Interview: Sebastian Gonella
I know we haven’t published an interview in a while, but they are back, and I couldn’t have asked for a better interviewee than Sebastian Gonella.
Sebastian is an actor and movie producer, and one of the partners of one of my favorite restaurants here in NY; DE SANTOS.
You will see throughout the interview that he is always talking about experimenting and learning, and you can see that his curiosity and eagerness to learn made this one great interview filled with great stories. He has described what NY is to him in a way no one has before, and I loved it! And no, I did not pay him to say all those great things about my beloved Chicago.
I met with Sebastian at DE SANTOS, and what was supposed to be a 45 minute talk, ended up being a long and fun conversation that finished with me cooking brigadeiro (a Brazilian chocolate dessert) in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Fun fact: I know my friends are certainly in shock to be reading this, since I am probably the person with the least cooking skills they have ever met, and was once responsible for setting fire to my dorm kitchen while attempting to bake cookies. But yes, they let me cook brigadeiro! Fearless guys, hum? LOL.
I know it is a very long interview but I promise it will be worth reading it all. Hope you enjoy it!
Tell me a little bit about the history behind DE SANTOS. You are an actor and movie producer, how did you end up getting involved in this business?
De Santos actually opened its first location in San Diego, a long time ago. But it was not called De Santos at that time. It was called Ole Madrid, and it was very successful for almost 8 years. But Luis Miguel Amutio, one of my partners, and one of the owners at that time, wanted to go back to Puerto Vallarta, in Mexico, and open the restaurant there. That is when and where De Santos was born. It was pretty much the same concept, but with different partners. From Puerto Vallarta, it expanded to Guadalajara, and that is when I met Luis Miguel and we talked about opening a branch in NY. At that time I was not involved in the restaurant business, but it was kind of an adventure for me. I thought, if I can learn from it and at the same time have my career going on in NY, why not do it?
How did the concept come together for the restaurant here in NY?
At the beginning, we opened it with a more Mediterranean style. We ended up changing the concept after two years. I have been coming to NY since I was 9, I love NY, and I have always believed this is the city of the immigrants so, for me, just having one type of cuisine was a little limited, in my opinion. I believe we can specialize on pasta if you want, but at the same time, what about the locals? That is when we decided to go for traditional American cuisine; mac and cheese, burgers, truffle fries… Those kinds of dishes people just love in NY. We still have a little bit of pasta, fishes, but we updated the concept, and decided to focus on the locals and people from LA and Miami, for example.
As far as the atmosphere goes, we hired Kenyan Lewis, who has worked for Ralph Lauren and decorated the place in a way that made it look a little bit more like western American. We included the concept of theater, films, and the décor changed so that people felt that we had a romantic environment. You can take your friends, a date. It’s friendly and cozy; it makes you want to have dinner at De Santos. I describe it as my own living room. We also have a nice garden in the back, where you can also have private parties.
De Santos Interior
What about the brownstone, was this your first option? How did you guys find this location?
It was hard to find the perfect place. It took us 4 years to find it, but once we came here and saw it, we loved it. The problem was that it had been a restaurant/bar for over 100 years, so we were not sure if by just changing the name and choosing the location, people would accept us. It used to be a speak-easy bar a long time ago, at a time when a lot of celebrities were coming to the place, and people were experimenting a lot. Those pictures you see on the wall are originals and show how it used to look 100 years ago, but we also wanted to create our own identity. It used to be quite popular – 9 Circle – and it helped us out a little in the beginning, even though it was a completely different concept. We were not aware that Jennis Joplin used to live here or that Hendrix used to jam downstairs, and that [Mick] Jagger and all those celebrities used to come here. And when we started reading all the information about its past, we found out that it was this super cool place where people had all that freedom and were experimenting at that time. A lot of bands used to play here, so when we found out, we incorporated that into the concept. So, here is an old townhouse, gorgeous from the outside, and great in the inside, and we decided to keep the rustic aspect of it but at the same time we wanted to play with something more modern, western and cool, and that is why we put the wood, the mirrors, and the movie posters.
How do you see the restaurant evolving? What are the plans for the future?
One of the big changes we did last year was trying to get more involved with technology, and how it can help the business. I am a huge fan of MAC/Apple and all their products, and think they are fantastic. I made a couple of phone calls to certain contacts I had and asked how they could get us connected with their brand. At that time I knew a really good IT, and he told me that he could create this app for us, so we came up with the app. I, then, contacted the guys at the apple store and they said, “well it is kind of difficult, no one has done it before, so if you want to take the chance, go for it”. And I said, why not? So we came up with the idea of the iPads and we actually became one of the first restaurants – we were actually named the first one – to use the whole system integrated with the iPad. Other places ran it with one iPad. We needed several. It was more complex. But now transactions go faster, food comes out faster, you reduce the amount of mistakes, and you can also include images with the description of the dishes and the wine list. It is awesome, and people like to interact with the iPad. It became an attraction on its own.
I have also noticed that here in NY people have lost interest in after-drinks. A good cognac, the dessert drinks, Porto wine… Here in NY they have shots, vodka shots. But it is not the same as the after drink. A good-class drink, where you just enjoy the end of your dinner. This is one thing we are trying to go back to as well. Stay 20-25 more minutes to taste and enjoy a good drink. The bottom line is, we want customers to have the best experience regardless of the day they are coming here.
And how has chef Angel contributed to all this?
Angel likes to experiment and that is very important for a chef. People are scared to change the menu here in NY. But I think that you need to change things a little bit every now and then. Of course you have the staples, like the buffalo Carpaccio, the lobster mac and cheese, the duck, and the swordfish, which are some of our signature dishes. But it is good to change and try new things. We try to do the same with the wine. A lot of people don’t experiment with German wine, Spanish… New Zealand, for example, has incredible wine, the Australians are good, South African also has good ones. You have to give the customer different options and let them experiment. As per desserts, Angel has been experimenting a lot with dulce de leche, and he is currently working on a Dulce de Leche Crème Brûlee.
Beef Carpaccio with potato gnocchi and truffle cream, Truffle Mac&Cheese, Dulce de Leche Crepe
So, when did you realize NY was the place for you?
NY is the place where I have always wanted to be since I was 9 years old. The first time I realized that I wanted to be in NY was at that age. There is this random story that I still remember. It must have been around Park or Lexington Avenues, between 50-60 Streets, and I remember there was a cab in the middle of the street and I saw this Jamaican guy walking as the lights went red. I was with my mom and I saw this kid around his late 20’s just opening the right door of the cab, going inside the cab, opening the left door and leaving the cab. I was like: WHY? Why did he just decide to open the door, go in and out like that? It was just so interesting; his decision was just so creative! There was just so much going on, and all that time, everyone just kept crossing the streets, walking around, doing his or her things. It was 10:30 in the morning, and no one said anything! There were like 20-30 people around and no one cared. For them, it was just another day, another guy in the city, and they just continued with their day. I thought that was so cool, and I don’t know why, I just kept thinking people were just so alive!
I felt like, ok this is the place where you can be whoever you want to be and you don’t have to explain to the cab driver why you opened one door and left through the other. I want to do it. I will do it. And it stuck with me. I wanted to live in a place where I can dress the way I want, I can say what I want, can be creative, can be a little bit edgy and wild if I want. And if I want to do something like that guy did, no one is going to judge me. And for me, it was like I was finally seeing NY. Everyone is busy, in their own world, trying to be the best they can be in their profession, passion or whatever craft they chose to do, and that, for me, was huge.
How did you come to the realization that you wanted to become an actor?
When I reached my 16-17 I started asking myself what I wanted to do with my life, and I remember asking myself what was the thing that I would kill to do every week. And the answer was in front of me. I loved going to the movies at the time. Movies were everything to me. My first date was at a movie theater. If I had a bad week or a tough week, I would go to the movies. If I were depressed or happy, I would go to the movies. Everything was revolving around movies, and at the time, I also loved to go to the theater. My mom was a huge influence on me and she was really into arts. She actually runs a museum nowadays [Eduardo Sivori Museum, in Buenos Aires, Argentina]. Ballet, dancing, theater, paintings… My mom loves everything related to art.
Eduardo Sivori Museum
But you have a degree in Economics…
My first degree was in Economics, because I really believed that I needed to go to the university. For me, going to college was huge, I didn’t want to miss that part of my life, you know. Studying the entire weekend, having exams, reading different books, and knowing how to have responsibility. Reading everyday and writing essays, for me, that was huge. Being able to have time to spend with my friends. I didn’t want to go straight to working when I finished high school, so that is why I have a degree in Economics; even though I knew acting was my thing. I studied for more than ten years, and then decided I needed to have my masters in fine arts, so I did my masters at the Acting Studio here in NY.
How has your experience with acting and having a restaurant been?
So I did it [acting] for three years, and I loved it. You meet all these incredible and creative artists in the same field as you are. I grew a lot, my craft developed; it was one of the best experiences of my life – if not the best experience. After I got my master I started thinking about the future, and realized that there are around 90 people I would like to work with in my life, and from that list 90% of those artists have their own production company. They work in different projects, and are involved with different things at the same time. Why should I be just an actor? So now I produce and direct different things. It is such a great field, and it allows you to help in a lot of aspects; distribution, marketing, fundraising, showing the movies at DE SANTOS… It increased my chances of getting involved with it. And you learn as an artist that you shouldn’t want to do only one thing. My passion right now is arts, and everything that is related to arts. I always ask myself: How can we help people from different fields? Sometimes it can be under the production company, and DE SANTOS helps a lot in that sense as well. I had the idea of mixing these two worlds and, since my partners are artists as well, it makes total sense.
Who are the people in the movie industry who really inspire you?
I would put it this way: I always consider talent and how creative they can be. It doesn’t have to be the director, it can be the producer, writer, or actor. I would say from the old school, De Niro, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Then you have the younger ones like Di Caprio, who is doing an incredible job, and so is Natalie Portman. I love how Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn make me laugh, and it is very hard to be funny these days. They have changed things and how acting is perceived. I want to be part of this list one day, if I can. Some directors like James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese, and a guy like Fellini; they are phenomenal, it is just amazing the way they imagine things. I mean, there are so many. Even up and coming artists inspire me. A guy like Daniel Day Lewis shoots a movie every four years because he really gets into the character; you need to get into it in order to portrait someone else and do it differently [if you want to stand out]. You need time in order to create a real character; you can’t just do it in a month. That is why I have such huge respect for theater.
As far as movies go, I am a huge fan of comics like Batman. For me Batman is the Gotham city and that is NYC. It is dark and he is a guy who wears a mask. Sometimes you don’t want to be observed and you don’t want to be watched; you have a bad day and you just want to be underground. But there are days that you just want to be the good guy and save the world. Batman is exactly what I think of NYC. Bad people are hunting you, people who don’t know who you are; you are this foreign person in the city trying to achieve something bigger. People always love to dress and be different characters.
What are your favorite places in NY? Aside from DE SANTOS, where do you like to take friends when they are visiting the city?
The first thing I always take into consideration is who they are and what they like. But I always try to “force” them to go to the PS1 Museum in Queens, because it is very experimental, with young artists that just want to show their work and are trying new things with sound and installations. You get out of Manhattan, it is a different neighborhood, and the place has a great open space.
As far as theater goes, I always try to book a play, and take them to Lincoln Center – it is such a NYC landmark. They have to see the buildings, and they have some really good shows there.
As per restaurants, I have two favorite ones; Lion and Waverly Inn. Lion is an incredible place. It is small, it is cozy, it is sophisticated. They have incredible art hanging on the wall. They actually have two original Basquiats hanging on the wall and old vintage pictures. The Waverly Inn is a classic. It has a certain crowd, it’s exclusive and I really like the food. The neighborhood is incredible. The bar New Blue is one of my favorites. It is in the alphabet city, at 6th street and avenue B, a place where they play Brazilian music and grungy. You don’t expect much and when you get in, it is very nice. Great music, and not even locals know much about that place, so that is great.
I also love going to Central Park, and the first 10 blocks are my favorites, especially on the East side. The Frick collection is such an incredible place. It used to be his [Henry Clay Frick] own house, and his private collection so it is very special. West Side highway is just so amazing to walk by the river and feel a little bit of what a regular day in the life of a New Yorker is. You can play basketball and tennis; spend two hours relaxing, and scape for a few hours there. Tribeca is incredible, its buildings and how factories used to have warehouses over there. I love Chelsea and all the art galleries. I try to go every month and see what is going on there. Of course you have the Pace gallery, but there are some good independent galleries as well. The one at the Fuller building on 57th is also interesting. It’s huge and a lot of people from out of town don’t know about that. So this is something cool to do as well.
PS1, Frick Collection, and Lincoln Center
NY can be very overwhelming sometimes. Where do you like to travel inside the United States?
I have liked road trips ever since I was a kid. To me, the real United States is in the South; Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky. This is something personal, and the South, for me, is different from the rest. We live in NY, you go to Miami, you go to LA… It’s too international. And when I am traveling in the South, I just feel that people are watching you. You’re different from them. They want to know where you come from. I love that! They are more uptight, though. And I also love how I can feel like I can show them something they haven’t seen before and they can teach me something from their own world. I love it there.
I am also a huge fan of golfing, so I have been to South Carolina, where they have amazing golf courses just as in Alabama and Georgia. I still need to travel more inside the United States, there are so many places I want to visit. Chicago is amazing! It’s phenomenal! The theater there is really good. I like to go to places where I can learn something. If I am in Chicago I am going to go see improv theater, sketches. It is such a vibrant and awesome city, and people are friendly. I believe that Chicago can be described as NY 15 years ago. It is still unique and special. It is not as international as NY. It’s a big city but at the same time they still have their own culture. NY is a very international city. I also feel like San Francisco is starting to lead things in America. It is not just about technology, SF has something extra about culture. Yes, you have the tourist and people from out of town, but it is still a true American city.
And what about outside the country?
I love Berlin and London. They are both incredible, also because of the arts. In London you have such good theater and galleries. It is just phenomenal! It is like they have an underworld where they still have that history and tradition about Europe, where you walk around streets where you know so many things have happened there. And Berlin, for me, is crazy, different, and so weird. The city where I cannot communicate, I know a lot of people speak English, but if I want to behave like a local, it is hard, because I don’t speak German. People are so open-minded and had gone through so much. So they have all these urge to be more open, to be friendly, to be creative.
And… here is the proof that I once cooked in a professional kitchen! Bad picture but it is the only one I have. Better leave it registered, since it was the first and probably the last time! #notskilledenoughforthis #donotliketocook