Giving up the white tablecloths, high prices, and stereotypical cuisines.
By Shaun Hergatt as told to Natasha Bazika
Originally from Australia, Shaun Hergatt is a Manhattan-based restaurateur, entrepreneur, hospitality consultant, and chef. He has received two Michelin stars for his restaurant SHO and one for Juni, both now closed. His latest restaurant, Vestry, is set in the Dominick Hotel, in Soho.
When I opened Vestry, people asked me to come to their tables. Apparently, they’ve been following me since 2003. To me, that’s crazy. I’ve never met these people, I’m much older than I was in 2003, and here I am standing in my new restaurant listening to people telling me they’re happy I’m back and love what I’m doing.
It goes to show the support we have, which is one of the reasons I love this business. The other is giving lifetime memories to people who are celebrating together. In today’s world, it’s watching a table of four friends excited to see each other—some for the first time in months. While we’re restricted now, I believe we will get over this. It’s a small bump in the history of our humanity. New York especially has a strong restaurant community. I’ve observed its dedication for over 20 years—it’s part of the fabric of our culture.
There is a large restaurant closure rate in the city. What most people don’t realize is that restaurants run on small margins. I opened SHO when I was 32, with the help of an investor. It was during the middle of the biggest economic crash in America. I stood in an empty dining room, thinking of my next move. Mortgages were down, so we kept the building, and after two months we received our first Michelin star. Zagat scored us 29, which no one publicized because I was the new kid on the block. I kept cooking, doing what I was doing, and the next year we got a second Michelin star. I saw covers coming in and kept it open for another four years.
I then went on to open Juni, another level of cooking focused on vegetables and seasonality. We worked on it, but there wasn’t much money coming in. At least, not enough to sustain a fine-dining establishment. That’s when I saw the change from a formal experience to a conceptual way of thinking about food. We didn’t need white tablecloths anymore, we just needed to focus on serving good food. I noticed counters became popular too. Diners enjoyed the theatrics of watching the making of their food. It was the end of formal dining. I’m not sure if it’s a positive or a negative, but it was a transition of people needing new experiences in life.
Back in 2000, I came to New York because I wanted to cook fine dining. My early career started at the Ritz in Sydney, where I worked at a fine-dining restaurant, serving 40 to 74 people regularly with a small team. I transferred to Washington DC for a short time, but the opportunity was fake. I was supposed to be a chef, but spent most of the time shuffling around different tasks. Luckily, another opportunity was waiting in New York at Jean-Georges. From then, I ventured to another restaurant, which got three stars from the New York Times—my first exposure to New York’s fine-dining world.
We have to remember it was a different world then. Fine dining thrived as a coveted experience—everyone wanted a taste. The stiff Michelin regulations to be considered fine dining required some sort of French cuisine. Today, a dim sum restaurant can have a Michelin star. The game has changed and for the better. You can cook the best Szechuan or authentic Swedish cuisine and be recognized for its greatness. There is no longer a need to be stuck in the same pocket as the elitist chefs.
If you think about it, there are countless talented chefs all over the world, from grandmas to young chefs cooking great food. In Mexico, I went to the mother of Mexican fare—a little old lady cooking in her house and teaching some of the greatest known chefs in the world how to cook authentic Mexican. We owe it all to her, a person dedicated to her craft.
Growing up in Cairns, I knew several talented chefs. One of my favorite restaurants is Barnacle Bills—as tacky as it sounds—it serves amazing food. Think Moreton Bay bugs, fresh prawns, and great steaks right on the water. I still visit every time I go home. There is also a Balinese restaurant, which is a spin-off of a famous restaurant in Bali, known for high-level Indonesian cuisine. Yet no one knows about it, unless you live locally or are visiting. People in this business cook for the people, not for the stars. I cook because I believe in my product and care for my clients. I’m a memory-maker first.
The most memorable meal of my life was from David Thompson at Darley Street Thai in Sydney. I was around 21 and just started cooking. It was my first exposure to hardcore Thai cooking. No, I’m not talking about red duck curry—it was a sit-down 14-course menu. I spent all my money—$120 to be exact. It was the Thai water festival that day, there were dancers, and people threw water around the restaurant. I will never forget that meal.
Fast forward 15 years, I met David Thompson—he was cooking with a friend of mine. I told him we met before, at Darley Street Thai. He’s humble, quirky, and wore a t-shirt and jeans. It was refreshing after cooking with the “big” chefs in St Tropez. I thought—here is a man, dedicated to his cooking, a master of Thai cuisine, and here he is sitting with me talking like we’re mates over a beer. The two- and three-star chefs strut around like peacocks, but not David.
Now, that’s not to say the big chefs didn’t earn their stars. They worked hard to be where they are today. I’m proud of my achievements, my friends’ achievements, and a lot of other chefs. All I’m saying is that David is a unique human who cares more about what he puts on the plate than what others think of him, or his cooking.
With me, what you see is not what you get. People have rated me in different aspects of food writing, which is what the readers see. What they don’t see is my diversity. I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities at different levels, including a lower-price-point restaurant in Miami as well as a high-level establishment in Miami. Being a chef is just one aspect of my business. I have a separate company where I consult and work with private buildings. There’s a lot of different aspects of my professional career, but most people see the Michelin stars. The depth of my business is different.
For the Vestry, I wanted to do a lower price point because of the location and clientele. All areas in Manhattan have their own identity, style of eating, and restaurant types. The Lower East Side is different from eating in Central Park South, and the West Village is different from Tribeca. Pre-COVID, I designed Vestry to support Soho, West Village, Tribeca, and surrounding areas. I’ve known the area for a long time, I’ve been a client of the neighborhood, so I wanted to pay homage to it. Working with the designer, I explained to him my vision—a Soho-centric restaurant where diners can wear jeans and a t-shirt, or can don their finest suit. Anyone is welcome.
The pandemic has forced many restaurants to think differently in terms of accommodating diners. Seventy percent of my clients want to eat outside, so I put a 40-seat patio at the front of Vestry. We were lucky to have good weather up until mid-November. There is still fear of being outside and walking in the distance of a stranger. Right now, we’re in a solitary style of living, so to be able to provide something new and fresh for people during a time where restaurants are closing left to right is reward enough.
It’s important to know your clientele and what they want. I designed a program where diners can have snacks and entrée and dessert. They don’t need to commit to a meal that costs $400 per person. Instead, I saw diners moving toward healthy eating, smaller portions, less meat, and fewer courses. I decided to give them what they want.