Chef Sarah McIntosh brings a little New Orleans to Rosewood’s favorite neighborhood restaurant.
By Kristi Willis, Photos by Jace Rivers
Chef Sarah McIntosh likes to play with her food. The chef-owner of Épicerie Café & Grocery loves experimenting with dishes, and trying out different ingredients and techniques to concoct something that is familiar but also a little unexpected.
McIntosh comes by her culinary curiosity naturally. Raised in Shreveport, La., by a family that loved to cook and share in big family dinners, McIntosh grew up with Cajun and French-influenced dishes on the table.
She turned her passion for food into a career, moving to Austin to study at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, then heading to California to work in the famed kitchens of Thomas Keller at Bouchon Bistro and Ad Hoc in Yountville, Calif. McIntosh not only learned how to work in a top-tier kitchen, but also how to maneuver deftly in the still male-dominated world of commercial kitchens.
“You have to be stronger in this industry as a woman,” McIntosh says. “You have to be willing to not get your feelings hurt by the little stuff.”
Fortunately, McIntosh was lured back to Austin, bringing her talent and experience to serve as the sous chef at Olivia. When she was ready to open her own restaurant, she knew she wanted to infuse it with a little bit of her Louisiana heritage, including the best beignets you can find outside of famed Café du Monde.
“New Orleans and Louisiana have a lot of neighborhood restaurants, an easy kind of place that people can visit often,” McIntosh says. “Sometimes it has a little grocery with the café, and that’s what I wanted to create here.”
Rosedale was the perfect spot for a casual café with simple, but refined fare. Neighbors can pop in and pick up cheeses and a bottle of wine for a meal at home or have a leisurely lunch or dinner on the serene patio.
McIntosh loves being her own boss and the freedom to be creative.
“I like being able to go to work and do whatever I want every day,” McIntosh says. “We have a chalkboard special, so I go to the farmers market Wednesdays and come up with something new. That’s a fun thing to do.”
Of course, as a new business owner, McIntosh has learned a few lessons.
“Being the owner is different than being the boss in someone else’s kitchen,” she says. “Managing people is a big challenge, and sometimes you have to make the best decision for the business while also doing the best for your people. Those aren’t always easy choices to make.”
After two years, a number of McIntosh’s team members have become almost like family, and McIntosh strives to be the best leader she can out of respect for them and their hard work. She believes in leading by example, always pushing herself to be her best and expecting the same from her team.
“I make sure that I am being the leader all the time and [I am] working as hard as I want my team to work,” McIntosh says. “I have to set the expectation of where I want everyone to be and be willing to live up to it myself.”
McIntosh is continuously awed by the dedication of her team. One of her sous chefs was recently in a car accident that resulted in back problems, but she stills shows up every day and does her part in the kitchen.
“She cares about the process and pays attention to detail,” McIntosh says. “Having that type of drive is something I really respect. She really wants to do well, and she’s willing to work hard to make that happen.”
McIntosh looks for team members who have a willingness and passion for learning.
“Once you stop being willing to learn or start to think you know everything, you are in trouble,” McIntosh says. “Learning new things keeps you motivated.”
That mentality is one of the reasons McIntosh evolves the Épicerie menu with the seasons, adding rich and hearty dishes like oxtail and grits in the fall or crisp, light offerings like an asparagus salad in the spring.
“I forget how much I love certain dishes until it’s time to bring them back on the menu,” she says. “I get excited all over again to have a BLT in the summer with big farm tomatoes.”
McIntosh works with area farmers to find the best produce for the menu and gets regular deliveries from Johnson’s Backyard Garden to ensure the kitchen never runs out of seasonal inspiration.
With the Rosedale location of Épicerie Café hitting its stride, McIntosh is eyeing spots for a second restaurant, a place similar in style but in a new neighborhood. She expects the new place to have its own challenges, but to be easier to get off the ground in some respects because the team knows what to expect.
“I think it is always harder with the first one because you are figuring things out,” McIntosh says. “You just kind of start and then build. Just like any business, you have to start somewhere and build onto that to get where you want to be.”
In addition to the new spot, McIntosh is also planning to host more special events, like Épicerie Café’s recent Cajun-inspired Thanksgiving dinner. She uses the events as a way to spark her team’s interest, keep everyone fresh and test out their creativity.
“Being able to do the events is really fun and gratifying,” McIntosh says. “It’s a good place to teach people and it’s good for morale.”
When McIntosh isn’t working, she cherishes time with her husband, Jackson, and daughter, Finley, at their Cherrywood home. In holding with family tradition, she is raising 9-month-old Finley to appreciate great food from the start, making her daughter special pureed dishes packed with flavor.
“I roast eggplants to where they are almost charred, then peel it and put it in a baggie with stems of rosemary to give it the flavor of the herb without actually adding the leaves,” McIntosh says. “When I puree the eggplant, it smells so good, like rosemary sourdough bread, and she loves it.”
Like her mother, Finley is a big fan of produce from local farms and loves Springdale Farm butternut squash pureed with banana.
“It tastes like banana nut bread batter,” McIntosh says. “She devours it and if I don’t watch her, she’ll eat it until her stomach hurts.”
When McIntosh needs a night off, she enjoys exploring cuisines she’s not as familiar with, like Japanese, Thai, Indian or Chinese.
“I love sushi and really like all ethnic foods,” she says. “I know a little bit about most cuisines, but it’s just a little bit. When I don’t know how to cook something as well, there is an element of it feeling exotic to eat it.”
She also frequents restaurants where she can pop in without it being a big production, not unlike Épicerie.
“I was so happy when Dai Due opened near our house,” McIntosh says. “I love that I can eat at the bar. Recently, I had sausage and grits with collard greens, and it was so good. Then I came home and took a nap. It was the perfect day off.”
Between her young family, bustling restaurant and a second location in the works, McIntosh cherishes every day off she gets.
“The last two years have been an adventure, learning to be an owner, wife and mother and how to string it all together,” McIntosh says. “But it’s all fun and it’s what I love.”