by Eater, Amy McKeever
[Photo: Sidney Street Cafe]
In 2003, St. Louis chef Kevin Nashan took over the popular Sidney Street Cafe from its previous owners who had finished a 16-year run. Over the next ten years, Nashan carefully transformed Sidney Street Cafe from a meat-and-potatoes restaurant into an upscale, thoughtful bistro garnering local and national recognition. He’s been a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards and cooked for President Barack Obama. Last year, Sidney Street Cafe was named St. Louis Magazine’s restaurant of the year just as it hit its tenth anniversary under Nashan’s direction. And last week, Nashan welcomed high-profile chefs such as Sean Brock, John Shields, Kelly English, and more to St. Louis for a dinner to mark the ten-year anniversary.
In the following interview, Nashan talks to Eater about gaining the trust of St. Louis diners as he sought to make Sidney Street Cafe his own, and how the arrival of fellow St. Louis chef Gerard Craft helped him make those changes. And it’s not just Sidney Street Cafe that has changed in ten years: Nashan discusses how the St. Louis dining scene has made “leaps and bounds” over the past decade with both a growing public interest in food as well as young chefs returning to open up smart concepts.
Looking backward to the very beginning of Sidney Street Cafe, what was the opening night like for you?
We took over a pre-existing restaurant, a meat-and-potato restaurant, which wasn’t a bad thing. It was popular. It was definitely a direction that I wanted to go away from, but it was kind of a patience game. It was one of those things where I had to bite my tongue and just feel it out, get to know the clientele we were cooking for, and that kind of thing. And then, through patience, we got to change it and gratefully [the diners] stayed on board. It’s been a really fun ride with, obviously, some lumps in the road, which are good because then you really appreciate the good times.
But yeah. We got to incorporate so many things over the years. I love growing our own stuff. We took our parking lot — it’s about 100 yards — and for six months out of the year, we get to grow our own stuff out here. And then we got to implement a charcuterie program, a pastry program. Every year, you try to tack something on to make it better for the guests and for all of us. You always want it as a learning environment.
How long did it take before you were able to make that initial menu change?
A good four or five years. And it wasn’t like [we] weren’t doing anything before that. We were starting to make everything from scratch. It was just kind of a patience game. Every little milestone — whether it be serving foie gras or, hey, we got our first tasting menu — we all had a high five for a moment and then carried on. It still goes on today. We feel like we still haven’t gotten to that and I hope we never do. It’s not a matter of getting there. It’s a matter of the whole journey.
[Photo: Sidney Street Cafe]
When you started out, did you have an idea of exactly all the changes you wanted to make or was that a developing process?
It was kind of a developing process. I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my family had a restaurant there for like 27 years. When I came to St. Louis after college, we wanted to start a restaurant from scratch. The [Sidney Street Cafe's original] owner had eaten at my family’s restaurant back in the day, and he had heard that my brother, my wife, and I had moved back into town. He said, “Hey listen, why don’t you guys check this out?”
It’s a process. Diners push us and we push them.
It felt like [being] back at my family’s restaurant. I felt that family unity, and it was someplace I knew for sure we could evolve. I didn’t know necessarily how or how long it was going to take. The initial step a lot of times is just to change everything. We completely took a different approach. You already have a business that’s doing well, people seem to enjoy the food… It’s kind of like a friendship. You garner respect, you get someone to trust you, and once you get that trust, it’s leaps and bounds. It’s a ride for both of us. [Diners] push us and we push them and it’s just a really neat process.
How did you first know that the dining public trusted you?
It’s kind of like how you know when someone likes you. If you and I are friends and I respect you, I’m not going to tell you I respect you. You’re going to understand I respect you through actions and through loyalty. But honestly, I don’t know. It’s taking risks, too. Even though I say we were conservative for those years, we definitely took some risks. I have my buddy to thank, too, Gerard Craft. He’s one of my best friends in the whole world, but he totally helped me change my game a lot faster than I think I would have.
He just moved into town probably three years after I got here. He opened up [Niche], and it was definitely something this town needed. It was a breath of fresh air. And I say “needed” because everyone was doing kind of the same thing. He was cutting a cornerstone. It was really neat because not only did we become best friends, but we also really respected and helped each other. It was fun. And it’s still fun. This whole town, we’re really village-like. And it’s real. There’s a lot of great restaurants in this town.
Aside from having to wait it out to change things around, what were some of the big challenges you faced at first?
Well, of course, any time there’s change of any sort, everyone’s like, “Well, it’s not as good as it used to be,” or “You’re trying too hard.” But I think the biggest challenge is believing in yourself. Even though I had worked in a lot of great restaurants [and] I’d been doing this for a long time, I still didn’t have that confidence where I could make moves. Part of me wishes that I was a little more aggressive at a certain point, but then I’m kind of grateful. It obviously panned out because we’re still in business after ten years, knock on wood.
At the end of the day, the building is erect and people are coming in.
Looking back, I’m definitely happy with a lot of the momentum that happened. I just wish maybe it was a little quicker. But who knows? You can always rewrite history, but at the end of the day, the building is erect and people are coming in and hopefully enjoying the food. I think it’s thoughtful cooking. Not that it wasn’t thoughtful before, but it’s different.
[Photo: Sidney Street Cafe]
Can you tell me a little more about how it’s different?
There are so many farms at our fingertips, like there is everywhere, but in the Midwest it really is like five miles away from you. That allows you to cook and show the Midwest off a little bit. I think the farms were so under-utilized [ten years ago], and also there weren’t a whole lot of options for dining guests. When they were introduced to certain stuff, they were taken aback at first. But after they realized this actually tastes good and that it grows in our back yard, they were taking it upon themselves. Now you go to farmers’ markets and people are buying cardoons, sweet potato leaves.
All the stuff that you would think wouldn’t ever happen, now it’s happening. I love taking people around our little parking lot here where we grow everything from myoga ginger to benne seeds. It’s an education for our neighborhood, too, because we share it with them. We don’t charge anybody. It’s cool to be a part of it. You’re going to educate them, and they are so appreciative. It’s a really cool cycle.
It sounds like it’s not just Sidney Street Cafe, but sort of the whole area that has seen some pretty big changes in the last ten years.
I feel like one day we’re going to wake up and it’s going to all be here in St. Louis.
Absolutely. I would say leaps and bounds in the last five years. Now you’re seeing a lot more kids who either grew up here or who had worked here ten years ago and left are coming back. They really want to make this home. It’s amazing. Now the talent pool is better. People are coming in and opening really thoughtful places. Like Salume Beddu, our charcuterie store, is incredible. We have an awesome new doughnut place. It’s becoming a real city. Not that it wasn’t before, but I just feel like one day we’re going to wake up and it’s going to all be here.
The people who are moving back are doing really important things. It’s not coming back to say, “Hey look, I’m cool and I can do this.” It’s more like this is what St. Louis needs and they’re opening that. It’s great. Everyone gets behind one another. When someone is slacking, everyone is really quick to point that out, and when people are doing well, they’re also quick to point that out.
Why do you think there’s so many people coming back to St. Louis right now?
I don’t know, people like to be part of something that they believe in. At the end of the day, this is a really family-oriented town with good roots. Now it’s getting to be more of a food town. Ten years ago, I would say everyone was trying to flee. Now it’s the opposite just because a lot of people did take risks and open up businesses. Now it’s real. And the community, obviously you can’t do it without the support of the community. They’re completely behind it.
Chefs gathered in the Sidney Street Cafe kitchen for its tenth anniversary dinner. [Photo: Sidney Street Cafe]
What are the challenges of keeping a business open for ten years in a shifting economy like we’ve seen?
It’s very challenging. I don’t care what industry you’re in. When [the] economy [gets] hit, it cuts spending. Obviously one of the first things to go is going out to eat. You have to hold on and hopefully be smart about your business and not be so big to where you can’t cut back and save money for when you need it. Also the important thing that nobody really points out is you have to evolve through this whole time. So yeah for three or four years, people may be hurting, business may be off, but you still have to plug money into your business. If the awning is messed up, you’ve got to fix it. You’ve got to have little projects and goals.
That’s what drove me. If you truly want to do something and do it well and do it with the true care that needs to be given, you’ll always find a way. It’s not the same path for everybody. I’ve taken a completely different path than say, my buddy Gerard Craft. That’s not to say one way is more right than the other. It’s what’s right for the individual.
And how were the initial reviews and public response when you took over? How has that evolved through the years?
It totally evolved. We took over a restaurant that was well known in St. Louis and were under that microscope. The paper lists your resume and they’re like, well, “They’re going to change everything and they don’t really care about the customer.” It’s hard. You’ve got to gain that respect and you’ve got to get it quick. There’s no time to lose. At the end of the day, it’s about good food and good service and totally caring about each and every person that tries to come in. Simple as it sounds, so many people, including myself, screw it up. You have good days and bad days. Hopefully you have a lot more good days because otherwise you’re not going to be in business.
I’m scared every day. You should be scared. There should be uncertainty.
I’m scared every day. I think the day that changes, I’m out. You should be scared. There should be uncertainty. There should be excitement. You always have to impress somebody. It doesn’t matter who you’re impressing. Just because this big-time chef comes into your restaurant or the President comes in or whatever, the person who saved up all year to come to your restaurant is equally important. That’s what’s so grounding about this whole thing.
What was it like getting the St. Louis Magazine restaurant of the year award after ten years?
I mean, is there a restaurant of the year? I feel like so many people should be restaurants of the year. I would be wrong if I said it didn’t feel good to get that, it’s good that someone acknowledges your efforts. But it’s also kind of like, well, that happened two seconds ago. Let’s move on. You really can’t sit there and bask in the sun. All we want to do is make people happy. So if you sit there on top of a mountain saying you’re cool, you’re an idiot. Food’s not about that. Food doesn’t yell at you when it’s peaking, “Oh look how cool I am.” When someone says we’re doing really well, our reward is hopefully we have a full restaurant. Hopefully I have employees that want to stay with me, and hopefully there’s longevity.
Does it feel like it’s been a decade for you?
Yes and no. You could do a Saturday night service sometimes and it feels like a decade, just depends how bad it hits you. But parts of it went by so quickly. Especially in this business, we’re always looking for time. I want to spend time with my family, my babies, my wife. But I also want to be selfish, too, and I want to spend a lot of time here and make things better. Those ten years go by so quickly because there’s no time. You lift your head up and months go by. I think that’s the aging process in general. I don’t care what field you’re in, you pour your heart into something and months do go by.