Husband-and-wife chef teams aren’t all that common — though you sometimes see pairings where he’s a savory guy and she’s the pastry chef, each with their own realms and separate stations, never the twain shall meet during service. Enter Evan and Sarah Rich, who met while working in New York for David Bouley and who moved to the West Coast together in 2008, ultimately landing, together, in the kitchen at Coi. They’re actually collaborators on the savory and sweet sides, and while they prepare to open their own restaurant in San Francisco — something that’s likely to happen within the coming months — they’ve been keeping their culinary skills sharp by doing monthly pop-ups at Radius called Chef’s Night Off, so named because they happen on Mondays, a traditional dark day at restaurants. (Sidenote: The next one, on Monday, September 26, will feature desserts from guest pastry chef William Werner.) Today they talk to Grub Street about how they work so well together in a kitchen, and how they fell in love with S.F. in the first place.
First off, what precipitated the decision to leave Coi?
Evan: Sarah was working there while she was pregnant and so she left first, to have the baby. And then we were getting closer to things coming together on this project of our own, to the point where we really needed to focus on it, so I decided to leave, in order to be fair to everyone at Coi. Then the day we were supposed to sign the lease on the new place, it fell through. It’s probably for the best, because that may not have been the perfect space for us. But anyway, after that didn’t work out, the old GM from Coi (Robert Wright) said “You guys should do some pop-ups, keep yourselves out there, and stay sharp.” So that’s how Chef’s Night Off was born.
The next dinner is next Monday. Is the menu going to completely change?
Evan: The concept will be the same, but yes, the menu will be totally different. And William Werner from Tell Tale Preserve Company is going to come and do the desserts. I used to work with him at Quince and we stayed friends.
Sarah: I also know him because I helped out a few times at his Ferry Building stand when I was pregnant.
Would you say the food you’re doing there is a direct reflection of the menu you’re developing for the new restaurant? Those were some pretty complex and high-end executions at the last one.
Evan: Yeah, Sarah’s worked in really nice French restaurants, and I’ve worked in Italian and Japanese restaurants. It’s hard to put a label on exactly what we want to do. It’s easier to show people than to explain it. We want to put together the best of all of our talents. So, we’re calling it New American Bistro, or Northern California-something. We haven’t been able to pin a name to it.
How close are you to finding a space for your new concept?
Evan: We’re looking at two spaces right now, but I know better now not to say anything for certain until the lease is signed.
Is there a name?
Evan: The space itself will dictate kind of the idea of what we’re going to do … in part. But we’re kicking around a couple of names.
And the fried chicken dinners — it was really good chicken — but is that more just having fun in between?
Evan: It is — Sarah’s been working on the side for a family and doing fried chicken for them. And one of the spaces we’re currently looking at might have a casual side to it, where we might do sort of comfort-food stuff part of the time. But that’s just a possibility.
Explain how you guys work together in the kitchen. Is there one of you who’s better at one thing than another — have you just been doing it so long that it’s second nature?
Evan: I look at it like Sarah’s just got such a finesse and such a palate that she almost creatively drives things. I’m pretty good at leading a team and getting people motivated. She holds up the creative part of it, and I do the legwork, and we work well together that way. Maybe every once in a while she’ll pull me around a corner and be like, “What the fuck did you just say?”
Sarah: We’ve worked together so long — eight or ten years, starting in New York — we just know where each other are coming from. We can bounce ideas off each other really well. I might come up with a dish, and Evan can jump in and help develop the dish, add a few ideas, and what comes together from the two of us is usually better than the original idea.
Evan: I’m also the dreamer. She keeps me grounded. Like in looking at spaces, there were a few we were looking at and they’re just horrible, but I’ll walk in and I’ll see where the bar can go and how we can set up tables outside, and she’ll be like, “Evan, the kitchen is 200 square feet and there’s no office. This will never work.” And with dishes, I’ll come up with a dish and I’ll be like we’ll roast this and put flowers on top and sixteen other things, and she’ll be the one to be like, “There is way too much going on there. Let’s be realistic about how someone else is going to execute that dish.”
At the last dinner there was a squid dish with black-olive oil vinaigrette, crispy onions, and watermelon. How did that dish come together?
Sarah: That’s a perfect example of how we can contribute to each other. The basic dish was my idea, a salad with squid and the black olive, and Evan added to it to make it become what it was.
Evan: Originally it was going to be black-olive oil dressed on the squid. I brought in the idea of adding a sweet element with the eel sauce, and something crispy, for texture, and the watermelon.
Sarah: There was also arugula.
Evan: We went on four hikes in Marin — this is how we often come up with menus — and after the fourth hike we had all the menu figured out and we had hammered out exactly what should be on that dish.
Who would each of you say are your biggest mentors in the business?
Evan: I look at everyone who I’ve worked with. I could go through the line — Bouley was a big influence. He was the one who taught me how to really get something done. Michael Tusk taught me about the beauty of ingredients, and how a dish changes when you really pay attention to them. Daniel [Patterson] really taught me about detail, and how to see the little details no one else sees that can change everything about a dish and really elevate it.
Sarah: Bouley was big for me. That was my first job out of culinary school. From him I really learned how to compose myself in a kitchen, how to do 200 covers and still be on point with everything. Everything there was done à la minute, every sauce every piece, so you learned how to hustle and still get everything just right. Also Galen Zamora, at Mas (Farmhouse) in West Village, who I worked for after Bouley, I learned a lot from him about running a kitchen, and sauce-making and a lot of other stuff. And Chris L’Hommedieu at Michael Mina — he’s an incredible chef. I don’t even know how to describe him. He’s a great person, a great teacher, and a fantastic mentor. You had to work very hard for him, but he made you want to want to work.
What restaurants are you most admiring around town these days?
Evan: With this time off I’ve been helping out a lot of people. I recently worked at Camino for a few days. People don’t understand the magic that happens there. It’s super simple food but that’s what’s so special about it. They taught me how to use the open fire, and I really admire that place. I love Coi — it’s a fantastic place. We went to Nojo and had a fantastic meal. I’ve also been helping out a bit at Incanto.
Sarah: Now that we have a baby it’s hard to go out like we used to. We really like to go to Outerlands.
How did you guys decide to make the move from New York to S.F.?
Sarah: We basically put all our stuff in storage and bought one-way tickets to California, not really knowing where we’d settle down. We drove from L.A. to Seattle and Portland — we were going to go all the way to Vancouver but never made it there — and we went and set up stages and talked to a bunch of people in each place but when we got to San Francisco we were just like, this is it. We couldn’t be anywhere else.
Is there something the city is still missing, in your eyes, that maybe you’ve seen in other cities?
Evan: When we first moved out here in 2008, we were — I don’t want to say disappointed. The food was just really simple. But in the past four or five years the city has just grown so much, the food community. People are doing so many inspirational things right now. They’re pushing things, and not just putting beets on a plate, but they’re doing really creative beet dishes instead. So to say that something is lacking here, it just wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t do it justice.
Sarah: It was a very hard transition, moving here. If you had asked us that question when we first got here we would have had a lot more to say. But the produce, the product, it just far surpasses anywhere else. Maybe there’s a vibrancy or energy that isn’t always here, in restaurants. You see it in a place like NoPa.
Evan: We want that energy in the pop-up, and in the place we eventually open. We want it to be a little louder, the music a little louder, a little more boisterous, with relaxed service.
Sarah: But one thing that’s great is the fraternity of cooks and chefs, the support. This pop-up thing we’re doing, we just couldn’t have done that in New York. It just wouldn’t have worked out so easily.
Evan: Yeah, I mean there’s so many people who’ve helped us out and it’s so great. Like I’ll call up Richie Nakano from Hapa Ramen and use his kitchen. Or I’ll call Bill [Corbett] over at Absinthe and use his circulator. Or Brett [Cooper] from Outerlands will order stuff for us. So yeah, it’s just this incredibly welcoming place, with all these people and the talents that come with them, to say that there was anything really lacking here would just be wrong.
The next Chef’s Night Off, featuring desserts by William Werner, is Monday, September 26 at Radius (1123 Folsom). It’s $60 per person for four courses, exclusive of wine or gratuity. Make reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org.