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Jay Muhlin

Interview: Peter Hoffman

We talk to the pioneering chef about the evolution and legacy of Savoy, and where we go from here.


You opened Savoy in Soho 1990. What was the climate of the NYC restaurant scene back then?
Great food in New York [used to be] about French, haute cuisine. But New American food had started to happen before I opened Savoy. Larry Forgione was at An American Place and I was at Huberts on 22nd Street. We were starting to find people who were raising terrific products—oysters, radishes, morels. There was a moment in the mid-'80s when we started to say, "We're not chasing France anymore. We have our own growers and producers and a cuisine that's going to grow out of that."

Soho was quite a different neighborhood then.
It was dark and deserted at night. The glow that came out of our lamps was a beacon of comfort and safety to our neighbors. It was a complete discovery for [our earliest guests]. People would come down Prince Street and everything was dark, and they would say, "Oh my God, where are you taking me?"

You've maintained a two-star rating from The New York Times since 1995. Do you still fear the food critics?
[Spotting critics] has never been the focus here. The critic is important, but you know what's also important? The lady sitting next to the critic who might tell her friends, or come back next week. Twenty-one years of good business is based on making a lot of people happy, not just critics.

Savoy's dinner-series events have attracted some serious food-world luminaries—including Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. How did those come about?
We did the first salon in '93 with Ray Sokolov. It just immediately struck a chord for me that our interest in food—mine and my diners'—was about not just getting fed, but was about the cultural reverberation associated with that meal. [My favorite memory of these salons] was a set of dinners and poetry nights with Galway Kinnell. I was sort of in between the dining room and the kitchen listening to one of the poems. I just remember my autumnal menu and the poem's deep images of rustling leaves and snakes slithering on rocks, catching the last warmth of the fall sun. I just felt like, This is it. There's a magic here.

So even back then you knew that Savoy was doing something special.
When you're doing the work itself, you don't think you're part of a movement. Jackson Pollock didn't say that he was an Abstract Expressionist, he was just painting. He was doing his thing. And that's what we were doing.

You're a fixture at the Union Square Greenmarket—you even spent 15 years on the market's advisory board. What was that like?
Sitting on the board was interesting, fascinating and sometimes frustrating. We spent a lot of time looking at what local really means. What are the rules by which the Greenmarket operates? How do we protect the integrity of what the perception of the Greenmarket is?

Were you interested in taking over the Union Square pavillion?
I was unsuccessful in my bid with the Parks Department to run the food concession there. They gave it to someone who—although he's a fine chef—has no history of working with the Greenmarket farmers, no relationship with the people who are there and no skill set to amplify the market movement by having the restaurant placed in the middle of Union Square. I think that the city lost a tremendous opportunity by not giving that to us.

Many of the young chefs supporting the farm-to-table movement right now have passed through your kitchen. Which of your protgs are out there spreading the gospel?
Ryan Tate has been here for four years and has grown, as a person and as a cook, incredibly. The food is at a very high level. Shanna Pacifico, who's the chef over at Back Forty. Caroline Fidanza, who owns Saltie in Williamsburg. Andy Feinberg at Franny's, John Tucker who owns Rose Water, Charlie Kiely and Sharon Pachter at the Grocery... All of the action is in the outlying areas of New York City these days, and these chefs are cooking very idiosyncratic, personal food.

You have plans to open a new restaurant in the Savoy space this fall. What can we expect?
It's going to end up striking a chord somewhere between [the more casual] Back Forty and Savoy. Soho has changed so much, and it's become a high-rent district because of all the shopping and tourism here. I need the style, the look and the way of eating here to grab more of the people who are walking down the street. The second floor is going to be more a fun and festive room to be in. [There may be] communal tables, and some of the menu items will be designed to be eaten as a group.

And how do your regulars feel about that?
When people are told that the things they think of in this world as being static are not so, they get upset because, on some level, they have to face their own mortality and face the passage of time. People have been coming in with all sorts of feelings about what we're doing. But, you know, artists do need to change the canvas every once in a while.

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