Chef Daniel Sabia Loves Playing With Fire
The Yorktown chef talks about his life, cooking, and his mouth-watering new venture, Wood Fire Food.
Photos by Matthew Mancuso
It’s 10 a.m., and Daniel Sabia is already busy cooking on a huge two-level grill laden with a colorful assortment of charred peppers and tomatoes, above a stone firepit. He’s in his parents’ leafy backyard in Yorktown Heights on a cloudless fall day. Sabia, who has a tattoo of a knife and fork on his arm, is preserving.
He is making pilacca, a Southern Italian hot sauce that he uses as a base for marinades and sauces, as he waits on an apple delivery so that he can make a smoked apple cocktail syrup for his winter events. This is something Sabia does at the end of every season, and it is his idea of a day off. He calls it his way of meditating.
Sabia admits this style of cooking takes a lot of patience. “When I worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten [The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges, among others], I had to pick seeds out of strawberries for two weeks straight to make purées. I understand that things take time, which is why I can sit here and be patient.”
Chef Daniel Sabia’s Wood Fire Food concept takes dining outdoors, with live, wood-fired-pit-and-grill cooking (above) and long, communal tables, often set in farm pastures and fields (below).
He cooks using simple ingredients. “There is a lot of integrity, finesse, and skill in simple cooking; you just have to dedicate the time to do it,” explains Sabia. “The jar might just say ‘smoked-tomato vinegar,’ but the process to make it takes 365 days.”
At 32, Sabia has an impressive résumé, having worked for big-name chefs (including Mario Batali and Andy Nusser) at some of New York’s top restaurants. Born and raised in Yorktown Heights (where he still resides), he grew up in what he describes as a “very old-world” household. His mother is Spanish; his father is Sicilian. He was an avid skateboarder and played the drums in various bands, but his interest in cooking started young.
When Sabia was 11, he woke up his parents one morning to have them witness the several different dishes he made out of two dozen eggs. Sabia stepped into his first kitchen, Turco’s, in Yorktown, at age 14. Not one to enjoy sitting still and studying, he barely made it through high school and only lasted four months in college. When he was 18, while working as cook for Starwood Hotels, he met Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the first professional chef whom he really looked up to.
Four months later, he was working for Vongerichten, first at Jean-George in NYC, then Spice Market, then Jean-Georges Steakhouse in Washington, DC. Sabia moved back to New York and worked at the now-extinct Tarry Lodge in Port Chester for Mario Batali and Andy Nusser. He credits Nusser as one of his biggest influences. “Every day was just highs and lows of riding an emotional wave, but I learned so much,” shares Sabia. “[Nusser] taught me that it’s not what’s on the plate; it’s what you didn’t put on the plate that matters most,” since less is more, he explains.
Sabia’s public dinner parties incorporate the three things he loves most: open-fire cooking, art and design, and community.
It was Sabia’s next job, at age 23, under Chef Jeremy McMillan at the Bedford Post Inn, that he says changed him the most. Sabia was there for seven years, going from making salads to essentially running the entire property. To Sabia, it felt like home, and it was here he cooked outside properly for the first time. “We had an entire outdoor kitchen, and I made it my own,” he says.
Fed up with spending 80 to 90 hours a week in one kitchen, Sabia took a year off but quickly grew bored. He moved to Connecticut, to run Jesup Hall for Bill Taibe. Then came his epiphany that, wanting more room to create and grow, he couldn’t work for someone else, so he needed to go it alone. He left a four-year relationship, in addition to his job and the house he was living in, and soon after, Wood Fire Food was born. That was a little more than a year ago.
His new venture turns the tables on traditional restaurant dining, taking it outside, and not just outside, but into the fields. Sabia’s public dinner parties incorporate the three things he loves most: open-fire cooking, art and design, and community. They cater to an increasing demand for experience-led dining that is also educational. Sabia brings together local farmers, distilleries, wineries, breweries, and even artisans.
He cooks over live fires on up to 10 pieces of equipment (depending on the event) that together are about 40 yards long. Guests can talk to the cook or the farmer and learn about what they’re eating. Sabia describes his dinners as beautifully refined but primal and rustic. “It’s all about the experience, the atmosphere, and the story behind it all,” he says.
Sabia is a fan of smoked foods, like this smoked-mushroom vinegar.
The first dinner was at The Hickories, a 100-acre organic farm in Ridgefield, but Wood Fire Food’s events have taken place in locales stretching from Long Island to the Berkshires and into Vermont. Locally, he's held events at spots including HudCo in Dobbs Ferry and Salinger’s Orchard in North Salem. The events range from 50 to 370 people and attract everyone from local residents to young food influencers from New York City.
According to his friend Matt Mancuso, who also photographs the events, Sabia is honest, funny, and tells it like it is. “He plays it cool under pressure and is a great entertainer,” Mancuso says. “There is something about a fire that makes people gather around it, and he puts it into a multisensory dining experience. He’s hanging whole animals or fillets of fish over a fire for hours, and people want to be a part of it.”
“It’s all about the experience, the atmosphere, and the story behind it all.”
Sabia is constantly pushing himself and will soon be selling olives that he is jarring himself and opening a wood-fired sandwich place in Montrose. But when the toque finally does come off, Sabia can be found crafting cutting boards and countertops at Makers Central, his woodwork shop in Tarrytown, or helping his parents with a new recipe for the wine that they make.
Sabia, who says he wants to retire at 50, is surprised how Wood Fire Food has taken off. “It’s been a surreal experience to wake up every day and be happy,” he says. “I still do what I love, but don’t have to do it for anybody else, and don’t have to work that many hours, so I get to spend time with family and friends.”
Janine Clements is a freelance writer from the U.K. She lived on four different continents before deciding to make Westchester her home. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel and hang out with her family.