Amanda Amico of Amy's Place and Swan Street Diner
From diner to food truck to diner again
Photo by Stephen Gabris
Name: Amanda Amico
Current Title: General Manager
Location: Swan Street Diner; 700 Swan St.; 768-1823 or swanstreetdiner.com
Length of time at current job:
The Diner has been open almost a year, but it was three years in the making! I worked at Amy’s for 16 years.
Years at the stove: 14. Part-time, at first. I started as a server.
Spunky and hardworking Amanda Amico learned to cook at beloved University District hotspot, Amy’s Place, famous among locals for its playful vegetarian and vegan grub. The young chef learned how to create craveable dishes in the blink of an eye at the popular eatery. Years later, she took Amy’s signature items on the road with the owner’s blessing, and Amy’s Truck was born. If the pressure to assemble and plate tons of hot fare in a packed diner wasn’t enough of a challenge, Amico soon learned that moving those skills to a food truck involved creative and economical storage abilities, immense physical energy, careful planning, and the ability to battle the extreme temperatures of working in a tiny metal box year-round. After several years of Food Truck Tuesdays, Amico created a productive working relationship with Hydraulic Hearth owner and Larkin Square wunderkind Harry Zemsky. A partnership aimed on opening Swan Street Diner developed, and the pair launched the retooled dining car to great reviews (even winning Spree’s 2018 Best New Restaurant award). We took a moment to chat with Amico over the summer, before the awards were announced.
If you weren’t cooking for a living, what would you have done instead?
My plan was to play my guitar in the NYC subway until I was discovered.
How did running a food truck change the way you work or the way you think about cooking/food?
The biggest thing the food truck did for me was to teach me how to be extremely prepared and efficient. Also problem solving and improvising. You have what you have on the food truck. If you don’t have it, you figure it out.
What sort of challenges has resurrecting an old dining car into a modern restaurant presented?
People expect a diner to just be a greasy spoon; we are trying to elevate that.
Are there tasks you do regularly that chefs in more traditional restaurants wouldn’t have to worry about?
You mean cook a shit ton of homefries? On the truck, I had to learn how to be a mechanic, plumber, and electrician as well as tending to food and staff. There isn’t a week that goes by that something doesn’t need repairs.
What do you think you do—in approach, theory, or practice—that is unusual?
I am not a trained chef and have never even called myself a chef! My approach to heading this kitchen is communal. We bounce ideas off of each other and experiment with food and techniques with which we aren’t familiar.
Working with Matt Krauza (my kitchen manager and partner in food/crime) this past year has taught us both so much about not being afraid to not know something and not being afraid to figure it out and learn.
How do you and Harry work together? What makes you a strong team?
We worked together a lot in the planning stages to design the perfect kitchen and service plan. Now that we’ve been open almost a year, we meet weekly to talk about staff and what’s working and what’s not. Harry is the idea man and he’s great at it. Especially when it comes to aesthetics. We also worked together on a private party menu. He’s the business guy, and I am the operator guy. Although I do a lot of the day-to-day business stuff as well.
What did pre-Swan Diner Amanda not see coming during the planning stages (or earlier)?
The hurricane of support and business! I think we have done pretty damn good adjusting, though. Swan Street has been very well received, and I am grateful for that. I have had the usual staffing issues, as we all do, but I am also very fortunate to have some amazing people working here who are rocks and have been since the beginning.
Opening a new place comes with settling your kitchen. Finding where everything lives and belongs—in both front and back of house. Knowing what to prep and how many people will come through the doors. Learning what works. I knew there would be some of that, and we’ve come a long way figuring it all out.
What do you think of as your greatest strength at this point in your career?
Being able to problem-solve, make decisions, and delegate. And rolling with the punches. If something goes wrong, take a deep breath and fix it.
What is your favorite dish on Swan’s menu?
Taco #2! (You have to say it like Mambo #5.) Corn tortillas, scrambled eggs, house corned beef hash, cheddar, house pico de gallo, side of pickled radishes. They’re my favorite because they’re delicious and, well, tacos. I wanted to do something different than a breakfast burrito and thought this would be a fun spin. They came out great and people dig them.
People really love Swan Diner. Why do you think that is?
The refurbishing of the dining car has left us with a beautiful restaurant. It has a soft thirties feel instead of the stainless fifties vibe, and that makes it warm and welcoming. To toot our own horn, we’re making damn good food from scratch. I feel like we have achieved the comfort food feeling with a twist, which is just what we set out to do.
Is there a food from your youth you crave or still enjoy?
Rock soup and salami sandwiches! My mom, and my grandmother before her, made homemade pasta that you don’t process entirely, so it comes out like rocks—dumplings, almost. Serve them in some homemade chicken stock with a sandwich of salami on Italian bread and I’m good.
What do you on your day off?
Day off? Just kidding. I have every Monday off and I spend it with my sweet daughter, Clementine, who is almost a year old! We tend to catch up on the week together, grocery shop, do laundry, you know, regular adult mom stuff.
Favorite LP to prep by?
This is really hard. It so depends on my mood and time constraints or not. If I’m feeling caught up and I want a sing-along, a nice Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong album works—any of ’em. Billy Joel’s The Stranger works for a medium paced sing-a-long. Lately I’ve been super into Sonique when I’m more pressed for time and really trying to get shit done.
Is there a super-secret order you or someone you know makes for themselves from items on the regular menu at Swan or Amy’s Truck?
It’s funny, because that’s how the crew’s creations that are available on the Amy’s Truck started! But currently, I’d say the Rob Salad. We have the whole Larkin staff on the Rob Salad train. It’s basically a glorified souvlaki salad and I sometimes add a special dressing made with our house dressing and garlic spread.
There’s been a lot of growth, but what does Buffalo’s food scene really need?
I can’t think of anything, honestly. I feel like Buffalo is kicking butt when it comes to food.