Having made his name at Tom Colicchio’s Craft, and helped Andrew Carmellini launch Lafayette, Manhattan was sorry to surrender Damon Wise when he unexpectedly decamped to Charleston in 2014. But what emerged as both of their losses (he quickly tired of South Carolina as well), became Brooklyn’s considerable gain, when he was successfully wooed by the Sauvage and Maison Premiere crew.
We chatted with the newly installed chef/partner about his Williamsburg and Greenpoint posts, and scoped out his range of revamped (but still wild) dishes at Sauvage.
It’s understandable why chefs have fled the city for greener pastures the last few years. But you were a known entity before leaving NYC, involved with projects that have actually exhibited real staying power. Why hightail it to Charleston?
I was already traveling a lot, especially to secondary markets like Nashville, Ashville, Raleigh, Durham and of course Charleston, which really seemed to be on the rise. And I was thinking relocating could be kind of be a great thing. I knew that since it’s hard enough to find cooks and back-of-house staff here, it would be equally as hard there, but the lifestyle might be different. So I went to a smaller market and was a big fish in a small pond. I built a beautiful restaurant. And it was fun for awhile.
“Awhile” being the operative term, obviously. What brought you back to NYC?
Since I come from a very small family, I didn’t realize the impact that the large working family of colleagues I had developed over my years in New York would have such an effect on me. It was natural for me to come back. Friends were asking me to, I was coerced to, and I was happy to.
What did you miss the most about the dining scene here?
Ethnic foods. Different concepts. Chefs that are doing interesting things. There are five leading restaurants in Charleston, and you end up running through them pretty quick on your days off. Here, there’s such a market to try all different things.
Anything you especially miss about Charleston?
They have incredible growing seasons…two distinctly different, warm growing seasons with by-product crops that you don’t really see here. I really didn’t have to limit myself.
So had you already arranged to take over Savage and Maison prior to moving here, or did you figure you’d just come back, cast your net, and see what was out there?
The latter. I had barely started looking around, and these guys reached out to me, which is nice. They’re great guys with awesome vision, and are very ambitious. I had also been a regular at Maison Premiere for a long time, so I was pretty excited when they reached out to me.
How have you gone about putting your own stamp on the menu? Are you still going with the original “wild” concept?
I’m still trying to work with that. I’m very passionate about vegetables, obviously. This is such a great corner and I want to have something for everyone. They’re such competition over there, obviously (pointing at Five Leaves) and so I wanted to offer dishes that have exciting elements, but that people naturally gravitate towards.
I see you put a burger on there. Not too proud to burger!
Yeah, I’m too old to care.
Considering its association with Maison Premiere, do you feel beholden to maintain the seafood through line?
I do. It will be a revolving menu, obviously, but there will be a few more fish dishes coming along.
When do you imagine you’ll turn your attention to Maison Premiere?
Two weeks. I’ve already spent some time over there…I usually commit an entire day each week so I can see what’s coming along and start plugging some stuff in.
The challenge, of course, for any chef that works there, is how do you escape the shadow of the dollar oyster happy hour?
You don’t. You don’t. So we’ll just keep some of the staple items. Switch out some of the crudos. Maybe introduce some seafood style snacks. I’ve just got to get through the lunch and brunch menus over here and then hopefully, everything will become clear.