Ones to Watch 2017: Sam Witherspoon of Sardella


Title:
Executive sous chef, Sardella 
Age: 27 
Why watch him: He proves good guys can get ahead.


Sam Witherspoon’s resume reads like a cutthroat careerist’s: the New York Culinary Institute of America to Danny Meyer’s Maialino to Donald Link’s Cochon, then Gerard Craft’s Niche and now Sardella. The lineup may evoke a sense of cold-bloodedness, a ruthless master plan, but that impression would be wrong for the guy Sardella executive chef Nick Blue called his “softer side.”


“I’ve never really had a plan,” Witherspoon said. “I always just kind of go where I want to go and I figure it out when I get there.” He’s gotten where he is simply by aiming high, giving it a shot. He secured the job at Niche with a cold call – an effort that would seem laughable if it hadn’t worked. “I have the attitude of start at the top,” he said. “Because it’s easier to start there than it is to start down and try to move up.”


This strategy, of course, only works if you have the skills to support it. “He has a really playful sense of food … an ability to translate comfort food into modern food,” Craft said. Take, for example, Witherspoon’s recent special at Sardella: a pastrami-spiced brisket and squash agnolotti served with pickled and butter-braised cabbage. “It doesn’t taste like it’s just a riff [on a Reuben],” Craft said. “It is its own dish – something nuanced and unique.’”


But for Witherspoon, being a chef has as much to do with how you treat people as what you serve them. “It’s almost impossible not to smile when you see Sam. He boosts everybody’s mood,” Craft said. “He’s a very positive spirit in the kitchen. That’s totally separate from cooking ability, but almost more important sometimes.”


He learned this during his externship at Maialino, where it wasn’t just the high pressure or long hours that impressed him. “These guys were very serious about what they did, but they walked in every day, they shook your hand, asked you how you were doing,” Witherspoon said. “They really invested in you, and that’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my entire career.”


A focus on hospitality in and out of the kitchen may sound peripheral, but it’s something that sets Witherspoon apart. A lot of people with serious culinary talent don’t make it past sous. “To be a great leader, there’s a certain amount of positivity that has to be there for people to want to work for you,” Craft said. He was equally impressed by Witherspoon’s ability to interact with guests. “If you’re going to do your own thing, you’ve got to have it – or you better hire somebody who does.”


There’s no doubt Witherspoon will have a lot of people working for him someday. For now, aside from having his voice heard through more dishes on Sardella’s menu, his goal is simple: “I would love to be able to give Nick Blue a day off.”