Clemson grad decides to follow her dreams
By Luke Connell
With her studies at Clemson University drawing to an end, Suzanne Cupps faced a decision. A math major with an education minor, a career in the classroom lie ahead, but a simmering thought wouldn’t leave her.
“I literally got to my last semester, and all I had to do was student teach to graduate, and I just didn’t want to do it,” Cupps said. “And I knew that I just felt that kind of dread, and I just knew that was a sign that I shouldn’t do it.”
Post graduation she considered a job in sales in Greenville, S.C., an opportunity that didn’t materialize.
And then, “it entered my mind, and I just couldn’t get rid of it.”
That was 14 years ago, and in the time between, Cupps has risen to the top of the culinary scene in one of the most competitive restaurant landscapes in the world. Now as chef de cuisine at Untitled and Studio Cafe, both in the Whitney Museum of American Art, she’s creating dishes that celebrate ingredients and — as it turns out — teaching the next generation of cooks.
Growing up in Aiken, South Carolina, Cupps didn’t take much interest in the kitchen. Even in college, she mostly stuck to cooking from boxes. After arriving in New York, she landed a job in human resources at the Waldorf Astoria, where a co-worker was taking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. Her interest piqued, Cupps soon enrolled in ICE as well.
“For me, I just didn’t know anything about cooking,” Cupps recalled. “I had to learn how to hold a knife and learn what different herbs were.”
“One of the things that really drew me to it was I was always kind of a perfectionist,” she said. “I wanted to make things come out perfectly and beautifully, and if it tasted good, then that’s great too.”
Cupps graduated in 2005 and became an extern at Gramercy Tavern, where she worked under Chef Mike Anthony and learned his approach to sourcing ingredients and New American cuisine. From there, She worked at Annisa restaurant under owner-chef Anita Lo before returning to Grammercy Tavern in 2011 as a line cook. She cooked. She learned. She advanced.
Today, Cupps continues to work with Chef Anthony, who serves as executive chef of Untitled and Studio Cafe at the Whitney Museum, as well as executive chef and partner at Gramercy Tavern. As chef de cuisine, Cupps supervises five chefs and oversees everything from staffing to approving the menu.
“It’s a big position, but I enjoy it very much,” Cupps said.
Part of the uniqueness of Cupps’ current role rests in the environment of the Whitney. Opened to the public in May 2015 after an eight-year fundraising effort, the new Whitney is a shimmering, open oasis on the shoreline of the Meatpacking District. Architect Renzo Piano’s design lets visitors and passers-by see through the first floor and encompasses vast windows that bring in natural light. The Whitney also has access to the High Line, a nearly 1.5-mile linear park on a former rail line. The much-used attraction feeds a steady stream of guests into the Whitney.
Untitled, with its poured cement floors and wood furnishings, sits on the ground floor, below the museum’s cantilevered entrance along Gansevoort Street. In 2015, the restaurant was honored with a James Beard Award for Best Restaurant Design.
Untitled is open for lunch, brunch and dinner, and Cupps said because of its setting, the restaurant transforms throughout the day. Throngs of visitors on a hot summer day, fresh off the High Line, make for a bustling environment. At night, the atmosphere is usually more intimate, with the beautiful New York night cast against the windows.
The menu at Untitled reflects its environment and the spirit of its creators.
“We don’t want to be a cold restaurant,” Cupps said. “We want to be approachable and casual, with the contemporary.”
The vegetable-forward menu includes crowd pleasers such as a burger, kale salads and fried chicken, but an emphasis is placed on showcasing ingredients.
“When someone sits down with their first dish, we want it to be beautiful,” Cupps said.
For someone who opted not to pursue a career in a classroom, Cupps is still a teacher. She and Chef Anthony prioritize mentoring less experienced cooks, rotating them through various stations to enhance their skills. It’s important, Cupps said, to nurture others, just as she was once instructed.
“We don’t want to keep people from growing,” she said. “We want to push them where they want to go.”
After all, mentors helped make Cupps the chef she is today — a long way from Aiken.
“”I just really got hooked, partly because of the mentors and partly because I fell in love with an industry that’s so strong here,” Cupps said.
“I feel like all doors have been open as long as you’re willing to work hard and learn.”