Veteran Restaurateur Denis Seyer Recharged After 4-Year Hiatus

Denis Seyer, the renowned Little Rock chef and restaurateur with a string of fabled Little Rock restaurants on his resume, plans to put his 53 years in the business to work teaching younger culinary artists the beauty of simple food simply prepared.

It’s the culinary version of the architectural dictum: Less is more.

Seyer is starting his tutelage at 1620 Savoy in Little Rock, owned by RH Cuisine, as is the newly opened Cache Restaurant in the River Market District. RH Cuisine is headed by Rush Harding, CEO of Little Rock investment firm Crews & Associates.

Seyer has already revamped the 1620 menu and expanded the wine list to include a greater range at different price points. He has eliminated some of the steaks, is offering a lot of seafood and has tried to provide a range of entrée prices. And he’s incorporating some of his favorite food influences, like Thai, Caribbean and Indian.

Speaking of 1620’s young chefs, Seyer said, “They cooked a little bit like every modern restaurant young chef cooks. And to me, it’s too complicated, too many ingredients, heavy-handed ingredients.

“So it’s going to be, I think, a little challenge to teach them how to cook simple,” he said. “They still don’t have the philosophy yet. I’m trying to get them there, that really cooking simple is much more difficult.”

Seyer is tackling this new challenge after having recovered from a stroke suffered about four years ago in the Cayman Islands, where he’d relocated in “semi-retirement” and was part-owner of a popular restaurant, Guy Harvey’s Island Grill.

He returned to Little Rock, where his family lives, to recover and then headed back to the Caymans. He tried to work “but it was too much stress. The stress got me in the first place. So I sold all my interests and came back.”

On his return to Little Rock, Seyer did some catering, some restaurant consulting and cooked for private parties. But his return to the kitchen was too soon, he said, and for the past two years he “decompressed.”

That decompression, however, included volunteer work helping elderly people fill out their tax returns in the AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide program. He’s good with numbers, Seyer said. After all, he’s as much a businessman as a chef.

Diners of a certain age will know Seyer, a native of France, from his associations with the restaurants Jacques & Suzanne, Le Casse Croute, which he opened in 1980, and Alouette’s, which Seyer called his favorite among his enterprises. All three are closed but they had good runs and remain in diners’ affections.

His sabbatical from the restaurant business re-energized him, Seyer said, “So now I’m feeling pretty good. Rush approached me and I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’”

Seyer’s starting with 1620 Savoy, but in his role with RH Cuisine he may be consulting for Cache later. “He gave me carte blanche,” Seyer said of Harding.

1620 Savoy, which actually began life as Restaurant 1620, a project of Seyer and his business partner Paul Bash, closed June 30, 2012, for renovations and reopened in September 2012 with new owners Payne Harding, son of Rush, and three friends. But, Seyer said, the reopened and rechristened 1620 Savoy couldn’t quite figure out what it wanted to be, mixing fine dining with a space devoted on the weekends to more of a lounge scene complete with DJ. It was not, he said, an inspired pairing. So Seyer has done some light redecorating. The elegant Art Deco design still prevails. “I’m trying to relax the place a little bit without making it super casual,” he said.

1620 Savoy’s sales in 2013 totaled $950,112 compared with $435,384 in 2012, but the restaurant was closed January through August 2012 for renovation.

One focus of Seyer’s is customer service. He told a story about arriving more or less incognito at the 1620 bar only to find the bartender hunched over, face invisible, doing something with his hands. Perhaps he’s slicing lemons, Seyer thought, before finally lifting himself up to look over the bar to see the distracted bartender lost in the glow of his smartphone. This, Seyer said, is not acceptable.

Also unacceptable: iPad earbuds constantly implanted in ears. The staff at 1620 Savoy needs to be able to hear Seyer’s instructions.

His restaurant philosophy, like his food, is straightforward: “You have to give value” and “It takes a lot of technique to do simple food.”