Food and fashion are a match made in well-dressed, tasty heaven, and no one we know embodies that more than Sarah St. Lifer, a former fashion editor who now runs Los Angeles’s insanely popular Night+ Market Song with her boyfriend, chef Kris Yenbamroong. Whenever we stop in Night + Market, Sarah’s running around like a boss—bussing tables, pouring drinks, answering the phone, basically doing whatever needs to be done. And what really blows our minds—she looks good doing it. We caught up with Sarah to talk about the intersection of food and fashion, whether or not comfortable shoes really exist, and to get her list of food Instagrams you should definitely follow.
How did you make the transition from fashion to food?
I have always had a life in fashion. My mother and father owned different retail operations growing up, and some of my earliest memories include hanging out with them at work after school. Before Style.com existed (now Vogue Runway, right!?) my mom and I would sit in bed and watch The Style Channel during Fashion Week. I went to college to try my hand at being an artist, but when I graduated, I found myself at Stylelist, AOL’s fashion site. When AOL and Huffington Post merged, I would contribute at both pages. When I moved to LA, I worked at the Huffington Post LA offices until Refinery29 was hiring an LA Editorial Assistant, so I dropped everything. Refinery29, at that time, was my True North, and working under someone so sartorially-sharp was the icing on the cake. I adored every minute of my time spent at Refinery29. No job is perfect, but it was tres fun having dinners at Chateau Marmont and writing about it the next day. Luckily, I was in my mid-twenties and I could manage a late-night-to-early-morning schedule. After work, I’d cruise over to Kris’ restaurant. It was the only way I could spend time with him! Being there, I eventually evolved into the host. As the restaurant became more and more popular, I made the incredibly tough decision to put my writing career on hold to work at the restaurant.
The fashion cliche is that no one eats, which is so not true. Why do you think the fashion crowd has embraced the foodie lifestyle?
I went to countless NYFW events where I’d drink free champagne and avoid the passed hor d’oeuvres. Why? the food was always mediocre back then! Now, I go to events because of the food. I truly believe that fashion has the ability to unite all walks of life. Food unites people the same way fashion unites people. A lot of foodies appreciate good style, and those with good style appreciate good food. There are some restaurants that are timeless, while others are reactions to a trend. Whatever it may be, more people are participating, and I love it.
What is the hardest thing about working/running a restaurant?
Being able to operate at 100% after a three-hour night’s rest. Luckily, an Alfred Coffee opened across the street from our Silver Lake restaurant
What is one thing you’ve learned from the restaurant business that you could apply anywhere? Be passionate: it will show, and your boss will notice!
How do you keep yourself focused and going on those long-double shift days?
By prioritizing. I write down everything that needs to be accomplished and decide which items are big picture, and which are small. Big picture stuff is always in the back of my mind. If the small-picture task don’t help the big-picture, then that takes a back seat.
What’s your work uniform?
I’ve become a denim nerd because of work and living in LA. It’s important for me to have my iPhone, wine key, notepad, business cards, and pens on me at all times. If a customer flags me down, I want to be prepared. I have a closet full of dresses that collect dust because none of them have pockets! I love wearing overalls — they’re practical and a great conversation starter. I have a vintage pair from Foxhole and simple black set from Citizens of Humanity. I also have a pair of white Levi’s I can’t take off. It’s awful, because working in a restaurant is not a clean job — and I’m convinced these white jeans are a magnet for curry sauces! I wear a lot of solid tees for this reason. One day it will be a Hanes, the next it will be an Acne tee — I’m all about the high-low.
Often, when you’re on your feet all day, it seems like there’s no such thing as a comfortable shoe. What are your go-tos that don’t kill your feet?
Dansko clogs are the best, but not the most stylish. I wear my Stan Smiths mostly. I also wear Vans and Nike Air Max. I bought a pair of Nike Flyknits when we first opened Song. They were bright pink and matched the walls of the restaurant.
What do you wear/add to an outfit when you want to be comfortable but still look polished?
If I know Kris and I have somewhere to be after work, I’ll wear my rag & bone jeans. They’re jet-black and are perfect for any situation. I’ll toss on my 3.1 Phillip Lim leather vest over any tee and instantly look more put-together. I owe a lot to that vest!
Who are three rad female chefs/restauranteurs who we should all be familiar with?
• Kerry Diamond is the co-founder and editorial director of Cherry Bombe Magazine, runs three successful restaurants with her boyfriend in Brooklyn (Nightingale 9, Wilma Jean, and Smith Canteen), and is the editor-in-chief at Yahoo! Food — and she does this all while wearing Marc Jacobs and Maria Cornejo.
• There’s a neon sign at the back of Jon & Vinny’s restaurant that’s pink and says “helen’s”. Helen Johannesen runs a boutique wine store back there — but she’s also a partner in the restaurant and is the director of operations for a number of the restaurants owned by chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. She knows her stuff, but isn’t super serious about it. I like that I can talk shop with her and not feel intimidated by all of her knowledge!
• Grand Central Market is overwhelming, which is why I head straight for Madcapra. It’s an oasis, and you can bet either of the two chefs (Sara Kramer or Sarah Hymanson) is behind the stoves at any given moment. They’re such workhorses, and they make the most crave-able falafel sandwiches under the sun.
• Natasha Phan is queen bee. People have dubbed her “Roy Choi’s Right Hand (Wo)man” but I think she’s way more than just that. She’s a problem-solver, a gracious host, and total ball-buster. If she’d let me, I’d pick her brain for hours.
• Jessica Koslow. I take every LA newbie to Sqirl — it is such a uniquely LA experience. The food is phenomenal. And, even after a long day, she’s warm and welcoming.
What are three food Instagrams that you love to follow?
I have to shout out Cherry Bombe, obviously! I also love Alison Roman’s sense of humor — she’s the new Senior editor at Buzzfeed Food. Nina Clemente, Nicole Rucker, and Claire Thomas (aka Kitchykitchen) make me want to learn how to cook, but I’m actually miserable at it!
What advice would you have for someone who wants to build a career in the food industry?
I think it’s really important for those who wish to make a career in the food world to really get their hands dirty. If you want to work for a restaurant, start on the ground floor — aka start serving/bar-tending. You’ll learn how to problem-solve on the fly, and really build the muscles that those in corporate positions don’t have. You’ll be able to talk about the food in a much more passionate way, and that will show in your work. We don’t have bussers or a somm at our restaurants because we expect every server to know every corner of the restaurant. We want them to be experts on everything: why we have a poster of Cindy Crawford on the wall, how Chicken Larb is made, where Chiang Rai is… basically, always ask questions so you have all the answers.
There’s long been the stereotype that women DON’T belong in the kitchen in restaurants. What do you have to say about this?
It makes my heart sink to hear these things. Yes, working in a kitchen is hard, manual labor. But, that doesn’t make it manly. Our kitchen is all women — I kid you not! We have a team of women who work harder than any of the other men who have tried. I think this happened because Kris’ food is Thai soul food, and who better to make soul food than a bunch of moms?
Do you have any advice for dealing with machismo from coworkers or customers?
I’m the boss. When a customer or a coworker is acting out-of-line, I have to remind myself that they are in my house. I built this restaurant — when it was a pile of garbage, I was there cleaning up the mess. But, as soon as I remind myself that this is my blood, sweat, and tears, I’m instantly 1 million times more confident. Trust, I don’t act rude, I’m just filled with pride (while being poised). Basically, I remind myself that I’m in charge here — and I’ve dealt with much more difficult scenarios. Telling some cocky customer to calm down doesn’t even crack the Top 10 for “Most Challenging Moments.”