Working within the New York City food industry is exhilarating and exhausting. Whether front or back-of-house, the employees that keep restaurants up and running are doing just that: running around for long hours, usually deep into the night, to provide comfort and sustenance to those who come through the door. High-stress and super demanding, these jobs tick at the usual mile per minute that NYC is known for. It's no wonder, then, that many of these teams end up feeling far more like family than anything else. Always a flip side, restaurants are also places of rampant inequality, lack of diversity or accessibility, toxic masculinity, damaging eco-political tendencies, and so much more...which is a perfect reason to start a new, more mindful, venture.
Schuyler Wayne and Gabby Namm, two chef's who have years of experience, know the deep love and personal connectivity it can take to keep things flowing smoothly in the kitchen. They also know that many aspects of the food industry could change for the better. In an effort to do just that, Schuyler and Gabby have opened up Sweet Angel Baby's, a pop-up restaurant serving food full of heart. In this interview, they talk about their philosophy behind their new foodie haven, hypothesize on why chefs get tattoos, and give you a glimpse into their favorite NYC spots.
First, I’d love it if you could give us a bit of info about your personal backgrounds and then, how you guys met!
S: Well hey, I’m Schuyler. I’m 30 years old and use he/him pronouns. I grew up in rural Illinois and moved to NYC 6 years ago. I’ve been working around food since I was 12 or 13, so on and off for about 17 years. I started with detassling, which is this summer job teenagers do in the Midwest. I would walk miles a day through cornfields picking a single tassel off of each corn stalk while I had Slipknot and Metallica playing on my walkman. I casually worked on and off in kitchens until I was in my early 20s when I decided to do it full-time after dropping out of college. I figured I’d make as much money cooking and playing in bands as I would if I finished my anthropology degree and have a lot less debt. I eventually got super into cooking and decided to move to NYC to pursue it further.
G: Hey! I’m Gabby. I grew up in New Jersey with a Filipina mother and a Jewish father of Eastern European descent. A really interesting clash of cultures, but really great food came out of it. I guess that’s where I get a lot of inspiration for the food we make. I’ve been working in restaurants for about 10 years and started cooking professionally about 8 years ago. I originally moved to New York to pursue filmmaking which is what I went to college for, but eventually realized that I loved cooking more. So here I am.
S: Gabby and I met through an old bandmate she was seeing at the time. I actually don’t think I remember meeting her the first time because I was *s a u c e d*. Anyway, they stopped seeing each other and we started hanging out after doing karaoke together one night.
G: ....and then we fell in love. <3
Right now you both are focusing on your pop-up Sweet Angel Bb’s. How did the project come about, and what’s the philosophy behind the food you create?
S: Sweet Angel Baby’s came about from boredom from quarantine, but we had also talked about cooking together for a while. We make Filipinx food that’s mostly inspired by Gabby’s upbringing but also what is seasonally available from some of the farmers we work with. We’re also conscious of wanting to cook food that is accessible to everyone, so we do take a lot of these recipes that use animal products like fish sauce or bagoong and find vegan substitutes. Our food isn’t traditional because we also bring influences from our love of American Chinese food, and other cuisines, but I like to think it stays true to the heart of the dishes.
G: Definitely some Filipinx and Ashkenazi Jewish food influence on our food. We like to make food that is also comforting. For me making food that I’ve been familiar with my whole life and then sharing it with other people who didn’t grow up with that kind of food, or maybe even did, gives me a sense of joy. It’s like I’m sharing a part of myself with the world in a way. Growing up, I felt as if I didn’t have a safe space to share my culture with other people living in a predominantly white neighborhood. Now, when people eat the food that I grew up with and enjoy it, it feels satisfying.
S: Sweet Angel Baby’s is also committed to challenging and changing the white supremacist and colonialist structures in the food system. The most obvious way we do this is providing mutual aid food drops with Supper Collective, but we are also trying to figure out what a food business model would be that values the labor of those involved.
Food pic from Sweet Angel Baby's menu
I think a lot of people know that chefs and tattoos often go hand in hand. Why do you think this is?
S: I think there are a few reasons for the chef tattoo connection. I’d say that up until the late 90s a lot of the labor force in kitchens were from what a lot of society would deem undesirable: ex-prisoners, veterans, musicians, and immigrants. A lot of these people had tattoos already and kind of created that image. With the rise of televised food media aka The Food Network, there came this huge explosion in the workforce of people who wanted to become cooks who would never have done so in the first place. This was happening at the same time as shows like Miami Ink popularized tattoos in America, and I think a lot of these new workers wanted to prove that they were tough, especially since most kitchens were and still aren’t the best work environments They’re outsiders. Being a cook is to be an outsider. You work a lot of hours at the opposite of most of society while providing their sustenance. The tattoos are kind of like a badge of honor. They can also serve as a signal to other cooks, and they also do something really practical: cover up burns.
G: Schuyler pretty much summed up a lot of what I was thinking. I also think the popularization of chefs and tattoos has to do with this patriarchal tough guy attitude that perpetuates this toxic mindset of “if you’re not in pain you’re not working hard enough” in the kitchen. Which to be frank, is bullshit. Not saying every chef is like that, but I’ve seen quite a few who see tattoos as a badge of honor in a way. It doesn’t have to be like that.
Gabby and other chefs at Cervo's in New York City
What have been your favorite tattoos or tattoo experiences?
S: My favorite tattoo is 100% the one I got from you Justine! I got the phrase DEATH IN FIRE in Gabby’s handwriting tattooed down my left forearm for my 28th birthday and we just had a great time, but also you really demonstrated that you don’t have to be driving a tattoo gun like a hammer into someone’s skin, like most tattoo artists do, especially cis-men. Like it’s some kind of macho thing, ya know? You did it so thoughtfully and delicately and it’s held up great.
G: My favorite tattoo is also one that you (Justine) gave me, which is a shrimp. It was probably one of the most comforting and least intimidating tattoo experiences I’ve ever had. Also so gentle. Another one of my favorite tattoo experiences is this one time one of my best friends and I stick and poked “soft” on our ribs from a song we both really loved in college. Turns out we got the lyrics wrong and “soft” wasn’t even in the song, but the sentimental value is still there.
Gabby of Sweet Angel Baby's
You’re both based in NY. What do you love about NY? Why is this the perfect place to be creative people cooking great food? What are your fave NYC spots?
S: I don’t know if New York is the perfect place but it is a great place to be involved with food, art, and music. I love that in NYC there’s a sense that everyone’s got everyone’s back somehow. Like, people think that Midwesterners are nice but I find them to be really rude because there’s a false sincerity to how they conduct themselves. Like you can’t ask for directions from random people in Chicago because they’ll walk away but you can ask here and some might tell ya to fuck off but they will tell you were to go.
I think its a great place to be doing food, and kind of everything else, because there is so much GOOD food, and such a diversity of it. It can be daunting at times but there’s always something new to inspire. Also because it’s such a major city, we have access to a lot of ingredients, especially since we cook Filipinx food, that might be harder to obtain elsewhere.
As far as favorite spots go, for food I have to shout out Wo-Hop, which is a 24-hour American Chinese diner and an absolute New York classic. It’s affordable and great to go and the portions are all family style so go in with a few friends and tear it up. I really recommend the egg roll, egg drop wonton soup, and the egg foo yung. Also make sure you ask for the hot mustard for yr egg roll. Other food spots worth checking out are: Lamb Noodle Soup, Wu’s Wonton King, Cervos, Minca, Superiority Burger, Oasis Williamsburg for falafel, and Scarr’s Pizza. Oh and shout-out to our neighborhood Chinese take-out spot in Ridgewood, Mr Chen’s, for making the best egg drop wonton soup. Also for things other than food, Material World for records and Thousand of Dead Gods for noise tapes, the Spectacle for always having $5 movies, and Greenwood cemetery for a casual graveyard stroll.
G: New York is definitely not perfect but it’s home. I was born here in the city and raised not too far from here. I knew I wanted to live here ever since I was younger. I love that many New Yorker’s attitudes are very matter-of-fact and don’t sugar coat things. Foodwise, New York is so diverse in different cuisines. I think that it’s a great place for cooks to go around and be inspired by the plethora of different foods around them. As far as some of my favorite spots in New York, alot of it will overlap with Schuyler being that we are partners and spend a lot of time eating together. Obviously, shout out to Wo Hop. I’ve been going there since I was a baby and have probably tried most things on the menu. Wu’s Wonton King will always have a special place in my heart and when I worked in Chinatown, I probably went there three times a week. It always feels like home when the server greets you and calls you “friend”. Tito Rad’s in Woodside is a great place to get some food while doing all your PhilAm grocery shopping. Their Dinuguan really hits the spot and makes me miss eating food with my mom who lives in Florida now. Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop is a really great place to get Jewish Delicatessen fare. I love going in for lunch and getting a sandwich and soup combo. The most satisfying combination in my opinion is the tuna melt and matzo ball soup.
Gabby of Sweet Angel Baby's
What are your future hopes for the pop-up and in general? Where do you see yourselves in the next year or so?
S: I’d like to see the pop-up expand to more locations throughout the city, because right now we do take-out from our apartment and set-up shop every once in a while at Sundown Bar. More importantly I want Sweet Angel Baby’s to continue to provide affordable food and also provide free meals via mutual aid. I’d like to see this coalesce into some kind of shop eventually, not so much a restaurant. I think restaurants are dying and need a major transformation to focus on feeding communities.
G: Yes, definitely doing more mutual aid work and continuing to nourish people who need food.
Schuyler of Sweet Angel Baby's
You’re stranded on a desert island and can only have one book, one toy, one movie, and one record. What do you choose?
S: Well I’m gonna assume I’ll be stuck here for a while so...Book: The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, Movie: Good Burger, Record: “Why Do the Heathen Rage” by The Soft Pink Truth, Toy: my acoustic guitar.
G: Book: Crossfire: A Litany for Survival by Staceyann Chin, Movie: In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai, Record: “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen, Toy: my mandolin (the instrument).
Any upcoming projects, events, life advice, future plans, or special insights you’d like to share?
S: Well, Gabby and I are getting married in a few months so we’re stoked on that. We’ll also be doing Sweet Angel Baby’s indefinitely so check us out on Instagram. Also I will shamelessly plug my antifascist black metal band BLACK BILE. Just dropped a new record in early August titled Damnation as Liberation, check it out. Oh, and BLACK LIVES MATTER. FTP ACAB.
G: Always measure your garlic with your heart. Black Lives Matter. Black Trans Lives Matter. ACAB.