Sandee Birdsong: Tantra Executive Chef and Reality TV Star
The stereotype we see of top-tier chefs - and not just the one’s featured on TV but even those we hear horror stories about from our line-cook friends - are of egotistical headcases who fly off the handle and enjoy insulting their staff. Maybe even tossing the occasional pot around for dramatic effect. And while all stereotypes are based in some sort of truth, such is definitely not the case for Sandee Birdsong, executive chef at Tantra and prominent contestant on this year’s installment of “Top Chef.” (Wednesday, 8PM, Bravo)
Even though she is now a culinary-reality celebrity, Sandee did not start out even thinking about working in restaurants. Her original degree was in Accounting and Business management which, while certainly useful knowledge in her field, is not exactly the training one would imagine for the executive chef in one of South Beach’s trendiest spots. Though she was successful in a variety of businesses I thought at first it would be difficult to incorporate, but I realized that Tantra demands bold flavors and big plates and has a lot in common with Southern cuisine. Not some little delicate thing that leaves you wanting more. It’s all about making sure every bite has lots of flavor, so it’s kind of like gourmet comfort food. I use lots of butter but I use the best butter, you know?
What are your favorite foods to work with?
Right now I’m enjoying goat cheese, I love every kind of cheese imaginable. But what I really enjoy is that progression from sweet to savory. I was working with chocolate for a while and doing the same thing. I enjoy trying different ingredients in ways they’re not used to, that’s really how you get to learn about them.
Have you had any mentors or role models?
Really I am self taught. I like the philosophy of Charlie Trotter. He works with the best products and selects each of his purveyors individually. That to me is an inspiration. Chef’s who impress me are the ones who buy local and organic products and really understand each ingredient. Organic farmers and individuals developing sustainable products are very encouraging. I buy stuff from local farmers whenever I have a chance.
AT THE FOREFRONT OF A FOOD BOOMTOWN
Her aforementioned blending of Southern and Gourmet food is part of what makes eating at Tantra a different experience from others you would get in Miami. Raised in St. Simon’s Islands in Georgia, Sandee has a telltale southern drawl that lets you know that she probably didn’t grow up in South Florida. So in addition to giving her a unique background among Miami chefs, it also gives her a perspective on how Miami stacks up to other cities around America and the world.
What do you like about South Beach and the restaurant culture here in general?
Now South Beach is starting to develop an array of restaurants, great chefs and a variety of culinary expertise and palates. It used to be if you came to Miami you would expect this wonderful Cuban-American or Latin influence in the restaurants, but now South Beach, and Miami as a whole really, is becoming a “foodie” town. People don’t want to eat the same thing every night and now, whether you go to South Beach or Miami, North Miami, Design District, wherever, you’ve got great restaurants.
How do you think we compare to the rest of the country?
If I were the mayor of a city, I would create a dynamic food environment, because everything really revolves around that. In Las Vegas, they dove right and in Miami we’re on a fast roll. It’s turning into a great food town, especially in the last three years. It has really exploded. We’re not set up like New York, where every block you have every kind of food you want. And we’re not packed in like that either. Also, everyone in Miami doesn’t eat out every night. It’s more like Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, or LA. You have great food spread out throughout the city.
What is so unique about being a chef in Miami?
Being a chef here is different, you have this sort of star quality. There is also a real fresh flavor, a sort of tropical flare to it. You can feel the sunshine here. You’re not just a chef, you’re a chef in Miami. It adds something to your flare.
FROM LINE COOK TO TV STAR
It was this flare, and possibly her locale, that landed Sandee on Top Chef Season 3: Miami. Perhaps it is because Sandee takes pride in her work without taking herself too seriously. Or perhaps it is because this self-taught chef worked her way up from line cook to executive chef, learning her craft hands-on instead of in a classroom. Or possibly it is just her pleasant demeanor and outgoing personality that make her a breath of fresh air in an environment usually filled with smoke, grease and ego. No matter what the reason, Sandee Birdsong is tailor-made for reality TV. From her trademark Mohawk to her accent revealing her southern roots, she is a multi-faceted person who may give off one impression but is, in fact, quite different than one would believe.
You have a very unique hairstyle. Where did that come from?
My whole life I wanted to shave my head, but my mom was always telling me “No, you can’t do that. You have scars on your head and you’ll look terrible.” So that was mostly just her telling me I couldn’t do it. When I moved out to LA, I shaved my head and kept it like that when I moved back. Then one night, I was going to this event and I kept one strip of hair in the middle as a joke. As it happened, everyone including my boss loved it. So it stuck.
How do people view you with such an unusual style?
Very few women in Miami at the time had shaved heads so it was very cutting edge. But I don’t like hair in the kitchen and now you see lots of chefs with shaved heads, fauxhawks and Mohawks. People see me and think I’m harder than I am so my personality surprises people. I’m also of a Cherokee Indian Bloodline and my Mohawk portrays my heritage.
Is that where your name comes from?
My mothers side of the family is Cherokee and my father is actually from French Pirate decent. So I’m part Cherokee and part French Pirate. Where my pride and rebellion comes from.
Are you pleased with the way the show has portrayed you so far?
I am totally pleased with how I’ve been portrayed. I am dynamic, personable, and charismatic and they knew that. So I have gotten a lot of airtime and a lot of publicity.
Were you concerned they might make you out in a light other than what you actually are?
You’re always worrying how much you’re going to be profiled in a positive light. When you have a mike on your back and a light in your face 24/7 you have to stay on top of your game. You can’t screw up and look like an idiot and that was the scariest part. Sometimes they portray things like you thought they happened and sometimes they don’t. But that’s TV. That’s reality TV.
Is it really as cutthroat and competitive as it seems?
Everyone is real confident, so at first everyone is really nice. Like “Oh, I’m not in competition with you, I’m in competition with myself and it doesn’t matter what you do.” And that’s always been how I operate. As the show progressed, though, it is beat into your head that, yeah, it’s a competition and tempers flare. Especially in that type of environment where control is taken away from you. Chefs are all control freaks, and when you take that away it’s stressful. This isn’t reality TV like Survivor where “Hey, I’m competing for a million dollars” or whatever. We’re competing in our career. You have to make sure you are on top of your game all the times and there’s no room to screw up.
How has the show changed your life?
Personally, it hasn’t changed it at all. I love my free time and how I spend it and that’s not ever going to change. Professionally, I’ve been presented with a lot of opportunities already and a lot of people are approaching me about different things. Even yesterday I was walking around Aventura Mall and had people coming up to me for over an hour. They tell you to expect it but you don’t really believe that until it happens. And, of course, old friends and coworkers start calling you to say hello and they saw me on TV.
Do you have any other projects you are working on right now?
I’m working on a few other projects. Healthier meal alternatives for kids in school is a big one. Right now we have vending machines in schools with sugars and trans fats in everything. If we continue to go that route we’re just going to get more obese and more cancer-ridden, so I’m working on a project to bring this to the forefront of primary schools. I want to get that age group to understand what eating right can do for them. There are a lot of kids on medications that they would not normally be on if they ate properly. But they have to know what to stay away from.
If Sandee Birdsong can parlay her pseudo-celebrity into reducing obesity among children, then perhaps reality TV does in fact have some redeeming qualities. Though there are many who would assume a female working in a male-dominated field, especially a female with a Mohawk, would have to be twice as tough as the guys, Sandee has taken a different approach. A marked departure from the cooking Nazis of “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Gordon Ramsay’s F Word,” she says that she has a way with her guys and her girls, and that kitchens run by women are honestly, better. “Male chefs, they get these huge egos and start screaming all the time. With women, it runs almost opposite.” So perhaps the kinder, gentler celebrity chef will be the new trend in reality cooking. And Sandee Birdsong, as she has been with her hair and her cuisine, will be on the cutting edge once again.
Above: Sandee Birdsong, executive chef at Tantra and prominent contestant on “Top Chef Season 3: Miami” (Wednesday, 8PM, Bravo). Looking for show updates? Read our coverage about Top Chef 3: Miami.
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