Watts Grocery’s kitchen is empty, save for a lonely jar of cocktail onions forgotten in the back corner of the fridge. The bottles of wine and booze that once lined the mint-green shelves behind the bar are gone. Mixed-media artwork by Watts co-owner Jeremy Kerman still decorates the walls, but the pieces displaying defunct Durham institutions—like the large portrait of hybrid vehicle startup Organic Transit, which filed for bankruptcy in June, and the whimsical depiction of Hummingbird Bakery, Watts’s sister-neighbor joint, which shut down in 2016—seem sinister, given that Watts itself closed a month ago in bankruptcy after twelve years on Broad Street.

At first, Watts chef and co-owner Amy Tornquist—who is married to Kerman—didn’t want to talk about that. She was mourning the loss of Watts and distressed over the news coverage, which she says incited internet trolls. 

“There are all these people with this hidden rage,” Tornquist says. “I wish they would remember that I’m a person, too.”

A few weeks later, though, she seems at peace, less fixated on the backlash and channeling her energy into the future. 

“It’s not useful to regret,” she says. “You just have to keep shoveling and move forward.”

Tornquist is wearing one of the limited-edition t-shirts that beloved Ninth Street soda fountain and boutique Ox & Rabbit distributed on its last day of business in 2015, which feels apt: Ox & Rabbit’s owners closed to focus on their medical issues, and while Watts’s closure was brought on by financial difficulties, Tornquist says it was time to start a new chapter regardless.

“Restaurants are great, but restaurants are for the young,” Tornquist says. “It’s a lot of heavy lifting, physically and otherwise.”

Tornquist is only fifty-three, but she’s certainly put in a lifetime of restaurant work. While attending college at UNC-Chapel Hill, she became a chef-in-training at Crook’s Corner, working as a protégé under the late Bill Neal. After graduating, Tornquist studied classic French cooking techniques at École de Cuisine La Varenne, a culinary school in Paris, and subsequently landed a job at the Michelin two-star restaurant Duquesnoy. But after three years in France, she got homesick. 

Tornquist has deep roots in North Carolina. Her family has inhabited the state for about three centuries. She was born at Watts Hospital, raised in Trinity Park, and educated in Durham schools.

“I’m not sure it ever occurred to me to not come back,” Tornquist says. “I’m a family person, and my whole family lives here.”

After returning, Tornquist founded Sage & Swift Gourmet Catering with Kerman in 1993. She started serving food that emphasized local, seasonal ingredients and showcased her backgrounds in Southern and French cuisine, like fried okra with remoulade sauce and steamed haricots verts with bacon and spiced pecans. Though Watts and Hummingbird have come and gone, Sage & Swift endured, and Tornquist says she’s excited to devote her full attention to the catering company.

“When you own a restaurant, you feel the burden every second of the day,” she says. “You worry about payroll, you worry about staff, you worry about liability, you worry about the food. Catering isn’t as sexy, but it’s much more flexible, and I’m better at it.”

The allure of a more flexible work schedule makes sense for Tornquist—her round-the-clock stress from running Watts became aggravated in 2014, when she was forced to take a significant amount of time off due to illness, and worsened in 2016, when her mother died unexpectedly.

“I’m an only child, and she was a single parent, so she shared a lot of my burdens,” Tornquist says. “Since she passed away, it’s just me.” 

Tornquist says she’s relieved that the restaurant-based pressure has lifted, but after a dozen years spent investing in the building, she’s not quite ready to part ways with it. So she and Kerman are transforming the Watts location into an event space called The Sage, which will soon be available to rent for business luncheons, cocktail parties, board meetings, holiday parties, and the like. (If a host wants their function catered, Sage & Swift is at their disposal.)

In addition to hosting private events, The Sage will house fundraising dinners and monthly family-style meals, cooked by Tornquist and open to the public. The Sage’s first public event will be a “Chefs for Change” charity dinner on September 9; the dinner’s proceeds will benefit Families Moving Forward, a shelter serving families in Durham.

Asked what she plans to cook, Tornquist seems at a loss for words, like there are too many possibilities running through her head. 

“Something late-summery,” she finally says. “Something with tomatoes, corn, probably butter beans.”

Her face lights up. She’s landed on a dish: Tomatoes, corn, and butter beans are three key ingredients in Brunswick stew, like she used to make with her grandmother. 

“It isn’t particularly fancy, but it takes time and skill,” Tornquist says. “You have to be zen about it.”

That, too, feels apt. 

Comment on this story at food@indyweek.com.

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