03/27/2013 04:58 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

City Grit's Next Big Thing: Inside NYC's Culinary Salon (PHOTOS)

A crowd of diners gathered in clusters outside an old Catholic school on Prince Street last night, and one passing couple peeked inside to see what all the commotion was about. To an unsuspecting passerby, it might have looked like an antique garage sale: the deceptively large space was brimming with industrial tables, quirky chandeliers with custom light bulbs, tattered books lining vintage bookcases and funky trinkets decorating old desks. The space belongs to WRK Design, a handcrafted furniture shop, by day, and City Grit, a culinary salon, by night.

City Grit, founded by Sarah Simmons, hosts unique dinners a few nights a week with a rotating cast of chefs who try out dishes and bring New York diners -- ever on the hunt for new ways to enjoy great food -- a distinct experience. Food & Wine named founder and owner Sarah Simmons one of America's Greatest New Cooks in 2012, and it's easy to see why. Her food is inventive (bourbon-balsamic ice cream) and comes from the heart, driven by her southern roots and desire to share meals with friends and strangers alike. City Grit marries Simmons' desire "to create a different menu each night and give talented chefs the chance to come to New York and share their food." The salon has hosted chefs the likes of Danny Bowien, Andy Ricker and David Santos -- three of New York's hottest chefs at the moment -- and Simmons herself is often in the kitchen.

Simmons knows New York is the Mecca for aspiring chefs to climb the ranks. "For chefs, there's no credential like cooking in New York," the New York Times aptly put in a February article profiling City Grit. From supper clubs and pop-up restaurants to Kickstarter campaigns and crowd sourcing, the various routes chefs are taking to get their foot in the door and their food on the table are growing more creative by the day. Getting started as a chef in the increasingly competitive world of dining, especially in New York City, is no small task. Enter City Grit's Next Big Thing, a showcase for up-and-coming chefs.

City Grit will bring in three, rising chefs each Fall and Spring, and each chef will cook two or three dinners. "Our relationships within the chef community gives us the unique opportunity to get the inside scoop on who's up and coming from the executive chefs these rookies have been training under and cooking with. Some chefs have come to us and I've tracked some down on my own because I wanted them to cook with us so badly," Simmons explains.

Last night City Grit debuted their new series with chef Jonah Miller, who served up exquisite Spanish food, inspired by his travels in and love for Spain. A native New Yorker, Miller got his start as a 13-year-old in the kitchen of Chanterelle, which was, as he says, his cooking school. He has since worked at Gramercy Tavern, Savoy and most recently as the sous chef at Maialino, before returning to Spain -- where he had studied abroad -- to explore, eat and get inspiration for his soon-to-open first restaurant, Huertas. "Huertas translates to 'vegetable garden, patch or orchard' and is also the name of the street where I lived in Madrid (Calle de las Huertas)," says Miller. While Spanish cuisine has become increasingly popular in New York over the last few years, most New Yorkers' knowledge stops at "jamón, manchego and Rioja." Miller is excited to share the "depth and diversity of the Spanish table, with a focus on the northern-half of the country."

At last night's Next Big Thing dinner, Miller did just that, sharing with 80 lucky guests a sophisticated but straightforward menu based on key ingredients and dishes that Spain does best: Porrusalda, traditionally a Basque potato soup, which he served deconstructed with pureed potatoes, leeks and salted cod; Migas, chistorra, pipperade, poached egg and pork crumbs; Fabada, Asturian pork shoulder with chorizo, morcilla and beans; and finally a beautiful trio of spongy cake with almonds, butter, cream and chocolate. Dishes were colorful and delicate but retained a homey flavor and presentation. Garnishes were minimal but important, like a few leaves of flat leaf parsley that tied the dishes together. All night, the mood in the two, spacious dining rooms was relaxed and casual, but everyone was buzzing with a quiet excitement.

Like all City Grit dinners, last night's offered diners the intimate, singular culinary experience so many are looking for, and the Next Big Thing series will give them a taste of budding culinary talents. For chefs, the new series provides a chance to experiment with their menus and gain experience essentially running a restaurant for a few nights. It's also great exposure and gives chefs a space to "build their personal brands... and get in front of potential investors," says Simmons.

Chef Miller knows the value of that. "Traditionally, whether you were an immigrant or a fifth-generation New Yorker, the food industry allowed ambitious people with a little capital (often loans from friends and family) and a lot of hard work to open their open businesses. That's changing. The costs of opening are staggering and (despite years of discussing simplifying and streamlining the process) the city continues to place a lot of red tape in front of operators," Millers explains.

Low key and needlessly humble, Miller concluded the superb meal by asking diners to let him know what worked and what didn't. (Everything worked perfectly!) It's that kind of dialogue that City Grit brings to the table, and for chefs looking to rise up in the dining scene or open their own restaurant, it's a one-of-a-kind opportunity.

The next dinner in the Next Big Thing series will be on April 25 and will feature chef Greg Baxtrom (of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Alinea in Chicago, world-famous El Bulli in Spain, and most recently Per Se and Atera in New York).

City Grit's Next Big Thing