Food & Drinks

Celebrated Sommelier Charged With Setting Fire to Outdoor Dining Structures in Manhattan

Fire department officials announced on Wednesday that Caleb Ganzer, a celebrated sommelier and partner at Nolita wine bar La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, had been arrested and charged with two counts of felony. The charges include three instances of arson, including two at outdoor dining structures in Manhattan, and other crimes in connection to the fires. The New York Times first reported news of the arrest.

The incidents unfolded over a seventh-month period earlier this year, in which Ganzer set flame to the outdoor dining structures at Lower East Side restaurant Forsythia in January and Nolita slice shop Prince Street Pizza on July 13, fire officials say. The outdoor setups at both businesses sustained damages from the fires, but the brick-and-mortar restaurants were not affected.

Still, the fires took an emotional and financial toll on local restaurant owners at a time when most businesses were fighting to stay afloat. Jacob Siwak, owner of Forsythia, tells Eater that the Lower East Side restaurant endured several attempts at arson over a nine-day period in January. In one instance on January 6, a plumber who had arrived at Forsythia before the start of service noticed that the restaurant’s outdoor structure was ablaze. The flames were put out using a fire extinguisher from the restaurant’s kitchen, Siwak says.

The outdoor dining structure at Forsythia on the Lower East Side.
Jacob Siwak/Forsythia

Two days later, on January 8, neighbors reported a fire in front of the restaurant at 11:52 p.m. “It was massive,” Siwak says, estimating that the flames stretched almost two stories tall. “It put the whole building in jeopardy.” Both ends of the outdoor setup were destroyed. Two additional incidents occurred over the next five days, according to Siwak, in which neighbors reported smells of smoke from the restaurant. In one instance, fire officials had to forcibly enter the building and hammer through the restaurant’s door.

In total, he estimates that damages to the outdoor dining structure and kitchen door totaled $3,500. “It was a lot considering that we only had five tables at the time,” Siwak says, nodding to the indoor dining shutdown in New York City at that time. “It took us a week to rebuild, but our guests were understanding of what happened. They dined with us in a charred structure.”

The fire at Prince Street Pizza, which took place at 2:55 a.m. on July 13, was less damaging. In a video shared by fire officials on Wednesday, Ganzer can be seen removing a handheld lighter from his pocket and casually setting flame to napkin dispensers outside of the Nolita restaurant. The flames left the outdoor dining structure charred at one end. “It could have been very dangerous,” manager Tony Sosa tells the Times.

A wooden outdoor dining structure is charred at one end after what appears to have been a recent fire

The charred outdoor dining structure at Prince Street Pizza in Nolita.
New York City Fire Department

Ganzer had not previously been apprehended for the incidents at Forsythia in January. Following the fire at Prince Street Pizza, officials say they established a connection between the two incidents, along with a third occurrence in June in which Ganzer reportedly started a trash fire on the corner of Broome and Center streets, just steps from the popular wine bar. Fire officials arrested Ganzer, charging him with two felony counts of arson, two felony counts of criminal mischief, and three counts of reckless endangerment.

In a statement to the Times, a spokesperson for La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels said, “We as the company are aware of the incident, and Mr. Ganzer is on a leave of absence.” Eater has reached out to Ganzer and La Compagnie chef Eric Bolyard for more information.

Ganzer, a celebrated sommelier, took over the wine program at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, which first opened in 2014, after stints working in the dining rooms of Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, and other upscale restaurants. The hip Nolita wine bar, where he serves as a managing partner, is regarded as one of the best in the city. Fans of the establishment applauded La Compagnie’s expansive wine list as much as its themed nights, including Tracksuit Tuesdays and Hawaiian specials. Last year, Ganzer and his business partners also opened a wine camp, called Supernatural Lake, in the Finger Lakes.



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