Three local industry people — Ben Smart, head chef at Big Grove Brewery, Stephanie Sunberg, server at Clinton Street Social Club, and Carrie Schumacher, co-owner at Cobble Hill and Caucho — weigh in on what fuels them, what they’re listening to and how they bring their own personalities into culinary and service work.
On a day off from the restaurant, what are you up to?
Ben Smart: Between being responsible for two young kids and two, soon to be three restaurants, I don’t have a ton of free time. However, when I lived in Seattle, I got pretty into rock climbing. I also got into yoga pretty heavily while living in Washington. After I moved back to Iowa, I got in at Hothouse Yoga in Iowa City. I try to go four times a week, it really balances the hectic pace of running restaurants.
Stephanie Sunberg: I’m a photographer and an artist outside of serving at Clinton Street Social Club. Probably the biggest struggle I have with being an artist and also working in the service industry is finding the time to get things done. We, as servers, cooks, and bartenders, put so much time into working long hours on our feet that you’re almost too exhausted to get up and work another job the next morning. I seem to manage, though.
Carrie Schumacher: My main passion is my kids, hands down. They are the best thing I have done in my entire life. I also love to garden and play in the dirt, but also to make pretty things grow and watch them thrive. Perhaps there is a connection between that and what I do with our restaurants.
Consistency is a cornerstone of the service industry. Restaurants and bars run on carefully crafted recipes and repetitive systems to keep things running like a well-oiled machine. In light of all the constants, how do you inject a bit of personal flair or style to your work?
BS: I think after so many years in fine dining, and writing countless menus, my style really shines with the products we use. The thing that most distinguishes my cuisine from a lot of others is that everything we do is from scratch; we are starting with raw ingredients.
SS: The only thing style-wise I feel like I can take any credit for would be Clinton Street Social Club’s food and drink photography on our website. One thing I love about working at Social Club is getting to play around with our uniforms. We have fun with it. From suspenders and bolo ties, to fancy vests and shoes, we’re always serving in style.
CS: I really find it important to make personal connections with our guests; I try and read folks and match their vibe. That can be tricky. I find myself changing my language or tone of voice from one guest to another. Evoking a feeling from someone that they want to replicate is part of what makes guests want to return again.
Is there an unusual ingredient that inspires your food and drink?
BS: Anything that is in season, fresh and new is a source of inspiration. Not knowing exactly how to use something is half the fun!
SS: I’m a sucker for curry. I’ll add it to almost anything. Also, lime juice and salsa go hand-in-hand to whatever I don’t add curry to. I was practically raised in Acapulco, Mexico, so most of my cooking, naturally, is Mexican food.
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CS: At the bar or in the kitchen, I really love to use fresh herbs and unusual botanicals. Like, for a New Year’s Eve cocktail we made a fresh pine simple syrup from local pine needles for a pine champagne spritzer. Once, I also paired smoked salt with a grilled pineapple cocktail.
Give it to us straight. What’s your guilty pleasure meal?
BS: Oh man! Caviar! With Champagne! Then, some sort of foie gras dish, with Sauternes. Next is the gargouillou, a constantly changing vegetable dish by 3 Michelin star chef Michel Bras. Then I’m eating some sort of simple pasta dish, like cacio e pepe, with a crisp, dry white wine. The main dish has got to be something homey, like fried chicken and I’ll need cold beer. Finally some sort of decadent chocolate dessert, with peanut butter. Shit, it could be a Reese’s peanut butter cup!
SS: Sprinkled donuts or croissants with espresso, which is actually my normal breakfast.
CS: I could eat A LOT of cured meats with rich cheeses. Charcuterie definitely fits the bill, and it doesn’t help that my husband, Andy, makes the best meats. Also, it’s not a meal, but I really love plain, not ruffled, potato chips and dip.
To get into the groove of service or to set the mood in your home kitchen, what tunes are on repeat?
BS: When we first opened Big Grove, I never let them play music. I worried that they wouldn’t be able to focus if music is on, but it turns out that music really provides the energy we feed off of to push through busy days. We listen to tons of hip hop, funk, and soul in our kitchen. It’s always something different, but lately Anderson Paak’s album Malibu has been playing a ton.
SS: Let’s see, my top songs, since I just can’t choose:
“Twenty Miles” by Deer Tick, “Cigarette Daydreams” by Cage the Elephant, “3 Rounds And A Sound” by Blind Pilot, “Amerika” by Young the Giant.
CS: At Caucho, I really love when the song “Hideaway” by Kiesza is on. Andy put it on the Caucho playlist for me, and it’s definitely one of my favorites.