Welcome back to Staff Spotlight: a monthly series where we’re digging deeper into the minds behind the magic. She started as a coat check in Mario’s restaurant years ago and recently celebrated ten years as managing partner at Casa Mono/Bar Jamon. Not to mention the success of Tarry Lodge‘s various locations. Say hello to Nancy Selzer!
Where did you grow up? Salem, Virginia which is in the Blue Ridge mountains right next to Roanoke. My mother was a housewife and my father was a political science professor.
What was your plan when you moved to NYC? I was an English major, so I moved to New York to work in academic publishing. When I moved here, getting your foot in the publishing world meant I made $17,000 a year to start. I got a waitressing job to supplement my income and shortly thereafter I realized I could walk out of a restaurant with a $100 cash in one night. When I was in my twenties I gravitated towards that and had some fun. I sort of found my way into restaurant biz I guess the way a lot of people do.
When did you know this could turn into a career? I got a job at a three star restaurant and started to take it more seriously. I started taking wine classes and viewed restaurants more as a career and less as a way to just supplement my nightclub outfits. I took the American Sommelier Association course and, through that, got more interested in wine because I didn’t want to be a waitress for the rest of my life.
What are some first memories of getting to know Mario? At the time I worked at World Yacht, a dinner cruise, and they used to host the Taste of the Nation event every year. Susi, Mario’s wife, was the chair that year; I think it was 1993. Susi and I became friendly and I got to know Mario as Susi’s husband. My first cognizant memory of spending time with Mario was after Susi and I did some event together. We went to this tapas restaurant in Soho after and I remember meeting this red headed chef that was working at Rocco at the time, way before Pó. He was Mr. Personality and brought the party as he still does. He’s always been very lovely and friendly.
How did you get involved in restaurants with Mario? I then worked at Cellar in the Sky, which was a very small and intimate room, strictly wine focused. I learned so much about wine, but it was not at all busy and we made no money. So while I was there, I got a coat checking job at Pó to supplement my income. It was there that Mario and I got to know each other more. When I heard that he was opening a new restaurant called Babbo, I asked if a position was available. A few weeks later Mario hired me as the first server at Babbo.
What was it like opening Babbo with Mario and Joe? It was pivotal for me. It was Joe and Mario’s first collaboration. Mario had opened Pó, but hadn’t opened anything on the scale of what Babbo was going to be, so it was a big deal. They hired me, a wine director and a general manager and it was very much all hands on deck, everybody pitch in. It was very exciting because Mario was a trailblazer as far as his approach to Italian cooking. Joe’s approach to the wine and service was all very groundbreaking as well. I remember the very first menu tasting we did was the first time I ever tasted fennel pollen. It was the first time that burrata was put on a menu. Mario had literally brought it on the airplane back from Italy. He introduced all of these things that are standard now in Italian restaurants that no one had ever had before.
Do you remember feeling the pressure before Babbo’s first review? I waited on Ruth Reichl I think two of the three times she was there before the review came out. I knew. I was super nervous, but we had a minimal staff and for whatever reason I was the one that got to wait on her. That was really exciting! I remember, also so pivotal, Mario sitting at the bar after we had just opened. I was stocking the bar and in an offhanded convo, in no way was I fishing for anything, I told him that I wanted this job to be my last waitressing job. I told him I wanted to be a manager. Several months later Mario asked me if I wanted the available position as manager at Pó. I was so excited and so scared, but I took it and managed Pó for two years. I was in my early thirties so it was time for me to build a career.
Were you always in on the plans for Casa Mono/Bar Jamon? Actually I didn’t know that I would be part of this project. Andy had the idea to start a Spanish tapas restaurant based on this place he loved in Barcelona. All of the getting the space and getting to the point of thinking about opening, that happened without me being involved. I’m not sure how this happened, but I think Mario asked Andy who he wanted to be the front of the house person and Andy said me. I do remember very distinctly Mario taking me outside to sit on the stoop across the street at Babbo and proposing partner to me in this new project. I was just blown away and so excited.
What has Mario taught you throughout the years? Apart from an appreciation for his approach to cooking, it’s his approach to “restauranting” and how it’s essentially a big party. It’s as if people are coming to your house and you’re making the best dinner you can for them and giving them the most fun experience. Mario is the king of the party and that’s what makes these restaurants so special is that it is very much an offshoot of his approach to life. His joie de vivre.
Not counting the coat checking, I’ve worked with Mario since 1998 when Babbo opened! I like to tell people that when I’m interviewing managers and explaining the opportunity for growth. I pull out the “I started as a coat check and now I’m a partner” card. Trying to be genuinely concerned about your staff and approaching your relationship with them as a relationship and not necessarily a business arrangement is important to me.
What makes the Tarry’s so successful? We’re trying to bring a NYC experience to the suburbs while at the same time keeping in mind that we want to present a value driven, fine dining experience. We want the families with the young kids to feel as comfortable as the Saturday date night couple.
What does ten years with Casa Mono/Bar Jamon mean to you? Time flies. I mean, this restaurant as much as any was a product of love and in many ways naivete. It was the first restaurant that I opened as a partner, not a server, so there is a more emotional approach to the way we set this place up. This restaurant is very much a sentimental favorite. Ten years later and I am still very proud of this place. It’s kind of the Hallmark of what I’ve done professionally.
What have Andy Nusser and Anthony Sasso brought to the table?
Andy and I are very different people but we both want the same things and I think that is extremely advantageous to our productivity in managing a restautant. What he is very good at, I am maybe not so good at and vice versa. We kind of hit all the bases.
Anthony is amazing. His approach to the menu is somewhat similar to my relationship to Andy in that Andy’s food is brilliant in its simplicity and elegance in just three ingredients on a plate. Andy brings a traditional approach to the plate where as Anthony puts some of that Spanish modernist spin on it and it gels very nicely. When they come together it’s a beautiful thing, it’s a beautiful marriage.
Go-to item on the menu?
Sweetbreads I would have to say. I used to say that the sweetbreads on Babbo’s menu were the best until we made them here. These are good for beginners because they’re like amazing chicken nuggets, deep fried in almond flour.
Favorite restaurant in New York?
I have a six-year-old in Brooklyn so I don’t necessarily go out so much anymore, but Per Se is lovely. On the other end of the spectrum, I love everything about Prime Meats in Brooklyn. The food is great, their level of service is so surprising and it’s a casual atmosphere.
Where is your happy place?
My happy place is Sunday morning breakfast with waffles, my husband and my son.