Dottie's Blessing: One man strives to make the best truck-stop meal in the nation

Tune in to St. Louis Public Radio 90.7 KWMU’s Cityscape on Friday, Feb. 10 at 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. to hear more from Tim Blessing.

Tim Blessing likes to sing George Michael songs when he’s working the line. “Father Figure’s one of my favorites,” he said from a mallard-green vinyl booth in Dottie’s Family Restaurant. “I also like some Journey and Queen.”

When asked which song Blessing’s known for, Chris Spillman, Dottie’s general manager, clarified the question. “It’s not just one song, or even entire songs, it’s more like the five or six lines he knows, which come out of the kitchen as a very loud blurb.”

“The George Michael Christmas song? I was hittin’ that up earlier,” Blessing interrupted. “Oh and Billy Joel; I love Billy Joel.”

Blessing’s cherubic rosy cheeks and honest blue eyes bespeak a gentle spirit that’s an anomaly in today’s world of tatted-up chefs. So when he reveals a stint as a soloist in the choir at SLU High School years ago, it isn’t difficult to picture. It also becomes apparent that this love for performing began long before he swung open a kitchen door.

“I wasn’t some choir boy,” Blessing asserted. “But when I was a senior, we had been touring, you know ‘touring,’” he said pausing to form quotes with his fingers, “at these little grade schools and old folks’ homes, and when I sang Uptown Girl, I’d pull a little girl or old lady up for me to sing to and the crowd would go crazy. It was all fine and dandy, but then we had to perform back at SLUH, at an all-school assembly, and, well, you know,” Blessing stopped to laugh with Spillman. “Never thought I was gonna live that one down.”

Sometimes customers come in asking for the “singing chef;” sometimes Blessing grabs a waitress and dances her around Dottie’s buffet tables. Between the name on the door and the lyrics twirling around the kitchen, one might expect Dottie’s customers to resemble the cast of Happy Days. Blessing’s biggest fans, however, look more like pickled members of ZZ Top.

Just over a year ago, Blessing was head line cook at Herbie’s – a place where the tablecloths are white, reservations are made well in advance and the average ticket price for a table of two hovers at $100. After stints at a few more of St. Louis’ big-name restaurants – Balaban’s, Monarch and Cardwell’s on the Plaza – Blessing’s next career move seemed familiar, almost predictable. Soon, he’d take on a managerial role, or maybe even head up his own kitchen.

He did both. But you won’t find him downtown. Or in Midtown. Or even the county. Head west – a lengthy 83 miles west of Herbie’s – to a restaurant commonly known by the truckers who frequent it as “The 208,” in reference to its exit number.

Twenty miles before reaching Cuba, Mo., billboards along Highway 44 advertise canoeing, porn, fireworks, Jesus, Ron Paul, “IRS Problems?” and the “World’s Largest Rocking Chair.” Cuba itself is home to the Vacuum Cleaner Museum, approximately nine places to eat (mainly fast food chains), six places to camp, three gas stations, two hotels and one travel plaza.

Inside Midwest Petroleum Travel Plaza’s atrium, there are a set of showers, two claw arcade machines (their winnings, possibly the contents of Flavor Flav’s junk drawer), a hair salon whose owner passes her downtime crouched atop a red plastic milk crate smoking cigarettes, and Dottie’s.

“It’s a huge shift. So many people told me I was crazy,” Blessing said, gesturing vaguely around the restaurant, perhaps to the green-and-white tiling that looks better suited for an industrial bathroom, or to the nonsmoking section sandwiched, unapologetically, between two huge smoking sections. “People still tell me I’m crazy.”

Dottie’s is owned by Don McNutt of Midwest Petroleum. “I met Don at a party in ’03. I had just started at Monarch. We were about to open, hanging chandeliers and stuff, and I guess I was pretty excited about it. Don was [so] impressed with me and my attitude toward my job that he was like, ‘If I ever had employees that were that excited about work …’ Well I guess my attitude kinda hooked him.”

Years later, Blessing heard through Aaron Teitelbaum, Monarch and Herbie’s co-owner, that McNutt had bought a travel plaza out in Cuba with a rundown restaurant inside. “I told Aaron to go tell him I would work for him. I was joking you know, but not 100 percent joking. So when Don called and made me an offer to head up the kitchen, I said, ‘I’m always considering anything I suppose.’ It was a good offer, but I’ve never really done things for money.”

The travel plaza sits on more than 80 acres of land and, according to Blessing, at around 10 o’clock every night, the only thing one can hear is the near-harmonious hum of truck engines. “I’ve been told this is the safest truck stop in the nation by a lot of truckers. My goal when they hired me was to get them in the door and for Dottie’s to be the best restaurant for 100 miles, to be the best stop in the nation. You know truckers talk,” Blessing lowered his voice, possibly in response to the camouflage-clad Santa Claus sitting behind us next to a woman. It was safe to assume she was his wife based on the “Wife of a trucker” T-shirt she was sporting.

“When Don first bought the place, the restaurant didn’t even have AC. Not even salt and pepper on the line,” Blessing mused. “McNutt’s first menu for the restaurant said ‘Midwest Petroleum’ on the cover with a picture of an oil drop. Who would want to eat an oil drop?” Soon after Blessing arrived, a new menu was styled with McNutt’s mother, Dottie, on the front. “We want this place to live up to her picture, you know?” He said as he pointed to the new yellow menu.

This spring, the whole travel plaza will get a new face. “For the restaurant, there will be stacked brick and dark wood – you know, trendy,” Blessing explained. But renovations won’t be changing the soul of the place much. Dottie’s will still be open 24 hours a day, and there will still be a buffet – two obstacles that can trip up even the most seasoned chefs. “How many times have you walked past a buffet you didn’t want to eat at?” he asked. “They’re nasty, right?” For Blessing, jumping through these hoops is most of the fun. “Comfort food is where it’s at. I saw that a few years ago. I was selling 30 $30 steaks a night and 10 $10 burgers, and then it inverted in a matter of months to 30 burgers and 10 steaks. Comfort food is more than a trend; it’s what you can afford. I’m not gonna change that.”

As if reciting an AA mantra, Blessing admitted, “I’m just trying to control the things I can control. The day I got here, I thought: I want to make an immediate difference. So I started making soups. And every single day since, I hear from at least one person, ‘That’s the best soup I’ve ever had.’ That, to me, is what it’s all about.”

Since arriving, Blessing has upped the quality of Dottie’s ingredients, making sure every item is made from scratch. The effects of some of these changes are more calculable to Blessing’s pride than on Dottie’s bottom line. “In a lot of ways,” he said, “we are a victim of our own success. Consumption is a huge problem with a buffet. Some of these guys are making 10 trips up.” Often the fried chicken – a Blessing specialty and buffet staple – is wiped out by a single hungry family.

Blessing’s spare ribs are some of the best I’d ever eaten – touting a perfect balance of wet and dry that’s utterly addictive. All-you-can-eat ribs used to be a part of the buffet, but Blessing wisely pulled them and added them to the menu because he was losing too much money. (Apparently I’m not the only one with an affinity for those porky delights.) He also removed some tired menu items and added recipes of his own, like his brisket. Slow-roasted for 14 hours, slathered with a barbecue brown gravy and plated with delicate corn-fried tobacco onions and tri-colored roasted potatoes, the plate was a lovely blend of salty and sweet worth at least three times the $8.99 price tag. The waffle club – eggs and bacon (sausage and ham are also options) sandwiched between two Belgian waffles, complete with a bowl of syrup for dipping – would be sinfully fitting as both an appetizer or dessert any time of day.

Renovations for Dottie’s will also include a space where the Big Mother Trucker plaques will hang. After a comment card suggested that the Big Mother Trucker Burger wasn’t big enough, a comment Blessing took to heart, the new burger will feature three 8-ounce-patties, a half pound of bacon, six slices of cheese and a pound of fries on the side. Winners will receive a T-shirt declaring their victory. Adam Richman, you’re going to have some competition.

Blessing’s goals are humble and realistic yet noble, idealistic all the same. “I don’t miss the VIP scene,” he said, shaking his head. “We don’t have self-important people. That’s one part of the business that really gets tiring; I just don’t have that problem here. It’s not that I take my job less seriously, to me it’s like you come out and I hope you have a good meal, and that’s all it is for me. Our VIPs are the truckers, the guys who spend the night in their trucks in the parking lot so they can have both dinner and breakfast here.” Blessing grinned, adding, “And the locals, the people who come in four days a week, and we hope to make them come in five. And because of our costs, they can. Everyone can afford Dottie’s; we’re not alienating anyone.”

As if on cue, Blessing was interrupted by a white ponytailed man wearing a black skullcap pulled down to the top of his glasses and Bluetooth. His gray t-shirt, stretched tight across his belly, read, “Beer Hunter,” but he was looking for Tabasco. “Just a second,” Blessing said, standing up to retrieve a pile of condiment bottles.

Blessing returned smiling. “Sometimes Bill [Cardwell] calls to give me trouble. Blessing’s voice assumed an affect reminiscent of James Cagney’s in The Public Enemy. “Timmy! Timmy! Lime Jell-O on the buffet is out. Hey Timmy, check the gravy.’’ Blessing continued, “Then if I ever call him to mess with him, he says, ‘Hey-a Country-Fried Steak, what’s goin’ on?’”

In total, Blessing worked four tours at Cardwell’s. It’s always served as his home base. “I walked in there yesterday actually. Hadn’t been in there in probably 18 months. In the front of the house I only recognized two people, but in the kitchen, it was the exact same crew. Like family. We went in at 1:45 [p.m.] and it was bangin’. Everyone had food on their plates and the place was packed. Bill knows what he’s doin’.”

Blessing didn’t deny his nostalgia for his past work but said he has only doubted his decision for one day – after his first hour-long (when speeding) commute from Des Peres. “I came here to do something, to see this project through. And I definitely want to see it all the way through, so Don can be proud to have his mom on his menu. I definitely didn’t do it for the glory,” he laughed. “Or the convenience factor.”