Cooking with Dimes
Words: Sam Wittwer
Images: Maggie Shannon
August 19 2016
Before arriving at the apartment of Dimes co-founder Sabrina de Sousa, where I’d be chatting with her and her business partner Alissa Wagner over lunch, I expected I would be waxing poetic about the appetizing scents lingering in the hall just outside her apartment door. Dimes, the endlessly raved about Chinatown restaurant that has made Sabrina and Alissa as famous as the who’s who of New York’s creative class that dine at the eatery on a regular basis, is known for its scrumptious and healthful dishes. While good food was on the horizon, what hit me as I crossed the threshold was a sense of déjà vu.
Just a few blocks east of Dimes, Sabrina’s home feels like a secret back room of their popular Chinatown restaurant – one where tabletops have become art and chairs from the café intermingle with pieces from Enzo Mari. For lunch, Alissa assembles a deceptively simple salad of pickled red onion, feta and sweet fresh peaches while Sabrina grabs a bottle of chilled Cabernet Franc to complement. Mars, the resident pup, watches over us with the wide smile of a dog who has spent the morning socializing at the dog park. The scene is characteristic of what more than one article has described as ‘Californian’ – a term applied as a coded way of saying ‘they use a lot of avocados.’ There is something to this of course, as avocados are featured prominently on their menu (as they should on most menus, I believe), but Dimes’ approach to health and wellbeing extends far beyond the contents of the plate. Health, the Dimes way, is fueled not just by delicious food, but by art, music and a laugh with friends.
Thanks for having us. You might be a bit tired of talking about it at this point, but I’d love to hear how you two met.
A: Well, we’ve been friends for a really long time
S: About 12 years now.
A: Yeah – it’s been a while. We met working in a restaurant years ago and at one point she (Sabrina) started talking about starting on a project herself.
S: More like a Juice Bar.
A: And I had just graduated from culinary school and offered to help on the food portion of it. We got to talking and the idea just grew and grew. It went from being a sort of juice bar to something more fleshed out. We wanted to offer food along with it. We just knew there was a void for that in the city – just simple, healthy food.
Was there a particular place you had in mind when you were narrowing in on the idea for Dimes?
A: For me, it was just things that I personally liked to eat. The places that I had worked didn’t really represent that. We just felt there wasn’t a place in New York that really had done it – creating simple, good food that wasn’t over the top or too expensive. We always thought of ourselves being really similar to Whole Foods.
S: Like the salad bar. We always used to grab our lunches from there.
A: The culinary school that I went to is called the Natural Gourmet Institute, my education was really focused on healthy foods, lots of greens and things.
S: That’s what we really wanted to do – just make a healthy bowl of good food.
Dimes' Shallot Vinaigrette
Chef Alissa Wagner gives us the recipe for a simple shallot vinaigrette to complement a salad of fresh, seasonal ingredients.
4 Shallots, roughly chopped
2 Garlic cloves
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 cup Lemon juice
1 cup White wine vinegar
2 cups Canola Oil
2 cups Olive Oil
Kosher salt to taste
1. Blend shallots, garlic, Dijon, lemon juice, and vinegar in bowl.
2. Slowly add oil to emulsify
In addition to being a place where people can grab a bite to eat, Dimes has really become a sort of community. People come and hang out and bring friends, it’s a very familial atmosphere. Is that something you sought to do from the onset, or was it just a side effect of the way you did business?
S: When we first opened we were in such a tiny little space, we thought ‘at least our friends will come.’ So it really was about community from the beginning. We were always there and it became like this hub for our friends. It really transcended being just a restaurant quickly. It was kind of amazing to see because we had both lived in this neighborhood for almost eight years when we opened the restaurant, and it was only then that people really came out of the woodwork.
It was always like ‘Oh, you live here too?” It became our own personal Peach Pit.
Were you living together at the time?
S: We lived a block apart.
A: I was a block east, and Sabrina was right across the street from Dimes. That’s how we found the original location, right there in the middle.
So what was it that brought you here – to both Chinatown and New York more generally?
S: I grew up in Jersey – in Newark.
A: And I grew up in New Jersey too – I’ve been in New York for about 15 years now.
S: And Chinatown, honestly it was the cheap rent.
A: Not Anymore.
S: Also I loved the idea that you could feel somewhat anonymous in this neighborhood. Not too much anymore, but just eight years ago you could really disappear here. It was really something special. There’s something about it that reminds me of where I grew up. It’s also just got a really great, quiet neighborhood beat. You feel like you’re in a small village within the city.
There is a very specific culture here, the kind that you get an immediate sense of when you arrive, and a lot of that is due to the food.
A: Yeah – when we first got here though there just weren’t options for the specific sort of thing we were looking for.
S: The neighborhood was really different when we first opened – at that point it was really just Bacaro, no one else really. A lot of people just hadn’t moved into the neighborhood yet.
There is also kind of a community just outside of Dimes, in your orbit.
A: Yeah, we’re friends with a lot of the people who run restaurants around here – Angela at Mission Chinese, Scarr’s. Kama over at Bacaro pointed out to me that it’s a lot of women, in comparison to the larger restaurant community, which is kind of rare.
S: It’s honestly bohemian in a way – if that implies anything. It’s a young energy.
Did you come from a ‘food family’?
A: Mine didn’t cook. I mean, they cooked – but it was very meat and potatoes. I sort of ‘discovered’ food on my own.
Were you the kind of kid who just took over the family kitchen?
A: I always worked in restaurants. My first job as a teenager was in the food industry; I worked at a bagel shop as a grill cook. I feel like I was just always around food and as I got older I developed an appreciation for it. I fine-tuned it and developed an appreciation for the wellness end of things.
Anyway – a bit closer to home – what’s the split of responsibility between the two of you?
A: I’m the chef, I’m in charge of kitchen and catering. Sabrina handles all the finance and marketing.
How does that dynamic work for you?
A: Of course there is crossover, but it’s good to have cover. We have solidified roles within the company, but there’s always stuff we can share.
S: Especially in the beginning when everything feels new and there is so much to do.
A: Like divide and conquer.
Did you have a very set in stone plan or goals when you started the company?
S: Most of it was just like ‘Oh, I think we need to do this.’
A: Organic – we’ve always just wanted to have fun and not take it too seriously. But now we’ve sort of created our own formula which…
S: Kind of has its own momentum. It became something it wasn’t originally intended to be, but we didn’t have a roadmap or anything when we started. We had a vision of how we wanted things to be, but a lot of it was just knowing what we had to do when it came to it.
A: Just an organic place, figuring out what is happening.
It seems like you two just let your instincts tell you what the restaurant needed instead of following a guidebook, and that turned out well for you.
S: It’s kind of funny when people just leave it there, at the basics. Like with the marketing in most restaurants it’s usually only about the food. But honestly, sometimes it’s important to convey other elements about the experience. It’s the music, the energy – the things that make the environment good and inspiring. It’s important to weave that into the way you present yourself, and as long as the food is good, people will be accepting of that. •