On my last trip to New York City, I asked one of the PR reps I knew where to go for Sunday brunch and she immediately said, “You have to go to Sarabeth’s Kitchen.”
She was right. Our meal was delicious, and I was fascinated by the tasty empire that Sarabeth and Bill Levine built. She went from a jam maker, to owning a jam factory; from baker to bakery owner; and from opening a small café to getting ready to expand her restaurant portfolio to 12 – including one in Japan.
It all started in the kitchen for Sarabeth, who was born in Manhattan and has lived most of her life there. In addition to the restaurant dining, Sarabeth’s sells preserves, cookies, cakes, granola, maple syrup and the legendary Velvety Cream of Tomato Soup.
I sat down to talk with Sarabeth about her latest ventures, but be forewarned before you read – this story may leave you very hungry.
Marcia Frost: How do you stay involved with everything?
It’s very hard. I leave for Japan in two weeks. I’m also working on my next book. I’m putting together the folders so when we all arrive in Japan we have the same recipes, but there’s a discrepancy within the restaurants. In the tomato soup, two of the restaurants are missing the shallots. They are a very important part of the soup.
That’s the one thing to me that’s like a benchmark, the Velvety Tomato Soup, so I always taste it in every place. They all taste great, but I want them to be exactly the same. That’s part of my perfection problem.
MF: What does your husband (Bill Levine) do?
My husband oversees the jam factory, as well as sales and marketing, and he deals with all the distributors and the shows we have to do. He is fantastic. I don’t know what I would do without him.
MF: How did you get started?
I’m a breakfast person. I love breakfast. So, I began my career as a baker, breakfast maker and, I want to say, extraordinaire oatmeal maker because to me there’s nothing like a good bowl of oatmeal.
I opened in my little spot in 1981 when I moved the jam pot out of my apartment into the little space on Amsterdam Avenue. Shortly after that people wanted to have a cup of coffee with my baked goods and jam, and before you knew it I was serving breakfast. It kind of just started that way.
MF: What are your favorite dishes in the restaurants?
I think our breakfast menu is pretty delicious. I also love the tuna salad because we cut into the tomatoes and put in a little chiffonaud of basil and finish it off with a little balsamic and a little olive oil. It’s on the side of the plate and goes along with the Lemon Zesty Tuna Salad.
I love our Seafood Cobb. It’s really special. There’s a chicken dish down in Tribeca which is pretty fantastic. We have a special on the West Side, which is lobster that we’ve changed to be more like a Fra Diavolo. We used to serve this wonderful lobster in the summer with this lemony fettuccine and these wonderful chunks of crabmeat.
The tomato soup is very straight forward and it has a sprinkling of white cheddar on the top. Have you had the tomato soup?
MF: No. We shared the Almond-Crusted French Toast and the Vegetable Frittata – with the banana muffin. That was delicious.
What’s nice is it’s just a basic French toast. It’s just a matter of dredging them in almonds and putting the French toast on the griddle.
MF: There are some interesting cocktails on your menu.
People are drinking a lot today. Fifteen years ago, people were not as savvy about their drinks. They were into wine and they were into hard liquor. Now everybody wants their fruity concoctions and infusions. I guess you have to move with the trends. The four flowers juice that we make is a delicious, wonderful breakfast juice. It’s pineapple, orange juice, a little pomegranate juice and banana. I said, ‘Why don’t we just make a cocktail out of that?’
MF: The Four Flowers Mimosa.
It’s fabulous, isn’t it? I think I was one of the first people to turn brunch into fashion again. I remember two or three years ago, when you would go out in the morning, if you wanted to have something in New York, you went to the diner on the corner. Or you went to a restaurant in a hotel where you could have a fairly decent breakfast. I think the whole breakfast scene is amazing today.
MF: Can you tell me a little bit about the other book you said you are writing?
The first book is the baking book (Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours Cookbook). The next book is breakfast. It’s going to be fabulous. I’m going to tell you how to make omelets the way we make them.
There are all different techniques to making omelets. A lot of people make eggs really bad. For me, you can’t cook the eggs too quickly. I beat my eggs and I strain them before I use them. That’s how I get the very smooth surface on the outside of my omelets.
With the Goldi Lox (omelet), the idea with eggs is to cook them on not too high of a flame, but not too low of a flame, and to keep the cream cheese apart and not mix it like crazy. Then, when I put in the salmon, it’s all done at the end so the salmon doesn’t get cooked, it just gets slightly warm and stays silky, and the florets of cream cheese get soft don’t absorb into the eggs. When you take a little bite of egg, you get a little bite of fish and you get a little bite of a warm cube of cream cheese.
MF: Why are you going into Japan?
We have had our product there over the last few years. We have a lot of Asian customers who live in New York or are visitors. They have fallen in love with Sarabeth and they have been asking us for years. We’ve seen several people who have done restaurants in Japan who have contacted us to license a restaurant and we finally did it.
We’re starting off with a smaller menu which is lighter in fare. We’re going to serve breakfast all day. They are going to have Four Flowers Juice and they are going to have the omelets and we’re going to have French toast and blintzes and a couple of salads. Eventually we’re going to move on to more Western things, like the Chicken Pot Pie, but that’s not going to happen until we get all settled. The place is just adorable. It’s in Tokyo, by the Shinjuku Train Station in the Lumine Building.
I can’t tell you where or when yet, but we’re also opening another restaurant here in New York.
You can currently find Sarabeth’s kitchen at six locations in New York City (Tribeca, Westside, Eastside, Chelsea Market, Central Park South and Lord & Taylor at 39th and 5th); in two places on Long Island; in Scarsdale; and in Key West, Florida. For details or two order products, visit her website.
Sarabeth's Headshot by: Alexandra Kuhn