Antoinette Bruno: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Sharon Hage: After high school graduation, I was really torn. I knew I really loved to play in the kitchen, but I wasn’t so sure it could parlay that in to a legitimate career. Once I figured out I could maybe make a living doing what I loved, I was hooked.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
SH: I started out as a prep and short order cook after high school. Then I attended CIA and graduated in 1984. I worked at Arizona 206 for 2 years with Brendan Walsh before getting my first chef position at Sam's Cafe. That was a really pivotal time for me. It was the first place I encountered that was really focused on seasonality. Modern American cuisine was in its defining stages and the food finally tasted like what food should taste like because it was ingredient-driven.
AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
SH: I went to the CIA and had a really good experience so because of that I support formal culinary education, but it isn’t be all end all necessary.
AB: Who were some of your mentors along the way?
SH: Joel Patracher and Brendan Walsh.
AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
SH: I ask situational questions so I can try to determine their level of overall interest. I want to know where they like to go eat, what magazines they subscribe to, basic but important information. I also like to hear how they handle themselves in negative situations. I ask what their least favorite job in the kitchen is and have them describe the worst shift they have ever had and how they handled it. It gives great insight.
AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
SH: They should take their time and not be in such a rush to move up and get ahead in the industry. They should learn as much as they can before they forge forward.
AB: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
SH: Salsify because of the uniqueness of its flavors and its versatility. I also like cardons because they are so unique, and celery because I think bitterness is a critical part of the tasting sphere.
AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
SH: I also depend on my Cuisinart ice cream maker. For tools, I need a spice grinder and a VitaMix. We’re pretty low tech here.
AB: Describe a culinary technique that you have either created of borrowed and use in an unusual way.
SH: Our preparation of vegetables and grains is pretty unique. We give them as much individual attention as we give protein on a plate. Whether it's soaked and then steamed, or seared and then braised, we use some sort of acid in the bitter component of every place. We’re very vegetable-centered here.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
SH: I’m not a baker, so I appreciate Nancy Silverton and Claudia Flemming’s books. El Bulli just has really cool pictures; it’s pretty out of this world. I like Matt and Ted Lee’s new book, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. I was totally inspired by Danny Meyer’s new book - his candidness about things that can go wrong when running a restaurant is proof that you can recover from just about anything and still end up at the top of your game in this industry.
AB: Where would you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
SH: The Far East because I have never been.
AB: What are your favorite restaurants-off the beaten path-in your city?
SH: Teppo Sushi for yakitori and other classic Japanese food. They use some pretty unique ingredients. I also like Tei Tei, a Japanese Robata bar under the same ownership as Teppo. Utaka is new sushi place with wonderful fish.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
SH: I think things are getting more casual and people are really interested in the different components of their food, as well as where it comes from.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
SH: Certainly the goal for us is about time and place. You have to feature products at the right time so they are at their absolute best. We like to keep it simple and let the ingredients speak for themselves.
AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
SH: Something that would allow me to travel more, maybe a travel writer.
AB: If you could eat dinner anywhere tonight where would you go?
SH: Masa, because that was a life changing meal on every level.
AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
SH: That’s something I’m still trying to figure out.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
SH: I try to support local businesses like my tea guys. I’m part of Les Dames' local chapter and I’m doing a two day roundtable to try to transform our local farmer’s market.