Amy March is a force of nature. She has a great big smile, seemingly unending energy, and a deep and abiding love for real food. When she opened The Steeping Room several years ago, she wanted to create a menu where no one got “consolation food.” Now with two locations in Austin, her tea houses are a delight to vegetarians, and omnivores alike, offering healthy-but-decadent options for everyone (including tea time treats for those avoiding gluten). We sat down with her last week to talk about what keeps her inspired and cooking.
Tell us a little about the journey that led to The Steeping Room.
I had a holistic health practice in NYC for 14 years, working with people with chronic illnesses and injuries. I worked with them with Eastern and Western body work techniques, diet, and lifestyle choices. I helped some of my clients learn to cook and make gradual changes that would lead to larger wellness shifts. A little over 10 years ago, I moved to Austin to take a break from NYC and to be with my partner Emily, but being the “tasky” New Yorker that I am, I started to look at what I could do here. I thought of starting a new health practice here and training people to work with me, but I was having some health struggles myself that made me take some time out from more physical work. Emily has an academic background and, like many good academics, she had spent much of her working life in the restaurant industry as a server and manager. Here in Austin, I noticed a real interest in the tea culture that I was used to in NYC, and I started bouncing ideas off of her. I had grown up in a whole food-focused, gourmet, tea-drinking family. (My inheritance from both of my grandmothers were tea sets.) I had lived in London for a year, traveled extensively in Nepal and India, and had studied Chinese Herbal Medicine and Chinese teas in NYC. We started brainstorming, researching, traveling, and writing and three years later, we birthed the first location of The Steeping Room.
Why make food for a living?
I have cooked my whole life. Everyone in my family cooked. People urged both my mother and her mother before to open restaurants–to which they replied that they were not crazy. I guess, then, that I’m third generation crazy. I started by doing catering work, and teaching people to cook, and then, ultimately, wound up working for a friend’s cafe when I moved to Austin. Then I jumped right into running the kitchen of The Steeping Room for several years until my hands became too full, and I had to let my loyal co-workers and friends, Hunter Cohen and Heather Brannan, lift some of that burden. I now say that I work for the kitchen. I handle most of the catering, do a lot of ordering, work with my team to do recipe development and jump on the line whenever I’m needed.
Tea is an amazing beverage. The chemistry is both uplifting and relaxing so you can be communicative and alert. Tea is like wine. The variety of flavor profiles is always unfolding. We tasted over 1,000 teas to select our opening list of 80. We still taste hundreds of teas a year and keep a list of about 130 teas at any one time.
What does a “day in the life” look like for you?
I wake up between 4 am – 5am. I drink a bunch of water and try to get in an hour or two of computer work if I can. I then make myself a greens, nut, and protein smoothie and head out the door. It really depends on the day to what I am doing first–it could be checking inventory and orders, getting a catering order started, or meeting with one of the teams to troubleshoot any issues. I spend a lot of time interacting with customers, answering questions, etc. I try to go to both locations each day. These days I spend more of my time at N Lamar, as we moved our bakery and catering there, and I have a tiny desk next to the water filtration system…. 😉
Emily spends more of her time at The Domain location now. We are a busy but a small operation so we are really hands-on. One of us is usually in the mix every day at one of the locations. When times and staffing are good, we try to get home in the evening in time to make dinner. We are Farmhouse Delivery subscribers, so we always have a stash good items ready to go. Emily has recently started to cook more, which has been such a joy for me as we have gone through years where I could barely stand to be in our home kitchen, let alone cook a meal after a 12 – 14 hour day in the TSR kitchen. I go up and down with exercise and recreation. I often let the business come first to my detriment. For several years, I was working so many hours that I didn’t get to bed until late, but now we pretty much hold the line. Unless I am working the line for dinner service I am in bed by 9 am. Glamorous!
What is most rewarding about your job?
Hands down: the people. Both our customers that I get to know and the people that I work with. I have had the opportunity to mentor many wonderful people through the years and I really value that connection.
Your earliest cooking or food memory:
Standing on a stool in our kitchen in St. Croix as my mom sliced a roast, walking between rows of pineapples, brewing mango tea next to the laundry sink, and delivering eggs around the island with my father in our VW van. (My parents had an egg farm in St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands when I was little.)
Where do you get culinary inspiration?
My family, traveling, eating other people’s food, and reading. I have been lucky to eat wonderful food my whole life.
If you could pass on one kitchen trick or technique to our readers, what would it be?
Keep your knives sharp, hone them before use, never use a glass cutting board.
Your favorite cookbook: I
have a big collection that I seem to never have time to read, but I love Jerusalem by Yotal Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I love it for the story of how these two met and became friends, and for the inclusive nature of the book in representing their business. If I could do anything I wanted, I would probably have a food concept more oriented in the fashion of theirs, but this is my niche for now.
What’s your favorite tea these days?
I’m loving Emerald Pearl and Curled Dragon right now, but picking a favorite tea is like trying to pick a favorite child. Not fair!
What do you cook when you’re tired and hungry?
Sauteed greens, either roasted sweet potato or a cauliflower concoction of some sort, along with either a selection from my Farmhouse meat bundle or a bean-based dish for protein. I was a vegetarian for many years, so I fluctuate on the meat front. I eat a lot of beans and nuts for sustenance with veggies.