At Beauty & Essex, where Sarah Nelson reigns as chef de cuisine, “no” is not on the menu.
Nor is it hidden anywhere among the Elvis meets The Great Gatsby decor. It's not allowed in the kitchen. It doesn't even exist in Nelson's vocabulary.
"I want to say yes," she told A Plus, taking a brief — not to mention rare — moment to sit down and relax at a wide wooden table on the top floor of Beauty & Essex, one of the two restaurants she runs on Manhattan's Lower East Side. (The other is The Stanton Social, and both are the culinary brainchildren of celebrity chef Chris Santos.) "I want [restaurant guests] to have a full, great experience when they come through the door," Nelson adds. "I want to make sure we're doing the best that we can."
"I think anything's possible."
Between running two successful restaurants, and running around their kitchens, Nelson is no stranger to stress. Along with the normal slew of orders, Nelson often needs to meet custom requests from patrons with different dietary restrictions, allergies, or special occasions. While other chefs might crack under so much pressure, she shines under it. "I have a lot of energy, and I feel like I thrive better when I'm on my feet — constantly working, constantly going," she explains.
"That’s when I say, ‘No is not an answer.’ It is possible. I want to be able to show people that if you just take the extra time, it can be done."
How does she know? Well, for starters, she's already spent more than a decade doing it.
Once "the pickiest eater as a kid," Nelson has since reformed. Her family still finds it ironic that the little girl who "wouldn't eat soup if it had chunks in it" has become the eclectic chef churning out countless Chipotle Duck Chilaquiles every day. Despite her family's surprise at Nelson's career choice, she can trace her early inspiration to one family member in particular, her Aunt Lou.
"My Aunt Lou definitely influenced the way I look at food," Nelson says. She remembers spending childhood summers planting tomatoes and cucumbers in a special section of Aunt Lou's land. "She's actually an amazing chef. She makes everything from scratch," she explains. "Even still to this day, when I go home, I love going to her house."
Though Nelson can trace her cooking roots through her family tree, it wasn’t an easy or fast climb to reach her current level of success.
Her interest in cooking first began with food science and human nutrition, receiving her bachelor's degree in that field from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I was … interested in how food affects your body and how it can be helpful with certain diseases," she remembers. "Then, some of the classes I had that were lab classes got me into cooking even more." The end of her undergraduate education eventually became the beginning of her culinary education.
In 2002, Nelson enrolled at the Cooking Hospitality Institute of Chicago and graduated a year later. At CHIC, Nelson learned "the basis for kitchen fundamentals" and helped get her foot in the door through the personal connections she'd made. One of the friends she met at CHIC actually introduced Nelson to the chef who gave her her first job in Chicago.
Since then, she considers herself lucky to work with so many talented and diligent chefs who continually inspire her to give nothing less than her best.
"The most I learned from was definitely the chefs over time that I've worked with," she says. Once a chef told Nelson, "Realize when you're in the kitchen, everyone's mood, and the way the kitchen is going to perform, is based off of your attitude … You need to come in, and you need to be positive. You need to be excited about being here. You need to be reflecting that because that is what your kitchen will be." That advice has inspired her to build such strong kitchens at both Beauty & Essex and Stanton Social, and continues to motivate her every day.
"I've been very fortunate. I've worked with some really great chefs who honestly really took the time," she adds.
“I think the effort that I put into my job showed it to them, so they put the same effort back into me."
Nelson is even grateful for the people who have underestimated her. Being a woman in a male-dominated industry, Nelson remembers feeling like she wasn't always taken seriously by her fellow line cooks early in her career. She's far from the only female chef to feel that way. Even as recently as 2015, women made up only 19.6 percent of chefs and head cooks, according to household data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2016 study from Glassdoor also found female chefs made 28.3 percent less in base pay than their male colleagues.
But no matter who has underestimated her, Nelson has always risen to the challenge.
She recalls an instance, early in her career, when someone recommended her to a chef who seemed reluctant but felt obligated, to hire her. The chef had restaurants at two locations, one of which was in Times Square and, therefore, busier than the other. He sent her to the Times Square location with the intention that she'd "sink or swim" in the busier environment. "He didn't want to deal with it," Nelson remembers. "He was just like, 'Let's see what she does.' Fortunately, it went in a good direction, and I absolutely loved working with him. He was an amazing chef to work with."
She's worked with plenty of amazing chefs since then, most notably Chris Santos. "He definitely pushes me to push my limits, and he definitely pushes me to exceed at what I thought I was able to do," she says.
Throughout her career, Nelson has learned, from both her colleagues and customers, how to not only take criticism — but find value in it.
"A lot of people, sometimes, they don't want to accept failure," she says. "[But] I really think that once you do accept that and take it in and let it partly build up who you become, it makes you stronger in what you do." She prefers to receive feedback, whether it's positive or negative, because she believes it's the only way she can make herself better.
When Nelson was young and first becoming a chef, she did get "upset and worked up about" negative feedback, but now she welcomes any and all criticism.
“I think that it actually just makes you stronger in what you do because it lets you see some of those weaknesses that you weren't aware of, and you're able to work on those,” she says. "Surrounding yourself with people who are just as talented or more talented and are knowledgeable about different aspects than [you] makes it so much more worth it. They have immensely taught me so much that I didn't already know. It's like an endless learning experience."
For that learning experience, the only classroom is the kitchen. According to Nelson, the only way any would-be chef can know if they truly want to work in a restaurant is to, well, work in a restaurant. Seeing may be believing, but — if you want to be a chef — cooking is knowing. "Get in the kitchen, first. Get the experience, and see if it's something you want to before you decide to … make that move," she suggests. "You're gonna have to start working from the bottom up. It's long hours. It's on your feet all the time. You gotta see if you're really committed to putting that in."
But once someone discovers their passion and commits to pursuing it, like Nelson has, there’s no limit to what she can accomplish.
Within the past year, Nelson helped to open Vandal, Santos' third LES baby, and Beauty & Essex's newest location in Las Vegas. "I've opened a few restaurants, so I truly enjoy doing it," she says, hoping to open even more in the future. "That would be amazing for my next step in my career even though … overseeing those two restaurants [Beauty & Essex and Stanton Social], that still within itself is always gonna be a challenge for me."
But Nelson's never been afraid to meet any challenge head on — with or without her toque blanche — and she's not about to start now. Her plate's already full, but Sarah Nelson's appetite won't be satiated anytime soon.
Strayer University offers in-demand subject areas, flexible scheduling and over 120 years of making it possible. Winter classes online and on-campus start January 3rd. Possible starts now at Strayer.edu.