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Sep 23, 2014
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Intelligent Content For The Food Fascinated
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SERVING SAINT LOUIS SINCE 1999
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Ask the Chef

Five Questions with Ben Edison: The extended interview

Thursday, April 4th, 2013



{Executive chef Ben Edison with his daughter Delaney}

As warm air moves in, the patio at DeMun Oyster Bar is sure to fill up fast. But if it’s been a while since you stopped by this Parisian-style bar, you’ll be surprised to find more than bivalves and bubbles. Here, new executive chef Ben Edison told us what to expect at Clayton’s hippest watering hole.

When did you take over the kitchen and what have been some of the big menu changes since then? Overall, we went from a small, very limited menu to a full seafood-restaurant menu, and we also have some meat dishes. It’s not just oysters, at all. Now we have eight entrees and it’s pretty extensive.

What are some of the items on the restaurant’s new late-winter/spring menu? We do a Dungeness crab ravioli on the new menu. We have a really nice lamb porterhouse. We have a salmon in Pernod tomato sauce. We have a Pear Wellington, which is a new dessert. Everything in it we make in-house, except the phyllo dough – you’d have to be a masochist to make that. It’s star-anise-braised pears wrapped in puff pastry and then topped with Gjetöst cheese, a Danish cheese that tastes like caramel. Then we add a scoop of triple-vanilla gelato on a pool of Calvados gastrique. I act as pastry chef, too, with my daughter (pictured). She’s 17. She does the chocolate torte. We collaborate. She’s been baking since she was 8. We started a brunch on the weekends, too, and we’re still open late. You can come in and get a full entree until 11 p.m., or midnight in the summer.

Do you find that many people are still afraid to try oysters around these parts? I would rather take my chances with a raw oyster than a Chinese buffet. With all the testing they do of the water and the oysters and the tracking and the info-gathering, getting sick from an oyster is incredibly rare. At DeMun, we’re getting oysters that were in the water in the morning in Seattle, and I’ve got them in the restaurant by 6 p.m. that night.

I love oysters, but I gather some diners’ objections may have to do with an “oozy” texture. Then I say just suck ‘em down real fast – don’t chew ‘em – and you’ll get the flavor of the ocean.

How often do you eat oysters? Everyday. I’ll usually eat at least a dozen a day. I prefer them raw with nothing on them. We fly our oysters in daily; we’re the only restaurant in St. Louis that does. I have a list of 40 different oysters, and sometimes I kind of forget exactly what one tastes like, or the flavor changes because of the water supply. I have to be able to point people in the right direction.

Is there really a great variation in the taste of different oysters? I hate to make it sound like something from the movie, Sideways. When it comes to oysters, with the hint of this and that and all the silly adjectives, people can get carried away. But the different oysters range from a strong bite or salinity in the front end to a mineral-y, clean finish. Some West Coast oysters have a crisp, cucumber-y finish, but then something like the Kumamoto oyster has a creamier finish. I usually tell people to get a couple or three or four different kinds to try.

How many oysters could you eat in one sitting? I think the most I’ve ever eaten was four or five-dozen, and those were Gulf oysters at a little oyster bar in the Gulf. My uncle and I sat down and finished off about 12 dozen between the two of us. I grew up on the coast, fishing with my father off the coast of Connecticut and spending time in Maryland. That shows in our crab cakes, which are barely held together.

Is it true what they say about oysters being an aphrodisiac? I guess you’d have to ask my girlfriend. (laughs) I like to think that it’s healthy for me. I don’t think there are any ill effects.

What do you like to drink at the end of a busy night? With Nate Selsor, who came from Monarch, as our bar manager, a lot of the time I can just give him a flavor profile and let him play. We have a drink called When All Else Fails that’s really nice. It has rum, Campari, yellow Chartreuse and lemon juice. He just started a brand new drink menu that I’m working my way through now.

What are some of the preparations for oysters you do at the restaurant? In addition to raw, we do ours grilled and fried and occasionally beer-batter fried. We also do a Virgin Bluepoint [oyster] topped with a pancetta béchamel, and then we take kale blanched in pepper water and fried in duck fat and put that on top, followed by cave-aged Gruyere, and then we broil it. That’s our most popular menu item. We call it our house-stuffed oyster.

What’s your favorite drink to enjoy with oysters? Champagne. We have some exotic Champagnes, called grower Champagnes, made by one guy who may have just two acres of grapes and does it all himself. The flavor profiles are just fantastic.

Have you by any chance studied with a sushi chef? I have done a stage with a classically trained Japanese chef. He was the corporate chef at P.F. Chang’s. He was Vietnamese-born and Japanese-trained. Working with him was where I learned almost all of my Asian preparations.

Have you ever eaten the dangerous puffer fish, fugu? I have not, but I certainly would.

Anthony Bourdain once wrote that diners shouldn’t order seafood on Sunday, because the last seafood delivery was Friday – your thoughts? I think that’s completely untrue. I get seafood in on Saturdays. My fish that comes in for Sundays is perfectly stored in coolers and checked. Maybe in the ‘80s that might have been true, but with the abundance of seafood purveyors in St. Louis, they’ll deliver at 5 p.m. on Saturday. People shouldn’t have qualms about eating seafood on Sunday. As far as seafood in the Midwest goes, when you develop a long relationship with seafood purveyors, you get very nice stuff. We get seafood from nine different sources.

Have you shopped at the huge Asian market in U. City, Seafood City? I own a house not far from there. I shop there once a week. The seafood section is fascinating to me. If I’m in the mood for some mussels and feel like cooking them up, I might pick some up from there. I just enjoy walking the aisles and looking at stuff and having no idea what something is and buying it and playing with it.

What do you like to cook at home? If I’ve got two days off in a row, I’ll cook on the second day, but for the most part, I don’t really cook at home a lot. Sometimes the last thing I want to do is look at a pot and pan. I sometimes just go with a frozen pizza and a beer. Other chefs are the same way. We actually eat instant ramen noodles.

Where did you cook before DeMun Oyster Bar? I was a corporate chef for a few years, and before that, I was the fine dining chef at Ameristar Casino. I ran 47 Port Street and Pearl’s Oyster Bar.

Cooking at a casino is a whole different ball game, with the emphasis on extreme customer service. It was a great, great experience. At 47 Port Street, we had people that were big VIPs, so we had deep pockets to create exotic things and do tasting menus. While it was one of the most demanding jobs I ever had, it was fantastic to be able to play with all the stuff we got to bring in. On a Saturday night, you might have a table of four high rollers and you need to throw out an eight-course wine-pairing dinner on the fly for them. When the owner of the entire corporation came into town, there would be like a 22-hour stretch where you made absolutely sure that all his meals came out perfectly.

How does it feel when the kitchen is humming and everything is coming out perfectly? It’s absolutely fantastic. I have a great staff here. My sous chef, Nick Puccio, is really, really strong. We have great cooks that have worked in good restaurants. When things are really rolling, it’s probably the best feeling in the world. It’s exactly why I do this job.

Do you allow music in the kitchen? Only during prep time in the day.

What cooking or food book, TV show or movie do you love? I really don’t watch any of the food shows. I think they’re so unrealistic and fake. My favorite movie about wine is Bottle Shock.

What was your favorite food growing up that your parents made? Stuffed peppers. My parents were big gardeners and we had a huge garden. When the end of the summer would come, my stepmom would spend the entire day making tomato sauce and stuffing them, and they were amazing. Then she would freeze some and we would eat them all winter long, too. When I go home, that’s one of the things she always makes. My mother used to make spaghetti on Sundays and that was great, too.

What food did you hate as a kid that you love now? Clams. Ironic, isn’t it? We would have the freshest clams when I was a kid; we grew up about 12 miles from the ocean. They would make them in a white-wine Alfredo, and I would just eat the noodles. I never realized how much I took seafood for granted.

740 DeMun Ave., Clayton, 314.725.0322, demunoysterbar.com

— photo by Ashley Gieseking

Decoding the Paleo Diet

Thursday, March 28th, 2013



Right now your favorite Hollywood starlet and your favorite dry cleaner are singing the praises of the Paleo diet, a plan based on what cavemen hunted and gathered. And apparently those fur-gathering folk didn’t grocery shop at Target like the rest of us.

Those who follow a Paleo regimen eat lots of meat, fruits and veggies. The list of what they don’t eat is daunting: gluten, dairy, casein (a milk protein), grains and soy. And that’s where it gets confusing. Didn’t our ancient ancestors eat whole grains? Or drink mammoth milk? We chatted with the co-owners of The Organic Cave Paleo Bakery to better understand the philosophy behind this of-the-moment diet.

Nichole DiGiuseppi and her wife, Angel, discovered the Paleo diet when a friend who was a nurse suggested it could help Nichole’s migraines. After 30 days, Nichole was headache-free. Angel’s asthma had improved. Both women felt fewer stomachaches and less bloated. “Our bodies can’t process gluten, grains, soy and dairy,” Nichole said. “When we eat them, our bodies react. Our intestines become inflamed. People don’t know how bad they feel until they cut those things out.”

As for the grains and dairy question, Nichole explained that, due to modern-day agriculture, those foods are not what they once were. Grains and soybeans are genetically modified. Milk is pasteurized and homogenized. So really, Paleo is about avoiding foods that have been processed beyond our body’s recognition. Which is why the gluten-free bread found at the grocery store isn’t Paleo – it’s made with xanthan gum and rice flour. Which is also why the DiGiuseppis started The Organic Cave in the first place. “I can give up bread,” Nichole said, “but Angel missed sandwiches.” Since Nichole enjoys baking, she decided to make Paleo-friendly rolls and sweets. “Through trial and error, I just started substituting foods I knew we could use that wouldn’t affect our bodies in a negative way,” she said.

The results were so tasty, friends and family encouraged the women to sell their goods at a local farmers market. Less than a year later, demand is so high that they’ve moved into a commercial baking space. “We started baking for ourselves, and then we found out that other people needed it, too,” Angel explained. “We couldn’t say no.”

 

{Chocolate Cake in a Jar}

Super-cute and yummy too. Technically it’s big enough to share, but one bite of this rich, pure cocoa and coconut flour cake, and you’ll keep it all to yourself. $8.

 

{Drew Drops}

Quite possibly the best chewy drop cookie you’ll ever have. Liberated from soy and made with dairy-free chocolate chips, these taste better than the real thing. $9 for 6.

 

{Iced Scones} 

There is nothing dry about these salty-sweet goodies. Coconut oil and almond flours make these scones moist and delicious. $4 for 3.

 

Want to try the Paleo diet for yourself?

Stop by The Organic Cave Bakery at 3323-1 Domain St., St. Charles, 636.541.7321, theorganiccave.com. Or pick up the bakery’s items at Local Harvest Grocery’s Kirkwood and Tower Grove locations, and through the Feed Your Vitality meal delivery service, feedyourvitality.com.

— photos by Laura Miller

Keeping Up With Jason Tilford

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013



Part of Jason Tilford’s job is bouncing between the four restaurants he co-owns with his brother, Adam – Barrister’s, Tortillaria Mexican Kitchen, Milagro Modern Mexican and the newly opened Mission Taco Joint – and the nine others he consults on with buddy Chris LaRocca. With temptations of onion rings, burritos and margaritas galore, he’d have to be battery-operated not to get real fat, real fast. Yet he’s one of the slimmest chefs in the business. Sure, he has guilty pleasures – Barrister’s wings and Milagro’s chicken enchiladas to name a few – but Tilford has found a way to keep the extra pounds at bay, even while working the line. We begged him for his tricks for staying balanced in the most gluttonous profession around. He was happy to oblige.

Eat well, but eat often.
I hardly ever sit down with a plate of food. I eat a lot, but mainly small meals, all day. I try not to eat late at night. I try to skip the sweets and fried food. It’s funny; when you get into a routine, you crave eating healthy, almost. You get so used to it that eventually that Alfredo cream sauce doesn’t even look good.

Mix it up.
I play soccer, but it’s tailed down a lot since I turned 40. I also do some weight training and flexibility stuff. I’m trying to get into yoga, but it might be too boring for me. And I coach my son’s soccer team.

Hit the gym early.
I have to get my kids to school by 7:30 a.m., and the restaurant stuff doesn’t really wake up until 9. If I don’t go in the morning, usually, it’s not going to happen.

If work starts calling?
[Laughs] I can answer the first couple texts and emails of the day on the treadmill.

If you miss the morning window?
I go to Club Fitness and there’s one near my house, one between Milagro and Barrister’s, one near my sons’ school. They’re all in my rat race. There’s even one near Restaurant Depot [a purchasing center for restaurants].

 — photo by Ashley Gieseking, shot on location at Sweat.

The Perfect Mix: An interview with Wil and Lisa Fernandez-Cruz

Friday, January 11th, 2013



We all know mixing business and pleasure can be a recipe for disaster, but for Wilfrin and Lisa Fernandez-Cruz, there’s never been a difference between the two. They met while working at 202, a now-closed restaurant in New York’s Chelsea Market. Wil, having emigrated from the Dominican Republic, had climbed the restaurant ladder to sous chef, and Lisa was making pastries. After marriage, two babies and a job change, the pair has been reunited in the kitchen at The Cheshire. He’s the executive chef for the newly opened The Restaurant, its catering arm and The Market (coming soon). She’s executive pastry chef for all of The Cheshire’s eating establishments. And thankfully for St. Louis diners, their recipe for making it work tastes just right.

What was the final impetus to leave NYC?

LF: It was always in the back of my head to bring the kids back. There are just so many more opportunities for them here. But one day, I had one of those days where your bag breaks on the subway, then you trip and fall and step into a huge puddle, and a man screams at you for no reason …

WF: And some guy is puking …

LF: Or pees on your shoe. And I’m like, am I in a movie? I called my sister crying, and the next day she sent me an email that said, “I found this ad on Craigslist and maybe you should apply; there’s a job for your husband at the same place.” We were here within three weeks of applying.

Did you start dating at 202?

WF: We met there – dated, got married; it was a beautiful time.

LF: Well, I didn’t talk to him at first. He didn’t speak any English! He was like, “Hola lady.”

You learned English to woo her?

WF: Pretty much.

LF: He slipped me his number one day.

WF: I was that creepy guy.

What’s your best tactic for working together?

LF: We’re brutally honest without hurting each other’s feelings.

WF: We work really well together. We knew that going in. We fell in love working in a kitchen. I look at Lisa as a business person. Outside, we’re married. Here, we’re co-workers. I’m not like, “Hey sweetie, can you do this for me?”

Your kids must have the most sophisticated palates in all of day care and kindergarten.

LF: George [the 3-year-old] has a 100-percent salt palate. Every single morning he wants eggs and bacon. “Did you put salt on this?” he’ll say.

WF: Then, “Can I just have the salt? I’ll salt it myself.”

LF: But Wil [the 5-year-old] is about the cakes, cookies and candy. Every day, he asks me, “Are you gong to make some cupcakes today? Do you want to bring some home?”

LF: Food; it’s pretty much our life.

WF: It is our life.

— photo by Ashley Gieseking

 

A bike-side chat with Griffin Delivery’s Andy Heaslet

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013



Andy Heaslet had to change the name of his South Grand Delivered restaurant-delivery service to Griffin Delivery for the best of reasons: He expanded his territory to downtown. More territory means more adventures, like the strange interludes with a customer known as “The Hand.”

1. Which restaurants’ food does Griffin Delivery deliver now?

Lunch downtown from Lola, Pickles Deli, Tortilla Grille, Joe’s Chili Bowl at Citygarden, and the downtown Local Harvest Cafe, and lunch and dinner in South City from Mangia Italiano, MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse, Natty’s Pizza, Orkeed Restaurant, Wei Hong and the Local Harvest Cafe near Tower Grove Park.

2. How do the couriers carry the food?

The bikes have a box-rack that attaches to the seat post. It weighs maybe three to five pounds, and when you add 10 to 15 pounds of food into it, it changes the way you have to ride your bike. The tail likes to wag the dog. You have to use your abs more and control your handlebars more. The drivers get strong really quickly. Other couriers only work with burrito and sandwich places because you can just throw it in the backpack. We can’t do that with blackened tilapia from Mangia; it wouldn’t be fair to the food. We use an insulated box big enough to hold five 18-inch pizzas or 12 box lunches, and we have bigger boxes, too.

3. What’s the strangest moment one of your couriers has had?

One that seems to happen repeatedly is when you’re knocking on the door for a really long time and then finally a woman comes to the door holding her robe closed and needs two hands to take the food and sign the receipt, and we get a show. (Laughs) Then there’s one customer who wouldn’t let us see her face. The door would open just like, six inches, a hand would come out to take the food and then the hand would come back to give the courier a stack of quarters. We called that customer “The Hand.”

4. Can you share your future plans, for more restaurants that might be added to Griffin? I think we’ve got SweetArt coming early next year in South City, and we have four or five informal commitments from other restaurants.

5. Can you guys deliver soup without spilling it? We’ve done more than 1,000 deliveries in two years and on only four or five occasions did we have to go back to the restaurant because the food got screwed up in transit. Our gear, our setup is really effective. We sometimes ask the restaurants to wrap soup containers in Saran wrap, too. We don’t yet do coffee, but we’re not far away from figuring that out. 

6. Describe the process of making the jump from South City to parts beyond. We had the idea more than a year ago to come downtown. We did Bike to My Lou, the downtown community bike ride and festival, with Blake Bailey grilling hamburgers, in the spring. That was our downtown coming-out party. Now that we’re there, it’s almost like starting over. We’re re-building our brand identity and spreading the word again that you can get meals delivered on a bicycle quickly and affordably. Another new thing is downtown traffic, which is ridiculous. The taxis and limos can be aggressive, and the people who come downtown once every six months for a Cardinals game drive like a deer frozen in the headlights. (Laughs)

8. Your business is awfully green, as they say; I understand you come from a non-profit background, too? I want to run my for-profit with the same passion and compassion I had when I was running a non-profit. That was called the Peace Economy Project; it was about building an economy based more on peaceful endeavors than the military-industrial complex. The new business is environmentally conscious, fun and makes a profit. We’re still working on that last one, but my heart’s in it, and that’s the important thing. The famous activist Percy Green heard my idea for the restaurant/bike- delivery business and he encouraged me to go for it, so I pursued it. I had almost given it up.

9. What did you do before that? I was a professional mascot in college: “Slapshot” the polar bear, with the Indianapolis Ice of the Central Hockey League. Then I was also the Butler University Bulldog. The team was not used to great success. When we got to the Sweet 16 for the first time no one on campus knew what to do. (Laughs) I think my craziest moment as a mascot was when I was crowd-surfing over people and I unintentionally came to a stop atop an old lady, and I thought I’d broken every bone in her body. Then a guy stuck his finger in the polar bear’s face, which was a little higher than my face, and said, “Not cool, Slapshot. Not cool.” I felt bad, but as a mascot I couldn’t speak so I just had to mime that I was sorry. (Laughs) Then, after college, I did the Peace Corps in Paraguay, doing rural economic development.

10. The way people order from you is so cool – customers click what they want online, right from the restaurant’s menu, but at your website. We use software called Big Tree Solutions, which was created by the same guy who started Tiger’s Takeout in Columbia, Mo. We had a friend customize it for us to give it some flair, and we’re really happy with it. Our sales have gone up by 50 percent each month we’ve used it. That’s a rate of growth that was inconceivable a year ago.

11. Why “Griffin”? In our logo, we originally used silhouettes of the griffins that protect the east side of Tower Grove Park, so we kept that.

12. What’s Griffin’s delivery charge? Five bucks, but we’re looking at a zone-based fee, ranging from $3.14 on up, with a tiered structure. Once we have Soulard and Benton Park covered, we’re thinking about changing that.

13. How fast can you deliver? Our default estimate time is 45 minutes, but our average is in the mid 30s. It depends on how long it takes the restaurant to make the food; a pizza takes longer than a sandwich.

14. What do the bike couriers do if they have downtime between deliveries? They hang out in coffeehouses and restaurants. I love having my folks go out and take pictures and play on Instagram and Twitter. I’m also trying to get them to hand out Griffin Delivery stickers if they like.

15. It looks like on your site you’re asking the customer to put the tip on before delivery. The customers do have the option of giving it to the couriers when they get to door. The site reminds the customer of what 20 percent is, regardless, which is a good thing. Also, the customers often just want the transaction to be over; they want to have the convenience of signing their names and getting to the eating.

16. What should the prepared bicyclist always carry with him/her? A tire lever, a fresh tube, a patch kit, and a CO2 cartridge or a hand pump. There are so many bike shops in St. Louis, that’s great, too. In the winter, you might want to carry long johns and extra gloves, also. It’s no fun when you leave the house when it’s 50 degrees and come home when it’s 30 degrees and you’re not prepared.

17. You deliver through all kinds of inclement weather, too. Yeah. Last winter was pretty nice; it was so mild. We say that if you can drive your car to work, we can probably ride our bikes. “Black ice” is a different story. We can walk our bikes for a little rather than ride them, if it gets really bad.

18. Do you see your company growing into more neighborhoods? Sure. We’d love to have four or five neighborhood branches. I don’t ever see us going west of I-170, but serving more of the inner core of the city and the inner ring of suburbs. But it’s one step at a time for now. We’d love to connect South City and downtown by serving Lafayette Square, Soulard and Benton Park.

See the full list of restaurants available at Griffin Delivery at griffindelivery.com 314.270.2276.

— photo by Laura Miller


Ask the Chef: David Choi

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013



Seoul Taco co-owner David Choi built his food truck into one of the city’s most popular, then took a wild leap and opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant with the same name in The Loop this past fall. He still hits the road, though. In fact, one of his prize gigs is feeding the St. Louis Rams – a group whom he said can really put it away.

What did you do before you bought a food truck? [Co-owner] Andy [Heck] and I had to quit our jobs. I was a valet attendant at St. Mary’s Hospital, and Andy was in mortgages. I had just saved for six months to buy a car, and then to buy the truck, I had to sell it! We had to go to the East Coast to get the truck; we finally found it in Philadelphia. It used to be a Philly cheesesteak wagon.

I imagine you use Seoul Taco’s new brick-and-mortar location’s kitchen to prep everything for the truck each day? Yes, that was one of the main purposes of getting the brick-and-mortar location, to cater the truck. Our truck is parked right behind the store. Tomorrow we’re catering for the St. Louis Rams, and we need a commissary available at all times for things like that. We cater for them once or twice a month. We make a huge buffet for them. They eat tons of food. It’s ridiculous. (Laughs) We have bowls they can make on their own with all three barbecued meats we offer, and taco shells, too. They all love the Seoul Sauce. They call it “the moneymaker.” What’s in the Seoul Sauce? Mayonnaise is the base, and there are three other ingredients to make it spicy. I can’t tell you what those are – after all, it’s “the moneymaker”!

Do you have a larger menu at the restaurant than on the truck? Yes, physically we probably have the smallest truck in St. Louis. It’s hard to expand from what we do now on the truck, with the space we have. But in our restaurant we have a new burrito with kimchi-fried rice, your choice of meat, scallions, carrots, two specialty sauces, sour cream and cheese. You can also get a side of kimchi-fried rice. We want to expand the menu more, with possibly more Korean foods.

I understand your Korean bulgogi marinade is a family recipe? I learned it from my mom, and my grandma came in and tweaked it too. And then I doctored it from my tastings, too.

What did you do before you bought a food truck? [Co-owner] Andy [Heck] and I had to quit our jobs. I was a valet attendant at St. Mary’s Hospital and Andy was in mortgages. I had just saved for six months to buy a car, and then, to buy the truck I had to sell it! We had to go to the East Coast to get the truck; we finally found it in Philadelphia. It used to be a Philly cheese steak wagon.

What is in the Seoul Sauce? Mayonnaise is the base, and there are three other ingredients to make it spicy. I can’t tell you what those are. It’s “the moneymaker”!

Like bibimbap? Our Gogi Bowl basically is bibimbap.

You must have so many college students who come to your restaurant, right there in the heart of the Loop. Absolutely, that was the main reason we moved into this spot. We had already built up a Wash U. clientele with the truck. The foot traffic here is unparalleled in the city, too.

I hear you often have longest line at Food Truck Friday. That’s correct, from what I hear, but usually my back is turned – I’m looking at the grill for four hours straight!

What sort of wild adventures have you had while working in the truck? We used to park in front of the Library Annex club on weekend nights and we would see the craziest stuff – a lot of people stumbling over. We had one guy stumble down the steps and then right into the truck and proceed to order a taco. You see some crazy things.

What was it like choosing a design for the exterior of the truck? At first I just wanted it to look like a Korean Air airplane (http://www.airlinereporter.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Korean-A380-2-5-11.jpg) which is sky blue, but then a buddy designed it, and that was a better look.

Does the truck have a name, like Bertha or Big Daddy? Yes! We call it “Little Blue.”

I understand you have plans to buy a second food truck? Yes. Once we get established at the brick-and-mortar location we might expand into another truck for St. Louis, or maybe other prospective cities.

You must have a dependable system worked out for where to park the truck each day. At our regular places we now know our regular customers by their names, so it’s hard to go to other spots when people are counting on us, but we do switch it up sometimes. We tell everyone what we’re doing on Facebook and Twitter, of course – and because of Facebook and Twitter we haven’t had to spend too much money on advertising.

What’s going on now with issues regarding where you park? I understand there has been a problem with Clayton and Wash U.? Right now the city of Clayton is preventing us from parking on the Clayton side of Wash. U. It’s a bummer because we’ve been working with the Catholic Student Center since it opened. Our deal was, we parked on their property, and we donated money to their annual international student trips. But for the time being, that’s all suspended. We thought the city didn’t have jurisdiction on Wash. U.’s private property, but I guess we were wrong.

This isn’t a question, but congratulations on being named one of the best food trucks in the country by the Daily Meal. Thank you!

571 Melville Ave, U. City, 314.863.1148, seoultacostl.com, track the truck on Twitter @SeoulTaco

— photo by Amy Shromm

Ask the Chef: Anthony Devoti answers your questions

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

071911_devotebenneIn the first installment of our new online column, Ask the Chef, we put down our pens to let you – our readers – take a turn asking some of the stars in St. Louis’ culinary scene your burning questions. First up is Anthony Devoti, chef and owner of Five Bistro and the shuttered Newstead Tower Public House. And now, from how he got his start to whether he’d ever open another Newstead to his cheese of choice for his cheese steak, he answers your questions …

How did you get started cooking?
Well, we’ve always cooked at home. My folks always cooked a bunch and I’ve always been around food; it’s always been something I’ve been interested in growing up. My grandparents owned a couple restaurants, more I would say breakfast and lunch places. I don’t know if you’d call them greasy spoons but they were more like eggs and toast and working man’s kind of food. My dad worked there when he was a kid; my aunts and uncles all worked there when they were kids. And holiday events, we’re an Italian family and so food was a big deal when we all got together.

How do you source those awesome ingredients?
Well when I first started a lot of this stuff I went to markets for. I was actually actively going to markets meeting farmers. Now I don’t really have to do a whole lot; farmers come to me. They know what we do, we have a good reputation with farmers and we have really good cooks so I think farmers are very proud to bring their products to me. When I first started, I knew Ron Benne (pictured at left) for like six years. I was working in a restaurant in Chesterfield and tried to get that restaurant to be a farm-to-table-to-kitchen type of restaurant. So I met Ron when I was working out there, and when I moved back to St. Louis from San Francisco he was the first person I called. He gave me tips on how to meet these people. I went online and did a bunch of research before the restaurant opened, too. For the last couple of years … people just bring me stuff or they call and they say, “I have this, this and this – do you want it?” Chef-wise we bring each other up, too. Some people say, “Hey this product is unbelievable. I know this guy is good and he will take care of it.” I met Mike Brabo from Vesterbrook [Farm] from Kevin Nashan. Kevin said this guy is a great cook, he loves food and is a really good guy and he would do justice to that product.

A food district executive told me the locavore movement is a “fad, unsustainable and too expensive for 97 percent of consumers.” What are your thoughts?
I just think it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. … Locavore is not a movement; it should be a practice. You can eat local if you want to sacrifice and you want to eat real, local food, then you can do it. Is it a little more expensive? Yes, of course. But we grow a bunch of vegetables on our own; it’s not exactly hard to do. I think that that’s a pretty big cop out kind of answer. You have to want to eat good food to eat local. And just because you’re buying local food it means the product’s going to be better but if you don’t know how to cook it, it’s not going to help anything. It’s up to us to all get together. The more people who eat local and buy local, the more readily available it will be, the more farmers who will take care of us. When you go to the grocery store and 80 percent of things are made from corn or corn-based, that’s not really helpful. People have been eating local since the beginning of man. That, to me, is just a stupid comment from the food executive.

Who do you see as upcoming stars of the St. Louis food scene?
I don’t really know; I think the stars are relatively established. I think Adam [Altnether] over at Taste; he’s a really good guy, kind of a fun person to watch I guess. I think there’s a lot of Gerard [Craft] influence in his food personally, but he’s a great guy and he can certainly think on his own. You have to be a really good cook and he’s a really good cook. I eat in a circle of restaurants and I do a circle of things, and so I like Kevin [Nashan] and I like Gerard’s stuff and Josh [Galliano] and those guys. But when I eat out, I typically eat ethnic food; I don’t really go eat at those guys’ restaurants a lot of times because they’re closed when I’m off. Adam I think is a big one. I got a couple guys working for me that I think are pretty kick-ass cooks, and one day they’ll probably end up leaving, but I hope not. I know what they can do.

As many huge strides as St. Louis has taken, I think there are a lot of steps that go backward too. That doesn’t help what people are trying to do food-wise. … People go to culinary school and they think that, oh I’m gonna go to culinary school and I’m gonna be there for six months to a year, and then I’ll work in a hotel and then I’ll work at Five [Bistro]. That’s not how it is. It sucks, it’s hard, it’s hot and it’s even shittier and hotter on days like today. You have to really love what you do to be in this spot.

Newstead made my St. Louis top five list. The burger is simply the best. The service was great! What were the reasons to close?
To be fairly frank and straightforward, we had to close Newstead because of business. It was a lot of people’s top five but it wasn’t enough people’s top five. The quality of the product we were using there was very expensive; it was the same as we do at Five. We had to do a lot of people to turn that over. And The Grove neighborhood hasn’t done anything. It hasn’t done anything since Five was over there. … It was a cool spot and it was an awesome building, but the rest of the neighborhood wasn’t there. I can think of other corners it would’ve been better on; if it was on any of those corners it wouldn’t even be a question.

Are there any reasons that would get you to open another?
I don’t know – a really good location probably. I’m in the spot now [where] I would want to own my own building; I wouldn’t lease ever again. We own our building at Five, and there’s a lot of BS that comes along with it – if the air conditioner breaks, you’re responsible for fixing it – but I wouldn’t change that for anything, the control that you have. We talk about it all the time. That’s pretty much the only reason we do lunch at Five is the burger at Newstead. We only do it three days a week, but that’s something that we kind of wanted to keep going and keep alive and something we felt very strongly about.

Which do you prefer on a cheese steak sandwich: provolone, Provel or Cheese Whiz?
Cheese Whiz. It can be as processed and as terrible and synthetic as whatever, but Cheese Whiz for sure.

Any sous chef opportunities at your restaurant right now?
No, I don’t hire out for chef management kind of things. We build up totally from within. The crew that I have, the person that’s been there the least amount of time is, well we’ve got two new people at six months. Everybody else is two to three years plus. It’s work up to that position for us. It’s because I’m relatively difficult to work for. I think I’m easy to work with, but we have very high expectations. We do a lot of canning and jarring and we buy lots of potatoes and things in the winter. You have to understand the seasonality of what we do. … We brainstrom about menus and what we’re going to do; it’s a pretty open idea process we have going on. And when asparagus season is only six weeks long, people don’t really get that. … When we get further on, you really understand the best timing of things and the seasonality of all of it. You can work [at] some of these places for a couple years before you really understand that. We’re always learning. We’re a bunch of food dorks to the core. We get off on reading magazines and watching TV and reading books about food and that’s what we talk about whenever we’re around each other. And we have a big garden so we enjoy gardening too; that’s a big deal to us.

— Photo by Greg Rannells

Ask the Chef: We’ve asked chef Anthony Devoti every question in the book. Now, it’s your turn.

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

102710_ADevotiWelcome to Ask the Chef, a new online column in which we take a step back from our journalistic duties to let you, our readers, talk to some of the best and brightest in St. Louis’ culinary scene. First up: Anthony Devoti.

As chef-owner of Five Bistro, the farm-to-table restaurant that sits on the corner of Daggett Avenue and Hereford Street on The Hill, Anthony Devoti is one of the area’s most renowned chefs. A meal at Five is a glimpse of the locavore movement, featuring local and organic produce, freshly caught fish and naturally raised meat prepared using a variety of cooking techniques. Devoti prides himself on using ingredients from several area farmers he has close relationships with, changing his menu daily to provide his diners with a taste of the seasons and the region. A devotee to nose-to-tail cooking, he’s the in-house butcher and charcutier at Five, which he runs alongside his parents (who will greet you at the door with a smile as you walk in).

He’s also the former chef-owner of the now shuttered Newstead Tower Public House, a seasonally focused gastropub and home to what many local food folk have deemed the best burger in the city. Devoti is well-versed in St. Louis’ bustling craft beer scene and can hold his own with a wine list, often handpicking the bottles for the wine and beer dinners he regularly offers to diners at his restaurants.

Devoti’s skills in the kitchen have even garnered a bit of national attention. Earlier this year, he was up for Food and Wine Magazine’s first People’s Best New Chef award for the Midwest region, a new accolade where voters determine the winner. And just last April, Eater included the Five burger on its list of 15 of the Country’s Hottest Burgers.

So there you have it – a few things about this talented chef (more on Devoti’s credentials here). Now, get your pens out (Or shall we say keyboards?) because it’s your turn to play reporter. From what makes the Five Burger so darn tasty to his favorite way to prepare pork to how he really felt about having to close Newstead, this is your chance to ask one of St. Louis’ stars whatever’s on your mind. And it couldn’t be easier. Just post your question on our Facebook wall, tweet us your question with the hashtag #askthechef  or e-mail us here. We’ll be chatting with Devoti next Tuesday, so be sure to get your questions in quickly and check back next week to see if he answered your queries. So what are you waiting for? Go on, ask the chef!

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