Breakfast didn’t simply become a thing in New York; someone gave it a kick start. That person was Sarabeth Levine, founder and owner of Sarabeth’s Kitchen, a household name born out of a mere jar of jam. Anyone living in New York in the last three decades knows Sarabeth’s, not just because it’s been around more than thirty years, but because it’s where breakfast was born.
Levine started by making an orange-apricot marmalade from a family recipe in 1981 and selling it to local food shops. She soon found that the marmelade was too coveted to be kept in the household, and that humble beginning soon transformed into an iconic brand. Sarabeth and her husband, Bill Levine, now own nine restaurants, a jam factory and a wholesale-retail bakery cafe. Now, Levine remains at the helm of an empire that continues to expand; more openings are in the works as we speak, and there’s no sign of the business slowing down. Levine’s energy is as infectious as her jams and marmalades, and The New Potato couldn’t resist getting a behind-the-scenes taste of the iconic Sarabeth’s.
What would be your ideal food day?
For breakfast, I love hot cereal. Whether it’s summer or winter, I love hot cereal. I love a bowl of perfectly cooked oats, a little milk, banana, and two coffees.
I liked what I had for lunch today actually – a great turkey burger and an arugula salad. Then there was a light guacamole dressing on the turkey burger.
Dinner would probably be a great steamed lobster or mussels. Then I’d have salad with radishes and a nice dressing with it. I also love burnt cauliflower.
Throughout the day I’d have a cookie or two and another coffee. That would be a healthy day. I like to eat healthy; I like to feel good, I don’t like to overeat. I’m on my second year in weight watchers and feel fantastic. I’m sixty nine years old I don’t look it or feel it, so that’s great. My ideal day would not be going to a bunch of restaurants. I like being in the kitchen. The last place I want to be is in a dining room waiting for someone to bring me food.
You started as a chef, now you’re an iconic brand. What was the moment you knew that’s where you were headed?
You know it’s interesting; I do what I love to do. That’s the key. I wake up early every morning at 5:30 AM and I’m ready. Then I think, ‘OK it’s too early to wake up. I’ll let fifteen minutes go by,’ but I can’t help it – I’m up. I get up and check my blog, check my twitter, and prepare to go to work because that’s what I love. I began because I accidentally made a marmalade for the opening of my husband’s cafe. I got the golden jewel of this marmalade recipe from Grandmere – my Aunt Ruth’s Mother-in-law -who was a french Jewish woman named Sara. Aunt Ruth gave it to me long after Grandmere passed away. It was at a point in my life that everyone’s gone through; I wasn’t doing well and I needed to feed my family. Then I made this marmalade for the opening of my husband’s cafe. Suddenly people wanted a way to buy it – so I started selling it. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t plan it out. You know, I don’t plan where we open. The spaces open and the partners see it and we take the space. It’s a one foot in front of the other thing.
How has the New York food scene changed since you started?
Well, nobody was doing breakfast thirty one years ago. I got that ball rolling, I would say. Now breakfast is a big thing in New York don’t you think? No one was doing oatmeal, pumpkin waffles – it was all very exciting then. Now it’s changed and it’s amazing. There’s so much respect for the people behind the food preparation. Sometime it’s a little overboard with the shows – the reality shows. But these shows put food in front of people’s eyes, which is good. People keep pushing the mark. It gives me goose bumps; it’s so exciting. Food is what we need to survive and what we socialize around – food is all about loving and giving. To be on the preparation end and see people eat what you make is amazing.
How have you managed to stay timeless and classic?
Timeless and classic – I’ve never thought of it like that. It’s a good question. It’s really about the kind of food you can eat every day. For example, you can’t eat sushi every night. Maybe you have sushi once a week, but you eat it every night for two weeks and you’re going to be sick of all that raw tuna. People are creatures of habit. So the three different things from me someone may want to eat for breakfast – maybe an English muffin with my marmalade, some bread with goat cheese, fruit, maybe pancakes one morning. My food is the kind of food you don’t have to put all this thought into preparing. It’s not a big event for breakfast. It’s timeless food because we’ve all grown up with it. It’s easy to put on a twist on, and at the same time people expect consistency. So whether it’s timeless or classic – it’s consistent. I’ve always stayed with that theme – it’s what I like to eat. You’re never going to come in and find sushi. You’ll find chicken pot pie or an amazing piece of fish. Maybe some people like things that are being done now – molecular food, a dribble drabble on the plate – but when I’m hungry, I want that regular comfort food.