From Momofuku to Main Street: Chef Sam Gelman returns to Iowa City

After more than a decade with David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant empire, Chef Sam Gelman is bringing his expertise back to Iowa.

Sam & Riene Gelman

If you’re hoping to have a career in the restaurant industry, you better be open to change, says Sam Gelman. His own career has taken him from unpaid kitchen jobs in Iowa City to overseeing two of the most anticipated North American restaurant openings of the 21st century.

Though he’s been near the top of the culinary world for 12 years, Gelman, his wife Riene and their son Charlie recently relocated from the Big Apple to Iowa City, where Gelman was born and raised — and where they hope to dig into their next restaurant venture.

Porchetta with apple, Brussels sprouts and polenta from Sam Gelman’s pop-up dinner in February. — Frankie Schneckloth/Little Village

Gelman knew he wanted to be a professional chef since he was a student at Iowa City West High; he grew up drooling over meals on the PBS cooking show Great Chefs. To gain industry experience, he took a job at Givanni’s in downtown Iowa City — unpaid at first, until he proved himself — but a kitchen fire caused the restaurant to close temporarily, and Sam sought work elsewhere. He put in time with a catering company, and was hired by the University of Iowa to cook in the main kitchen and bakery of the State Room, a former Iowa Memorial Union restaurant.

“I think the State Room is what I enjoyed the most,” he said. “I worked lunches a couple days a week, but actually being in a restaurant kitchen and cooking there — it was pretty cool.”

He was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and after graduating, took a fateful job at Clio, an acclaimed Asian restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts Gelman said was “firing on all cylinders at the time,” under the direction of Chef Ken Oringer.

Riene was working in the front of the house at Clio. Unlike Sam Gelman, Riene, who grew up in Tucson, Arizona and studied sociology at the University of Arizona, wasn’t looking for a career in the restaurant industry when she moved to Boston.

“I kind of just fell into the industry the way I think everybody [does] who doesn’t find their passion early on,” she said. “Clio is where I really fell in love with it, where I saw the beauty and the potential of all this industry has to offer.”

She honed her food and wine expertise as a Clio server, and developed a friendship with Sam and other kitchen staff while chatting and catching drinks after their 10-plus-hour shifts — “how many relationships in this industry start,” Riene said. With other restaurant workers, “there’s an understanding and respect [for the fact that] it’s not a 9-to-5 job where you’re home every night.”

Sam and Riene hit it off. But after two and a half years at Clio, he decided to move on.

“It’s highly competitive in the kitchen,” Gelman said. “Later on, it becomes a different kind of challenge: It may not be about the challenge of trying to get to the next station, but get to the next step in your career.”

He took this next step by moving to New York City with his friend Greg, settling into a small apartment in Astoria with around $1,000 in his account and no furniture. He worked at Geoffrey Zakarian’s restaurant Country for a bit, then an Italian joint called Fresco by Scotto. He reconnected with Riene on a visit to Boston.

“The romance was flourishing again, I guess,” Riene said. “Greg was like, ‘Just move in!’ So I did. I came to New York with more stuff than he did but a lot less money and no job.”

Sam & Riene Gelman

Riene began her own hustle, working 80-hour weeks at 11 Madison Park for a time, then “moving up the ranks” at Craft, a high-end farm-to-table restaurant from Chef Tom Colicchio. She felt a spark there — the job satisfaction that saves restaurant workers from burn-out.

“For me, dining out is not about eating the weirdest thing that you can but finding new things you enjoy, or a product that is really, really awesome.” — Sam Gelman

“There was a lot of extra staff education, wine tasting on a regular basis, having an opportunity to go to breweries or oyster farms and really engaging the staff with the day-to-day aspects of it,” Riene said of Craft. “You always felt good at the end of the day.”

Meanwhile, in 2007, a 26-year-old Sam Gelman settled into his own niche. He met Chef David Chang while at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, then scored the job that put him on the international culinary map: helping to open Momofuku Ko in Manhattan as the sous-chef.

Gelman became a character in an in-depth New Yorker profile of Chang in 2008, as the Momofuku cohorts prepared to open Ko, a small-plate “Asian-accented American” restaurant that made seemingly simple but innovative dishes like crispy Brussels sprouts and Gua bao famous. The piece identifies Gelman as an Iowan with a love of fishing, picky about spoons and aprons. Reporter Larissa MacFarquhar looked on as Chang, Gelman and Peter Serpico refined the Ko menu:

Gelman was suddenly overcome with the significance of the moment. He whooped and grabbed Chang in a big hug.

“It’s the dream, dude!” Chang cried. “The dream kitchen!”

“I love you, dude!” Gelman yelled, still hugging.

“It was super high-energy,” Gelman said. “There was a lot going on, there was great momentum behind the company and behind Dave Chang, and it was a really fun time to be there.”

Chang is a veritable celebrity chef, known for his liberal use of obscenities, self-deprecation, open-minded attitude about a la carte and fast foods, and affinity for setting up his friends in new, highly anticipated restaurants. Gelman worked with him directly for 12 years.

“Dave always forced you to challenge yourself and to learn from mistakes and to try new things and think outside the box. Dave wanted you to push yourself and push your team constantly. It was gratifying,” Gelman said.

By 2010, Ko earned two Michelin stars, an honor they’ve maintained for over a decade. Meals at Ko (around 20 small courses over four hours) run around $255, reservations only, but walk-in customers can enjoy a la carte items for less than $10. They also offer a three-day-a-week lunch menu twice the cost of dinner.

“A tasting menu restaurant with fine dining quality food in tiny little space with backless chairs and 14 seats and an open kitchen — nobody had done that,” Gelman said. “That was groundbreaking stuff at the time. And now you see it that all over the place.”

“We were one of the few restaurant companies that was offering health insurance for employees,” he added. “That was something unheard of back in the late 2000s.”

In 2013, Gelman was tasked with opening and serving as executive chef of the Momofuku Toronto complex, containing three restaurants and a pastry outpost (Momofuku Milk Bar, famous for its Crack Pie). Gelman’s work in Toronto — including sourcing foods from local providers, hiring Canadian staff and pioneering the “best restaurant in Toronto,” according to the Globe and Mail — earned him high praise.

Now in his mid-30s, he and Riene moved back to New York City, where they raised their son. Gelman served as vice president of operations for Fuku, Momofuku’s fast-casual fried chicken sandwich mini-chain. But with kindergarten fast approaching, the Gelmans decided it was time to move to Iowa — for the great schools, to be close to family and to embark on a project all their own.

“There’s nothing better, for me, than watching kids
grow up through the years in restaurants that you work at.” — Riene Gelman

They plan to open a “modern American contemporary” restaurant in Iowa City — something innovative, but complementary to local tastes. Gelman said he hopes to utilize Iowa-raised proteins and vegetables while also tapping into the suppliers he trusted in the past for clams, shellfish and more exotic ingredients.

“I think what we’re going to be doing is going to be, hopefully, different enough, but still approachable,” Gelman said. “We want people to be comfortable. For me, dining out is not about eating the weirdest thing that you can but finding new things you enjoy, or a product that is really, really awesome. … We want to be different. We want to be unique.”

While the name, concept and menu are still under wraps, Riene said their restaurant will be something they can believe in, offering great wine, food and community.

“I think [a restaurant is] a safe haven, a place where you can have a drink with your girlfriend at the bar and cry about whatever is happening in your life. And a place where you can have family celebrations,” she said. “There’s nothing better, for me, than watching kids grow up through the years in restaurants that you work at.”

While Michelin stars are not likely to rain upon an Iowa City restaurant (and the Gelmans will miss New York bagels, sushi and Korean barbecue), they said they’re excited to build a new life here.

“I just would ask people to just be open in general, to embrace new things,” Gelman said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to gain the trust of people who put their meal in our hands.”

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