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Feb 17, 2018
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Kevin Nashan combines practice and passion at Sidney Street
By Julie Failla Earhart - Photo by Jonathan Swegle
Posted On: 09/01/2006   

Almost three years ago, Kevin Nashan decided to take the plunge and take over as chef and owner of Sidney Street Café in Benton Park. It was a gutsy move, considering the restaurant was a beloved fixture on the local dining scene for many years. He’s made some changes, kept other things the same and managed to keep both old and new customers happy. “We still have the exposed-brick walls that give the place that old-time St. Louis feel, but I’ve changed the décor to be more relaxing,” he said. “The artworks provide a glimpse into what the neighborhood is like and what the city is like.”

Of your two passions, cooking and Ironman Triathlons, which do you enjoy more?
In some ways they’re similar and yet they are completely different. You have to train and practice [for both], and have a true passion for them. You have to learn to pace your body, mind and spirit. Working out is an important part of who I am, yet cooking allows me to please others and not
just myself.

How did you get involved in the culinary profession?
Grew up in it. My family owned a restaurant for 27 years in Santa Fe, N.M. It was called La Tertulia or “the gathering.” My family worked very, very hard and instilled those values in me. When it came time to choose a career, I went to Saint Louis University to study marketing, expecting to get a law degree. Then somebody turned me loose in the kitchen and I haven’t left yet. I went to [The Culinary Insitute of America] in New York, expecting to learn the business side, but I realized that food and cooking and pleasing people is my passion.

How does what you are doing at Sidney Street compare with what your family did in New Mexico?
It’s totally different. My food in my parents’ restaurant was New Mexican with Spanish influences. Here, my goal is to make people happy. It’s hard to put a label on the food we serve; I can’t. If I was forced, I’d say American mainstream.

Why did you come back to St. Louis instead of going home to New Mexico?
I had ties here. I have other family here; my wife is a native. After I met her, it was an easy call. St. Louis is a wholesome city, a great place to raise children, and it’s got that big-city feel to it. And the restaurant industry is so diverse; there’s room for everyone.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
Taking over this place. I’ll have been here three years in December, and I’m grateful to the people who come in here every night and let us cook for them.

How often do you change the menu?
Well, we don’t change the menu per se. We may change a nuance here or there. We try to let the food evolve based on what our customers tell us. If an item doesn’t sell, we take it off, but for the most part we leave
it alone.

Isn’t that likely to make you less competitive?
I don’t think so. Our goal here is to treat our guests like royalty, let them slip away from whatever problems they are having when they walk in the door and relax. To that end, I guess you could say that our menu is comfortable, easygoing, dependable.

Where do you get new ideas?
Past experiences, other restaurants, hanging out with the amazing chefs in St. Louis, books, magazines. I love cookbooks; I have an extensive collection.

What is your philosophy toward food?
Prepare simple foods using good, classic techniques. Cooking not only provides immediate gratification, it’s also humbling. [It’s] very humbling to have someone come to our restaurant to relax and have a good time and always know that their cares can be left at the door. I love messing with all kinds of food. Right now I’m into beets. I love beets.

What was your biggest flop?
The list is a long one. Nothing too awful where somebody said, “What were you thinking?” To pin it down more precisely, foam sauce. I made a hot carrot soup with pea foam. It was kind of trendy. Foam doesn’t seem to go over well here, except maybe on a beer.

What advice would you give aspiring restaurateurs and chefs?
There are no shortcuts or overnight successes. Cook. Read. Eat out often. The most important thing you can do is learn good techniques. If you have good technique, you’ll always be employed. Good technique is an investment in yourself. It can never be taken away from you.

What makes Sidney Street Café unique?
Besides the location, the décor and the ambiance of the old building, building a relationship with our customers. We present our menu verbally, and that sets the stage for rapport and starts a dialogue between our customers and our wait staff. We’re unassuming and laid back. We welcome you with open arms regardless of whether you are in a T-shirt or a tuxedo.

How do you maintain consistency?
It’s a family-oriented business. The staff has been at Sidney Street a long time – Walter the dishwasher has been here at least 18 years. They just aren’t punching a time clock. Everyone takes pride in their part of making the restaurant a place people want to come back to again and again
and again.

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