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Oct 22, 2014
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Intelligent Content For The Food Fascinated
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SERVING SAINT LOUIS SINCE 1999
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Extra Sauce: An interview with Andy Ayers – the extended version

March 21st 11:03am, 2013



For almost five years now, Andy Ayers has been the guy behind the guy. His relentless quest to deliver produce from local farmers to area chefs has made his small operation, Eat Here St. Louis, indispensable. These days, the former owner of Riddle’s Penultimate Cafe and Wine Bar can tell stories about rutabagas, kohlrabi and eggplant that are, well, ultimate.

Who are you sourcing produce for now? Today I was at Big Sky; I went to The Royale; I was at Local Harvest on Morgan Ford; I went to City Greens produce, which is a low-income farmers’ market; I was at Niche; and I was at Fresh Gatherings, the cafe at SLU. It’s a pretty typical day for this time of the year. In the summer, there’s [sic] a lot more stops. I would say I’m working in the neighborhood of 40 restaurants and 40 farms over the course of a year.

What’s your typical workday like? A fair number of my customers order a day in advance and then quite a few people call me in the evening when they close their kitchen, after I’m in bed, and I look at the email or text in the morning. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle every morning, to draw up a route that’s sensible. I get up at about 4:45 a.m. In the summer I’ll get up an hour earlier, even. You can get an awful lot done if you start early. You sleep a little bit later in the winter and get up earlier in the summer, and you work until you’re bone-tired in the summer. For 27 years I ran a restaurant and had the opposite schedule and went to bed at about 3 a.m.

Do you go to farms on both sides of the river? Yes, I go to both Missouri and Illinois. “Foodshed” is a word you can use like watershed. As far as our area foodshed goes, in many ways there’s agriculture closer to the city limits on the other side of the river than in the other three directions because of the sprawl away from the river on this side. There’s a high population of farm families near St. Louis in Illinois who’ve been growing for several generations. Frequently you’ll find the younger family members are interested in increasing their income. Grandpa and grandma have supported the extended family on the farm income, the middle-aged group doesn’t work for the farm anymore, and the new generation has rediscovered the idea of planting more and boosting sales. You don’t have to tell farmers twice if the market is growing – they’ve been watching the market dwindle for many years, and now it’s changing. If you buy it, they will come. If it sells out this year, they’ll plant more next year. That’s what I’m trying to encourage.

What I’m looking for is someone with excess product or production capacity who doesn’t see the market right away. Here’s an example. When I first got started, I was talking to an old bachelor farmer in JeffCo. He has a stall at Soulard. He told me he plants twice as much spinach as he thinks he’s going to sell because of weather and deer grazing on it. The big expense is cutting and washing it and bringing it to market. He was just plowing under his excess. I asked him to give me a chance to help sell his spinach, and I helped him have his best year.

This guy I get great veal from sells it on the Internet. I can help him market that. These are the kinds of situations I’m always looking for. My mission statement is twofold: I want to make it as easy for chefs to buy local foods as it is to get on the phone and buy imported stuff. The fact is that it’s never gonna be easy because of seasonality. There’s never gonna be local avocadoes here. But I want my service operation to be as good as the big guys. You tell me how many pounds of this and that, and I’ll have it there tomorrow. That helps get chefs more interested in local food, too. And the other mission is to help growers sell everything they grow and can grow. I don’t want to dominate the local foods market – I want to grow the local foods market.

This isn’t exactly harvest season in Missouri right now. I concentrate during the winter months on finding sources for non-fresh items to add to the list, like the vinegar. That just blows me away. For next week, I’ve got the first Missouri ducks and geese coming in to augment my free-range chicken program. By early summer, I’ll have a walk-in freezer in my warehouse. My warehouse is in the shadow of a former giant chicken-processing plant that was aced out by the Tysons, the national, vertically integrated operations. It’s ironic. But yeah, this is a great time for me to take a bit of a break. I’m going on vacation in the first half of March. I’m going back to St. John, the smallest island in the Virgin Islands. Now I know where the only organic farmer in St. John is!

Is there an unusual kind of produce you try to champion? Kohlrabi is really low profile. Most people have never seen one and they don’t know what it is. It looks like Sputnik. It suggests a root vegetable, but it’s not. The stem swells up right above the ground, and that’s the edible part. That’s a real underappreciated item. They’re delicious.

Is there a fruit or vegetable you’re getting excited about coming in-season soon? That’s the wonderful thing about seasonality. I’ve been looking forward to asparagus for weeks now because that’s one of the first things that comes up in the springtime. I’ll buy as much as I can and eat as much as I can and sell as much as I can and pretty soon it’ll be over. Now we’re actually changing the seasonality of the tomato season. Growing up, my dad was in competition with the neighbors to grow the first tomato of the season. But with hoop houses, I’ve got beautiful homegrown tomatoes now. We’ve taken the novelty away from the tomato season.

There’s all kinds of little small-demand items that are fun, like black radishes. I just sold the last of the chestnuts today. The boys at Niche are making chestnut soup. I rounded up 76 pounds of Missouri chestnuts. I get excited about all of it.

Even cauliflower? You wouldn’t think there would be that much variety in cauliflower. There’s only like three varieties grown for mass sales. On a small scale, with a shorter shelf life, people can grow old-time varieties of cauliflower that are just delicious, that have a triple flavor-burst of what the cellophane-wrapped cauliflower tastes like in the supermarkets.

Do you enjoy driving in the open country when you go to and from the small farms? I depend on being able to get out of town and onto the road, but off of the interstate. The visual environment is so much mellower – being able to see long distances and smooth curves instead of right angles. I keep a camera in the car. Sometimes I slam on the brakes and pull over to take a picture. I like to drive around, but I have hired help, too. I have three part-time drivers.

Do you have a favorite fruit or veggie? If you pressed a gun to my head, I would say black raspberries. They’re so rare you don’t even see them in the regular market; you have to get them from someone that grows them.

Do you ever miss the fun you had at Riddles? That’s a lot of fun, having a restaurant. I don’t get to hear much live music anymore, either, like we had every night at Riddles. It’s great to have a retail business and to have steady contact with your customers. That’s a really grueling occupation and best suited for the young. I’m too old to work 90 hours a week, and I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s a new challenge that has gotten my entrepreneurial juices going. There’s a restaurant on every corner, and there’s not a lot of people doing what I’m doing, so I enjoy being an innovator.

What is the story of the restaurant name, Riddles Penultimate? My wife’s mother was Mrs. Riddle. She was a waitress all her life. Our first place on Natural Bridge [Road] from ‘80 to ‘85 was Riddles, so I wanted to keep the name, but also to change it. “Penultimate” was a favorite word of mine. At that time we imagined ourselves having yet another restaurant, an ultimate restaurant, which we never did. We were the first place to ever use the term “wine bar” in St. Louis. We had the first nitrogen wine-dispensing machine used in a public restaurant in St. Louis.

Riddles was in The Loop for some 20 years; you were really able to watch the neighborhood change. It’s a fascinating part of town. I used to skip school and go to The Loop for the used bookstores when I was in high school. I took advantage of a storefront called the Peace Information Center as I approached draft age. It’s always been a vital and upbeat area. I was part of the merchants’ group that opposed the chain restaurants coming to the Loop.

Do you have any words of advice for the crew at Three Kings Public House, which occupies the space that used to be Riddles Penultimate? My bar manager is one of the Three Kings, so there’s some continuity there. Derek Flieg. He was always a star employee. I’m glad he put together some investors and was always able to stay there. He does a great job.

You’re known for being a real wine-lover, too. Yeah, I drink wine every day but it’s a whole different experience when you don’t have a wholesale license anymore! I used to be able to schedule a wine salesman to host a tasting at Riddles any day I wanted. Now I’m on the hunt at the retail level for bottles that sell for less than they’re worth. I also have a few nice bottles leftover from that Riddles cellar, and every now and then we crack one open. We won the RFT readers poll 13 or 14 years in a row for the best wine list.

Did your mom have to work to get you to eat your vegetables while growing up? We had a big garden all the time and that’s where I learned to appreciate homegrown tomatoes. My dad started ‘em in the cellar and babied them along. We grew okra and green peppers and I enjoyed them, although my mom was of the school that you should cook them until they laid down flat in the pan as a mush (laughs). I’ll always remember the first time my girlfriend stir-fried a bunch of vegetables in a wok. I couldn’t believe it – they shone with flavor. My big nemesis as a kid was rutabaga. My dad believed that rutabaga was god’s gift to mankind. Not only did I have to eat it, I had to like it. They could make me eat it, but they could not make me like it. I love it now.

What area restaurants do you enjoy dining at? I like to patronize my customers because they tend to be the most careful chefs in town. I just had a great meal the other night at Acero.

Are you good at thumping a melon? Watermelons respond to the thump. They begin to reverberate more when they ripen. I judge smaller melons with a slight pressure at the stem end or by the aroma.

Have you ever watched the cartoon Veggie Tales? No. I haven’t had a TV in 30 years. There are huge sections of popular culture I’m not familiar with. I don’t know how people find time for TV. I hear there’s been this enormous foodie explosion involving chefs who act crazy on TV, but I ain’t hip to that.(Laughs)

Is there a food book or movie you really dig? I enjoyed the book Kitchen Confidential years ago and had dinner with Anthony Bourdain at Duff’s one night. It was kind of exaggerated, but it was interesting. Everyone who’s been in the restaurant industry since their youth has had similar experiences.

Have you seen any of the recent wave of food-justice documentaries, like Food Inc.? I have. They all kind of melt together. More than one of them has featured Joel Salatin. It’s great that it reflect the interests of the public and the foodies, but the real grassroots thing that has resulted in the proliferation of farmers’ markets is what really blows my mind. It’s really anti-corporate, and there’s no big money behind it. It’s the perfect meaning of the term “grassroots,” literally. It’s neighbors talking about how delicious the food they found there is. That’s how it got rolling. It’s been an organic growth, and I don’t think it’s a passing fad. I remember when the grocery store was 98-percent white bread and maybe like two-percent rye. Eventually the market mix really changed and there was a vast proliferation of other kinds of bread. Wheat bread is not a fad. Look at the microbrew industry. I talk to farmers a lot, and I use that as an example. It seemed like the economics were insurmountable, the trend of bigger and bigger, and getting down to only one or two big breweries in the country, and then look what happened. This group of crazy home brewers made beer for themselves and showed everyone how good it was. In the last 10 or 15 years, the only part of the industry that’s growing is the craft market, which is on fire. Now the big guys try to make their beers sound like they’re craft beers. People decided to make a high- quality product and market it specifically as a by-hand, small-scale product, and it worked.

Which is great – except for the foodie who goes all the way into self-parody, like some Brooklyn hipster buying the world’s rarest cheeses for a pretentious artisanal tasting party. There have been some excesses. Some edges are going to get rubbed off. That’s not the central thrust of what’s happening, anyway. Because of the changes in the market there are young people going into farming. It’s like somebody starting an auto company and announcing they’re going to compete with GM. They would have laughed you out of the bank 15 year ago. It’s different now. It’s not easy to get started, but it can be done.

What’s one of your favorite dishes to cook? One of the advantages of being in the food business is a well-stocked kitchen. I got a beautiful pork steak about as big around as a football this week. I was out in Wright City and I bought a whole “Prius-load” of sweet potatoes, but this farmer’s pork is so good, I bought some for myself. I made some homemade applesauce to go with that pork steak. We always have a couple of vegetables with every dinner and a bottle of cheap but drinkable wine. I love having dinner at home now, uninterrupted, as opposed to my days at the restaurant.

You have been known to take little jaunts out-of-state to source hard-to-find products. I’ve just got some really good quality corn grits I had to go to Kentucky for. I couldn’t find anybody any closer who knew from grits. I found an actual 19th century water-operated grist mill that stone-grinds the grits, and I drove to Midway, Kentucky, to meet them and see the place. This is the best quality product available. I like to stay within 150 miles, but sometimes you gotta go where you gotta go, even if it’s 300 miles. Meeting the people is important to me, too. I also just got this amazing vinegar from Cody, Nebraska, where a farm family grows and harvests the fruit, crushes and vinifies the juice into wine, converts the wine into vinegar, barrel ages, packages and sells the results from a little straw bale-constructed clean room right on the farm. Wait ‘til you taste them!

How long have you worn the beard? Since I ran away from home and went to Mexico when I was about 17. I’ve trimmed it but I haven’t cut it off since. I had this fantasy of being a desperado and not coming back, but I learned I only really feel at home in America.

Have you ever handled produce that looked like something or someone, for instance, an eggplant that looked like a celebrity? Actually, eggplant is frequently anthropomorphic and I once had one that for all the world looked just like Richard Nixon.

7036 Bruno Ave., St. Louis, 314.518.6074, eatherestl.com

— photo by Laura Miller

By Byron Kerman

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