As Restaurant Workers Fled New York, This Chef Came Back “Once I left, I realized how good everything was. I appreciate it more now.”
In the New York City hospitality industry, there are a number of “opening experts,” people who specialize in establishing a business and setting it up for future success. Ashley Rath is one of them. Over the course of her still-brief career, she has worked to open Atera, Dirty French, Santina, and the Grill, where, as a 29-year-old chef de cuisine, she turned out updated versions of high-rolling American classics. So it was a shift when she traded midtown for Brooklyn to help open LaLou, a casually intimate Prospect Heights wine bar with no Dover sole in sight. And it seemed like a U-turn when she left to help open a megarestaurant in Las Vegas, landing in Sin City just a few months before the pandemic began.
Many restaurant workers who left the city before and even during the pandemic have stayed away. Rath, meanwhile, couldn’t wait to return. Now, she’s helming the kitchen at yet another new restaurant, Saint Theo’s, a breezy, high-kitsch West Village Italian spot that specializes in a style of Italian cooking Rath had once sworn off. So why did she come back? Why is she once again excited about Italian cooking? Grub Street called her up this week to find out.
You’ve been open less than a week at this point. How’s it going?
Some days, it’s felt almost like a party — but in a good way, not a crazy way. I haven’t cooked in the West Village in 11 years, and I forgot what it’s like. I’ve always found that the West Village has this vibe to it; everybody just wants to be out. It’s communal. It’s energetic. It’s fun. It’s youthful. And it still feels like that.
We’re open for four days a week at the moment. I’m doing about 140 covers, sometimes more, but not much, just so that we can get the kitchen down, the dining room down. It’s nice to be back in New York City feeling that groove again.
What’s the menu like? I read it as “Italian vacation.”
The menu is coastal-Italian influenced. For me, my biggest influence is Sicily. We also have a Venetian part of the menu — our cicchettis and our cuttlefish over polenta, those are very authentic Venetian dishes, which is something that I didn’t know much about before this. I absolutely love the cuttlefish. I don’t feel like you see cuttlefish that often on the menu.
Yeah, what’s the deal with cuttlefish?
It’s like squid but sturdier, so it just needs to be braised and treated really gently and that’s what we do. It has a bite. I wouldn’t say chewy is the word, but it has a nice snap to it.
It sounds very Venetian.
Funny enough, after working at Santina, I thought that I would never be cooking Italian food again. As much as I love it — and if you look at old menus of mine, like at LaLou, you see influences of it everywhere — it’s never something that I thought I would be cooking consistently. But I do love it. So when they offered me this job, I got excited.
Wait, why had you sworn off Italian?
I think it’s because it was something that I was never trained in. As much as I enjoyed it, it wasn’t a niche where I wanted to be stuck, and so after Santina, I just made the decision that I wasn’t going to do that again and made a very hard pivot to the Grill, which is all large-format meats and sauce work. I absolutely loved that and still do. But then this opportunity fell into my lap, and I was happy to cook it again — I was reminded that I enjoy cooking it, and so it was just kind of a no-brainer to join onto the project.
I’m the type of person that doesn’t like to be boxed in. I don’t know what the full answer is. I like learning. I think that’s why I like to do openings so often — I like doing research. The happiest time period of my life was when I was working on the Grill because not only was I cooking but I was also doing research half of the time. I like expanding my techniques, expanding my horizons. And I think that’s why I never want to just be like a “French chef” or an “Italian chef” or, you know, a steakhouse-style chef. I want it to all come together.
At the Grill, you were known for Mad Men–style, all-American luxury food, and two years later, you opened LaLou in Brooklyn as executive chef doing something totally different.
But it was so much fun! And the technique behind cooking the steak at LaLou or making the potato dumplings, it still felt like it had the same amount of focus as the Grill, just a very different style.
So you’re in New York, you’ve been opening restaurants and then, in December of 2019, just before the pandemic, you take a job in Las Vegas. Why?
I wasn’t looking to get out of New York. It was an opportunity that fell into my lap. And it was something that I didn’t realize that I quite needed until I did it. At the time here, I was starting to question my ability in New York. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure where I fully stood in the New York City dining experience. I’d done so many openings. I’d gone through so many reviews with Pete Wells. And I guess I went through a moment of self-doubt.
What was the doubt?
Was I good enough to be a chef in New York anymore? I’m being very honest. And then MGM reached out to me, and they asked me to come out for a six-month consulting gig to help open up this restaurant, Mayfair Supper Club, that was honestly very similar to the Grill, a lot of tableside service. The menu was different but had Dover sole and prime rib and all these things that I knew how to execute. I realized that I needed to prove to myself that I could do it again, but I wanted to do it without the social pressures of New York. And so, in, honestly, two weeks, I said yes and up and moved my life to Vegas for six months. But then, of course, the pandemic happened, and I got stuck out there for a year.
I thought it would be very interesting, and believe me, it was. Just to walk from employee parking to the dining room was a mile. They have warehouses the size of the Grill where they just keep inventory. Cooking in Vegas is kind of like a machine, and you just hop on. And if you don’t, you’re going to get lost.
You get three normal months, and then …
Yeah, so the day I landed in Vegas, I found an apartment and then two days later, I started work. Some people like meditation — I’m not that person.
It was kind of a whirlwind. We opened with like 300 people on New Year’s Eve and then we just never stopped until everything halted on March 16.