When she was a girl, Sarah Cannon loved helping out at her mother’s holiday parties; she had a zest for artistically plating the food. But she didn’t dream about become a chef, because, she muses, “Back then there wasn’t so much out there for us . . . for women, you know. I didn’t think of it as a possible career path.”
But (through a waitressing job in a French restaurant—which led to cooking tutelage by the owners, who sent her for three months’ training in a two-star restaurant in Vichy, France) she did become a chef. Indeed, she was the first female chef to be chosen by Sirio Maccioni to “cook on the line” at his famous restaurant, Le Cirque, in New York City.
Fortune smiled on that cooking line. There, Sarah (entre métier) met Bernard Bouissou (poissonnier) and they fell in love. They married in Bernard’s native France on Bastille Day, 1990. Ten years later, after Sarah had established a catering service in New York and Bernard had cooked Le Cigne, Tavern on the Green, and La Panetière, they bought a beautiful 1874 inn in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and opened Bernard’s restaurant and Sarah’s Wine Bar.
“When Bernard and I talked about our future,” Sarah says, “we wanted a restaurant in a wonderful town with a great community. We wanted a house on the property, because we were going to have a big family and we wanted to be able to do it all—not just be part of a restaurant, but be a part of the community, a part of what makes our town great.”
They got the house on the property and the restaurant, and they pretty much do it all. They have four grown daughters, all of them musical (violin, cello, guitar, voice); her girls’ love of music has added joy and purpose to Sarah’s world. And Sarah has jumped so spiritedly into the life of her community that Ridgefield’s Rotary Club (“Service Over Self”) just gave her its Citizen of the Year Award.
She’s game. She entered the town’s fund-raising spelling bee and made it to the top 5 (of 15). “I was totally nervous: Every time it was the person’s turn ahead of me, the butterflies started. I can’t remember the word I went out on; all I do remember is that I spelled one really hard word and I got it right, so I was happy!”
She dances (she joined a Ridgefield “Dancing with the Stars” competition, and liked it so much that she’s kept on dancing regularly). She bikes (in May, without the requisite training, she went on a 110-mile bike run, part of her interest in doing the triathlon “because I thought it would make my legs look good for dancing.”) She hosts—for 10 years, she’s held Ridgefield’s Youth Symphony Orchestra’s annual fund-raising garden party in her backyard, providing all the food and drink. (At this year’s party there were 400 guests in the backyard; they raised $30,000.)
And this year she entered “The Battle of the Chefs,” a fund-raiser for Founders Hall—a senior center in town. Now this was a challenge. “At all the other competitions, I was fine with not winning—I could live with not being the town’s best speller or not winning the dance competition,” she says. “But this one I wanted to win.” She was also determined to win because “This was the girls against the boys.” Sarah was to compete with two male chefs and their male assistants.
For her assistant she chose Michelle Greenberg, the sous-chef at Bernard’s. (The majority of the cooks at Bernard’s are women, Sarah says, chuckling, “because they’re a bit more consistent, and they can do more than one thing at once.”)
Here was their task: To open a mystery basket containing four items. In 40 minutes, using additional ingredients from a food pantry, they must produce (and attractively plate) an impressive dish for 4 judges and 12 tasters.
The butterflies in Sarah’s stomach went away as soon as the buzzer sounded. “The stressful part was not knowing,” she says. The basket contained bison, elderflower liqueur, bulgur wheat, and sea beans. Sarah and Michelle got to work, using a prearranged strategy: “You butcher the protein and get the sauce going, I’ll do the vegetables and the garnish.” In 40 minutes, they had produced a “duo plate”: pepper-and-herb-crusted bison over bulgur wheat risotto with asparagus and red wine sauce, plus grilled bison served over sea beans with an elderflower/butter reduction and arugula. (Bernard’s often offers duo-plate dishes.) “We figured that if we did twice the work, we’d win,” Sarah says.
They won. The engraved copper Sabayon bowl sits atop the piano in the dining room at Bernard’s.
Music brings Sarah particular pleasure. The family’s zeal started with oldest daughter Gabrielle’s desire, in third grade, to play the violin. “I realize how much joy that has brought to our lives,” Sarah says “—the music of them practicing in the house, and their concerts, and now they’re all so accomplished—it’s awesome.
“It was really Gabrielle who brought music to our home, and I started supporting young musicians because the schools were stopping string programs, and that’s what has enhanced my children’s life and my life. It would be a shame for that not to continue, so that’s where I’ve put a lot of my efforts.” (Another of her supportive efforts is to spotlight a teenage classical musician on the first Sunday of every month; he or she is paid to dress up and play two hours of music during Bernard’s very popular Sunday Brunch (Connecticut Magazine includes Bernard’s in its 2013 Best Brunch in Connecticut category).
How does she do all this while running the “front of the house” at Bernard’s; running the wine-bar bistro; and scheduling authors’ luncheons, a Jazz Masters series, Bernard’s Cooking School, and wine-tasting dinners?
“I find that the more engaged I am, the more I’m giving, it’s the best for me,” she says. “It goes back to feeding your soul.
“When we first opened and the kids were young and demanded more time—violin lessons three towns over, cello lessons two towns over—a friend asked, ‘What’s the worst that could happen if you took the kids to a music camp and your staff could get along without you?’
“I realized, ‘That’s fine, because I taught them to get along without me.’ And being at the camp, listening to the music, would bring so much to me that I’d able to come back much fresher. All these different things I do feed me, so I’m then able to feed everyone else.”