hard. It was intimidating, a whole different kitchen. Chris (Shepherd) and Randy (Evans), they ran a kitchen that was really supportive. They would still bust everybody around, but it was really nurturing. Then going to Spiaggia, all the cooks were fighting to beat each other. It was a more cutthroat kitchen, I think at first. And I really didn't know that much about Italian cuisine. (Laughs) I came from a place that was like, dark roux and throw 87 ingredients into a sauce. [At Spiaggia] it was a little olive oil and lemon onto a dish. I stuck at it, started to turn the curve, and fell in love with it. It just happened.

"Italian food is so simple and ingredient based, I think it's one of the purest cuisines out there. It appears easy, but it's not, is what I learned very quickly. Chef Missy Robbins was an incredible chef that really pushed us all to be great. She saw that I had a little bit of something in me and so she promoted me to her purchasing chef, which was a huge jump.

"That really opened my eyes, that was when I started to learn Italian ingredients. [And then] she asked me to go on a walk one day, I was like, oh man, I'm totally getting fired. (Laughs) She basically said, I'm moving back to New York and I put your name in the ring for chef de cuisine. I was floored, I couldn't believe it.

HP: Whoa.

SG: "So I was promoted, and chef Tony sent me to Italy for two weeks by myself. A ticket into Rome and a ticket leaving Milan. We traveled throughout the country. Cooked a little bit, ate a lot, drank a lot. The rest is history I like to say."

HP: The Italians just kind of adopt you don't they…

SG: It's something that catches you. You don't realize at first, and then it happens. There's so much in the cuisine, there's so much in the tradition of it. Italy as a country is really young, but as an area, it's incredibly rich. Similar to Japan and China, you can basically go one town to the next, and dishes are completely different. Region to region is different, how people speak is different. It takes a while to learn it all.

HP: What was it like working for Tony?

SG: Aw, man, it was pretty great. He is an amazing chef, an amazing person, we became really close. He taught me a lot about Italian food, and shaped a lot of my foundation of how I cook now. But it was great, prepared me for everything I needed to do, I guess.

HP: Can you explain how you make the cacio "whey" pepe?

SG: So, traditional cacio e pepe, but instead of using butter, which a lot of restaurants do as a shortcut, we use whey in the sauce. We make ricotta and the by product, whey, we use that in the sauce. We cook the bucatini, toss it with black pepper, we actually use four peppercorns. Green, black, white, and pink. We put 
the whey in the pan, cook the pasta in it, and then we add the cheeses and make a sauce.

click to enlarge
The Cacio "Whey" Pepe at Monteverde. Want.
Photo by Galdones Photography

HP: What's your favorite carb besides pasta?

SG: Bread. Any kind of dough. (Laughs). Pizza, focaccia, ciabatta.

HP: Do you ever think about coming home to help out on the farm?

SG: What farm? Like any farm?

HP: Our culinary scene.

SG: Ah. I love Houston, but I don't think I can come back until I figure out how to run Monteverde without me there. (Laughs) But if I were to go to any city, Houston would be the first one, for sure.

HP: Are you excited for cooking shenanigans with Chris?

SG: Uh, it's going to be complete shenanigans and I'm really excited.  We just want to go and cook. When I was a young cook under him, the kitchen table at Brennan's, each station is responsible for a course. He would take me into the cooler and say, "what vegetable is talking to you right now." He was really influential in how I approach food and how I think about creating a dish. I'm excited to do that again.
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