Industry Insiders: Sebastian Gonella, Culinary Creativity

As owner and CEO of West Village hot spot De Santos, Sebastian Gonella brings an artistic sensibility to New York dining. After moving to the city from South America in 2006, Gonella discovered his passion for the restaurant world when he helped a friend open Juliette, a popular French bistro in Brooklyn. But Gonella’s approach to fine dining goes beyond great food and service, thanks to his days spent working as an actor and running his production company. "To be part of the artistic community, you need not only an office where you run your business, you need to have a social setting, and a restaurant is the perfect fit," he says.

Located in a historic brownstone that was once home to Janis Joplin and Jean-Michel Basquiat, there is a history of creativity flowing through the space. "This building has always been involved with the arts, and dining here is a fun, creative experience," says Gonella. It’s also a high-tech experience, as each server uses an iPad as a way to interact with customers. Quickly becoming a staple in the artistic community of the West Village, the restaurant’s patrons range from artists and writers to celebrities like Martin Scorsese and Kate Winslet. "I just want people to come and experience it," Gonella says. 

Mark Baker on the Return of Times Square’s Liberty Theatre

This Friday, a list of top-of-the-line owner/promotion types are throwing a bash at the newly restored Liberty Theatre in Times Square. This Gangs of New York bash is a Halloween party with super star DJs Felix the Housecat, Behrouz, and Sneak entertaining what figures to be a massive turnout. I took a tour of the old theater and talked to Mark Baker and designer Ray Trosa about the space and its future use.

I asked Ray a few questions, which I will post in a couple of days, as my wonderful friend Mark Baker demands center stage and all the attention.There’s going to be some typos and names spelled wrong, as Mark was talking faster than a speeding bullet and we just couldn’t keep up. He’s very excited about this project and therefore so am I.

Steve Lewis: I’m sitting with Mark Baker at the Liberty Theater. It’s a really old Times Square theater now being renovated. I know I’m not going to get a word in edgewise, so I’m just going to ask Mark Baker pointblank: what the fuck are you doing here?

Mark Baker: Hey Steve, I love this. Every couple of years when I have to reinvent myself you and I get to have a chat and I’m always happy.

SL: You get to chat I get to listen.

MB: You get to listen, and I’m always happy that neither of us has a piece of glass in front of us and a monitor behind us. So, here we are, and once again the face of New York nightlife is undergoing an immense change. Over the years you and I have seen so many trends, whether it’s big clubs, small lounges, dance music… but what I think what’s fundamentally different this time around is that the big house DJs — the big Kascades, David Guetta’s etc — who used to just play for a big commercial crowd at big commercial venues, now have a following within the art and entertainment community. So, instead of going to a big club with big DJs where everyone has big muscles and gold chains, you have now a beautiful hip, world traveling crowd, from Bali to Burning Man to New York now, where these big DJs are playing venues. This summer, when I was trying to move on from Juliette and Greenhouse, and we were getting ready to open The Double Seven, which you know now has opened, and is quite spectacular, and quite unique in a sense that you can’t buy yourself a table at the Double Seven. Admittedly, we probably won’t be making as much money as some of the other venues. We’re not banging people on the head for bottles; it’s a more sophisticated crowd. It’s a little bit older, people are enjoying coming to the lounge, seeing good friends, and the crowd is amazing. Basically people can talk to each other and converse. In the middle of the summer I got a call from Ray Trosa, who said, ‘you have to come look at this place, it’s fantastic, it’s near Times Square.’ And I said, ‘yeah, sure… I’ve seen every space in this town.’ But Ray was pleasant but persistent, saying: “Dude, you really have to come see this space, it’s spectacular.’ I said, ‘How big is it?’ And he said ‘It’s really really big.’ So then, of course, I got flashbacks of Mansion and that whole scenario, which, you know, you and I discussed a long time ago. Right?

SL: Uh huh.

MB: So basically what happened is that I eventually got up here, and when I walked through the door, and I walked into the Liberty Theater, my knees buckled: holy fuck. Really, you can’t imagine seeing this place for the first time and what went through my head when I saw it. And what happened was that I was asked if I would come on board as the marketing director and the booking director of the Liberty. My past few years of almost exile, I will call it, to commercial club land, all of a suddenly came together and made sense with a combination of The Double Seven, as a home of my upscale, slightly older clients and friends, and this Liberty Theater event space, where we could do spectacular one-off events, similar to the stuff we used to do at Cipriani, except we just have a new home now. And this space just fits perfectly my return to fashion as opposed to being out there in commercial club land. SL: So you’re not going to be doing a weekly here or anything like that…

MB: Oh absolutely not.

SL: You’re just going to be doing events, high end events. And this coming Friday, you have a Gangs of New York party with a lot of high end owners, promoters and stuff like that. Tell me all about it.

SL: Since my generation of club-owning, from the Lotus days and all that, a lot of the owners have moved up and done hotels, but the new generation of club owners, you know, they’re great. They’re very business savvy, they definitely know how to make a dollar, that’s for sure. But I generally feel that New York nightlife has been segregated. Each club has its own clique, and the relationships between the club owners is not what it used to be when we were younger. When we were younger there was a bit more respect. Sure, it was competitive, but it was not as aggressive as it is now. Again, all respect to the owners for protecting their territory and getting their people in, but I got to tell ya, I think the general public…. well, the best events we’ve ever done is when all the owners get together to do something. When I saw the liberty, I saw an opportunity for that to happen. It’s a continuation of a lot of the clubs who are now booking these major DJs,but they’re completely overpacking the room. What’s going to happen is that you’re going to be able to have what I always dreamed of having at Mansion, which is a large venue, full of amazing people, listening to a big DJ. And that’s what’s happening. With the Liberty, what we’re going to be able to do is…. Look, I mean Provocateur did a big event with one of the Swedish house-master guys at Capital. That was a Provocateur event at a big venue. There was a huge line that was crossed, in terms of New York nightlife, which means that club owners with brands, are stepping outside of their venues, again, like we used to do years ago, but in this day they’re doing it with big DJs. The Liberty Theater couldn’t be in a better place at a better time with a better person driving it. I see and understand where it’s going.

SL: Now, I personally think this is because the dollar’s so weak, Euros are spending more time in New York. Especially at this time of year. By October, most Euros would have fled home as well as the South American’s But with a weak dollar we have so many of these types spending more time in town,in the past the music didnt matter as much to the homespun American crowd as most of them, couldnt tell the difference between the bad guy and the good guy. But now the crowds seem to know,they go educated as they got exposed to the worldclass circuit Dj’s .and the Europeans always knew and demanded better MB: Eurotrash, as we call it, has definitely been a driving forcein club-land, on and off.

SL: It’s driving retail, and I think it’s driving the clubs.

MB: I agree. Look, New York seems to be thriving right now… apparently there’s a world crisis going on but I don’t see it in our clubs or venues. But I think New York has always been about the mixture of uptown, downtown, straight, gay, east side, west side; you had all your elements under one roof. I think a lot of the clubs now really are quite segregated…

SL: specialized.

MB: Okay, specialized, we’ll call it. But I think that once in a while, to have the opportunity to put everyone together…and I know that I wouldn’t have been able to do this eight months or a year ago, the names that I’ve put together for this event…

SL: Let’s hear some of those names

MB: Ronnie Madra, Richie Akiva (Mark rattled off 20 names too fast too catch)… All the guys from 1OAK and Darby, you have Remy , Eric and all those guys form Bagatelle, you have Unik, Kiki, Dimitri from Low Key productions, Alon Jibli, Mark Bau, Ruben and Noel from Rogue Nights…

SL: On and on and on…

MB: What we’ve done is put together these support groups; the hottest, hippest, sexiest people in New York on our support committee, and look… everybody is just hearing about this Gangs party, it’s going to be amazing. They all love the thought of us coming together, and we love that for one night, people get to be number one, in dress, for the best party, and New Yorkers love Halloween.

SL: You’re not just a promoter, you’re also a producer. Let’s talk about the production of the events.

MB: It’s huge. There’s twenty thousand square feet here so that’s got to be decorated, got to be filled, even though we obviously have a great shell. We have a hundred and twenty people on the night, performing, acting, jugging, being a part of the show. You won’t even know who’s part of our production team and who’s in costume. I can promise you something spectacular. Felix the House Cat is playing, Behrouz is playing, DJ Sneak is playing… there’s another sexy little element that’s going to be a party within a party which I won’t tell you about, you’re just going to have to discover it when you get here.

SL: So how do you get tickets? How do you get invited?

MB: By invitation only, to call one of your Gang Leader Representatives on our invite.

Snowy Walk Down Memory Lane with Studio 54’s Bill Jarema

I, like so many of you, am snowed in. I left a design meeting in the late afternoon yesterday only to be pelted by stinging sleet. Amanda and I ducked into the movie theater on Union Square, caught The Kings Speech, and warmed our toes and minds — The Kings Speech makes True Grit look like soggy oatmeal, Black Swan like an ugly duckling. We exited and got hot chocolate at Max Brenner, and canceled all our plans for the evening. We said “welcome homes” via texts to people who sat on tarmacs for hours and never got anywhere, and told our commuter friends they could crash at our place rather than risk a crash on the road. I had crashed down some icy subway stairs earlier in the night and popped out my shoulder.

I’ll spend today in the hospital seeking some sort of cure or relief, but yesterday, I sucked it up and had dinner at Juliette off Bedford Avenue. Our scraggly, exhausted band of others thought it felt like an episode of Survivor, only with great food. We needed two extra chairs to handle the volume of clothes we are all wearing. Winter is winning. Somebody out there messed with mother nature, and mother nature is acting out. All the parkas, mittens, 8-hour hand and toe warmers, and sensible shoes aren’t keeping us sound.

Events that mean a great deal to some people are drawing no crowds after months of preparation. Acts of God have us wondering if the act we wanted to see at a venue actually made it into town. Are big DJs stranded in foreign airports? This winter of discontent is a game changer. For years to come, event planners who already thought twice about booking an event in the winter will think 3 or 5 times. Hospitality workers will hoard their holiday cash, thinking January work will not pay the bills. Waitrons and bartenders are applying for food stamps, and door policies all over town are being relaxed. The January blizzard of 2011 is affecting us all on a deeper than just “it’s cold and wet outside tonight” level. It has snowed before, but not like this. Never so many days with so much accumulation. Here we are talking about the weather, and that’s never a good sign.

Nightlife veteran Bill Jarema is turning, well, I don’t really know many years, but he’s really old. Not Steve Lewis old, but old. He’s one of the players who didn’t get as much recognition as some because he was too busy working to jump in front of a camera. Bill worked the door of over 20 nightclubs. He is a Studio 54 veteran. He started as a bathroom attendant, moved on to day crew, mailroom, then worked his way up to assistant promotional director, and then managing doorman. Ultimately he was doing his own parties 2 to 4 nights a week at Studio until it closed. He actually locked the doors at Studio 54, the final night. He did some “heavyweight” parties for peeps like Madonna at Studio, Depeche mode at Palladium, and U2 at Limelight. He was really known for his “pay the bills bridge and tunnel” crowd and for capitalizing on his experience from Studio and the “brand name” it had.

How did the Studio 54 experience help you?

It gave me a lot of credibility making deals. After Baird Jones did his thing in the early to mid 80’s, no one did the numbers I did. I did Magique, Cat Club, 1018, 4D, Mars, Area, Quick, Xenon, Octogon, exclusively and primarily on Saturdays as the drinking age transitioned from 18 to 19, and then to 21. My 3 partners and I had a network of distributors, and a mailing list that was ginormous. Probably 60,000+ names. We got paid much more from the newer spots VS Studio, because these clubs were willing to pay. What are the differences between the old days and the modern clubs?

The crowds are not as mixed, gay/straight and the sexual energy is missing. The crowds are not as cultured. Many of the trend setters have moved to Miami and LA, cutting things down things in NYC to about 1/3 of what it was. The joints themselves are run by less professional people, who do not take their jobs as seriously, and have no creativity. Area was redesigned every week it seemed! And today, it takes 5 minutes to get a watered down drink! We used to be so busy, we didn’t even ring the register! Any Steve Rubell or Ian Schrager, Studio 54 memories?

I wasn’t that close with Steve and Ian because I didn’t work for them at a high capacity. But Ian did teach me how to keep my tip jar filled in the bathroom. He was usually gone early, and I could never make any sense of what came out of Stevie’s mouth if I ever ran into him. On my very first night as a busboy, I did run into Stevie on the balcony. I had just seen two guys going at it while sweeping up cigarette butts at only 10:30PM, Stevie said I looked like I had seen a ghost.

You claim I went to 54, but I honestly don’t remember. I used to go and hang outside and Steve would invite me in, and I always declined which pissed off Mark Beneke, and of course those who had waited for hours. I was a punk back then, and uninterested in Studio, but loved the spectacle. I was always at Max’s Kansas City.

Even though you don’t remember going to Studio, you definitely did. You came to the door on a Saturday, saying you were from Limelight or some such, wearing this really cool deep brown hoodie thingy, kinda like those little midget scrap dealers in Star Wars? Anyway, Benecke was inside and I let you in, even though I wasn’t supposed to. He went nuts when he saw you inside saying, “We don’t let his type in here, and we don’t have club courtesy.” I never did that again, needless to say, and that is the first time we met.

Other Studio stories?

One night, there were so many people outside, probably six thousand or so. The crowd was swaying back and forth, and an Asian kid’s spine broke. Chuck Garelick (head of security) swept him inside and out the back. I knew this was the place to be.

One night I was up on Benecke’s old spot on the fire hydrant. We had Alisha performing, another 3-4,000 peeps outside, and up walks Hank Pisani from Crisco Disco/Page Six, along with his entourage of young lads. I had no choice but to let him in, and as he did, he grabs my balls and says, “Billy, you look so yummy tonight. I wanna @#$%& you up &*%$#@ until your %$&(# turns orange.” The crowd went silent

Who were the nightlife legends that most influenced you?

The 3 most influential legends for me were Benecke who taught me how to keep it brief, firm, yet polite, and a few catchy phrases like, “Not with those shoes.” Rudolf taught me to keep it simple, and that this was really an easy business. John Blair, who taught me how to have a good time doing this, and not to take it so seriously, but most importantly how to make a deal, and that the owners needed to make money or you won’t last.