As most chefs will admit, it isn’t easy being a woman in the kitchen. Chefs like April Bloomfield and Amanda Cohen are the exception to the rule. But that hasn’t stopped Katy Sparks from making her mark at some of the most revered four-star restaurants in New York City. From a start at Barry Wine’s legendary, The Quilted Giraffe, to a stint at Bobby Flay’s flagship Mesa Grill and her first executive chef position at his Spanish spot, Bolo, Sparks journey is an impressive one. But her new role may be her most ambitious yet.
Come fall 2013 Katy Sparks will be stepping into the kitchen at one of New York’s most iconic dining institutions, Tavern On The Green. While it’s hard to forget how overpriced and underwhelming the food was before it closed, Sparks is determined to erase the subpar memories of the past and start fresh. Don’t expect to find fussy throwbacks, like lobster bisque, wedge salads and prime rib au jus, Sparks is using her farm-to-table aesthetic to breathe new life into Tavern On The Green’s outdated menu. “It’s not just for tourists anymore,” Sparks promises. “We’re counting on the local community to be our primary customers.” That means, instead of things like croque monsieur and cherry wood smoked salmon, visitors can expect to find things like Stone Church Farm Duck on Vermont Goat Cheese Bread Pudding, a Heritage Pork Chop with Cauliflower Gratin, Hudson Valley Foie Gras seared on the Plancha, and Warm Montauk Squid Salad, and much more. So will this locally-minded, big-city superstar eventually find her way back to the farm she grew up on? “God, no!” she laughs. “That life is so hard!”
Divorced, but with someone.
You grew up on a farm in Vermont. How did that shape your perspective on and passion for local and seasonal food?
It was pivotal for my appreciation of what goes into producing really authentic raw materials. But what really made me want to be a chef was going to Europe with my family as a young person and dining at Michelin-starred restaurants, and seeing the artistry that came out of those raw materials.
What was your first job in food?
My very first food job was waiting tables at a small cafe in Middlebury, Vermont called Demitasse. I attended the college for a few semesters before realizing I didn’t have a very strong sense of purpose there, so I dropped out. Like many people who don’t really have enough education under their belt, I wound up working in the restaurant business!
You were actually Bobby Flay’s sous chef when he opened Mesa Grill in 1991. How does it feel to have been on the ground floor of a project that’s still open and flourishing today?
It was incredibly exciting… sometimes he’d send me out of the kitchen and into the dining room and say, “just walk across the room and walk back and feel the energy in there!” It was just the beginning of this whole celebrity chef culture in New York, and Bobby was definitely a superstar. It was great.
It was at the restaurant, Quilty’s, where you first established your own identity as an executive chef. How did Quilty’s exemplify your personal point of view when it comes to food?
I could never limit myself to one cuisine. So many things turned me on. So I flipped it and concentrated on ingredients first and cultural overlay second. I was told by many people it would fail… Contemporary American cuisine didn’t mean anything at that time. But New York is a melting pot of cultural influence, and I could not keep my hands off of Nam Pla sauce and Umeboshi.
Can you describe the experience of your first service executing your own menu?
I was very anxious. The people I wanted to impress the most weren’t the diners, they were the cooks I hired. I knew that it all depended on how passionate they were about my cuisine because they were going to be the extended hands and hearts of my food. And I knew I would fail if they didn’t believe in it.
It’s often said that the restaurant industry isn’t particularly kind to female chefs. Have you found that you’ve had to work especially hard to prove yourself in this industry — to be stronger, tougher, or in anyway different than what you are?
For me, at least, some of the benefits have offset the negatives. There are plenty of people who want to actively support woman chefs because they know it can be a hard field to enter. But on the ownership level, there’s still a bit of a glass ceiling there. Getting funding is hard. Woman tend to operate smaller restaurants that they can control and finance themselves.
After a while you took a step back from the burners and turned to food consulting and branding. What inspired that change?
It was very pedestrian and ordinary… becoming a mother. I didn’t want to sacrifice that time away from my son. Because I didn’t own a restaurant when he was born, I didn’t have the power to create the perfect environment and set my own schedule. But it wasn’t like hitting the pause button, it was like going into a whole other arena and learning there.
You’re at work creating a new line of prepared foods for Brooklyn’s Union Market. Can you tell us about some of the products in your line?
We use wonderful, antibiotic-free protein and operate seasonally. Right now, we have kale with beautiful shredded beets in the case, brussels sprouts with bacon and pomegranate seeds, a pork shoulder that has a Dominican-style adobo marinade. We also have Pixtos, Basque-style open sandwiches, that showcase our amazing cheeses and charcuterie.
What are some of your favorite after work go-to meals and guilty pleasures?
I love a good grilled cheese sandwich or a burger. I really like American classics done at a high level. If it’s made with good ingredients, a tuna fish sandwich can really turn me on.
You’ll be back in the kitchen early next year as the Executive Chef of the relaunched Tavern on the Green. What got you back in the kitchen after all these years?
I definitely missed that energy; there’s nothing like orchestrating a special evening for people. That, and my son being old enough for me to go back.
How does it feel to relaunch your chef career in such an iconic spot?
It’s pretty spectacular, I’m still in a slight state of disbelief. I’ve never done anything of this scale before, but I have tremendous passion for the project.
Although Tavern on the Green is quintessential New York City, most people would agree that it kind of devolved into a subpar tourist trap after awhile. How are you making it relevant again for 2013, and for a customer base that’s probably a lot more knowledgeable about food now than they might have been back then?
I think it hearkens back to my basic philosophy, which is to start with great ingredients and let them speak. We’re not about fancy reduction sauces and tomato rose garnishes. What’s going to make Tavern special is what’s always made it special. It’s a beautiful building perched right at the edge of the park. It’s being restored by the city ,so it won’t be just a bunch of glittery, disconnected buildings… it will have its own presence again.
And will the price point be a little more accessible?
Absolutely. It’s one of the things the city made abundantly clear, that they didn’t want this to be an elite restaurant. The price point is like any good, casual/fine dining restaurant you’ll find in NYC. There will be specials on the weekend that will be very celebratory – we’re not just doing down-market things. You’ll be able to have the $19 entrée, but you’ll be able to have the $33 one as well, and everything in between.
You’re on your deathbed…sex or dinner? (And yes, you must pick one.)
Will this be in print? I think I’ll be chaste and say dinner. Either takeout from Union Market or a blow-out meal at Tavern on the Green!
Tavern on the Green
Opening: Fall of 2013
Address: 67 Central Park West at 67th Street