Saint Theo’s has barely been open for a year and it’s already one of the toughest tables to snag in town. Most of the buzz so far has been fixed on the playful Italian coastal cuisine coming out of chef Ashley Rath’s kitchen. And plenty more are raving about the stylishness of the space as conceived by veteran restaurateurs Kyle Hotchkiss Carone and Rob Goldman. But now Simon Sebbah is giving them something else to talk about: the creative cocktails coming from behind the bar.
Earlier in the summer, the West Village hotspot nabbed Sebbah as its newest beverage director. He comes with 15 years of expertise in hospitality and bartending, including time spent behind the stick at locales no less legendary than Angel’s Share, Dandelyan and Lyaness (which was just crowned the world’s best bar at the 2022 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards).
At Saint Theo’s he arrives with a refreshed menu which takes its cues from Italian aperitivo culture. His “Twists” include a riff on the classic sbagliato—replacing the traditional vermouth and Campari with St. Germain and Italicus liqueur; a vodka-based “Vaporetto” that somehow finds optimal balance between sage, peach and Cochi Americano; and a tangy-yet-refreshing Italian gin offering which wields basil and sesame oil for a velvety mouthfeel.
If some of those ingredients sound savory enough to eat, it’s for good reason: much of it is coming directly from the kitchen. While under the tutelage of Ryan Chetiyawardana (of Dandelyan and Lyaness), he worked at developing bar programs aimed at reducing waste and promoting sustainability.
Here, they also promote the consumption of copious amounts of cicchetti. And thankfully Saint Theo’s is in no short supply of delectable bar snacks. But how did this native Frenchman get so good at assembling Italian flavors? He answers that question and more in an exclusive interview for Forbes. Read on below.
Talk about your background in the bartending world, and your journey that brought you to St. Theo’s.
Simon Sebbah: I was introduced to hospitality at a very young age in Paris. After a couple years working in Paris restaurants I moved to London where I started my bartending journey, and learned English at the same time. The London cocktail scene was such a magnificent playground; I was so eager to learn how to make drinks. But since I was still underage, all I could do was absorb as much knowledge as possible, which I would ultimately use throughout my career. After 4 years in London, I decided to move to New York. I worked in a number of bars as a barback and bartender learning the ins and outs of American cocktail making and was finally able to put what I had learned so far into practice. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working in many of the “World’s 50 Best Bars.” I’ve also collaborated with some of the greatest bars and restaurants in the world, leading cocktail, wine, and champagne pairings for the likes of Chef Bryce Shuman, Executive Chef at Eleven Madison Park, and Chef Mauro Colagreco, owner of Mirazur—the “World’s Best Restaurant 2022.”
Talk about the new drinks menu at St. Theo and what inspired you to create it.
SS: I wanted to create a menu that had something for everyone but, of course, with classic Italian cocktails at the heart of it all. The goal was to work with simple and fun ingredients and also to show the team cocktail techniques and skills that they can build upon for future menu iterations. It was my way to introduce myself and to create something where the team could be part of that process as well.
Where and how did you develop this love affair with Italian ingredients?
SS: I’ve been working with Italian people throughout my career. When I was only 14, I learned how to make fresh pizza and pasta as well as the importance of fresh, homemade products. I’ve been lucky to travel all around Europe to learn about cultures and different cuisines. I love how the same products and ingredients can be used in many different ways, resuilting in different tastes and textures. I love Italian cooking because of the simple, yet flavorful, ingredients and techniques, which is what I’ve tried to replicate at Saint Theo’s.
Describe the approach to cocktails at St Theos. How is it different than at some of the other places you have worked in your career?
SS: The approach was a way for me to introduce myself to the team. I don’t like to get into a space and implement things right away; I take my time to learn and observe what has been done prior to my time. My goal in doing this is to make sure that the bar team is a strong unit and that everyone is excited about what is coming their way. I don’t want the teams I work with to feel like I’m coming in to just give them recipes to execute. I use this same process everywhere I go. I try as much as I can to take at least 30 to 40 minutes each week to sit down with my team to talk, exchange ideas, and make sure everyone is doing ok in both their professional and personal lives. I want my teams to know that I’m there for them beyond the restaurant/bar.
What are some of the best cocktails to pair with food and why?
SS: Stirred martinis, however you like to drink them. A stirred martini is especially great with seafood. It’s a subtle cocktail that helps open up your palate. Negronis or a bitter aperitif-forward cocktail pair pair extremely well with cheese and pastas, while Mezcal and tequila cocktails are a great choice for deserts or heavier flavor food.
What do you say to people who think you should only be pairing wine with food, and not spirits/cocktails?
SS: Wine and food pairings are more commonly talked about so it makes sense that most people would choose wine over cocktails. It’s all about how you educate the guest and share that information with them. There are specific cocktails or spirits that are as good as wine pairing for certain foods but at the end of the day. It all depends on preference.
What is your favorite pairing between cocktail and dish on the current menu at St. Theo’s?
SS: The Vaporetto—gin, bianco vermouth, sage, peach and jasmine tea—is an amazing pairing with our oysters, caviar and all the crudos we serve as well as the shellfish pastas and the whole branzino. I would say this cocktail specifically pairs with 70% of our food menu.
How might we expect the menu to evolve as we turn towards fall flavors?
SS: This goes back to what I said previously: my goal when implementing a new cocktail program into a new venue with a brand new team is to show them how I like to work, how to handle certain type of products, bar techniques, cooking process, how to build around in the smartest way possible. Once all the above are in place, we will work together to create a menu that will work well for our team and our guests.