Meet Cassie Piuma
Chef and owner of Sarma
Cassie, a native of Duxbury, Massachusetts, graduated from Johnson & Wales University where she met her husband and now business partner, Matthew Piuma. She honed her culinary skills at the acclaimed Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island, and then moved back to Boston in 2002, where she worked at the French bistro, Sel de la Terre, and as a sausage maker for Barbara Lynch at the Butcher Shop. She spent the next 11 years with James Beard Award-winning chef Ana Sortun at Oleana, learning the nuances of Middle Eastern cooking and working her way up the ranks. In 2013, Cassie opened her dream restaurant, Sarma, in Somerville where she cooks her version of modern Middle Eastern meze in a casual, upbeat, neighborhood setting. She was a James Beard Nominee for Best Chef: Northeast in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020.
Q: What was your first job in the restaurant industry?
A: My first job in the restaurant industry was at the (recently closed) Top of the Hub. My mom was a flight attendant and worked with the wife of the GM, who kindly gave me a break. I was 17 years old and could barely hold a knife but the guys in the kitchen took me under their wing and (for better or worse) schooled the s*** out of me.
Q: What made you want to open your own restaurant? Does that still drive you?
A: I like to be in control of my creative choices and find confidence and clarity through independence. My path to opening a restaurant has always been fueled by my desire for artistic autonomy. But also, my love of the process. Running a successful restaurant is a culmination of so many tiny details and moving pieces. I’ve always found the miraculous way it all comes together energizing. Still do.
Q: How have you been keeping your team motivated through this difficult, unprecedented time?
A: We put in the work. Never closed, kept moving, constantly reinvented, tirelessly showed up. It was challenging, but so important to fight for each other and our community. The motivation was simply not to give up. We also added an administrative fee to all of our dine-in checks that was equally distributed amongst our staff to help them cope with the physical, emotional, and financial challenges of COVID. Money can’t heal the pain we were all feeling, but I believe it gave folks some peace of mind so they could invest their energy in more important places.
Q: What does it mean to you to be a woman in this industry?
A: I’ve always operated with intention and encourage others to do the same. Work for the best, learn from the best, be the best version of yourself and most importantly, surround yourself with the best people. My experiences in the kitchen have been positive and I wish to continue these practices where hard work, skill and commitment are rewarded and respected.
Q: In terms of female representation, what changes, if any, would you like to see in the industry in the next ten years?
A: Our industry needs to drive a deeper dialogue concerning women who wish to have families and make space for the necessary care. It’s a challenging environment that few are able to navigate, especially in managerial positions and one of the leading causes of industry flight. The new family leave act is a huge win, but there needs to be more assistance with regards to long term childcare.
Q: Do you cook at home often? If so, what’s been your favorite meal to cook during quarantine?
A: I cook for my kiddos (4 and 5 years old) whenever I’m home at night and try to get them excited about new things, especially vegetables and spices. A recent meal had them eating spicy Mexican braised beef with raw spinach leaves, radishes, cucumber, and lime. Tiny lettuce wraps for tiny fingers! As far as I’m concerned, any home cooked meal is a good meal, especially when it involves fresh ingredients and a single pan. My most requested dish (is) chicken avgolemono (Greek egg and lemon soup).
Q: How do you envision the last year might shift how restaurants are operated, or the industry as a whole, going forward?
A: It’s become painfully obvious how vulnerable we are as an industry and I think moving forward restaurant owners will find more sustainable models to safeguard their businesses and employees. Creativity and adaptation has been paramount in our survival this year and I suspect a lot of the ideas we played around with (take out, ghost kitchens, patios, neighborhood drops, subscriptions) will find a permanent home in the future landscape.
Q: What does your restaurant model look like these days in terms of what you’re offering, how you’ve shifted, and how patrons can support you?
A: We went from an a la carte menu with over 40 small plates to a tasting menu only restaurant, Thursday through Sunday. We offer an extensive take away menu seven days a week and serve breakfast Saturday and Sunday mornings. Most notably, we built an outdoor patio in our parking lot (which reopened March 29, 2021).