3 meals that changed Elmwood chef Adam Altnether's life

As St. Louis looks forward to Niche alums Adam Altnether and Chris Kelling’s first restaurant, Elmwood, slated to open in Maplewood late this summer, Altnether looks back on the food that has changed his outlook on dining. The former Cardinals executive sous chef said he’s increasingly realized many factors contribute to an amazing meal: the food, the service, the music and, most of all, the company. Here, he reflects on three memorable meals that changed his life.

Hog Island Oyster Co., Marshall, California, 2015
“You buy the oysters right out of the traps, and you sit there and shuck ’em yourself. They have Champagne they sell and one very small grill where they’ll also grill oysters to order, so you can have Champagne and raw oysters, and then you move into grilled oysters with flavored butters and dips and grilled bread.

“There was something about that day – it was great weather, you literally can’t get fresher ingredients at that point and you’re staring out at the bay that oysters are growing in. It was so special to see that whole cycle. It gives you a new sense of appreciation because those guys work their asses off bringing those traps in. They’re shaking ’em, cleaning ’em and scrubbing each oyster; it’s pretty crazy. … We had a huge group of friends, [so] we grabbed three picnic tables that had three grills. My friends were throwing the Frisbee around, and we were just grilling and shucking oysters in the sun. Being in that salty air, you can’t be in a bad mood; it’s impossible.”

Saison, San Francisco, 2013
“The best upscale meal I’ve ever had was at Saison in San Francisco. It was really inspiring to see how much care Joshua Skenes took of every single ingredient that he brought into that place – all the way to the point that he had four different seafood [options] on the menu, so he had four different tanks all set to the same temperature and salinity of the water they were caught in. They were still swimming live, so right as they were ordered, he would take them out of the tank.

“Everything you ate was one of the best bites you’ve ever eaten – modern American cuisine but with different flavor influences. There was one dish where you started the next progression through the meal with a shot of tuna spinal fluid – pretty wild. They treated it like a palate cleanser. It tasted like super fresh fish from the ocean; it was more gelatinous than you would imagine, but it was clear [with] a briny, super clean flavor. … We were able to share that meal with two of our best friends. The thing that I realize now is if you’re eating great food with great people, you’re going to have the time of your life.”

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2015
“There was this woman who was making banh xeo – it’s like a big yellow Vietnamese crepe – in an alleyway off a random street in Saigon. Typically, banh xeo is shrimp, a little bit of roasted pork and bean sprouts folded into a crispy crepe. This lady … it almost looked like she was on stage with a set of drums. She was sitting on a 5-gallon bucket and had all of her ingredients in front of her. All the drums were these smoking hot frying pans; it was insane. And the way she moved — she’s probably been doing this for 40 years — I’ve never seen anything like it, but she would have every single pan working at a time.

“At our table, there were six of us, and we probably ate 15 of these things. You’re eating all these lettuces and indigenous herbs and spices that you don’t really see here. You’re wrapping all of that up and eating, and then she brings by another crepe. Her shrimp were still alive; they were little tiny shrimp that were so bright orange right when they hit the pan, and they were so small and fresh that you just eat them whole. I was with family [and] friends having this great feast I’d never eaten before in an alley [at] like a kids’ picnic table with tiny plastic chairs, with water running down the side of the building, eating world-class food.”

Meera Nagarajan is art director at Sauce Magazine.