Twig by Twig: Sunbird Nests in Orleans
The spring debut of Sunbird Kitchen was, after snowy times, a welcome jolt. The front door and windows, papered and cloaked in frosty white all winter, were suddenly glistening and bare. The larder was full, the chef was playful, and without even a sign proclaiming its existence, people arrived.
And they haven’t left.
Located at the former site of Sunrise Donuts on Route 6A in Orleans, Sunbird Kitchen follows in the path of the well-established, crowd-pleasing Sunbird Food Truck. The brick-and-mortar space was hatched by three partners: married couple J’aime and Christian Sparrow, and friend Karen Densmore. Christian says, “Once we had finally negotiated our long-term lease, we began the organic process of crafting a place for our vision.”
Never having designed and built an interior before, Christian, who also is owner and graphic designer of Seasparrow Creative Studio, plunged in. Beginning six months prior to Sunbird’s opening, he still hasn’t stopped. Friend farmer Lucas Dinwiddie (of Halycon Farm in Brewster) joined him in tackling the ceiling. Lucas’s dad Bruce, master builder and owner of Dinwiddie Construction, fabricated a bank of seats with flip-top storage, constructed of recycled stacked plywood, creating an effect Christian had once admired in a museum exhibition.
“What really almost killed me was the floor. Tiling this space was an experiment,” says Sparrow. “I don’t build things for a living. My family and friends, who are actual carpenters, termed me ‘pillow hands,’ but I got some chops and came through. It quieted them all.”
Issuing a special call-out to their rescue plumber, Glenn Sherman, owner of New England Plumbing, J’aime, Karen and Christian were overwhelmed by the depth of support they received from countless other friends and family members who pitched in to help.
Even without a sign, Sunbird Kitchen was discovered immediately. On a spring equinox walk over icy trails in the Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary, most hikers, whose ages spanned 20 years to 80 years, had already eaten there, several multiple times. “Our customer base shifts organically. I am pleasantly surprised; we are all working it out together. Their hunger helps us realize what’s next. They show us how to pivot to be more fluid,” says Christian.
Sunbird’s employee acquisition plan has been gradual, with a focus on hiring individuals that get their mission of local food, intimately prepared, and shared in a welcoming space. It’s more of a passive job posting that has worked its magic, with flexible part-time shifts for farmers, oyster gatherers, fishermen and artists, as well as larger roles for folks with deeper restaurant experience. “We’re team-oriented, passionate and dedicated,” says Christian, “and our staff kicks butt.”
A Connecticut wash-ashore, J’aime met Christian, a native Cape Codder, one summer while teenagers at Nauset Light Beach. One of their mutual fascinations was that birds were a borderline obsession, something they also share with Densmore, who says, “I’ve always loved birds, and I get it, but it’s certainly now a much bigger part of my world.”
Coupling the creative energy of the Sunbird trio with the metaphor of a bird is spot-on. “Birds are truly amazing. They do it all themselves, operating in the backdrop with no special treatment. Their occasional crash and burn is just as much a part of their process,” says Christian. “If we are not failing a little bit, we’re not having enough fun.”
J’aime, chef and leader of the kitchen staff at Sunbird, is self-taught. Citing food magazines, cookbooks and the recipes from her mother and grandmother, she largely credits her skills with having worked alongside people whose cuisine she admired. Back East for six years now, the Sparrows spent the previous ten years in the San Francisco Bay area. J’aime spent that decade at the front of the house in the bistro Le Petite Robert, and later focused on Roman street food and Southern Italian cuisine at both SPQR and A16. Sunbird, the food truck she unveiled six years ago on the Cape, was the first arena where she actually cooked for the public.
J’aime singles out The Zuni Café in San Francisco as the perfect expression of the cuisine she emulates: simple and rustic; classic cooking done well. She says, “I managed restaurants for wonderful chefs, and so I observed and learned. At A16 when it was time to butcher the pigs, I was right there helping for four to five hours.
“I love community, being open to chat,” says J’aime. “I love the ingredients that go into making beautiful meals. I want to make that cuisine accessible and to bring people together. Food does it. Our truck is so casual. It’s not contrived and fancy. That’s fun for us.”
The menu at the Sunbird Kitchen is an extension of the truck menu, but it is also a way for the owners to explore and evolve a love of food even further. The similarity at both locations is that the food is simple, approachable and tasty. It is always ingredient-inspired and produced in small batches. “We say ‘eat well on the fly’,” says J’aime. “A memorable dining experience can be a roadside stop on the way to the beach, a cup of coffee with a good friend, a messy sandwich in your car on a lunch break, or a glass of wine and a frittata in the late afternoon. It doesn’t have to break the bank or take up hours of your time. We hope that both our locations offer something memorable that can be gobbled up however our guests see fit.”
Densmore brings years of troubleshooting, wine knowledge and customer service expertise to Sunbird. Managing the front of the house at diverse locales, including Al Forno in Providence, Densmore next ran her own neighborhood restaurant in the South End of Boston, TRUK. Wanting a different environment to raise a child, she sold the business and moved to the Cape. Soon after, J’aime and Karen met, finding themselves very much birds of a feather, working side by side at Main Street Wine and Gourmet in Orleans.
“Those girls have chemistry,” says Christian. “Karen is just so humble and talented. The three of us together, we have a nice flow and crossover.” Densmore’s culinary adventures with J’aime continued at the Sunbird food truck, stationed in Wellfleet for day-to-day service and mobile for special events.
The Sparrows eyed the Orleans space two years ago, and invited Densmore to partner with them. “The two had this genesis of a concept from the get-go,” says Densmore. “I was so fortunate to have been brought on board. We have a similar mindset on design and food and relationships with family, friends, and employees. I admire their artistry and creativity. It was so easy for me to relate to their vision.”
Sunbird’s food truck reputation gets you to their Sunbird Kitchen door; the relaxing experience and service keeps you lingering in your seat; and the novel menu seals the deal. Sunbird taps into just-picked harvests from Halcyon and Surrey Farm in Brewster, Pure Joy Farm and Dave’s Greens in Truro, and a list of other local farmers and friends.
“When you cook with so much produce and real food, you get options that are incredible. We’re all about the layers,” says J’aime. Quinoa porridge with coconut milk, apricots, and pistachios, and sandwiches of farm fresh eggs atop smoky slab bacon rule the mornings. Other notables include grilled asparagus dotted with citrus ricotta and pickled onion, or herb-roasted pork with mesclun nestled in a grilled ciabatta. Specials—termed “Nom-Noms” by the Sunbird clan—like the grilled beet, pea-shoot and goat cheese sliders, are written on brown kraft paper and posted on the wall. In the pastry case, slabs of flatbread riotously sprinkled with herbs join inventive juxtapositions: muffins made with Meyer lemon and polenta next to dark chocolate chunk scones studded with pink peppercorns. Sunbird Kitchen serves up deceptively simple food, crafted of the loveliest ingredients, and artfully plated; it’s as exquisite to look at as it is to eat.
“We kind of threw caution to the wind,” says J’aime. “We envisioned something, and hoped people would come here. We could see it. I had watched amazing people, and I hoped I could do something close.”
Christian points upward to a square panel covering an opening through the wall to the outdoors, where they hope to insert a glass-enclosed space for birds to live, that will hover indoors above the interior space. Christian says, “We have an inherent curiosity, an eye to the future. We’re constantly evolving. We hope some birds will check it out.”
Bets are they won’t leave either.
85 Route 6A, Orleans
508-237-0354 / birdinthesun.com
Open Wednesday through Monday 8 am-9 pm*
*evening service will start early July
Michelle Koch spent just a bit of her childhood watching Tweety and the Road Runner but hours with her siblings as Dad commandeered Sunday road trips in search of off-the-beaten-track chefs who roasted duck. She loves trailing sanderlings at our beaches, and hopes bluebirds will find their newly erected backyard house. With daughters Camille and Chloe and their “brother” Woof, she nests on Chickadee Lane.