Posted On: 08/01/2015
Jeff Lehman has a standing reservation at Niche every Saturday night - and any other night he desires. He’s had dishes named in his honor at Gerard Craft’s celebrated flagship restaurant, and even an eponymous Lehman Project Menu composed by young chefs eager to please him.
Kevin Nashan, chef-owner of Sidney Street Cafe and Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co., makes it his personal mission to impress Lehman’s wife, Laura, and keeps a list of her food preferences in the kitchen. Ben Poremba, chef-owner of Elaia, has Lehman taste dishes he’s still developing, just to obtain his valuable critique.
Many of us feel an affinity for a particular chef or restaurant. Jeff Lehman, 54, is the patron chefs revere right back. The list of food folk Lehman calls his good friends reads like a who’s who of the St. Louis culinary scene: Nashan, Poremba, Craft, Steve and Jamie Komorek (Trattoria Marcella and Mia Sorella), Mike Emerson (Pappy’s Smokehouse and its family of restaurants), Matt McGuire (Niche Food Group), Jim Fiala (Acero and The Crossing) and Sam Kogos (Riverbend), to name a few. Chat with Lehman about fine dining, and he cites chefs and restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York with the mastery of names, places and statistics typically exhibited by a Cardinals fan discussing baseball. Which is why, when Craft expressed an interest in molecular gastronomy, it was Lehman who procured reservations for the two of them at famed Chicago restaurants Moto and Alinea. When the Komorek brothers dined at revered chef Daniel Boulud’s eponymous Daniel restaurant in NYC, it was Lehman who arranged their private tour with Boulud himself.
How did Lehman, who Emerson dubbed “The Patron Saint of Restaurants,” become St. Louis’ most respected restaurant regular?
The first and most obvious answer is that Lehman frequents restaurants often. “Jeff loves food and eats out a lot. He’s a professional diner,” Nashan explained. Lehman can be found in restaurants an average of four evenings per week, and he enjoys an equal or greater number of lunches out as well. While many of his meals are at finer establishments, Lehman is also a fan of tasty, uncomplicated fare like Poremba’s Old Standard Fried Chicken and burgers at O’Connell’s Pub.
Whether he’s enjoying a five-course prix fixe or a slice at The Good Pie (reopening soon as Randolfi’s), Lehman makes a point to build relationships with the hosts, servers and chefs who work there. “I take a personal interest in what they’re interested in, whether it’s the restaurant business or their family. When you talk with them on a personal level, they see you as more than a customer,” Lehman said. “I engage with people.”
Lehman recounted the time he recognized Chicago Tribune food and wine columnist William Rice sitting next to him at renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s now-shuttered Vong restaurant in New York. Lehman tipped off the maitre d’ to Rice’s presence, and when Lehman returned to Vong for lunch later that week, Vongerichten approached him, asking for details on Rice’s dining experience. How did Vongerichten even recognize Lehman? They had met before, when Lehman attended one of his book signings at Williams-Sonoma in Frontenac; Lehman introduced himself and asked about the chef’s endeavors in New York, Las Vegas and Chicago. This resulted in an invitation to dine at Vongerichten’s three-star Michelin restaurant, Jean-Georges. Lehman did, taking the Komerek brothers with him. The real question: how did Lehman recognize Rice from the Chicago Tribune? When asked, Lehman shrugged and replied, “I’m good with names and faces.”
Lehman’s also good at telling his friends the truth, “even if they don’t like what I have to say,” Lehman chuckled. Whether he’s discussing business plans or a special that tastes a little pedestrian, Lehman provides valuable, honest advice. “Jeff is supportive ... in that he patronizes the restaurants, and also that he gives good critical feedback,” Poremba said. “A good customer is someone who comes in often. A really good friend will always tell you the truth. Jeff is never condescending, but if something is off, he’ll politely let me know.”
Lehman never trained as a chef, but his culinary bona fides abound. He’s an enthusiastic home cook, first taught as a child by his aunt. International travel as an adult expanded his repertoire; a trip to Italy inspired Lehman to tweak his aunt’s bread and stewed tomatoes recipe into Pappa Al Pomodoro. “I’ve become a better cook because I’ll try to emulate things that I see in restaurants. For example, I’m no longer intimidated by cooking fish. Now I’ll cook it in parchment paper or sear it and serve it with browned butter,” he said.
He credits travel as a business consultant for turning him into a restaurant aficionado. To this day, Lehman uses restaurants as a way to learn about a city’s culture when he travels. He’ll strike up a foodie conversation with people seated next to him on flights because, as he noted, everyone eats and most people like to talk about it. “If I’m sitting next to you, I’ll start talking to you. And one of the first questions I ask is, ‘Where do you like to go to eat?’ And then I’ll research it.”
Looking back on his early years as a road warrior, Lehman made a point to sample the local scene. “I could have stayed at the Marriott every night and had a Marriott burger. Instead, I started going to different restaurants every night and developing my palate. I wasn’t afraid to be a solo diner and I didn’t want to be bored.”
As a party of one, Lehman often sat at the counter where he could observe the inner workings of professional kitchens. This, and operations management overall, piqued Lehman’s natural curiosity. He began to research the restaurant industry in his spare time. He studied food costs and front-of-house management, even watching hospitality conference videos for fun.
Craft was the subject of Lehman’s research when the chef moved to St. Louis 10 years ago. Lehman knew he had worked at The Ryland Inn, a top fine-dining restaurant in New Jersey, and was eager to see what the young chef would bring to the St. Louis scene. “Niche was new and was doing things I hadn’t seen here before with their seasonal menu, so I called them,” Lehman said.
Craft remembered Lehman’s initial phone call with a little more anxiety. “We had just opened Niche. Suzie (Craft) answered the phones. Jeff said, ‘Tell Chef I’ve eaten at all the places he’s worked.’ I told Suzie, ‘Did you tell him it’s not like that? It’s not that fancy?’ I was worried Niche wouldn’t live up to his expectations,” Craft recalled. Now, the James Beard Award winner is proud to call Lehman a kindred spirit. “We’ve gone to dinner together. We’ve gone to church together. We talk about the business. And then there’s the cookbook thing ...”
An avid cookbook collector, Lehman takes special delight giving chefs treasured references. “He helps us all. He drops off a book here and there, everywhere,” Nashan said. Lehman is particularly adept at finding volumes in the illusive Imbocca series, an out-of-print Italian cookbook collection filled with regional recipes, beautiful Italian script and hand-painted artwork. Lehman’s hunt started years ago, when Steve Komorek asked for Lehman’s assistance finding the books. “I filled the collection for him. This was before eBay, so I used translation software to write to booksellers in Italy,” Lehman said. “Now if I can find one, I get it for the guys (Craft, Nashan and Poremba). I keep track of them so I know which ones they need.”
Beyond gifting cookbooks, tales of Lehman’s benevolence abound. He’s quick to buy drinks or dinner for servers and managers when he spots them dining out. After weekly meetings of his wine club, dubbed The X-pensive Winos (in honor of Keith Richard’s back-up band), Lehman leaves esoteric bottles for the staff and kitchen to try. “Some of these guys will never get to taste these wines because they’re stupid expensive. But I’ve got it, and I’m not going to drink all of it by myself, so I’ll tell them to share it.”
Given his celebrated status in an industry filled with celebrities, it’s easy to cynically imagine Lehman as a modern-day Medici, feeding his ego as well as his belly. But that’s not how his chef friends see him. “He’s kind and generous,” said Nashan. Craft concurred: “Jeff’s not a groupie. He doesn’t want anything except to be part of people’s lives.”
Making people feel valued and special is something Lehman learned from his mother. “She taught me that if you can remember someone’s birthday or offer a word of encouragement or give them a little book, it lets them know you are thinking of them,” he said. “My mom was a single mom. I didn’t have a lot growing up, so now I enjoy being able to share things with others.”
According to his friends, Lehman’s prestige is a result of what he brings to the restaurant industry, and any benefits he receives are simply chefs trying to return the favor. While his dining budget is expansive, it’s his knowledge, sincerity and kindness that are truly endearing. His restaurant relationships are based on trust, respect and a love of good food. Which means there’s plenty of room at the table for the rest of us to become regulars, too.
4 steps to becoming a regular
1) Show up. “If someone patronizes a restaurant on a regular basis, then they are regulars.” – Ben Poremba
2) Follow the Golden Rule. “Treat people how they want to be treated. When I’m at a restaurant, I behave like I’m in someone’s house.” – Jeff Lehman
3) Be honest. “I want to hear the good, the bad and the ugly because I want to make things better.” – Kevin Nashan
4) Make conversation. “Reach out a little bit. Know your host, your server. Great regulars are people who take interest in the people who work there.” – Gerard Craft
Dine on Lehman's terms
“CHICKEN AT BRASSERIE. Everyone is always so scared of French food, but this is just extremely well-executed roast chicken. There are days I crave
“If I see CRUDO or TARTARE on a menu, I will always order it. I’ve had it at Niche. Kevin Nashan did one with scallops. A perfect piece of fish treated gently with a little salt and a little oil is my favorite thing in life.”
“MELANZANE ALLA PARMIGIANO at Trattoria Marcella is something that I crave. Simple, but Steve (Komorek) and his team have done it perfect for years. The way they treat it, you would never miss meat.”
“BUCATINI ALL’ AMATRICIANA I go to on a regular basis. Or, if you really want to be like me: CHITARRA WITH CLAMS at Pastaria. They do it with a white wine and chile, but I make them add some pomodoro to it.”
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