Five-time nominee for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast, Cassie Piuma grew up devouring things like spanakopita, orzo and basically anything with lamb, feta and olives. She would indulge in baklava, made by her mother, who ran a small catering business out of their Duxbury, Massachusetts, home. Half her family is Greek.
Since 2013, Piuma has been running her own food venture as the chef and owner of Sarma, a restaurant and bar in Somerville specializing in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern-inspired fare, served meze-style, an affectionate nod to her upbringing.
This, she says, has always been her dream.
Piuma’s early exposure to diverse culinary foods came from her mother’s full-time job as a flight attendant (and with it, the travel perks) and her parents’ appreciation for international cuisine.
“One of my earliest food memories is my sister and I sharing a plate of escargot,” she says. “She would eat the snails, and I would swoop in with a crusty baguette, soaking up the pools of garlic butter.”
But, being a chef wasn’t always in Piuma’s playbook. At first, she considered medical school. Her love of food, sweetly wrapped in childhood memories, heritage and family, remained on the back burner until she came face-to-face with the prospect of becoming a doctor.
“‘What is it that you really like?’” She says her mom asked her one day as she grappled with the future of her medical career. Piuma responded intuitively. “Food was the first thing that popped into my mind.”
Following her gut, she enrolled in culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island at age 18.
Piuma jokes that she barely knew how to hold a knife and her cooking skills were limited to tomato bruschetta with Italian dressing. A rather rude but necessary awakening awaited Piuma when, with help from a family friend, she scored a kitchen gig at one of Boston’s most popular restaurants, Top of the Hub, the summer before starting culinary school.
“The learning curve was significant … and I made a ton of mistakes,” she says. Although Piuma can laugh about it now, she recalls one dire situation when she disastrously mixed up 50 pounds of pork (at $3.99 per pound) with 50 pounds of milk-fed veal (at $18.99 per pound).
“But, I was smitten with it all. Not just the food, but the people and the culture,” she says. “It was a whole new world, and I felt like I found my place.”
Earlier in her culinary career, Piuma worked cooking jobs at restaurants such as Al Forno in Providence, and Sel de la Terre and The Butcher Shop in Boston.
What really catapulted her career, though, was her decade-plus time spent working at Ana Sortun’s Middle Eastern restaurant, Oleana, alongside Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick. Piuma ascended through the ranks at Oleana, from line cook to sous chef, and then eventually to Chef de Cuisine.
Sortun has become one of her biggest mentors.
“Ana is such a force. She really went out on a limb for me, and it was that trust and confidence that gave me strength and propelled me forward,” says Piuma. “Her support and sacrifices played a pivotal role in my success.”
In the fall of 2013, Piuma opened Sarma, with her husband and Sortun as partners. The smells, flavors and memories of her childhood partly inspired the business, as well as years of research and travel.
“Before we had kids, my husband and I spent every dollar and free moment we had exploring new places,” says Piuma. Some of those places included Turkey and Lebanon, where many of Sarma’s recipes pay homage.
“The food there has so much heart and history,” she says. “Many of the recipes we use today are rooted in tradition and tell a story of love, loss and culture.”
Although certainly inspired by authentic international cuisine, Sarma casts a modern spin on its dishes.
For example, lamb sliders “marries the all-American burger with one of the most well known dishes in northwestern Turkey, the İskender kebab,” says Piuma. Sarma serves the İskender kebab-style lamb, slathered with hot tomato sauce, butter and yogurt, on a house-made pita bun with hot peppers, pickles and sumac onions.
“It’s a fun and modern perspective that really represents what we do,” Piuma says. “And it literally transports me every time.”
Over the past six years, Piuma and her team have continued to develop the restaurant business at Sarma by growing the menu and staff, while staying true to their identity and brand.
The patrons too, have evolved alongside the restaurant. “When we first opened we had a tough time getting people to understand the concept of meze and sharing small plates.” With words like “hummus,” “tabbouleh” and “baba ganouj” now mainstream, Piuma says, “People just get it.”
Piuma has learned important lessons along the way about what it takes to make it. “Find a mentor who embodies characteristics you admire and surround yourself with the most intelligent people you know,” she shares.
“You need to have a thick skin, a solid support system and a relentless work ethic,” says Piuma, if you want to be successful in the food business. “Be the last one standing when everyone else has given up.”