Sidney Street Cafe looks like the kind of place where an elegant party scene in The Great Gatsby could have been filmed: dark wood, mirrors, white linen tablecloths, and immaculate place settings. It’s elegant but unpretentious, which perhaps comes from head chef Kevin Nashan’s philosophy about cooking for people. “Everybody’s important. Every single person is important,” he says emphatically. A lack of hierarchy among patrons is a surprising trait to find at one of St. Louis’ most acclaimed restaurants, but the idea of a VIP is the butt of many a joke at Sidney Street. “What do we do … season it a little more? I mean, how is somebody more important than others?”
With his nose-to-the-grindstone philosophy, humility, and a certain inexplicable warmth, Nashan has become one of St. Louis’ most beloved chefs. “No one ever has a negative thing to say about him. He seems to touch everyone in the industry in a very positive way,” says Josh Allen of Companion. Gerard Craft of Niche is one of his best friends. Kevin Willmann of Farmhaus and Mike Emerson of Pappy’s Smokehouse have appointed themselves founders of the unofficial Kevin Nashan Fan Club. “I’ve never seen the bottom of his well of inspiration for all of us,” says Willmann. They even have a slogan: “What Would Kevin Nashan Do,” engraved on yellow LiveStrong-inspired bracelets with the initials, W.W.K.N.D. “Sometimes we just gotta ask ourselves, what would Kevin Nashan do?” they say. Nashan laughs, and turns an iridescent shade of crimson. “Those guys … God. Unbelievable,” he says, laughing. “They are way too kind, and I definitely paid them very well.”
In the dining room, no lights have been turned on yet. Only in the kitchen, where Nashan is already prepping several hours before lunchtime with his staff, are fluorescent ceiling lights ablaze. “It’s never about one person,” he says. “This restaurant isn’t Kevin Nashan. It’s Sidney Street Café.” Of this, he is sure. Today he’s cloaked in his typical uniform: apron, t-shirt, chef pants, and croc-inspired chef shoes. Running out of the kitchen, he wipes his hands on his apron. “What can I get you? Coffee? A shot of tequila?”
Members of his staff continually pop in to ask questions. “There’s some nice natural light out here,” says Nashan, pointing to the back dining room. He seems much more comfortable plating up palatable delicacies than sitting down in his own restaurant. He was born into the restaurant world of clanking dishes and steaming entrees. Originally from Santa Fe, Nashan’s parents had a family restaurant for 27 years. His father taught him how to make his first dish: paella, a traditional Spanish entree with rice and seafood, and his first dessert. “Cherry jubilee,” he says.
But after a childhood immersed in the restaurant industry, he longed for something else. A self-described “wild kid,” Nashan attended Saint Louis University, “one of the few schools I got accepted to,” and took a course load of political science and marketing. He thought he’d maybe become a lawyer someday. Try as he might to avoid it, the dream of someday owning a place himself roped him back in. His brother, who currently runs the front of the house at Sidney Street, was also excited about the idea of running their own place.
“One of us had to learn something about food,” Nashan says wryly. For graduate school, he attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York City. “Literally within a week of being there I knew I made the right decision. I absolutely loved it. I didn’t want to do anything else.” From there, the crazy adventure that would become his life began, although he didn’t know his eventual dream of operating a place with his brother would eventually come true, albeit years later. “You know when you really like someone? I had that nervous energy about it. It wasn’t some romantic story. It was a lot of hard work to get to this point. But I knew at the end of the day, it wasn’t about a paycheck.”
Once he was out of school, it was a slow, tough climb from the bottom. “I took the trash out in a lot of restaurants.” He lived in New York, New Orleans, and even Spain, where he settled in San Sebastian, a beautiful beach town in the Basque region. Originally, Nashan wanted to work at El Raco de Con Fabes, a highly-regarded restaurant in Barcelona. But when he arrived, after having just flown across the Atlantic ocean, he was told he couldn’t be employed there for another 6 months. Nashan had just arrived carrying only a backpack and his chef knives. “I figured if I just bugged people enough … I could get a job,” he says. Eventually he got a job working at a restaurant called Martin Berasategui, tucked into the beautiful, coastal Basque region. Nashan lived downstairs in the restaurant with 40 other people in a facility that had two showers for all inhabitants and spoke “zero, zero Basque,” to use his words.
It was also tough. “I remember the first time I got to cook a staff meal … I prepped the whole day before,” Nashan recalls, only to have his rice dish repurposed and fed to the dog. But he could feel his repertoire growing, and he was in one of the most beautiful places in the world: sand beaches with dark blue water, mountains covered in green foliage and trees, warm weather, and extraordinary, unique cuisine. He learned how to craft exceptional, traditional Spanish dishes. He got to go on fishing boats and watch as pulsating scallops, fresh fish, and seafood were pulled straight from the ocean. He watched them transform into artful delicacies as they were cooked and plated. Spanish influences still make it onto his menu today, years later.
The menu at Sidney Street is the culmination of all that experience, and strong familial influences that echo back to his youth. “My brother and my wife are a huge nucleus to this restaurant,” says Nashan. His brother has been with him almost every step of the way. “We traveled as a pair,” he says, everywhere except for Spain. “We definitely have our fights, but there’s only a few people that you truly have their back, and he’s one of them for sure. I mean you try to get everyone’s back, but there’s a relationship there that’s like no other.” They grew up together, went to SLU together, worked in restaurants together, and let go of their father together, who died a few years ago of a heart attack. “He loved food,” Nashan remembers, a sentiment that resurfaces every time he makes cherry jubilee or paella.
Nashan’s attitude of firm commitment to family and friends has reverberated outwards into the community of chefs in St. Louis. The top chefs in the city, like Nashan, Gerard Craft, Kevin Willman, and many, many more, set the tone for how the community operates, which is a very unique, special community for one particular reason: they’re actually supportive of each other. “It’s not about outdoing one another, it’s about working together,” he says. “We’re all at this common goal of making St. Louis a destination spot.”
But don’t be misled; the competitive desire to be the best is still very much alive. It’s a part of Nashan in a variety of iterations. “We’re all still crazy competitive. Don’t kid yourself,” he says. It goes well beyond the kitchen. Nashan has competed in a total of 6 Ironman Triathlons, which consist of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2 mile run, in that order, without stopping. “I always thought it mimicked life. True suffering is really important, because you never really taste something good until you’ve gone through all the wars and the valleys.”
Admittedly, it’s been a long, winding road for Nashan. “It never ends,” he says, appearing both elated and flabbergasted. The kitchen needs to be prepped for lunch and dinner tonight. Tables need to be set. Dishes need to be cleaned. Meat, seafood, spices and produce need to be ordered. Sometimes he doesn’t know how it all comes together at the end of the night; it just does. And although that ability to withstand difficulty gets him through, the challenges haven’t hardened him. He has held on to the assured belief that it’s worth it to take a risk in order to transform a passion into something real. “You impress people by doing the things you truly love and believe in,” he says. “You have to take a gamble. You have to take a chance.”