Figurative language overflows with idioms based in a busy kitchen, and Stephen Sleyo has probably lived each of them literally during the last two months.
‘Tis the holiday season, after all.
In early October, Sleyo took over the entirety of food operations at The Drayton Hotel and its headlining rez-de-chaussée restaurant, St. Neo’s Brasserie, just in time to host a full slate of events and meals for the 2023 SCAD Savannah Film Festival.
“That was a big week. That was my first week, and we sold out the whole building to the Film Festival,” said Sleyo, which rhymes with the fun refrain in that famous Harry Belafonte song. “We had them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for eight days.”
“It was kind of induction by fire,” he coined with a laugh, “but everything went great. We all had a good time, and they all had a good time. I look forward to doing it again next year.”
Before he can look ahead to next October, though, the busyness of the current winter holiday season is upon him.
St. Neo’s will offer Christmas brunches on Dec. 24 and 25, for which more than a hundred reservations have already been taken, as well as dinner service both nights. Christmas Day’s dinner covers are at 180 and counting.
The following week, the Southern-accented brasserie will serve a prix fixe New Year’s Eve
five-course special supper ($95 per person plus optional wine pairings) in addition to its entire dinner menu á la carte.
“The holidays are going to be really nice,” said Sleyo.
For a chef whose name sounds like Santa’s transport, that outlook could not be merrier or more apropos.
AT THE DRAYTON
“I love it all,” Sleyo said of his new post. “I guess the most challenging part of it has been building my team. I’m in the process, and that’s taking me a little bit.”
His new chef de cuisine, Ryan Alpaugh, started a few weeks back, and Sleyo expects to round out his brigade with young “up-and-coming” chefs, some perhaps straight out of culinary school.
“My grand scheme is that, by February, I’ll have my core team and that we’ll be chugging along at full steam,” he predicted.
In the meantime, what Sleyo has enjoyed the most has been the food. Cutting his teeth and sharpening his knives in the late-eighties, the food he made early in his culinary career was heavily “French-cuisine-influenced,” and the concept at St. Neo’s has allowed him to return to those resto roots.
The majority of the dishes on the dinner menu have recently changed with the appearance of “quite a few new items,” including a tomahawk pork chop served with sautéed bourbon peaches and confit potatoes ($38) and a roasted chicken Normandy, Sleyo’s take on the classic preparation, finished with Fuji apples and brandy cream and accompanied by vegetable ratatouille ($29).
Sleyo said that the most popular order of late has been the braised short rib, which is served atop celery root purée.
“It sits on a nice fresh crustini that we make, and it gets topped with fried parsnips and fig Bourdelaise,” he added. “You get the little bit of bitterness from the celery root, and you have that little bit of sweetness from the fig in the Bourdelaise.”
“It’s just a really good combination.”
Aligning with Sleyo’s intent to bring St. Neo’s back to its seafood-focused namesake and origins, the diver scallops served with pea succotash and tomato au jus ($34) is one of four fish dishes. Also in the works for the new year, he wants to “upscale the raw bar” while adding more fresh seafood specials.
“I’d like to bring in raw scallops and sea urchin, things that nobody around is really doing,” he said.
Other than keeping the estimable eatery on course, Sleyo was not given any directives and was given total creative control, which means nothing on the menu he inherited is sacred.
Tous les mêmes, the French onion soup remains a “huge hit,” and though the traditional starter might seem passé to some palates, Sleyo asserted, “We do it the right way. We blend three different onions, and we use a really good Gruyere.”
On these dark December nights, that soup sounds superb.
FROM THE QUEEN CITY TO THE HOSTESS CITY
Sleyo hails from Scranton, and he will beat you to the Dunder-Mifflin punchlines, though he left Eastern PA before he turned twenty. His mother had moved to Columbia, SC, so he spent some time there before he met his wife and they moved to Cincinnati, their home for the next twenty years.
At what was then the Omni Netherland Plaza, Sleyo had his “first really significant job,” serving as the 800-room hotel’s banquet sous chef. Built in the 1930s and added to the National Historic Register in 1985 while concurrently earning National Landmark status, the Netherland blends French Art Deco with French Renaissance Revival architecture and features two ballrooms.
“It’s a gorgeous hotel,” Sleyo said fondly. “We could serve 2500 people in a night.”
After nearly five years at the Netherland, he felt the need to hone his “fine-dining experience” and seized the opportunity to become the executive sous chef at The Cincinnatian, the oldest hotel in the Queen City.
“It was the place. If anybody famous came to Cincinnati, that’s where they stayed,” said Sleyo, who recalled visits by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, and Patti LaBelle to name just a few music luminaries.
When life gave him the chance to return to the Lowcountry, Sleyo moved to Hilton Head and became the banquet chef at the Westin Spa and Resort, where he stayed for a total of eight-plus years, during which time he took over the property’s four dining outlets as the chef de cuisine.
Moving on and moving up the brigade ranks, Sleyo served as the executive chef at the Country Club of Hilton Head from 2020 to 2023.
“I loved it. It was a great job. It was just different from anything I had done,” he said, citing the slower pace before quickly admitting that “he really missed the high pace, the ever-changing atmosphere of the hotels.”
“And that’s what brought me to The Drayton.”
Although his career saw a few stops in between, working at the boutique Savannah hotel feels reminiscent of his time at The Cincinnatian.
“There’s a lot of similarities in the properties as far as the size and the uniqueness of the buildings and the character that they have,” he acknowledged.
Not that the pandemic did those in food any favors, in the industry and especially here in Savannah, turnover is not just a fruit-filled puff pastry: Sleyo is the fourth chef to wear the top toque at St. Neo’s since the brasserie and its luxury hotel opened in October of 2019, and this past July, the entire property joined the Curio Collection by Hilton.
And so, the new year will ring in a newness all around as St. Neo’s goes from strength to strength under Sleyo’s direction.
“If it’s food at The Drayton, it’s me,” he said proudly of the opportunity. “They trust me. They have confidence in me, which I greatly appreciate.”
“The hotel’s reputation is my reputation.”
St. Neo’s in The Drayton Hotel (7 Drayton Street) is open daily for breakfast and brunch (7 a.m. to 2 p.m.), Tuesday through Thursday for dinner (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.), and Friday and Saturday for dinner (5 p.m. to 10 p.m.), plus a daily happy hour (5 p.m. to 6 p.m.).