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New Restaurant: Sascha

55 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014

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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