Sandi’s soul food restaurant opened last week in Morristown. Interesting side note: chef-owner Sandi Rogers won the lottery 10 years ago. Yes, it was a big win, but listen to her story and the lotto win remains exactly that: “side note.” The secret of Rogers’ success, the power fueling her restaurant, is in the name: soul. It took heart and soul for Rogers to start over—first when her Georgia grandparents took her in at 14 (when her Grandma Eula began teaching her to cook); again when she had to move herself and her kids to a domestic violence shelter in Morris Plains two decades ago; and again as a mature woman coming through a painful divorce, needing new direction and finding it in culinary school. It even took soul—and some years—to fight to open her dream restaurant, but it’s finally here.
Less than a week into Sandi’s opening in Morristown, we caught up with Rogers to talk soul food, and how to cook precisely without measuring.
Table Hopping: You opened a week ago, so it’s early days, but how do you feel in Morristown?
Sandi Rogers: I love Morristown. It’s a great town. I see it changing, I see it growing. And I see it as a community we can grow in and with because we stand apart. We have a strong point of view.
TH: Speaking of “strong point of view,” how did you come up with the design for the space?
SR: I love brightness! I wanted people to feel like they were walking into my dining room. I found this company out of New York called BHDM. They executed exactly the vision I wanted.
TH: There’s a wall of silhouette portraits. Who are they?
SR: The silhouettes are prominent African American women. There’s Sojourner Truth, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, Viola Davis, Harriet Tubman. They’re not labelled, but we’re thinking of doing a little contest every now and then to see if customers can guess who’s who. And we’re going to do more silhouettes. There’s a blank hallway coming into the entrance. We’re going to do female chefs like Julia Child on that wall. Those should be coming in a week or so.
TH: You attended the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) as an adult, but where did you first learn how to cook?
SR: My grandma worked as a private chef for many years and worked as a chef at Georgia Southern University. I get all of my cooking passion from her. She just loved feeding everybody—taking basic ingredients and turning them into something special. That carried onto me. It stuck with me. No matter what else I did, I always knew I wanted to cook. I always wanted to open a restaurant.
TH: What was it like learning stricter technique at ICE, coming from an intuitive cooking style?
SR: I had to kind of unlearn everything and then perfect it with the new techniques. When you’re cooking soul food, it doesn’t call for carrots to be julienned. We don’t do any of that! I don’t even measure! It was interesting, but it was challenging. One of my classmates, Torrey Wix, is my sous chef here.
TH: Speaking of sous chef, how can you replicate dishes night after night without measuring? And how can you relay that to your sous chef?
SR: You eyeball it! It works! My grandmother said stuff like “Your fist is the size of your stomach. Two helpings, that’s two handfuls.” It’s always worked out for me. I have recipes that he can recreate, but I’ll be honest—I let him start the basics of what I showed him and then I’ll put my secret to it! That way he doesn’t have everything, because these are some of my grandma’s techniques and recipes. He knows enough to do the basics, then I’ll add my secret. He always says, “Go ahead and add your little magic!”
TH: Can you get creative as a chef when you’re cooking such these venerated, tradition-steeped soul food dishes?
SR: The combinations you can do when you’re creating soul food—it’s endless. Yes, there are dishes my grandma had, but there’s also just “Let me try this out and see how these two things marry each other and what they taste like, how that’ll come together.”
TH: What about the basic concept: soul food. Is it understood by all diners?
SR: It’s interesting. A lot of them are southerners who came up north, from Virginia or North Carolina, so many people kind of “get it.” They know what it is—food that feeds the soul. But someone did come in and ask “What is soul food?” Honestly, I had to say, it has no race, it has no gender, there’s no barriers to it. If I could best describe it, soul food is food that brings people together, bonds them, soul to soul.
Sandi’s is located at 82 Speedwell Avenue in Morristown; 862-242-8088. Anyone who doubts southern food can get local in northern Jersey, says Rogers, “Being in the Garden State is amazing! Part of our backyard down [in Georgia] was a farm. I was always either shelling peas or picking collards or cabbage or picking tomatoes and bringing that stuff in. Up here, we’ve been fortunate to partner up with Zone 7, so we get our everything fresh and organic.” Rogers may even do vegan specials down the line. “Two of my sons are vegan, so I had to learn to make some dishes and not use meat. Because, you know, as a southerner, we want to use meat and butter in everything!”Click here to leave a comment