Executive chef Jasmine Einalhori is one-third of the team behind Sage Kitchen, a New York-based catering company focused on Middle Eastern foods — though it’s become much more than that since launching in 2014. Spurred by a changing culinary landscape, one most recently devastated by a pandemic that has upended our relationship with food in more ways than one, Einalhori and her team have had to reinvent their company multiple times. That history includes a Manhattan storefront that was forced to close on the eve of its one-year anniversary, a new “fill the fridge” culinary concept and a whole lot of food bank-related projects. In this Voices in Food story, Einalhori tells Anna Rahmanan about what she has learned from apparent failures, the fragility of restaurants and the shifting gastronomical world that she’s had to contend with.
My friends and I have had a catering company, Sage Kitchen, for seven years. At one point, we got bored and wanted to interact with people more, so we took all the profits from the catering company and turned them back into a restaurant. It was a very unique decision because I don’t know of many people who built a restaurant with zero investors. Our one-year anniversary would have been a week and a half into COVID-19. We were so close to getting through the toughest year, so it was heartbreaking.
But we actually did survive COVID-19 because we adapted so quickly to the world around us. What crushed our restaurant, Sage Kitchen, was the fact that our neighbors had a fire. They threw their hookah coal into a garbage bag, thinking it was burnt out. I got a call Friday morning with the news and it was heartbreaking because we painted, built and sanded the restaurant with our bare hands. We said to ourselves, “We’re dealing with COVID-19 and have to beg people to come and eat. And now we have to invest another $60,000 in damages, and then board up our windows because of the [demonstrations related to the] Black Lives Matter movement.” It was one thing after the other, so we thought having a restaurant was not meant to be at the time.
“I personally feel like I checked off the 'I owned a restaurant' box on my bucket list. I don't think I want to own a restaurant again.”
During the pandemic, we shifted our business model, which is what helped us [survive]. We started off as a corporate catering company, and at that point catering went out the window and corporate went out the window.
Two weeks into COVID-19, I got a call from somebody who wanted to feed a food bank and asked me to teach them how to cook in bulk. I told them I could do something even better. I said, “If you feel safe, come to my kitchen. I have so much produce that is still sitting there. Let’s cook everything we can and then donate it all to the food bank.” We started promoting the concept on Instagram and began receiving donations and requests to feed hospitals where people’s loved ones were staying. That allowed us to have a small business to keep us going, and also it is no secret that a lot of the food industry is made up of illegal immigrants, so we were able to support our staff that wasn’t getting government help. We weren’t making money, but we were staying afloat and giving people jobs and feeding people.
We also created an online platform for private home catering. It’s kind of a fill-the-fridge concept, and it has supported us throughout COVID-19 and still is today. What we do is cater to people’s fridges. We’re not just selling a dish, but [delivering] containers of hummus, matbucha, fresh pesto ...
But the most fulfilling thing we started doing during the pandemic is feeding over 30 Holocaust survivors per week. We’ve partnered with the Jewish Community Center and also Adi Heyman, who gets volunteers to drive [the food] and got another restaurant involved.
Our accountants always say to us, “Congratulations, you’ve survived COVID.” But right now, we’re in a phase of possibly needing to reinvent ourselves again because life is kind of going back to normal, but with stipulations. We [originally] created a unique concept where it was never line cooks behind a bunch of fires making [little money] and working long days. That’s the part of the food industry I don’t like. There are a lot of good cooks out there, but you have to be very smart and you have to understand that you’re giving up a good chunk of your life. Your world becomes the restaurant. I’m not saying don’t do it, but I am saying you need to understand what you’re getting into.
I think that if you can create a way for the industry to work for you, then it’s a good place to be. I personally feel like I checked off the “I owned a restaurant” box on my bucket list. I don’t think I want to own a restaurant again. I can tell you 15,000 other things I want to do in the food industry. That being said, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I loved everything I’ve done.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.