texasmonthly.com: Do you have a description for what you do—a name for your cuisine?
Sharon Hage: There are so many clichés—ingredient driven, contemporary American. We want to cook food that makes sense. Influences show up from everywhere. It’s part of the maturation process of my palate. You want the food to be interesting, but you don’t do things just for the shock value. I don’t rack my brain trying to come up with the weirdest thing I can think of. But at the same time, I like for people to say, “What was that seasoning?” I like to make them think.
texasmonthly.com: Are you on a mission to introduce people to new flavors?
SH: It’s not my mission to introduce people to new foods; I don’t use them to shock. But it’s exciting to get someone to try something they don’t know, to give them a great experience, to get them to go beyond meat and potatoes and try a calf’s brain or salsify or French breakfast radishes. We cook what interests us. At the end of every week, we ask ourselves, ‘What do we want to cook next?’ ‘What do we want to boycott?’ ‘What are we sick of looking at?’ We do certain things on a regular basis, but if a dish is in danger of becoming a signature dish, we take it off. That said, a year and a half after having bought York Street, we have certain customers who have favorite things—like duck confit—so we try to keep some on hand for them. And I have customers who ask, ‘Okay, what’s with the weird stuff?’ But nothing I do seems weird to me.
texasmonthly.com: Why the emphasis on organic foods?
SH: I learned to appreciate organic food when I was in New York. It’s that business about making sense. If you had a choice between an artificially ripened, wax-coated apple and one that had been grown in organic soil and picked when it was fully ripe, why wouldn’t you prefer that one? I think the difference in taste may have more to do with the season, but that and organic growing are intertwined. If an apple was raised without the use of pesticides and it is picked when ripe, it can’t stay on the shelf forever. I like to support people who raise crops that way and who try to be environmentally responsible. The difference in flavor if you taste them side by side is night and day. With organic meats, it started with a magazine article about mad cow disease and hoof and mouth disease. I decided to use only organically raised meat. If you have a choice, why wouldn’t you do that? It’s not a political mission but a personal statement.
texasmonthly.com: Why is your grandmother your hero?
SH: My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a major influence on me both for cooking and character. There is a joke in our family that if you asked grandmother how to cook a chicken, she would start by telling you to go outside and pick the one you want. She wouldn’t say, ‘go to the store and buy a boneless, skinless chicken breast.’ She had a hard life and she made the most of it. She could raise the chicken and kill it and cook it. She lived with us when I was young, and she always cooked. When I became a cook, I realized how good she was. Her food had a savoriness to it. She had a saying, if something wasn’t done or cooked right, “That’s not food; it’s belly stuffing.” I only appreciated that when I became a cook.
texasmonthly.com: What cuisines are most interesting to you?
SH: I love it all—different national cuisines. Not every dish of every culture, but I find it all interesting. I like Thai food and find it refreshing in part because I don’t know how to cook it. One time I went to a party and the mother of the person who was giving the party said, “Sharon’s leaving, isn’t she?” She didn’t want to put out her potato salad until I had gone. But I’m the last person you need to worry about. She had no idea how happy I would be to eat someone’s mother’s potato salad. Yes, I could walk into a restaurant and take the place apart, but that’s not what it’s about.
texasmonthly.com: Are you still excited at the beginning of each new day? Do you end the day exhausted?
SH: I am excited every day, a little nervous. Of course there are days that wipe you out, but I don’t end the day exhausted. I sleep well. And that is because I put the day to rest before I go to bed. Sometimes that happens by midnight, sometimes not until 5 a.m. But I’m blessed. I am so interested in what I do that there are never enough hours in the day for me.
texasmonthly.com: Does a chef need to be in her kitchen, cooking, or does it make a difference if she is not on the line?
SH: I’m going to try to answer this so as to offend the least number of people possible. If a restaurant is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it is not physically possible for a chef to be there. But one reason I’m open only four hours a night, five nights a week is so that I can be in the kitchen, because my name is connected with the place.
texasmonthly.com: Do you have a guilty pleasure?
SH: Every spring a friend of mine brings by some of those Peeps—yellow sugar marshmallow Easter chicks—and I eat one or two, and then I say, “Well, that really made me sick.” I don’t eat a lot of junky food. I love French fries, but they’re not junk. We eat a lot of Jell-O in the summer in our kitchen. When you’re back there, really hot, it really cools you off and tastes good.