6 Questions with Andrew Zimmerman

So, you wanted to be a musician. What did you play?

I started playing the saxophone real early on, then I started learning the guitar. I was in a series of mostly punk rock bands, for lack of a better way to describe them, in the late ‘80s. None of them went very far—I got a free trip to Japan out of one of them—but certainly nothing that was ever going to pay the bills. So, I needed to find something else that I was good at.

When did you decide that music needed to take a backseat to cooking?

My first real job was washing dishes in a restaurant. And I kept doing it because it seemed flexible, and I could make enough money to buy guitar strings and a new guitar every once in a while. At some point, I realized I liked working in restaurants and liked food, and had a bigger talent for that than playing music. Plus, people would pay me to cook—they’re not paying me to play in a band!

Sepia is inventive American, Proxi is global. Does this reflect your inspiration or growth as a chef?

Oh, yeah. I learned how to cook in a fairly traditional European model because I thought that’s what you needed to do to be serious about it. But the thing that always excited me about it were the cuisines that were not as readily available, or not as incorporated into the American culinary vernacular. You can go out anywhere and eat at an Italian restaurant, and I understood it really well; French food had been adapted into this Euro-centric American fine dining. But I liked things that were more esoteric or exotic like Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese or Indian food. I was learning standard culinary technique, but spending my time researching things that weren’t as accessible.

Was your intent always to open a second, different restaurant?

My original intent was to have a job that paid my rent. Sepia was good for that, and I then wanted to see how far I could take it. And then doing something that was a departure from that was obviously enticing. And it made sense to do something that was differentiating, and a different side of the food that I cook. We knew we wanted it to be a bit more casual and that took advantage of a wood-fired grill. That gave me the idea of all of the other influences and cooking all the food I’m excited to eat on my days off.

What goes into your plating and why do you think it’s important?

Well, you figure the first thing people are going to do is look at their plate and decide if it’s something they want to eat. So, we want to present it in its best light. That can have a lot of connotations. Like at Sepia where we fuss over it and give it the fine dining treatment is one way of doing that. But there’s also lots of ways to make something seem delicious. Like a very rustic presentation of a curry can be exciting to look at. I take it dish by dish to make something look as good and be as appealing as it can.

What’s a dish you think represents Sepia and one that represents Proxi best?

Well, the dish that’s most commonly associated with Proxi is our tempura elotes. They’re the most popular thing on the menu. It’s mostly a Japanese reinterpretation of Mexican street food. I didn’t think it would be popular, but is by leaps and bounds the biggest seller. I would say from Sepia, one of my favorites would be a Japanese sweet potato tortelloni, served with shaved matsutake dake. It’s based on tortellini en brodo, which couldn’t be more Italian, but is built off flavors that are inherently Japanese.