When Suzi An started her career, she knew that she loved food and hated desk jobs, but she needed to figure the rest out. Meeting the right chef made that process a little easier.
An was working as a server at Seattle’s Bar Sajor in 2014 when she first met chef Edouardo Jordan. She was immediately inspired by his creativity, his drive, and his “no fucks attitude.” Within three weeks of working together, An approached Jordan and said,“I don’t know what your future plans are, but I’d love to come work with you at some point.” A year later chef Jordan came back to her with an idea, and things started to fall into place. The pair began building Jordan’s first restaurant from the ground up — DIY construction projects and all. Today, An reflects on escaping a traditional desk life: “It’s hard to say what an average day looks like for me, and I think I like it that way.”
An currently serves as the creative director of operations for both Salare and Junebaby, two restaurants in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. For Asian-American An and African-American Jordan, these globally inspired restaurants make sense. Salare, one of Eater’s 2016 best new restaurants, is Italian-driven with influences from the American South, the Caribbean Islands, and myriad African and European food traditions. And now there’s Junebaby, a “deeply personal exploration” of Southern food complete with an encyclopedia of the “terms, dishes, and places that play a role in the cuisine.” An’s in charge of taking the cooking concepts and turning them into a business.
Over the years, her scope has expanded significantly. She started out as a server and publicist, but her role has grown to include creative direction, team management, and even wine buying, which she offered to take on when she saw the need at Salare. An is deeply invested in her team; the part of her job that she loves the most is seeing her employees grow professionally and personally. The staff has a very real say in what happens at the restaurant, but that also means servers need to understand the vision. To work with An and Jordan, you need to have passion. In An’s mind, “If they’re not happy, then nobody’s happy. And that goes for both front of house and back of house.”
When it comes to the restaurants, An and Jordan aren’t content to settle for simply serving good food. Salare and Junebaby both offer cuisines you can’t find anywhere else in Seattle. Both restaurants are located in North Seattle, an area populated mostly by upper-middle-class families. For An, a big challenge is making diners feel comfortable, while still introducing them to new cuisines. They’ve struck a balance by combining the familiar with the new.
At Salare, the menus are approachable — “when people look at it they know what pastas are,” An says, “but when people actually taste a dish, the flavors are completely unexpected.”
And at Junebaby, the team takes a slightly more unconventional approach. Jordan’s menu is accompanied by a glossary of terms that An spent countless hours researching and writing. By providing diners with the glossary, An and Jordan hope that everyone will be able to come to the table with the same understanding, and that new dining experiences will feel within reach.
Luckily, the effort is paying off. Junebaby is a hit with neighborhood residents and a destination too, something that An credits equally to the food and the man cooking it. “There are no other solid Southern restaurants in Seattle proper and I think people craved it.”
Jordan and An have honed a smooth professional relationship through the process of opening two restaurants. Jordan’s name might be the one that appears in the press more often, but An isn’t concerned about the spotlight. “I think we’re both supporting roles for each other,” she says. Working on the public image of the restaurant and leaving the food to Jordan allows An to put her own mark on the restaurant’s identity in a way the line cooks can’t. “The chef de cuisine puts out food that’s in line with Chef’s creative vision, but in my role, I have a little bit more creative freedom.” She especially takes care with the wine lists, thoughtfully adding bottles to the menu and highlighting her favorites on Instagram.
Ultimately, the idea of “celebrity” isn’t what draws An to food, it’s the people who build restaurants: “I don’t mind playing the supporting role,” An says. “I don’t want fame. What I really truly enjoy on a personal level is seeing other people’s dreams come true.”