Sascha Lyon has brought old-world American glamour and elegance to the meatpacking
district in a building that originally hosted a biscuit company and then
a meatpacking company, and more recently was an edgy nightclub called “Hell” before
that establishment closed down. When Mr. Lyon discovered the location a few
years ago, he somehow saw the potential for his dream restaurant among the
drapes of red velvet and the vampire-movie atmosphere. The talented chef
had left Pastis last year to fulfill his lifelong dream of restaurant ownership,
and on March 20th his 10,000 square foot restaurant finally opened. We spoke
with Mr. Lyon and his architect on the project, Glen Coben, to discuss their
collaboration, the building, and Sascha’s new menu.
NYRI: How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?
Sascha: I started working when I was 14 in Los Angeles at a restaurant called
L’Ermitage, which was the first, all-French cuisine in LA. I worked
there for a while and then they got me the job at Citrus when I was 16. I
actually worked for a chef named Gordo; it was the first job I ever had.
Then I just kind of got passed around. L’Ermitage closed after 20 years
in business and then they gave me to Michel Richard. I worked for him for
awhile then Michel and Roger Verge gave me to Daniel (Boulud) and that’s
when I moved to New York.
NYRI: What was the driving force behind wanting your own restaurant, was
there a slow transition?
Sascha: About a 20 year transition. This has been the plan for a very, very
long time, even down to the look of the place. The elements of the place
I wanted have always been there. When I was younger I did a lot of traveling
and I ate at a lot of really good restaurants, and there were always a lot
of parties at my house. I was always surrounded by that celebratory element
of food and wine and friends, and we had a very open house. People were always
coming and going, there were always people around the breakfast table when
I would get up in the morning. We had one of those houses where the back
door was open and people were coming and going all the time. I always felt
that dining isn’t always been about cooking, it’s about the overall
element, and that is why there are white table cloths, silver plates, crystal
glasses, because to me it’s more than just ‘let’s put good
food out,’ it’s about creating that whole experience.
Glen: There are some projects that are about making a statement
and there are other projects that are about the passion, and this fell
squarely into the latter column because of the passion in leadership of
Sascha and his partner and wife Latoya. You felt like you’ll do anything for this
project and these people because this is their life. From start to finish
this project has been a personal statement because it has to do with 20 years
of somebody’s life. I’d get a text message from Sascha at 2 in
the morning saying ‘I was just watching this movie, you’ve got
to go out and get it and look at the scene,’ and that scene is now
recreated downstairs in little microcosm pieces. If you go around town there
are a lot of restaurants that are just one-liners, but here the meaning is
deeper because it relates to something much more substantial than just being
a 1920’s era restaurant
NYRI: Was the meatpacking district location also a personal statement, or
just where you found the right building?
Sascha: When I walked into this building, even though it was purple and black
and red velvet - it was called Hell downstairs so there were hundreds of
yards of red velvet - when I walked in, I knew it was right. It’s such
a wonderful space, so warm, so inviting, but it’s not just the architecture
or the design that makes this so inviting. The space is phenomenal, the shape
of the space. There are so many elements to this place between the brick
walls and the flooring and the ceiling heights and the girders; the inherent
structure of this building made for a very enjoyable place to work inside
of. Glen did a phenomenal job of giving me exactly what I wanted.
Glen: I don’t want to sound too corny, but there’s a spirit here.
It’s 1887, and what happened in this neighborhood, what happened in
this building, the concept of the restaurant and the shaping of the streets
are all products of the history of the location and the history of the street.
Sascha is saying we did a great job but there are a lot of other people from
the kitchen designer Gary Jacobs, to the contractor, to the graphic designer;
it is truly a collaboration.
Sascha: We started last January (2005) and took possession of the building
last September, and started with one firm that produced a product but I wasn’t
happy with it. So we started looking around, we met Glen, and so relatively
speaking the restaurant got built in a really short period of time because
by the time Glen came on at the end of January of last year, we really didn’t
start building once we got through permits and landmarks and everything until
about the beginning of August.
Glen: At one point in the project we were talking about the actual craft
of making something and we were looking at light fixtures and our criteria
was that it better feel like it’s old, it better feel substantial,
it better look and have a sense that somebody actually crafted this thing
by hand. That became our mantra throughout the project, to find smaller manufacturers
that have that craft.
Sascha: The whole facade of the building was done by this iron worker who
lives on a tug boat on the 23rd Street pier. It’s an absolutely phenomenal
façade and no one will ever have anything like it because it was one
of a kind.
I’ve always had nightmares of dealing with architect/designers, especially
designers because it’s always about their mark and that it has to be
their place, their thing, and that has always been a big fear of mine because
some designers want to really make it their own, and Glen found a way of
making it his own while still respecting my wishes at the same time and ending
with a place I am truly proud to walk around and say yeah, I did this and
Glen did this, there’s not an element to this restaurant that I’m
not proud of.
NYRI: What did you do while the restaurant was being designed and built?
Besides working on the menu how did you keep busy?
Sascha: I paced a lot. It was probably the roughest period of my life. I
have never been out of the kitchen for more than 2 weeks since I was 14 years
old; I have never taken any time off between jobs ever. I worked Saturday
night at Citrus, I flew Sunday and started working for Daniel Boulud Monday
morning. I left Daniel on a Saturday night and I started working in London
on Monday morning - this was one of the hardest periods in my life. Finally
it got to about August and I was just sitting at these meetings rubbing my
temples and Latoya and Rob said ‘we’ve got to get Sascha back
in the kitchen.’ So Latoya planned this big party, she said she invited
30 people but she really invited 100, and didn’t tell me that the food
critic from Time Out New York was there. Then she threw another one and invited
more people and kind of did it on the pretense of her birthday, ‘oh,
let’s have a birthday party’ and then ended up inviting everybody,
there were like 500 people here. So she got me back in the kitchen and got
me out of everyone’s hair because I was starting to become pretty miserable.
NYRI: Can you describe the menu you have created here at Sascha?
Sascha: What I’ve done is developed a menu that allows me to have a
wide variety of products in here but also a wide variety of basic, standard
ordinary products. I always say that I have a very common palette and I think
that lends itself to having a lot of people enjoy the food that I like. It’s
not outlandish, it’s not fusion, it’s not anything really pushing
the limits - I would rather just get something done exactly the right way.
However, once you get into service and we start going, my waiters have a
library of things they can offer to customers so if they don’t know
what they want to have, the waiters can say ‘maybe you would be interested
in a little risotto, the chef can make a risotto, he can do it these 5 or
6 ways, do you want a seafood, a mushroom, a vegetarian, a country risotto,’ whatever,
and just be able to offer these things. People are paying me to cook for
them and who am I to get in the way of your craving? As long as it fits within
the parameters of this restaurant, it’s something that I’ll do.
When it comes to New York dining, the reason why I’m here as opposed
to being in LA is people aren’t afraid to ask for what they want. They
know exactly what they want to eat and that makes it very easy to cook for
them because they are not eating what they think they should be eating, they’re
not eating what’s trendy, they’re eating what they’re in
the mood for and to accommodate those requests is so easy for me.
We did research on a lot of old menus from the turn of the century and ultimately
I just want to give the customers what they want in my style of food. Of
all the chefs I’ve worked for, they have all been traditionalists.
Daniel is very true to authentic French provincial cooking but he does it
in a magnificent manner, and Michel Richard is the same way, he loves eating
so much and has such an appreciation for flavors and he pushes the limits
as far as the techniques go. I think they’ve been doing things a certain
way for 100 years because it works so I don’t want to change it, I
just want to do my version.
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