One Year After Opening Porsena, Its Chef Shares a Few Lessons

Sara Jenkins is good at change, and drama, and do-or-die behavior, but now that it's a must, she's finally learning how to stay focused


Its been just about a year since I opened Porsena, and the hubbub has died down. I no longer come into work frantic to produce the food and make sure I can get it to the paying customer in a timely fashion. The space has grown and turned and settled into itself. I have enough storage space and enough plates and enough glasses and I think I have the bread and linen order figured out. We've been inspected twice by the health department and managed to get our all-important A. My staff is well-trained and methodical, the routine of their days punctuated by odd projects I throw their way like pickling, curing pancetta, and trying to make the perfect kibbe for a major event.

The challenge isn't about just making it work every day. It's much harder and less obvious. The challenge now is to keep myself and my staff motivated.

I stay above as many of the petty arguments that erupt as I can, stepping in when I need to, but generally finding that it's better if people work their jealousies out amongst themselves. People seem ready to kill each other one week, and the next they are moving in together. It's part of the challenge I have discovered in restaurant work; we work together so closely that it's hard not to be sucked into people's emotional drama. But as the owner and the boss, it's much better if I don't.

The challenge isn't about just making it work every day. It's much harder and less obvious. The challenge now is to keep myself and my staff motivated, to keep us curious and interested and committed to putting up the 2,000th lamb sausage as beautifully and carefully as we put up the first.

One of the ways I go about this is making sure we stay curious with the specials. Because I chose to create a menu that didn't change with the seasons, it has fallen on our specials to capture all the glorious seasonal produce around us -- though I did take a stand against ramps this year. I am a little tired of the mania about them, even though when they first show up in the gray, cold spring I too hunger for them. But I hunger for them then in their first weeks when they are young and tender and not too strong. Quickly seared on the flat top and served with a dollop of lemony aioli, I love them. But in June, when they have become big and tough and overpowering, I really don't like them, and I really don't want to eat them pickled three months later even if I can. Instead, I like to move on to garlic scapes and young tender garlic shoots, to the sudden profusion of leafy greens, and, of course, asparagus. And I don't ever really get sick of fresh local asparagus.

So working through the seasonal produce without simply making the same thing over and over again is one way to stay curious. The other is to do really different things in the restaurant, like a Roman dinner to coincide with my acquisition of a new Roman cookbook in Italian. I read it hungrily, with its descriptions of the culinary traditions of the city I love most in the world. I had never thought about it, but of course it makes sense that in the capital of Catholicism the Catholic dietary restrictions were followed more closely than anywhere else, bringing us no end of recipes featuring salt cod and chickpeas. I love reading about the history of Osterias both as social and political centers. I lived in Rome as a child and a young adult, and a lot of what I observed around me I never questioned. It's delightful to read thoughtful pieces about the hows and whys of Rome to give some context to my memories.

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Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. She runs Porchetta, an Italian sandwich shop, and Porsena, a casual restaurant focusing on classic Italian pastas. More

Sara Jenkins is based in New York City, where she has developed a reputation as a fine rustic Italian chef. As Mario Batali put it, "She is one of the few chefs in America who understands Italy and how Italians eat." Sara is also the author, with Mindy Fox, of Olives and Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets from Italy, Spain, Cyprus, and Beyond, released by Houghton Mifflin in September 2008.

The daughter of a foreign correspondent and a food writer, Sara grew up all over the Mediterranean, eating her way through several cultures and learning to cook what appealed to her. She began her professional career in the kitchen with Todd English at Figs in Boston, then went on to work as a chef in Florence and the Tuscan countryside, as well as on the Caribbean island of Nevis, before returning to the U.S.

In New York City, Jenkins became chef at I Coppi, earning that restaurant two stars from The New York Times. After similar turns at Il Buco, Patio Dining, and 50 Carmine, she began work on her own cookbook.

In September 2008 she and her cousin Matthew opened Porchetta, a storefront in the East Village focusing on porchetta, a highly seasoned roast pork common in Italy as street food or festival food sold out of a truck as a sandwich. Porchetta has been wildly successful in New York City, both with gourmands and ordinary folk alike. Porchetta was awarded the top spot in Time Out New York's "100 best things we ate in 2008" and also received a four-star review from New York magazine.

In 2010, Sara Jenkins will open Porsena, a simple and casual restaurant down the street from Porchetta focusing on classic Italian pastas.

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