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Hillary Sterling On Cultivating A Supportive Kitchen Culture

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in dining, hospitality, food, tech, politics and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what’s likely to happen in 2022, in the world of restaurants and food. See all stories here. And feel free to check out last year’s collection as well.

Hillary Sterling is the executive chef of Ci Siamo, Union Square Hospitality Group’s latest restaurant in Manhattan West. Previously, she grew a cult following at Vic’s for her menu of regional Italian dishes, and served as the chef de cuisine at Michelin-starred A Voce. Ci Siamo, which is centered around live-fire Italian fare, opened October 2021.

I was at Vic’s during the pandemic. Once we shut those doors, my job didn’t end there. I was in charge of fundraising, creating our email blasts, and making sure the team was safe and taken care of. We reopened Vic’s pretty quickly. It was just under seven or eight weeks that we reopened the restaurant with a very small team just to get everyone back employed and moving.

After we went back to work full-time again, we kept the restaurant going. And around March 2021, I left Vic’s to come over to USHG and start working on Ci Siamo. I started with these guys in April, and it was from the ground up. I had to write a menu. I had to test a menu numerous times and create a concept that went with Danny Meyer’s vision of Ci Siamo. There were a lot of moments of trying to understand who I am in this project, and his vision. And then, of course, the neighborhood is a huge part of this project. So I spent my summer at Marta—they have a big test kitchen downstairs—working on this menu with our general manager Megan Sullivan and USHG executive pastry director Claudia Fleming, working on sourcing and everything down to the knife that we serve with our onion torta and our glassware and plates.

Chef Hillary Sterling prepares some mushrooms inside Ci Siamo's kitchen.

During the pandemic—like everyone else—I did find a love of cooking at home again and being creative. My wife would give me a country or a cuisine that she wanted on Sundays. So wherever we wanted to travel to—Thailand, Vietnam, Italy, France—she would give me these random challenges every Sunday to make butter chicken or naan. That was a really fun way of being creative during that time.

Creating the menu for Ci Siamo, I was longing for travel again, and longing for dishes I had eaten. I wanted to share all of those fun moments in little trattorias in small towns in Italy. It was really fun to be able to go on a trip in my head. I sat there and I was like, what did I love? What blew me away? What do I want to eat again? The menu is written in a way that you can come every day, or you can come on a special occasion. It’s written so that you can come to the bar and have a bowl of pistachios and a negroni and then be on your way.

We finally got into the space in late summer and got to light the fires and see how it feels to be in here. One day Danny asked us—myself and our general manager—he was like, “When everyone goes home, open a bottle of wine, and sit down and pretend you’re guests. Then pretend you’re staff. Really be in touch with this project in a different way when there’s no noise here, no construction. Connect with this project beyond just the food and the four walls.”

On that same note, I brought in all the cooks the Saturday before friends and family—my team and my leaders—and I put them on their stations. They had been here for three or four days already. I told them to cook their dishes for me, and I sat in the dining room. They proceeded to cook 35 dishes for me that day.

It wasn’t great. There were so many things to fix, and so many things to change and tweak. But it was such an introspective moment for them and for me. They got to be in charge and got to have that connection with this restaurant, because all of a sudden they were alone with their dishes without me standing there. It’s something I’ll do again, whatever happens next in the long run. The cooks were excited, and they were happy, and they were like, “Oh, my god. I’m going to do this, whether it’s bad or good, because I’m allowed to do this right now.”

Chef Hillary Sterling drizzles some oil on mushrooms in Ci Siamo's open kitchen with a squeeze bottle.

Especially during an opening, the pressure’s on. We have two kitchens in the dining room, and they’re both wide open. That definitely helps, because if the cooks are looking frantic or frenetic, the guest will feel that and the food will feel that. That energy is just not welcome. If the cooks are unhappy, and they’re scared, and they’re nervous, and they’re not set up for service, they’re going to produce food that’s not great. My job is to keep them motivated and excited.

I definitely have some weird things that come out of my mouth during service. Once, there was a pasta dish and I said, “The pasta wants to wear a sweater, not go swimming in a pool.” They were like, “What are you talking about?” They stopped dead in their tracks and looked at me, and I’m like, “I just want that marriage to be cohesive and close and warm, as opposed to sitting in a pool of sauce.” We keep evolving and keep looking at something and understanding why we’re doing it.

A lot of these younger cooks really need to know why we’re making this, why we’re doing this. Where did the onion torta come from? What inspired me? They want to feel like it’s their creation and their menu, too. Maybe they’re listening, maybe they’re not, but they just want to know there’s a reason behind it and have that connection, instead of me just saying, “No, that’s wrong.” It’s like, “Well, it’s not where it needs to be. Let’s get it there. How can we get it there?” It’s bringing them into the fold over and over again, and wanting them to be so proud of what they’re doing. The most important part, I believe, was them connecting with the food, even if the original recipe isn’t theirs.

Chef Hillary Sterling cooks mushrooms over Ci Siamo's state of the art open fire grill.

I always ask a cook what they like to eat. It tells me a lot about the person. Do you want to eat Brussels sprouts all night long? Do you want to eat mushrooms all day long? It’s setting this open form of conversation where they can be like, “I don’t know what a mushroom tastes like,” or “I’ve never tasted a mushroom like this before.” Let’s educate. Let’s talk about the food and the culture and where the food comes from, and what inspired me to get there. Hopefully one day, if they can make that sous chef role or that chef de cuisine role, they can understand. I’m always looking for someone to take my job. My job is to train someone to take my job down the road.

This is a guiding way to have a safe environment where you can feel comfortable asking for help. You want to do the job to the best of your ability, but sometimes you need another pair of hands to help. We speak specifically about “no heroes,” right? Let’s work together to make the best product possible. I think that’s definitely something that is a newer tactic these days—being able to say, “I need help” or “I need a minute,” or “I need to take a walk outside,” or “I’m overwhelmed,” or “I’m nervous.” That includes myself. Sometimes I need someone to just say, “Hey, chef. How are you today?”

I’m really excited to see the next iteration of Ci Siamo. Right now we’re in that phase of being six weeks in, the dishes are working. Everyone knows what they do when they come in, which takes a long time for everyone to understand. I’m really excited to see how far we can push the menu, how far we can push the pasta program, and getting to start developing more and finding more of an identity of who we are.

That’s the best part for me. I love watching restaurants grow and change and getting a whole new bunch of regulars, and getting to know them, and forming that community in this neighborhood. I’m excited to learn more about what the Manhattan West area has to offer. We’re meeting some people, but over the next six months we’re going to meet so many more. To invite them into our home every night is really amazing.