Sarah Fish taught herself to cook.
The owner of The Hungry Fish Cafe in Troy always thought she'd be a writer, until health issues and financial hardship changed her path.
Since then, Fish has been named a Rising Star Chef at the Albany Wine and Dine for the Arts Festival, her cafe is gaining popularity, she's getting ready to buy her own building, and she's teaching cooking classes at The Arts Center in Troy. Fish is committed to using local ingredients in her cooking for health, flavor and strengthening the local community.
This week, Fish took time to talk with us about a planned appearance on The Food Network, why breakfast is more exciting than you realize, and how a garden led her to the kitchen and changed her life.
We noticed that you're teaching a course at The Arts Center of the Capital Region called "No More Boring Breakfasts". Why do you like breakfast so much?
A lot of times when you think of breakfast you think of the same old same old. And especially other chefs have this stigma against breakfast -- that you're never going to get creative with it and you're never going to have too much fun with it.
But I don't agree. I think it's one of the most fun dishes to cook. And I like doing things that other people don't -- and having it be a little more creative and something that you can't generally find elsewhere. Especially since we make everything from scratch -- I grind the sausage and I bake the bread, and the eggs being so fresh. I'm always happy to have something on the menu that nobody else does or to not offer something that everybody else does. You know, like french fries. Everybody has french fries. Why do I need them?
People don't always have breakfast in the morning, you know? You can have it for dinner. So I'm teaching a couple of creative recipes completely from scratch -- they're meals that people can eat and enjoy anytime and they're fun and fairly easy and it's a nice way to kind of impress someone.
What's an example of a fun, creative breakfast?
The apple sausage hash plate is super popular here. I really like it. It's fun. Potatoes, apples, caramelized onions, our homemade sausage, a couple of eggs and some toast. You can do it in one pan which is really nice and easy. It's relatively inexpensive -- a couple apples and a couple of potatoes and onions -- those are really inexpensive ingredients. And it just tastes so good. And it's really simple --there's not a lot to the dish, but there is so much you can get out of it. Especially if you know how to make your own sausage which is one of the things I teach in the class.
You're in the running for a grant from FedEx to grow your business. How does that work ?
They do the small business owner grant contests, and by popular vote certain business across the country receive a grant to help them build their business. The first round goes to February 25 and then there is another round of voting. And it's kind of the perfect time now because we are trying to get our own building from the city of Troy, so not having lot of money socked away I'm kind of going for whatever will bring some free money in.
We're looking at a building on Congress Street. We'd be changing our name to Cafe Congress. I could even buy a small plot of land from the city of Troy.
And that's for a garden, right? You want to grow your own ingredients?
I started cooking because I planted a garden in my backyard and I just had an abundance of food. So I started to teach myself pickling and canning and preserving and sauces and all this stuff -- and just experimenting with a lot of new foods that I hadn't seen before. And I just got so much joy out of it --out of having this wonderful hobby that was so rewarding from start to finish that, you know, I really wanted to show other people the same happiness that I had found in it. I was primarily interested in producing and canning and kind of mass producing things I was making in small batches and maybe trying to get into farmers markets and the grocery stores.
But then I rented the kitchen and started selling sandwiches and that just kind of took off. But with my start being so close to the ground in gardening and working outside -- those are things that I really really enjoy. I'd really like to incorporate that aspect -- having some responsibility in the growing methods -- as well. If I could do that, not only would it benefit the business, but then I could say I grew that and I made that, too. I mean, those are things that are just really cool for me. I don't think it's necessary for the business, but it makes me happy.
You seem to really love what you do.
When you are doing what you love everyday it shouldn't feel like work. I mean, there are work aspects to it, but I think overall when your drive is to do what you love it should feel like you're doing what you love.
Especially with the restaurant and my menu and my food concept -- eating local and eating better. Those are all things I was doing for myself before I got into the restaurant. I just enjoyed it so much and I got so much pleasure from it that I wanted to share it with people. I wanted to share the excellent taste of local food and the health benefits of eating better and locally and knowing what is in your food and knowing our farmers.
Years before the garden I was experiencing a lot of health issues related to intestinal disorders that run in my family, and that is what began my eating better and the gardening -- because I wanted to eat better and be healthier and I wanted to feel better. And it was just such a drastic improvement from where I had started out to where I am now -- even just a few years ago. By incorporating more local food and healthier lifestyle choices I just felt so good that I thought I really had to show other people how great it is.
You were a writer before you were a chef. How did you make that leap?
It's kind of funny because ever since I was a little kid I thought I was going to be a famous writer. That's all I wanted to do. That's what I went to college for. I was published a couple of times and I actually wrote for the Times Union freelance for a while. I really enjoyed it. But when I was writing all the time I wasn't getting out. I was inside behind a computer -- that is not really in my nature.
Writing and music are a big part of my life and then when I started cooking it was such fun to make something from nothing, you know? To plant a seed and have dinner -- it was as much of a creative process as writing was or creating music. For me writing was an act of personal expression but, for me, cooking is too. So I don't really see much of a difference. The medium is different, but I do it for the same reasons -- for personal enjoyment and enrichment. So I think that is where the leap came, but I think it was more of a little step, though, for me.
You were in the news recently for something other than your food. You stood up with state legislators to speak out against abuse in the welfare system, supporting a bill to ban the use of electronic cash benefit cards for cigarettes, alcohol and [lottery tickets] and ban their use at ATMs [in places such as] strip clubs. Why did you want to do that?
[State] Senator [Tom] Libous called me asking if I would do that press conference because they had seen an interview I did about a year ago with [WNYT's] Jessica Layton on the same issue. I agreed to do this interview and the press conference basically for the same reasons I cook the way I way I do and why I serve what I serve -- basically to share my experiences with people. I did the press conference because I feel I have the right to talk about welfare abuse. Not only was I on welfare before, I'm now a business owner and have used the resources that were out there to better myself and go to school and become an employer, taxpayer, and homeowner. It takes a lot of work to get through that and to get out of that situation.
I wanted to make other people aware that not only is there welfare abuse, but there doesn't have to be. Not only have I seen abuse, but I totally admit that back then... I was just a kid and I was not making the best choices. I was doing drugs and drinking like crazy and that was my lifestyle then. But I grew from it and I learned a lot and I got myself to a point where I am able to give back and put my energy back into my own community because I like to help people. I think the way to help people is to not allow them to abuse the system. It's supposed to be there for a reason.
I totally support the welfare system. It helped me out when I needed it, but if there are people taking advantage of it, not only does it take money way from the people who could really use it, it gives everybody that is trying to better themselves, who really do need it, a bad rap.
Thinking about my own experiences back then when I was at my worst -- I wasn't in the frame of mind to think that I was ever going to own a business or a home. In the situation where I was, I kind of thought that was my life, that this was going to suck forever. So I think sometimes, especially when a person is really down and out, I don't think it hurts to have, like, bumpers for people. Living in a life where you are ultra low and you feel like everybody hates you and everybody is out to get you -- that can really put a damper on someone's spirit. When someone is really depressed sometimes they can't see how to be happy, and sometimes when someone is really poor they can't see how to get out of that. Sometimes it takes somebody to regulate things a little bit to make it easier on someone to do better by eliminating the bad choices. If the only choices are good ones that will be helpful to them, like looking for a job or skills training or getting back in school, those are things that will help people improve their lives.
How did you turn it around?
I was really just sick of it. I just didn't feel good about myself. I didn't feel good going to the store and paying with food stamps. I didn't feel good that I didn't achieve anything for myself. I didn't have anything that I could say, "I did that." And it sucked.
I just really wanted people to see me better. I wanted people to see me for what I thought I was capable of and I thought the only way I could feel better about myself was to create something for myself.
So it was kind of a big deal getting off welfare and stuff like that and it's actually been remarkably harder to get by because you don't have free money and health care and all the stuff that comes with it, so I can see why people often get stuck in that situation because the transition is not easy. But I did it, and I enjoy my life better, I feel better about myself. When I started really applying myself and getting good grades I thought, "This is really exciting. Look what I'm doing!" And then all hell broke loose and I became editor of the student paper, I was in Phi Beta Kappa, I was president of the poetry club, I started animal outreach which is now nationwide, I was a peer tutor, teacher assistant. The paper was bi-weekly and I made it weekly and got a press association award.
Doing well in college was the catalyst for every other successful thing that I've done. I went from being terrified to "I can do it." All of a sudden I was like, "I can do anything. I can run a restaurant."
Having been in a situation when I really didn't feel like I had much ahead of me at all, and turning that around to wanting to try anything at all, my fears now are not, "Oh my god, can I do this?" It's now like, "What if I don't?" That is more of a driving fear for me. I'm more afraid now to not try something. I'd rather try and fail a million times because at least I tried, at least I got the experience. It's terrifying to me to think that I lost so many years of my life in a place where I was negative and I didn't have a place for myself. It's scary that I lost that many years and I kind felt like I want to make up for it and do as much as I can because I don't ever want to lose out on an opportunity.
What's next for you?
We're waiting to hear about approval for our new building on Congress Street. The space is a little bigger than what we have now. The attic is set up as an open studio space and we want to actually build an open garden in there and put solar windows in the roof, since we have to repair the roof anyway. We're also doing a benefit concert on March 21st to help raise money for the relocation. We've gotten other businesses to donate gift certificates to us so we can raffle them off and the musicians that are helping us out -- I'm offering them an opportunity to hold their own show upstairs at our new space where they can keep the door money. I don't like to ask for something for nothing as a for-profit business, but with my involvement in the community and how much I like to give back -- and how much I want to make my business an element of the community -- I feel OK with asking the community. Troy Shares is going to help us with some of the work and we can repay them with meeting space.
I'm only asking people to help who I have an idea of how I can help them back. I've worked really, really hard to get to where I am and I don't want to stop working really hard. I don't want someone to just do it for me, but nobody can do it alone and one of the best decisions you can make is knowing when to ask for help. And right now is one of those times for me. So, I'm OK with it.
And I'm going to be on Food Network, on Guys Grocery Games. It will either be in March or May. They are trying to find an episode that's right for me -- they want people with conflicting personalities or backgrounds. It seems really exciting. I don't have cable so I haven't actually seen the show but I looked it up online. You go to grocery store and you have all these challenges -- you have to make certain things based on certain ingredients that you have to find. Maybe it's like all frozen foods and stuff like that. They were actually interested in me because I cook so much fresh food. They were like, "Do you even go to a supermarket? "
Yeah, for beer and cat food.
Otherwise, not really. I'll hit the produce section, but especially with a restaurant, why would I ever need to go food shopping? I'll just bring stuff home.
But they were asking, "What do you think is going to be your competitive edge?" I actually think that it's going to be my from-scratch cooking, because if I see something in a box or can or whatever I'm going to know what preparation has already gone into it so I can eliminate half the work by knowing what has already gone into it.
Love the hair.
I used to have a huge mohawk, so this is kinda mild, but I just feel more myself when I'm a little more colorful. My hair is actually like brownish. I just decided to change it because I like change. I like doing things differently. I like the way I look with pink hair. And I really like the way I look with pink hair with 14 Republicans standing behind me (laughs).
I don't think they would have asked me if they knew what my hair looked like. I'm not even a Republican. I'm not much of a politically-minded person. I just want someone to do the right thing and whatever helps us. But I really got a kick out of that. I wish I had my tattoos hanging out (laughs).
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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