Chef Sarah Welch: ‘I would love to see people treated as well as we treat our food’ – Crain’s Detroit Business

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Sarah Welch grew up between the United States and Jamaica. While spending her time as a 6-year-old in Jamaica, Welch often cooked meals with her neighborhood friends.

“From a young age, I had an awareness that food has to be made and to be prepared,” Welch said. “It wasn’t something that just happens to you, because I think when you’re a kid [in America] adults are just always putting food in front of your face.”

While working toward her business degree at Michigan State University, Welch worked as a dishwasher and a waitress at restaurant and bar Tavern on the Square. It was there where she first started as a line cook.

“If somebody called off or didn’t feel like doing their job that day, they would have me come on the line,” Welch said. “Eventually, before I graduated from college, I was closing down the kitchen and I could work all the stations.”

The executive chef of Tavern convinced her to apply to the International Culinary Center, a renowned culinary institute in New York City. Welch was accepted and moved to NYC.

“A bunch of really influential chefs graduated from there,” Welch said. “I thought it would be good networking, and it was.”

Welch graduated at the top of her class and ended up working for an influential chef herself. As part of her curriculum, Welch worked for renowned British chef April Bloomfield at the Spotted Pig, a restaurant in New York known for its seasonal British and Italian fare.

When her fellowship ended, Bloomfield offered Welch a position at The Breslin, a high-end gastropub in New York. But Welch missed home, and decided to move back to Detroit to pursue an opportunity working for chef Brian Polcyn at Forest in Birmingham.

Welch grew from there, eventually becoming the executive chef at Republic Tavern in Detroit and later its sister restaurant, Parks & Rec. But after less than two years, Welch was dismissed from her positions.

It didn’t take long for opportunity to show up. The next day, Welch bumped into Ping Ho, owner of The Royce wine bar in downtown Detroit. Ho was looking for a chef for her new butchery and restaurant, Marrow.

“Essentially the second that I met her and we talked about Marrow, I knew I was in,” Welch said.

Now, Welch manages a kitchen staff of 11 and is an equity partner at Marrow. She’s also helped form other Detroit-based ventures, including Detroit sake bar and restaurant Mink, where she is a partner. She’s also part of joint venture Nest Egg LLC, a female-led hospitality group, with partners Ho, Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes.

Despite all of these ventures, Welch considers Marrow her baby.

“We have this incredible protein that is sustainably raised as our muse, and that product dictates what I do,” Welch said. “It’s both liberating and grounding.”

How did your childhood influence your career?

My mom was a teacher and my dad was an entrepreneur who used to run Ann Arbor Realty. My parents traveled a lot when they were younger and fell in love with Jamaica. When I was 5 years old, my dad bought 300 feet of beachfront, built a resort and moved our family there part time. I grew up dinking around this resort facility and spending a lot of time in the kitchen, because it was so interesting and intriguing to me. From that point, once I saw [the kitchen] come together and it was open and running, I knew I was going to be doing something in that realm. For the longest time, I actually thought I would be running the resort. That didn’t end up happening, but it got me off on that [business owner] trajectory.

Did living in Jamaica influence your cooking?

I think it influenced my awareness. I was a 6-year-old living in a small village, and you’re expected to make yourself breakfast, lunch and dinner. Initially, I got made fun of a lot for not being able to cook my own food. I learned to cook because if I was going to be hanging out with my friends, I needed to participate and be of help. When fisherman would catch fish off of the beach, my friends and I would cook it for dinner. We’d walk to pick up charcoal from charcoal pits that were a mile or two away, build a fire, get all the ingredients we’d need and cook the fish. I was aware from an early age that I had access to food and that there were steps required to make it.

When was the moment you realized culinary could be a career option?

I actually really wanted to be in the arts, but my father told me he wouldn’t pay for art school unless I graduated from a business school. Going to business school made me realize that in order to be in the arts and to live the lifestyle that I wanted to live — which was traveling and eating good food — I needed to have a job that paid, not just an art-based job. It was a pragmatic decision originally. I wasn’t one of those people who was passionate about cooking at a young age. I was just passionate about traveling and eating. The cooking aspect came much later when I was in culinary school and I discovered I had a knack for it. I went into business because I had to and that led me to something that I’m really passionate about now.

Tell me about the day you met Ping Ho and why you decided to partner with her.

I met her the day after I left Republic. I literally ran into her at a coffee shop. She was a regular at Republic. She said, “I love your food, I heard what happened, and I’m so sorry.” We got to talking about what had happened. The idea of working under female leadership was appealing to me. While working at the Spotted Pig for April Bloomfield, I responded to a strong female presence really well. When Ping presented her concept to me and then asked for my opinion, I thought, this could be a completely different relationship than I’ve had in the past. It felt much more like teamwork in our conversations, even though at the time I didn’t have any skin in the game money-wise.

You’ve spoken before about how butcheries are actually pretty risky. Why become an equity partner?

My dad used to say you’re gambling with M&Ms until you’re gambling with money. I was offered equity about three months before we opened, and I had a little nest egg I had set aside. The second I had my own money invested in Marrow it changed my perspective completely. I’ve also seen a huge return to artisanal interests. People want that connection of person, place and thing in their food. I knew there would be a need for a butcher shop. The people that run the butcher shop are the best, most creative and dedicated artisans.

What’s your objective in culinary? Do you have philosophies that you live by?

I would love to see people treated as well as we treat our food. We care about where our food comes from and how it’s taken care of, but we don’t care about the people making it. For me, that’s a problem. We try to provide an equitable and a long-term relationship with the people we work with by creating an environment that isn’t yielding burnout. We want to make sure we foster an environment for creativity and not just punching a clock. For me that’s my biggest thing. People assume working 60 hours a week is an industry standard. I don’t approve of that, and I don’t think it’s necessary to be good at your job. I believe in working smarter, not harder, and relying on your team to make your job easy. People have said, ‘I could never do culinary, you have to work so much,’ but not if you do your job well and if you surround yourself with people who have shared values.

What do you find most challenging about your job?

Being a chef now is multifaceted. You have to be a business person, you have to be a mentor, you have to be a savant, and you have to be a trendsetter. It’s many hats. It’s challenging. Everybody has different expectations of you, and all of their expectations are incredibly valid. If you’re a front-of-house person wanting a menu break down so that the servers don’t kill somebody with an allergy, it’s just as important as having a dishwasher that day. You have to manage all of those things simultaneously and give them equal value. It’s the only way that you allow people to feel that their position is valuable, because it is. I think a lot of chefs have control issues, which I totally do as well, but I find the failures of my team to be my failures in training them to be adequate team members for me. I recognize that I’m a single person in a big machine of hard-working people that are all equally as creative as me. I’m just the flagship.

The restaurant industry is predominantly male. Did that affect you in any way?

There are a lot of women in my kitchen, moreso than when I was coming up in kitchens. When I started and you ran into another girl in the kitchen, it was shocking. I think it’s significantly more frequent now than when I first started cooking, but I also think that because women tend to create an environment where other women feel comfortable and empowered to succeed instead of challenged in a way that makes you not succeed. I think women tend to grow stronger under female leadership. At least, that’s been the case for me. The way that I give and take leadership as a female is very different than my male counterparts. I also think if you don’t see examples of success that look like you, it’s harder to imagine success that looks like you.

Do you have any advice for people who are considering becoming a chef?

Interview the people that you’re taking jobs with as much as they’re interviewing you. Make sure they’re a good fit for you and that you have shared interests and values. There was a long period of time where I was working in a really toxic kitchen, and I thought that all kitchens were like that. I thought it was a flaw with the system, but it was really just a flaw with the selection process. Just because somebody in some publication somewhere thinks that this is the best restaurant in Detroit right now doesn’t mean it’s the best restaurant for you right now. You have to pick for yourself.

Source: Thanks https://www.crainsdetroit.com/women-leadership/chef-sarah-welch-i-would-love-see-people-treated-well-we-treat-our-food