Born and raised in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, 2011 New York Rising Star Chef Hillary Sterling was inspired to cook by her grandmother, who had a passion for cooking and a knack for resourcefully combining ingredients. Sterling embarked on her career at the relatively ripe age of 14, bussing tables at Blue Marlin in Montauk, New York. And while she went on to earn a B.S. in Business, Marketing, and Sociology from Indiana University, Sterling had cooking in her bones. So she padded her résumé with yet another degree, this time an A.A.S. in Culinary Arts from Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago.
Sterling worked in a few restaurants in Montauk after graduation to cut her newbie chops, but it was a break—specifically a three-month trip to Italy, traveling and tasting the country—that would eventually change her life. Upon her return, Sterling accepted a position as a line cook at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York, eventually moving up to sous chef and honing her technique and insight into the business side of the restaurant industry. After two years at Mesa Grill, Sterling moved to another of Flay’s famed New York establishments, Bolo Restaurant.
A desire to delve deeper into Italian cuisine drove Sterling to Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich'sLupa Osteria Romana, where she created menu specials and hand-selected many of the restaurant’s ingredients at the greenmarket. Sterling deepened her appreciation for Northern Italian cuisine as sous chef at Bar Milano under owner Jason Denton. But it was in 2009, when Sterling accepted a position as sous chef at A Voce under Executive Chef Missy Robbins, that she finally won the chance to coalesce her experience and passion into a leadership role. Just four months later, Sterling’s expertise and creativity earned her a promotion to chef de cuisine, a role she uses to celebrate the rich heritage of Italian cuisine and share her passion, and vibrant personality, with her guests.
Interview with Chef Hillary Sterling of A Voce - New York, NY
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Hillary Sterling: My parents didn't cook much. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. We ate a lot of bagels and lox. My Grandmother lived with us in the summer. It was the most exciting thing in the world because she would cook us breakfast. We'd get home from school to the smell of food cooking. Mom didn't do that; my parents worked. The summer months were like fun times for us to eat.
During the winter I didn't get to eat well. I started cooking young at home, making my own lunches, doing whatever I could do to eat something that tasted good. My mom would send me to school with cream cheese sandwiches, Wonderbread, apple sauce, and apple juice.
EB: How did you go from your home kitchen to the restaurant kitchen?
HS: I worked in the front of the house at 14, bussing tables, doing it to have a job. I knew that I wanted to do something like that in the future. I always knew I wanted to open a restaurant since I was young. I needed to know how to do both. I worked in Montauk for two summers. The front of the house was where you made your money, but I was fascinated by kitchen. I worked in an old school place called Blue Marlin. The chef wore a toque and neckerchief. You couldn't talk unless it was about the restaurant. It was old school French; it fascinated me. I started washing dishes, then garde manger. There was a hiatus when I went to college.
EB: So you went to college but the post-grad life wasn't for you?
HS: I have a B.A. from Indiana University in Marketing and Business. Living in Chicago after that, I was doing a very odd job, logistics. Then I was like, "I can't do this, I'm so bored." Being done at work at 4pm—what am I gonna do after that? Just going out and being in bed by 10, that's horrible.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
HS: Pay attention. Details. Details are everything. If they don't understand details from start to finish, they're never going to succeed. They need to ask questions. Volunteer, stage, be comfortable in kitchens. Don't be afraid to make an ass out of yourself. Let yourself enjoy the time, because you can't go back to not knowing anything ever again. Each chef is gonna teach you something completely different.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
HS: We're having such a hard time now finding cooks. Culinary schools are not preparing them for reality. I've been training someone all week on garde manger. He has no idea what a china cap or a bain marie is. I actually thought my culinary school experience was awesome. I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. I was in the nights and weekends [classes] with the professionals. We were really invested, this core group. I worked during the day and went to school at night. It made food more fun. It made me more comfortable walking into a professional kitchen. That's all it was. I recommend it to a degree. You can learn more in the kitchen if you're willing to peel onions for six months. It builds confidence. Maybe some students don't understand those things.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
HS: It's romantic. Food is romantic. Soul. It's about putting everything in your heart onto the plate. Hoping it's perceived well. Honestly, it's about passion. It's about love.
And food is a necessity. It's a complete necessity. Any kind of ethnic cooking, it all comes out of poverty. These people had to use everything they had. My grandmother would cut bagels in thirds, to stretch it a little bit farther. I grew up in the land of bagels. Every corner had a bagel store. It's looking at something as stupid as a bagel, cutting it in thirds, and figuring out how to use it. My grandmother took everything home from a restaurant. It became a cake the next day. That's how she grew up, on the Lower East Side during the Depression. There's no need for excess. It's about making what you have beautiful. My grandma's a huge influence on what I do every day. When she passed away, at her funeral all we did is talk about her food. We had to eat bagels.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
HS: You start with something. Whether it's celery seeds on a plate that you're photographing, it's starting from one little thing and looking at it in a big picture. Where do I want to go with this? It's seasonal obviously. It's about a complete, balanced dish. It doesn't have to be 100 ingredients. I've been cooking Italian food for almost seven years. It's not about so many ingredients. It's about what goes together, the biggest flavor you can get from ingredients.
EB: What's the toughest thing you've had to do in your job?
HS: We're all gonna say the same thing: sacrifice. You sacrifice a lot. The weddings I haven't gone to, the family events I haven't gone to. Not returning a phone call for three weeks, working 9am to midnight. Missing out on things that are important, but knowing that what I'm doing is more important for my future. I kind of like it. I don't mind missing things. In 10 years I might look back and regret it. But it's about passion. I've been working a station for six days. I've been doing everything from start to finish and it's a blast. I don't mind getting here, I don't mind going to the market in the morning. I was lucky that my nephew was born on a Sunday because the restaurant was closed. The whole kitchen was on baby watch.
EB: What's your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
HS: Honestly, probably when I worked I was a sous chef at Lupa for two years. It was like a 100 degrees a night. The pasta station is a two-person station. I did it by myself for 300 covers. I've never been so hot in my life. It was the most fun I had ever had. Getting through that service, by myself, cooking pasta for the world? That was awesome. Totally a blast. I don't think my body temperature came down for two days.
EB: What does success mean for you?
HS: Being happy is the easy answer, of course. Being able to maintain jobs, being able to push myself every day. I tdoesn't necessarily mean I need a million dollars. I don't need a fancy place. It just means that I challenge myself every day.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
HS: I would love to have a small place, something that my grandparents will have a large influence on. Something simple. That's what I always like. Italian? I'm not going say I've been pigeonholed. I've been doing this a long time. I did Spanish food. I do enjoy Italian food. I discover new things every day. We constantly push ourselves to discover techniques Italians have used. Dishes so randomly fall into categories. If you look really hard you can find any ingredient in Italy.
I hope [to have] a small place. I don't know where. Brooklyn's getting saturated, to be honest. I'd love to go to Montauk where it all began. Show the town it's OK to eat well. It's hard to find a good meal there. It's becoming so commercial. The family has a small cottage. Watching the food scene grow from then to now, it's almost fancier than East Hampton. But still the food just doesn't do what it can do. You can take over that town. They're starting to. I kind of want to give thanks to the people that gave me my first shot.