Chef Sarah Grueneberg likes to use bold, declarative sentences.
“Baby spinach is the most pointless vegetable ever.”
“Every chef ’s dream is to do something small, but it rarely makes financial sense.”
And she’s definitely not one to shy away from letting emotion and food mix. In Tokyo last year with her fiancé, she cried during a dinner at Sushi Sawada—the acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant. “It was the most amazing meal ever. You aren’t supposed to take pictures, but we did. Well, my fiancé did. I don’t like to break the rules.”
A few months into her tenure as the new executive chef at Angelina’s Ristorante in Bonita Springs, Grueneberg seems like a lot of 30-somethings who have taken control of their careers and are out to make a mark. Fresh off an extended run at Chicago’s famed Italian restaurant Spiagga, most recently as executive chef, Grueneberg came to Southwest Florida to help reinvigorate an often delicious but drifting restaurant.
“They want it to be a classic Italian restaurant, but it had sort of veered into this French-Italian area,” she says. “I’m here to bring it back to what it should be to take it back to Italy.”
For this mission, Grueneberg is uniquely suited, says Tony Mantuano, chef and owner of Spiagga and her boss for the past eight years.
“She has a dedication to authenticity that makes her special,” he says. “She really delves in and finds the best way to do whatever it is she needs to do.”
Angela Smith, who co-owns Angelina’s with her husband, Don, says that while they loved the food they were serving, things had shifted away from the original intent. Grueneberg is bringing that back, she says.
“We want people who have traveled to Italy to be able to taste a dish and say, ‘That’s exactly how it is in’ whatever town or region the dish is from,” Angela Smith says.
That means slowly changing a menu that has a lot of favorite dishes for many patrons. There is still a filet, but, to boost the flavor of the tender-but-often- bland cut, Grueneberg added ox tails. A Bolognese sauce was a big hit, but she changed the ragu. Even in dishes that remain almost identical, some set-up things have changed to either bring it back in line with traditional Italian styles or to work on adding more flavor.
“We try to do everything we can to add flavor even before cooking,” she says. So that means more brines and braises. A classic chicken dish starts with the thighs being braised until they fall apart and then using the flecks of meat and the liquid for the sauce.
Bright-eyed and effusive, wearing a blue, geometric sweater and jeans—a far cry from her normal chefs whites—Grueneberg seems nothing like the woman many people may know from Top Chef: Texas. She smiles and laughs and in general gives off a happy-to-be-here vibe that would be unexpected of the personality crafted for her by the show’s producers.
During her season, in which she finished second to Paul Qui, Grueneberg was often portrayed as something of a villain. (Two seasons removed, she’s just now able to watch the show. “It was just too raw still last year,” she says. “Just too many emotions. It becomes your life, that competition. So to finish close, coming in second just made it hard to watch.”)
To hear Don Smith describe Grueneberg, she is sort of a cooking Mary Poppins, making everyone around her excited about the food she is preparing.
“Her personality is infectous,” he says. “She really relishes the prospect of cooking food for people.”
Her record on Top Chef and her time at Spiagga puts her in a category of elite-level young chefs with a lot of promise.
“She’s the best of the best,” Mantuano says. “Her drive is unparalleled; she does everything at the top. Really there’s no middle ground with her.”
So why leave Chicago, which has quickly become a food Mecca, for the relative obscurity of Southwest Florida and take over an existing restaurant? For one, the timing was right. Spiagga is going through a complete renovation and will be closed for several months. And after eight years, she’d done about everything she could do there.
“She started out at the lowest level in the kitchen,” Mantuano says. “She did everything along the way, purchaser, sous chef, chef de cuisine and executive chef.”
Those increasing levels of responsibility obviously helped hone her business acumen, but put her increasingly farther from a burner.
“The whole menu/restaurant renovation idea was interesting,” she says. “But also, I came from a very corporate environment in Chicago. It’s good to get back in the kitchen. Cooking is what I love.”
And cooking she is. Every day from 11 a.m. until the restaurant opens for dinner, Grueneberg is doing actual cooking. From there on out, her role as expediter takes over. She’s made it her mission to up the game of her fellow cooks at Angelina’s, bringing in some new blood to help along the way. The Smiths have surrounded her with a team specifically brought in to learn and keep up the standards Grueneberg is creating at the restaurant, knowing they will have her for at most another season.
But there is always hope Grueneberg might stick around. While she waits on starting a place of her own in Chicago, she continues to enjoy the benefits of Southwest Florida’s more laid-back lifestyle and significantly better weather.
“I love to swim,” she says. “So being on the Gulf is a big positive.”