Queens-born and Jersey-raised Evan Rich graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and initially worked for David Bouley before rising to Chef de Cuisine at a series of high profile restaurants, including Quince and Coi. Sarah Rich lived in Louisiana until age 15, moved to east Texas and attended the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan before clocking time at Bouley. She switched to Mas and moved with husband Evan to San Francisco, where she continued her upward trajectory as sous chef of Michael Mina’s signature restaurant, and at Coi. In 2012, the Riches opened Rich Table in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley with Wine Director Maz Naba. In under a year, they’ve earned accolades from San Franciscans and became finalists for a 2013 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. On February 7, we met at Rich Table, and the couple shared insights about topics like ownership, collaboration and evolution.
Was it a given that you would both become chefs, or did you consider other careers?
Sarah Rich: When I was in college, I had things that I wanted to do, for sure. I was originally a theatre major, I wanted to be an actress, which at this point is pretty laughable, but hey, whatever. When I graduated college, I wasn’t really sure where I was going to go and what I was going to do, and that was right about the time that the Food Network started to become something that people watched, I watched it a lot. “Iron Chef,” the original one, was on all the time. I used to love that. I would see ads for the French Culinary Institute, and I just started looking into it. It was never something I’d realized you could make a career. I know that sounds really odd now, because it’s so… everywhere, but at that time, it never dawned on me that that was a career path, and I started looking into culinary schools, and ended up going to the French Culinary Institute. Food was always a part of my life; it was always something I really enjoyed, I just didn’t know that I could be a chef. That was my story, what about yours?
Evan Rich: I crashed my parent’s car when I was 15, and needed to get a job to pay for it. I got a job washing dishes, and that’s the only thing I’ve ever done, worked in restaurants, so I never thought of anything else. It’s the only thing I know, so I wouldn’t know where to start if I wasn’t working in a kitchen.
What was your very first night like when you moved from washing dishes to working the line?
Evan Rich: I mean, it was fun; I fell in love right away. I like the adrenaline rush, it obviously was hard, but you know it’s the atmosphere, the adrenaline rush, the creativity, the instant gratification of making something where people enjoy it, everything about it just kind of got me excited, so I was hooked right away.
Do you still feel that adrenaline rush when you’re on the line?
Both Riches: Oh, yeah.
Evan Rich: I love it. One thing that’s great about this restaurant is that we get pretty busy, so there’s a huge buzz and a lot of energy in it, so me at least, I feed off that energy, so as the restaurant gets busier, I’m running around on the line, cooking, tasting, running to the back, serving food. So I like that energy rush, I like the buzz in the restaurant. It helps the creativity in the kitchen and the push to make things better, and you have a lot of fun doing it.
Was an open kitchen always part of the plan?
Evan Rich: Yeah. We wanted to open a restaurant that was already a restaurant and just kind of change it, and we searched a long time for a kitchen like this, just because it’s our restaurant, and we felt like our friends and family would be coming to see us, and if we were stuck in the back, in kind of brought a disconnect. I mean, it says it on the front, Rich Table, you’re coming to our table.
Sarah Rich: It just breaks down that barrier, between the two areas of the restaurant. When we moved here from New York – I don’t know about now, we haven’t been there in 5 years – but there weren’t a lot of open kitchens like this. The kitchen was in the back, you didn’t ever see who was back there or what they were doing, your food just appeared and you were in your own space in the dining room. We moved out here, and that was one of the things we saw right away, that there were more, not necessarily this open, but you could see into the kitchen a little bit. Which was exciting for us because we enjoy seeing that. Just like Evan said, it opens the space up, to give it more of that feel of we’ve invited you into our space, come and sit, we’re cooking for you, you’re our guests. It’s more of a fun atmosphere, it’s not quite so stuffy.
Tell me a little about how you collaborate. Maybe use a recent dish as an example.
Evan Rich: (laughing) I mean there’s really no rhyme or reason. Maybe one day, I’ll come in and say oh, “I have this idea.” On the menu there’s a dry aged steak tagliatelle with sun-dried tomatoes and crispy potatoes. I came in and I was like I want to do a pasta that’s steak frites, you know, and then she was kind of like well, that sounds great, but… and you know, it just was a conversation. When we were talking about the mint dessert, it was like, “Oh, I want to do something with mint and chocolate,” then, you know…
Sarah Rich: We just sort of throw ideas back and forth between each other. Like this past Tuesday we were walking through the market and seeing different things, and I had the idea, why don’t we try using these wheatberries somewhere? And Evan had wanted to change the beet dish, so we started thinking about the beet dish and how to evolve that, and just throwing ideas back and forth so that you know, we’re both bringing something to the table, so that rather than one person just saying, “This is the dish,” we can see from different perspectives, and then hopefully put them all together to make an even better dish…Sometimes he helps with desserts, sometimes I help with savory, we just go back and forth all over the menu.
Evan Rich: It’s just kind of a gamut process that just happens.
Sarah Rich: And I would say, originally, evolving the design of the menu and the setup, how we wanted it to look, what kinds of dishes we wanted to offer, we just did a lot of brainstorming and thinking.
How has the restaurant evolved since you opened?
Sarah Rich: I think it’s evolved a lot.
Evan Rich: Yeah, I mean, simply just the kitchen, when we first opened there were five of us, including us two. Now, due to business and things going on, there are twelve of us. The pasta, when we started there were two pasta dishes, and the middle section of the menu was kind of more like grains and bread and starch kind of stuff, and now it’s all pastas. Just the system and the complexity of what we do have evolved, we’re starting to find what works with us. When we first opened, it was really like changing everything every day, figure out what works, what people like, what we’re capable of in the kitchen, and now we’re starting to find a more workable format that we can kind of work on and feel confident with. I know when we first started, we just changed the menu every day, almost completely. Week by week we’d have totally new menus. I think that was more due to, “Let’s just figure out how it works.” And now, we have format systems, and things that work, and are really good, and people come back for, and changing everything every week doesn’t work so much. Now the process sort of works itself out where today, I went to the market and found a couple things, and we’re going to start talking about new dishes, and tomorrow we’ll try some, probably by Saturday they’ll be on. Instead of just alright, we’re just going to try this. So we’re just trying to figure out, a more consistent way to do things, and I think that’s a major part of the evolution of the restaurant.
What are your favorite aspects of finally having your own restaurant?