New Back Room at Café Select: No Name, All Game

imageAccording to BlackBook’s version of Charlie’s Angels (our crack all-girl team of nightlife assassins), the somewhat informal back room of Cafe Select will open in the near future as a full-fledged, separate entity — meaning we’re in for another Serge Becker-helmed, hush-hush hottie. Currently, the bi-level space has a La Esquina vibe with entrance only possible straight to the back of the restaurant and through the kitchen. Its hours of operation, for select (get it?) friends of the house, run from Thursday to Saturday, usually until 3 a.m., depending on the restaurant’s closing time.

Las chicas BlackBook tell us that in the next few weeks what we’ll call the “Back Room at Cafe Select” (it remains officially nameless at this point, though “The Boiler Room” may be an option) will begin admitting patrons through the delivery grate on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant — which conveniently leads to the side door of the lounge space. The spot holds 60 heads, has a gritty, cement feel, and is covered in Christmas decor that seems to be staying up for a bit. With no space for a DJ booth, it’s the owners usually making music selections, and a bar is tucked into the alcove under the stairs. An exact date for the backdoor club’s full independence remains uncertain, so give the secret knock on the delivery grate to get an answer in a few weeks. Bon chance!

Industry Insiders: Jeffrey Jah, Inn-Famous

Jeffrey Jah holds forth on going from runways to club king, bringing heat from here to Sao Paulo, and putting DEA raids behind him.

Point of Origin: I’m originally from Toronto, but now I live in Gramercy Park. After my modeling days, I was an event producer and creative director for venues. I started out having connections in the fashion industry, from photographers to make-up artists, editors, and designers. I started producing events, which eventually turned into parties, promoting clubs, directing clubs, and finally owning clubs, bars, and restaurants. I currently own the Inn/Canoe Club in New York, I’m a partner in 1Oak, a partner in Café de La Musique in Florianopolis, Brazil. I also have six Lotus clubs in Brazil, Double Seven reopening in New York, and a Double Seven opening in LA in 2009.

What events were you involved with in the early days? Well I used to put on a couple festivals at Randall’s Island. We had great bands like Jane’s Addiction and chronic raves. Some of the best events that I ever did were with Matt E. Silver. We threw some of the most legendary Halloween events over the last 15 years. Don’t take my word for it … ask the people that came to Cipriani 42nd Street, Scores, the Roxy, Milk Studios. We were the guys that put on all those events. In my early club days at [the third incarnation of] Danceteria between 1992-94, I had the pleasure of booking Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana. These groups played next to nothing back then, and it was so exciting to be a part of all that.

When you’re not at the club? What do you enjoy doing? I love snowboarding and traveling.

Side Hustle. Were you ever an undercover actor or anything? No, but after watching the Olympics, I really want to be an undercover gymnast.

What’s your worst experience working in nightlife business? My worst experience has got to be when I was working for Peter Gatien. I was there when the DEA, the FBI, and IRS raided the place and came in to arrest everyone and confiscated everything. They took all the file cabinets and the computers. I was one of the people that was lucky enough to put that incident behind me.

Who have you collaborated with? Currently I work with Ronnie Madra, Scott Sartiano, and Richie Akiva from 1Oak. We are actually opening up a 1Oak and another Butter in San Paulo, hopefully by December of this year. My newest project, that I’m really excited about, is the Lamb’s Club, which will be a restaurant/bar and catering [venue]. It’s a venture between me, David Rabin (Lotus and Double Seven) and two other partners.

Who do you look up to in the industry? Hmm … I’d have to say, Adrian Zecha who owns the Amanresorts, Izzy Sharpe who owns the Four Seasons hotel group, Keith McNally, Eric Goode, and Sean MacPherson, who gave Los Angeles swingers in the 1990s, and has been behind some of New York’s coolest hotels, like the Maritime and the Bowery.

Favorite Hangs: I never go to anyone else’s clubs … ever! Occasionally I’ll stop by the Box to see Serge [Becker] and Sebastian [Nicolas], or Rose Bar to see Nur Khan. In terms of restaurants, my favorites are Mezzogiorno, BLT Fish, and the Spotted Pig.

Projections: We have six venues opening between the three different partnerships I’m involved in. Between the two Double Sevens opening, the Lamb’s Club, Butter, and 1Oak opening in Brazil, I have a lot on my plate for next year.

What are you doing tonight? I’m going to another meeting at 9 p.m., heading to the gym, then to the Inn, and then to 1Oak, and then I’ll do it all over again, and again, and again.

The Porcelain Twinz vs. The Box: Celebs, Cocaine, & Chicanery

On Friday, September 13, I arranged an interview with Heather and Amber Langely, better known as the Porcelain Twinz. It was a week after they had posted a scandalous post on their MySpace — a tell-all about their unsettling experiences, working at the New York nightlife novelty The Box. It’s been a hectic few weeks for Twinz: There’s a lot of press regarding their legal case against Box owner Simon Hammerstein, and they are without work. Yesterday, Eater reported on a community board meeting, held on Monday, during which the Box was denied a renewal application for its liquor license. What really goes on at the Box has always remained concealed behind a heavy and closely watched door; however, if the Twinz blow up their case against Hammerstein, the debauchery and scandalous events they allege might explain why the club has such a strict entrance policy.

The Porcelain Twinz’s sexually charged “fetish-burlesque” act is seductive and unique. A banker I interviewed outside the Box on a Monday night (who incidentally admitted to paying for bottle service in order to get in) told me, “They make that club. So many celebrities, and the elite flock to see them.” The Twinz have performed all over the world, produced their own music, appeared in dozens of fashion and fetish magazines, been on HBO and Playboy TV, and recently directed and starred in their own movie with a soundtrack including the Dandy Warhols, among others.

The Twinz left the Box officially in July; Hammerstein had given them the boot from his apartment in November, where they had been living for three months. He advised them to rent a hotel room, which was not an option financially (they had no contract with the Box), so they gave notice and planned on moving back home to Portland. Hammerstein then suggested they find an apartment with a year-long lease that he allegedly agreed to co-sign for.

Stuck in traffic, in a cab riding over the Brooklyn Bridge due to the pouring rain, I was 30 minutes late to meet the now-infamous Porcelain Twins. Nervously, I ring them (they share a cellphone); soft-spoken Heather answers, suggesting that I just “take a deep breath” because they, too, are tardy — the pair were getting primped for David LaChapelle’s art opening later that evening.

When I arrive at the agreed-upon coffee shop, it’s crowded and the Twinz haven’t arrived yet. I anxiously wait in the back, finding a vacant deep-rouge velvet couch (which coincidentally resembles the furniture at the Box). I don’t know what to expect from the deviant duo, but soon enough they arrive, waving and smiling with genuine warmth. They walk proudly over to me, exposing bare long legs and faces made up just as I’d seen in photos — quite picturesque. Towering over cafe patrons in their spiked knee-high boots, they draw every eye in the place. They match, of course, from their skirts and sleeveless blouses to the short, blonde bobs, resembling Nico in her Warhol days.

When we start the interview, I try hard to differentiate between Heather and Amber, but it’s not easy (nor do their identical appearances and mannerisms help). Another customer, who just so happens to work at a production company, spots the Twinz and walks over, pulling the girls aside to make an offer for them to star in a Nokia commercial. “$200? Add on another zero, maybe,” is how they respond.

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Despite their demand for another few hundy, the Porcelain Twinz are relatively humble and egoless; surprising, given their bold stage presence. “So, are you stressed out about your fallout with the Box”? I ask.

They both light up, and Amber eagerly responds, “Have you ever watched The Secret?” I have yet to see The Secret, but already, I sense there’s more to their story than risqué burlesque acts at a haughty nightclub. “It changed our lives, we lost weight, our outlook on life altered, and it’s helped us to remain positive.”

The twins are “straight-edge” — again surprising, given their work environment and late hours. They are religiously health-conscious; at the end of the interview, before heading to LaChapelle’s party, they will stop at a specialty gourmet deli to pick up fresh-squeezed vegetable juice. They are into detoxing, colonics, chlorophyll, and all the organic fruits and veggies they can get.

Prior to creating a sought-after burlesque act, they were former all-star distance runners in their home state of Oregon. At the age of 20, they began stripping in order to pay for college; Portland happens to be considered the strip-club capital of the country by some enthusiasts. The Twinz grew tired of the inconsistent money however, not to mention the numbing effect endemic to the work. “As dancers, we became sexually exhausted … constantly creating the illusion of sex.” A friend of the Twinz in the entertainment industry discovered them at Dante’s Cabaret Club in Portland in spring 2007. He was enchanted by their bizarre and captivating performance, and he called Serge Becker, a friend of his. Becker, who’s also a partner at the Box, put them in touch with Simon Hammerstein, who right away offered them a two-week gig at his New York club.

They were excited and negotiated an arrangement — not ideal perhaps, but the opportunity was irresistible, despite an inauspicious beginning. “When we arrived at 189 Chrystie Street during the wee hours of the morning,” say the girls, “we were buzzed in and greeted by Simon Hammerstein with his bushy beard and his syrupy sweet British-American accent. … The three of us walked up the stairs to the third floor, where Simon’s loft lay. We were starving and famished from flying across the country all day without a decent meal, and the only thing Simon offered us when we arrived was some cocaine and tap water.”

During the following week’s audition, they were introduced to what Box performers refer to as “Simon Says” — Hammerstein’s humiliating audition routine. “Why don’t you just cut everything out, except the finale, when you’re getting off?” he asked, after their performance. They didn’t, but they claim Hammerstein’s behavior didn’t exactly improve. The two-week gig at the Box wound up extending nearly a year, and various incidents over time eventually compelled the Twinz to bail out.

“We distanced ourselves as much as possible from Hammerstein, from the beginning, to avoid his sexual advances, comments, inquiries, and propositions that he would spring on us anytime he had our attention. … One of us had a boyfriend — in a serious relationship for three years — however, the boyfriend was currently in rehab trying to kick heroin. Simon replied, ‘Yeah I’ve kicked heroin before, it’s really a choice you have to make whether you want to do it or not.’

“There were many nights when Simon would tell us that he was having a party at the loft after the shows, and that everyone would be waiting for us to come entertain them with our fetish and bondage gear that we used on stage.” Once, Hammerstein asked if they would do a “favor” for him, i.e. domination work. “I want you to beat this guy up, a friend of mine. How much would that cost?” he allegedly asked.

“When presenting shows to Simon and [Box partner] Richard [Kimmel], they squashed our ideas and inspirations so deliberately and intensely with their overbearing verbalization of what they thought our art should be, that creating shows became stressful, dreadful, and fearful. We were trying so hard to give them what they wanted, and to please them, that our vision was becoming lost in translation. The psychological abuse that we had to endure from Simon and Richard’s corporate dictatorship and sexual harassment was ultimately why we left.”

Hammerstein and Kimmel, according to Heather and Amber, are “constantly high on cocaine” — possibly thanks to an in-house drug supplier, whose name they would not reveal. “Richard is close to the stage … openly using during performances.” They also claim Hammerstein’s “staff prostitutes” are at his beck and call. “Simon orders call-girls on the expense account,” they say. Club guests apparently were occasionally confused about who served the goodies. “The Wayans brothers once asked if we could get them cocaine.”

I rang the NYPD’s Fifth Precinct on September 16 to inquire about any recent police reports on the Box and/or Simon Hammerstein. It didn’t take much to get an answer from the officer I spoke to. “We are on the case,” he said. “And we know there are drugs going around there, it’s ongoing”.

During our interview, Heather and Amber talk about the female employees at the Box who have more to offer than a $300 bottle of bubbly. Supposedly, one of them approached the Twinz during their shift and asked if they could perform oral sex on a celebrity at a VIP table; $200 was the offer, which seems a pretty light for such a high-class place. Not that the Twinz were interested, understand (after all, they wouldn’t do a Nokia commercial for that much.) Regardless, the Twinz claim that Box employees have been known to service patrons in the bathroom downstairs.

Would they work at the Box again, if a contract was offered? “As long as the Box is run in its current state of dysfunction, as it has been since the opening in February of 2007… we would never work with Simon Hammerstein or Richard Kimmel ever again. … When Simon was out of town, in early June, we made the joint decision to no longer be slaves to the Box, though we had no back-up plan..”

Currently, the Twinz are in the midst of writing new material to use in a re-release of their self-published memoir, The Porcelain Twinz, Our Life in the Sex Industry. The updated book will detail their time at the Box. They’re also talking about taking their act to Soho’s Corio club. Neither Simon Hammerstein nor Richard Kimmel returned my calls or emails.

Industry Insiders: Taavo Somer, Rustic Freeman

Freeman’s and Rusty Knot co-owner Taavo Somer talks about his failed busboy career, the proper use of porno paneling, and why he strives for simplicity when doing three jobs at once.

Point of Origin: I moved here when I was 27, for a job at Steven Holl Architects. And my first day was an immediate wake-up call that it wasn’t gonna work out. I had been working in big firms for years, and this was my dream job. And when that disillusionment came, I thought: screw architecture. I’ll do something else. A friend there knew Serge Becker. I thought I’d be a busboy, learn to tend bar. When I met him, he was like, “Why do you want to work in a bar? I have no busboy openings but I have a project.” It turned out to be Lever House, which he was working on with John McDonald, and the designer Marc Newson. Serge didn’t have a trained architect in his office, so he said, “Do this until a busboy position opens up!”

Occupations: I co-own Freeman’s and the Rusty Knot. I was going to throw a big New Year’s party at a club Serge was opening in Brooklyn. The club didn’t open in time, and Serge felt bad, so he introduced me to this space on Chrystie Street. The landlord was cool with the party, but he said we had to use the alley entrance off Rivington. As soon as I saw the alley, the party dissolved, and I wanted to open a café. I already had a concept for a restaurant, and I just put the concept in the space. That’s how Freeman’s came about. The Rusty Knot is a 1950s nautical bar, really mellow, cheap materials, cheap drinks, 50-cent pool table, free jukebox. It’s got porno paneling, you know, fake wood like the Calvin Klein basement ads. The building itself is pretty unremarkable. But if you find yourself being a snob about something, my instinct would be to embrace and explore it, and that’s when epiphanies occur. It’s born from the location on the West Side highway. It’s not beautiful.

Side Hustle: I never wanted to do just one thing. When I was first in New York I was spending a lot of time in NoLita, which back then was really kinda cool. I started going into Selvedge and lamenting with Carlos [Quirarte, now of Ernest Sewn] about the state of New York nightlife, how there’s no Mudd Club. Where was the good rock party? So we decided to throw our own at the Pussycat Lounge. I started making T-shirts. And we sold them at Selvedge. Then we got in trouble, because the owners didn’t know. But they sold out. If I didn’t have the discipline I learned from architecture I wouldn’t be making clothes today. Now, we have Freeman’s Sporting Club. I design suits and shirts. The aesthetic of the restaurant definitely influenced the aesthetic of the clothing and the store itself. There’s also a barbershop in the store, and we just opened another, FSC Barber, on Horatio Street.

Favorite Hangs: Between Freeman’s and the Rusty Knot, there’s only a couple of nights a week that I’m free. I go to the Spotted Pig, because it’s like family there. I usually eat dinner at Il Buco once a week. I still go to Frank and Lil’ Frankie’s once in awhile … I have friends there. I go to a lot of the dive bars that I used to go to, like Joe’s Bar. In London I go to Rules, and in LA, for whatever reason, I like going to Dan Tana’s.

Industry Icons: Luc Levy, who owns Café Gitane. I love his set-up … he’s got his spot, it’s been open for 11 years, one owner … it’s an effortless business plan. Serge Becker, definitely. You could throw out ideas, and if he used it, he’d always credit you. This guy Jason Mclean from the old Loring Café, in Minneapolis. The place had Shakespeare one night, and a gypsy wedding the next, just weird shit happening. Freeman’s got its artichoke dip from there. Sean McPherson and Eric Goode, too. Even though they have a lot of projects, they’re still hands-on and obsessing about doorknobs. When I designed Gemma, I would go antiquing with them and saw just how much they labored over small details.

Known Associates: William Tigertt is my partner for Freeman’s and Freeman’s Sporting Club. My partner at the Rusty Knot is Ken Friedman, who also owns the Spotted Pig and is about to open John Dory. There are a lot of musicians that I love. My friends, kids I grew up with, are in the Hold Steady. I like what they’re doing. Their approach to music, in contrast with what’s happening in the rest of the industry, is really pretty awesome.

What are you doing tonight? I’ll be upstate. I have a house. I’ll just cook and hang out and garden.

Industry Insiders: Downtown Fixture Sebastian Nicolas

Sebastian Nicolas’ path to downtown party prince has been meteoric and mostly unplanned. From karaoke at Cipriani Upstairs to his new digs at the Box, the normally press-shy nightlifer holds forth on his past, present, and future endeavors.

Point of Origin: I was born in Sweden to Chilean parents, then moved around Spain, lived in Easter Island, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. My sister ran a catering company in Chile that did the catering for all the big arena shows that came to Chile, as well the country’s first upscale fusion restaurant, Route 66. A lot of the people involved with the restaurant had worked in New York with Douglas Rodriguez, who owned Patria and basically invented the Nuevo Latino cuisine. That experience opened up my eyes to this crossroads of many interests like music, art, food, ambiance and made me fall in love with this industry.

Eventually I wound up at Columbia University to study Political Economy, and that’s when I started going out downtown to take a break from the hectic class schedule. I met Giuseppe Cipriani one night being out at Cipriani Downtown. The lounge Upstairs had been open for about a month, but he was looking to diversify his brand, so he hired me to help with that, and that’s how I got my start professionally in this business as far as New York. I came up with the karaoke idea on Sunday nights because I went to karaoke a lot at Sing Sing in the East Village with [Swedish top model] Caroline Winberg, a good friend of mine. And her birthday was coming up, so I decided to have a karaoke party at Upstairs and it took off from there.

Occupations: After Cipriani, I did a very fun one month event for the 2006 World Cup called Cuervo Mundial at the Soho Grand hotel, as you know, since we were partners in that. It was a World Cup viewing party in the hotel yard, we had a great time, open bar for an entire month. What drew me to that event, in addition to my love for soccer, is that it was interactive. Soccer is like that, because you’re supporting a team. There’s a third element there, aside from the alcohol and people. After that, the Box.

Why the Box? Because basically at that point the New York scene felt a little sterile. Anything could have exploded. It seemed like people wanted something different, something more. I was trying very hard at the time to do the final show at CBGB’s, which was about to close, and then I thought it would be cool to do the next CBGB’s, similar to the Box but more music driven. And since I’m very good friends with Serge Becker, we talked, and Serge had this idea for the Box. Come to think of it, actually, Moulin Rouge had the idea for the Box, right?

Any non-industry projects in the works? I don’t see a separation between the industry and other interests or endeavors. We label things, but it’s all interconnected. Your office is your restaurant and vice versa. For example, I was executive producer on a movie called Frost that was at Slamdance this year, and that’s something that I definitely see myself more involved with down the line. I also wrote a script, though I cringe when I hear myself say that. Don’t put that in!

Favorite Hangs: I like to go to new places with something different and new to offer, and I also like places where I feel I’m part of a family, which is why I like La Esquina and the Box. I like to eat at Buenos Aires in the East Village. I also like places that feel intimate but with positive energy. Exclusivity doesn’t have to be negative. I think Beatrice Inn has accomplished that. I like the way they operate it.

Industry Icons: Keith McNally, because I admire his focus and patience in creating a place with a story. He takes his time to develop places. Economically he’s successful but more importantly his places have soul. He found the balance between the money side and the other more important elements. Serge Becker, of course. What attracted me to the Box was that I wanted to work with Serge. I felt comfortable around him, he’s an artist. He appreciates life in a way I admire. He’s a different type of person than you typically find in this industry. I admire Giuseppe Cipriani’s hard work and the specific niche he was able to find and tap into. I admire Ian Schrager’s vision. These are all people and qualities I admire, regardless of whether or not we have the exact same taste or not.

Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with, other than every model in the city, of course? Never! In general there are people I tend to identify with. [Musician] Diego Garcia is a good friend of mine. You know, people who have a similar background, like you, [Kemado Records boss] Andres Santo Domingo. My Swedish friends. Now I happen to be surrounded by music people. That’s why my upcoming project is music related. Because I’m interested in music, in learning more, and so it’s an extension of where I am in life right now. It’s organic.

Projections: My latest project is tentatively called House Party. It’s at a private loft space on Bond Street. It’s hard to define exactly, because there’s a mix of many things I like happening there. It’s part art gallery, part performance space, part party space. A lot of my friends helped me put it together, from donating furniture to art to labor. So far I’ve been doing very low-key parties for friends. Very soon I’m going to start having some really incredible musicians and bands performing there, and some of the footage will be available online. We have a great producer, lots of incredible talent lined up. Some of the artists I know, some are friends of friends, and some are coming from my partnership with [a major music magazine].

What are you doing tonight? I don’t know, what are we doing? What is there to do?

Industry Insiders: Socialista’s Jeffrey Trunell

Socialista gatekeeper Jeffrey Trunell on working the door for a former doorman, club owners who scowl, and why Perez Hilton isn’t on his list.

Point of Origin: I moved to New York in 1996 to be an actor. I started working at Coffee Shop. I was a bar back and I didn’t know anything. I was just a kid from Philly. I started bartending, worked at a lot of hotel bars: 60 Thompson, the Hudson, and subMercer right when it opened. I remember that was the first place where cocktails were $15. Nowadays if you’re not charging $15 a drink you’re nothing, but back then it was like a science experiment. My voice would always choke when I told a guy he owed me $30 for two drinks.

Occupation: I was working at La Esquina as a bartender and started to work the door there part-time. [Socialista owner] Armin Amiri was getting ready to open up and still didn’t have someone for the door. He’d been working the door at Bungalow 8, and I think it was the last thing he wanted to think about, the last piece of the puzzle so to speak. It is cool having a boss who used to be a doorman, because he understands. There’ve been situations where I haven’t let someone in who I was supposed to — and at another place they’d tear my nuts off — but Armin gets it, he understands.

Side Hustle: I’m still an actor. I lived in LA for about three years. I worked some out there, but I missed New York. It’s hard. A lot of actors I know who used to work a lot are struggling. I came back because I wanted to do more theater. I do commercial work, which isn’t as fun but it can pay really well. I just turned 30 so, you know, now’s the time. Favorite Hang: Right now, I like a jukebox and a pool table. I don’t drink much, but when I do, I usually just want a beer. I live in the East Village so there are lots of places like that — like Lucy’s and some good dive bars on 5th street. I have a friend who works at Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg which is a good spot. I’ll go to the Beatrice Inn or 1Oak, but you end up seeing a lot of the same faces from Socialista. Then I feel like I’m on the job!

Industry Icons: I think Armin does a great job because he has a vision and he takes it seriously. [La Esquina owner] Serge Becker has great taste, plus he’s very even-keeled. You never see him freak out at anyone or even scowl. I think he understands that the whole thing is a process.

Known Associates: I’m not terribly impressed with celebrities, partly because they are so seemingly unimpressed. Strangely enough I get really excited over journalists. War journalists in particular. I met James Nachtwey and Michael Ware — that was amazing. I had the opportunity to hang around with these two photojournalists based out of Africa when I was working with a non-profit called Soft Power Health. Marcus Bleasdale and Finbarr O’Reilly. Fucking studs, man. Check out marcusbleasdale.com and finbarroreilly.com, then go to perezhilton.com. Then you tell me why anyone gives a rat’s ass about how much weight so-and-so has gained.

What are you doing tonight? Working, man. Then going to the beach tomorrow with my family for a few days.

Photo by Lucas Noonan