Ones to Watch 2017: Food and drink pros with promise
General Manager, Blood & Sand // Age: 22
Why Watch Him: He’s a barely legal oenophile.
How to take over
Be young. Be bored with your scenery. After high school, move from Phoenix to Baltimore to live with your dad and stepmom. At night, sit around the kitchen table drinking wine with them because you have no friends.
Get a busboy job at a French bistro. Try foie gras for the first time paired with a glass of Sauternes. Freak out. Study wine every free moment you have, even though you’re still just a busboy. Get promoted to server and sell more wine than anyone in the restaurant.
While other kids your age are begging older siblings to buy them cases of Natural Light, loiter in liquor stores until employees notice you taking photos of wine labels. Approach friends, strangers – whoever will listen – with the picture of the next vintage and varietal you need to try and say, “Please buy this for me.” Do this for a year.
Consider it a big life event when a liquor store salesman lets you buy something without showing ID. Buy a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Take your girl to New York City for a fancy dinner. Realize no one is going to sell you wine, then bury your face in the wine book for a half-hour until a sommelier finally approaches the table.
Travel to St. Louis for the first time to take your certified sommelier exam. Celebrate your passing with dinner at Blood & Sand. Love the restaurant so much that you ask owner TJ Vytlacil if you can work there. Find out he just sold the place. Be persistent.
A few weeks later, move to St. Louis to work at Blood & Sand even though you’ve only been there once in your life. In three weeks, sell more bottles of wine than Vytlacil sold in the previous six months. Take over the front of house; run the wine program; be unstoppable.
– Julie Cohen
Blood & Sand 1500 St. Charles St., St. Louis, 314.241.7263, bloodandsandstl.com
Brewer, The Civil Life Brewing Co. // Age: 29
Why Watch Her: She does whatever she wants.
Before she became a professional brewer, Troy Bedik concocted a homebrew recipe so good, Steve Crider of 2nd Shift Brewing mass produced it. Now, after recently landing the highly competitive and coveted position of brewer at Civil Life, she’s already developed a Kölsch recipe owner Jake Haefner declared a favorite of the past year.
Considered one of the most passionate in the field by her peers, this won’t be the last time you hear about Bedik. But first, hear it in her words:
“I love getting my hands dirty – it’s my favorite part of what I do. I like being on my feet all day, moving around, getting to move heavy things. I like having a job where I’m physically crafting something. I can brew the beer, package the beer, put the beer on draft and then enjoy the beer. It’s the ultimate satisfaction.”
“The craft beer world can be a very intimidating environment for women. It’s gotten better, but you have to fight for people to take you seriously, to prove that you know what you’re talking about. It’s good to have a strong support group.”
“I always get the joke from people: ‘Oh, you’re a brewer – where’s your beard?’ Sometimes if I’m wearing a dress, I wonder if it automatically discredits me because I don’t look the part. I think people mean well by it, but you don’t have to look a certain way – like a 30-year-old bearded guy. There’s room for everybody.”
“One of my favorite moments while working at Civil Life was one day when I was wearing my big work boots, work shorts, a headlamp and safety glasses, and I walked into the bathroom and saw this little 5-year-old girl.
“She asked me, ‘Why are you dressed like that?’
“And I said, ‘I’m a brewer. I work over there.’
“Her eyes got wide and she said, ‘That’s so cool!’ Then she ran over and told her dad.
“I loved it because she saw that you can have a job that lets you get a little dirty – you can do whatever you want to do.”
– Julie Cohen
The Civil Life Brewing Co. 3714 Holt Ave., St. Louis, thecivillife.com
Head chef and baker, Farmhaus // Age: 29
Why Watch Him: On the ice or in the kitchen, he’s a competitor.
The greatest lesson Jake Sciales has learned in his four years baking bread is respect. “Bread doesn’t care how busy you are. It doesn’t care when you need it, how many reservations you have. It does its own thing and you have to adapt and react,” he explained.
Shortly after hiring Sciales, Farmhaus chef-owner Kevin Willmann had his friend Matt Herren, then owner of 222 Artisan Bakery in Edwardsville, teach the crew how to bake bread. It wasn’t long before Sciales was heading up Farmhaus’ bread program. “Two to three weeks after I started, it kind of got tossed on me,” Sciales said.
Sciales looks at restaurant work as a competition for the adrenaline to get though daily challenges. He accepted his new role of bread baker, on top of being chef, like the athlete he is. “I took it as a way to endear myself to the new crew I was joining,” Sciales said. “I wanted to take the responsibility and start contributing to the team.”
Sciales got his start washing dishes at Sky Hi in Columbia, Missouri, after college. He was initially attracted to a career in the restaurant industry for the same reason he played a lot of sports growing up, and still plays hockey every week. “A desk job isn’t a good fit for me,” he said. “Being active and having the rush of cooking, the pressure and intensity of it, drew me, and I ran with it.”
With bread baking, Sciales found a new awareness. “It was almost calming because I just followed the process; there was no cheating it, you just have to do it,” he said. “You have to work with it. It doesn’t work with you.”
Something is definitely working. Willmann insisted Sciales puts out some of the best bread in St. Louis. “He’s ambitious for sure, and reliable, with a magnet of a personality,” he said.
Sciales loves working with Homer, the 20-plus-year-old wild yeast mother used to make Farmhaus’ rustic country loaf, and is pretty into sourdough pretzels now. What’s next? “It jumps around,” he said. “Four, five months ago I was getting into focaccia.” Sciales’ mercurial interests fuel what breads Farmhaus serves, but one thing is clear: “Without Matt and Kevin, I probably wouldn’t be down this road right now.”
– Michael Renner
Farmhaus 3257 Ivanhoe Ave., St. Louis, 314.647.3800, farmhausrestaurant.com
Bar Manager and Head Bartender, Cleveland-Heath // Age: 29
Why Watch Him: He created a bar program that keeps pace with one of the area’s best kitchens.
Eight years ago, Elijah Barnes was learning how to mix a Lobsterita. Now he’s in charge of one of the most thoughtful bar programs in the Metro East. Here’s how he got from there to here and a look at where the nomad is headed next.
Red Lobster, Fairview Heights, 2007
“I took an interest in bartending when I was 19 and a server at Red Lobster. As soon as I turned 21, I started training at the bar. Before long, I was tending more than serving, and then I was doing inventory and more of the systems work.”
Cleveland-Heath, Edwardsville, 2011
“Opening the bar at Cleveland-Heath was scary. We had next to no budget to stock the bar, and I had no experience writing a cocktail menu. I experimented at home and read books. We ended up with seven cocktails that all used local soda. Seven soda cocktails. It’s horrifying. … I had a huge hurdle to get the bar program where we wanted it to be.”
Tales of the Cocktail, New Orleans, 2013
“They advertise correctly: the end-all, be-all for bartender education. The first year I booked every single time slot I could. I was in class more than six hours a day. I was there to learn. … When I went this year, I focused on management rather than, ‘Let’s taste a bunch of scotch and yell about it.’”
Buck and Breck, Berlin, Germany, 2016
“I travel for my own personal pleasure and sanity, but always with a focus on what’s happening in bars and the experience in different markets. In Berlin, there are all these over-the-top speakeasies. You go to this unmarked door and knock. Someone slides the window open and sometimes lets you in.”
Cleveland-Heath, Edwardsville, 2017
“We never expected to have a really high-end cocktail bar,” said co-owner Ed Heath. “He came in and took it to another level. He works like me, like a chef – he comes in and has to do his mise en place, his inventory, his ordering. His creativity is through the roof. He is as important as an executive chef.”
Destination Unknown, 2021
“Bartending is a young man’s game, and I’m starting to feel the physical wear and tear. I plan on teaching spirits classes. I’ve also been consulting with a restaurant in Salt Lake City and thought about being a brand ambassador. Those may be directions I’d like to head.”
– Kristin Schultz
Cleveland-Heath 106 N. Main St., Edwardsville, 618.307.4830, clevelandheath.com
Assistant general manager, Vicia // Age: 31
Why watch her: She knows what you need before you do.
Jen Epley has her eye on you. Where did you sit, what did you order and what was your favorite dish? If you don’t like cilantro, you won’t see it – now or the next time you dine with her.
For Epley, successful service means everything appears effortless. Wine keys, pens, lighters and birthday candles are accounted for before the night begins. Guests are greeted warmly, treated with friendly respect and watched carefully from the moment they’re seated until the last glass of wine is consumed.
“You have to know something about them. They are there for that experience of connecting with the food, the servers, the beverages. They want to feel everything that you put into that restaurant,” Epley said. “You have to be part of it. … If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be there because that resonates with all the guests that walk in.”
This is something she’s learned from hospitality pros in some of the best restaurants in the city, starting at Five Bistro five years ago.
“She’s really one of the unsung heroes of service in St. Louis,” said advanced sommelier Andrey Ivanov. He trained Epley on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern wine when they worked at Olio and Elaia. “She’s so technically sound that she can do everything better than most people on autopilot, and meanwhile … look around the room and anticipate what’s next.”
“So many people treat serving as ‘Same job, different apron,’” said Sardella general manager Chris Kelling, who worked with Epley at Niche. “She has goals to ascend in the industry and be amongst the best. That is something I’ve only recently seen in St. Louis, that people are taking hospitality as a career.”
It seems only natural that Epley’s next step is to help open Vicia under co-owner and general manager Tara Gallina, who was service captain at Blue Hill at Stone Barns – a restaurant lauded as much for service as culinary talent. Before a recent wine tasting meeting, Epley pulled out a tote bag filled with polished stemware and ever-present spiral-bound notebooks.
“When I write things down, it’s easier to remember than typing,” she explained, rifling through pages filled with impeccably written wine tasting notes and potential front-of-house hires. Epley loves the puzzle of it all, carefully sorting each detail into its proper column. “It’s a fun game of Tetris,” she said.
“She’s always two steps ahead, which is what you have to be, and seeing the big picture at all times,” Gallina said. “She really just gets it.”
– Catherine Klene
Vicia opening early 2017, viciarestaurant.com
Sous Chef, Annie Gunn’s // Age: 28
Why Watch Him: His gardening exploits are likely to land on your plate.
Annie Gunn’s sous chef Alex Pille grows the usual slate of Midwestern fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, but that’s where the similarities to your grandmother’s garden end.
“I love to try new things,” Pille said. “Amaranth is an ancient grain crop. It has a giant flowering head that can be dried and is kind of like quinoa.” He’s also grown sorghum, rice, saffron and zucca – one of the world’s largest gourds that can weigh up to 100 pounds.
He grows produce his boss, executive chef Lou Rook III, never knew existed and some stuff he has a hard time finding. “I’ve been working with farmers since 1989 and had never heard of these [lemon drop] chiles,” Rook said. “I was so excited about them and Alex goes, ‘Oh yeah, I grew those last year. They’re great.’”
“I research online, but with the more obscure things, it only goes so far,” said Pille. “That’s where the chef part comes in. I found out a lot of people use zucca as a filler in jams. I decided to make applesauce with it. It worked out great.”
The current beneficiaries of Pille’s harvest are his family, friends and sometimes diners at Annie Gunn’s. But that may change.
“Last year I had a variety of around 60 plants growing,” Pille said. “I kept expanding my garden and before I knew it, it was a quarter of an acre.” This spring he plans to plant at least one of the five acres he recently bought in De Soto. “Hopefully by the end of the year, I can have a greenhouse out there, too.”
For Pille, farm-to-table is not a marketing gimmick; being a better farmer makes him a better chef. “He’s farming the food to bring to the table,” Rook said. “He understands food, how to prepare different things, because of his farming background.”
Eventually, he’d like to have his own produce business, selling to area restaurants. “I could be in both realms. I can grow unique things and also offer methods and applications for these obscure ingredients.”
– Kristin Schultz
Annie Gunn’s 16806 Chesterfield Airport Road, Chesterfield, 636.532.3314, anniegunns.com
Executive Sous Chef, Sardella // Age: 27
Why Watch Him: He proves good guys can get ahead.
Sam Witherspoon’s resume reads like a cutthroat careerist’s: the New York Culinary Institute of America to Danny Meyer’s Maialino to Donald Link’s Cochon, then Gerard Craft’s Niche and now Sardella. The lineup may evoke a sense of cold-bloodedness, a ruthless master plan, but that impression would be wrong for the guy Sardella executive chef Nick Blue called his “softer side.”
“I’ve never really had a plan,” Witherspoon said. “I always just kind of go where I want to go and I figure it out when I get there.” He’s gotten where he is simply by aiming high, giving it a shot. He secured the job at Niche with a cold call – an effort that would seem laughable if it hadn’t worked. “I have the attitude of start at the top,” he said. “Because it’s easier to start there than it is to start down and try to move up.”
This strategy, of course, only works if you have the skills to support it. “He has a really playful sense of food … an ability to translate comfort food into modern food,” Craft said. Take, for example, Witherspoon’s recent special at Sardella: a pastrami-spiced brisket and squash agnolotti served with pickled and butter-braised cabbage. “It doesn’t taste like it’s just a riff [on a Reuben],” Craft said. “It is its own dish – something nuanced and unique.’”
But for Witherspoon, being a chef has as much to do with how you treat people as what you serve them. “It’s almost impossible not to smile when you see Sam. He boosts everybody’s mood,” Craft said. “He’s a very positive spirit in the kitchen. That’s totally separate from cooking ability, but almost more important sometimes.”
He learned this during his externship at Maialino, where it wasn’t just the high pressure or long hours that impressed him. “These guys were very serious about what they did, but they walked in every day, they shook your hand, asked you how you were doing,” Witherspoon said. “They really invested in you, and that’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my entire career.”
A focus on hospitality in and out of the kitchen may sound peripheral, but it’s something that sets Witherspoon apart. A lot of people with serious culinary talent don’t make it past sous. “To be a great leader, there’s a certain amount of positivity that has to be there for people to want to work for you,” Craft said. He was equally impressed by Witherspoon’s ability to interact with guests. “If you’re going to do your own thing, you’ve got to have it – or you better hire somebody who does.”
There’s no doubt Witherspoon will have a lot of people working for him someday. For now, aside from having his voice heard through more dishes on Sardella’s menu, his goal is simple: “I would love to be able to give Nick Blue a day off.”
– Heather Hughes
Sardella 7734 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.773.7755, sardellastl.com
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