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Mar 23, 2018
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Posts Tagged ‘5 Questions’

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

Extra Sauce: More from our interview with Steve Gontram

Monday, February 11th, 2013

In this month’s Five Questions (page 50), Steve Gontram told us about some of his favorite restaurant experiences along with details about his latest venture, Five Star Burgers. Here, we give you the extended version of his interview.

First, there was the wondering: What would chef/restaurateur Steve Gontram’s next move be? Now, there’s only the satisfaction. At Five Star Burgers, the latest in a chain created by his father, Gontram is plating up some outstanding American food. Here, the creative force who originated Harvest and is considered a local pioneer in the farm-to-table movement, talks Turkey, goat and quail.

You’re famous for cooking meals and delivering them yourself right from the kitchen. At 5 Star, are you in the back or front of the house?
Both. Today I toasted 200 buns for lunch. On Saturday, I was expediting and running food. I do a little bit of everything. This afternoon I’m filling out W-2s for my employees.

What’s the farthest you’ve traveled for a great meal?
I had a great meal in the “Fairy Chimneys” area in Cappadocia, Turkey. This is an area of rock formations that look like huge stalagmites, and people live in them. Turkey is so gorgeous. The meal was very traditional, with Turkish coffee, clay-oven cooking and Turkish wine.

What’s the most unusual item on the menu at 5 Star?
On the core menu, the burger that gets the most raves is Dad’s Green Chile Cheeseburger, which is a New Mexico staple. Ours has crispy Hatch chiles, pepper jack cheese and green-chile mayo – it’s got a kick. We’re doing a fun burger-of-the-month year round, too. In January, it was the Goatburger, made with Jones Heritage Farm goat, topped with a little ancho chile-mango salsa and fried plantains.

You’ve been in Bon Appétit, on the Food Network and were invited to prepare dinner at the James Beard House in New York City. What’s the highlight of your culinary career?
Definitely the James Beard house. They can put me on the cover of Rolling Stone, but my career highlight will always be the Thanksgiving of ’98. It was a lot of fun and a great honor. I remember I did a yellow beet-Champagne as an aperitif, and fig-stuffed roast quail. It was like eight courses, a decadent meal.

Describe your single greatest episode of gluttony.
A 24-course tasting menu at Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit in New York, a few years back. There’s also the times when you whole-roast a pig with some friends and eat the whole thing. I’m a chef. I don’t have a dainty figure. It’s the indulgence industry. A couple decades ago, fine dining was all about caviar and foie gras, but it can still be pretty indulgent.

If you’re going to be drinking for hours, what’s your drink?
A low-alcohol session beer by The Civil Life or my drink of choice: a perfect rye Manhattan, which I call “Manhappy.”

That amazingly, amazingly delicious bread pudding at Harvest was your creation?
Yeah. That is a great dessert. I sold that when I sold the restaurant, though; I can’t sell it anymore.

You were one of the founders of the St. Louis Originals?
I was one of the three or four that floated the idea and brought everybody together. The core group was Cardwell’s, Annie Gunn’s, Tony’s, Harvest and a few others. Five Star is not in the group as of yet. The Originals are now centered on a rewards program called the Power Card, that can be redeemed at any of the restaurants. We’re just three months old and haven’t decided if we want to get involved in a rewards program yet.

Do you have any secret parking tips for 5 Star?
A lot of people don’t realize we have a massive lot in the back, and if it’s not the middle of lunchtime, there’s usually a space back there.

You worked for Wolfgang Puck at his Bay Area restaurant, Postrio. What’s it like to work for him?
Wolfgang was an awesome guy, very friendly, very eager to educate and offer advice – a very cool guy and a very shrewd businessman.

For your beef you sought out Creekstone Farms, where celebrated cattle expert Temple Grandin designed the facility. Have you met her?
Creekstone has their facility in Kansas, and she designed it from the ground up. I haven’t met her, but I’ve seen videos of her speeches and watched the HBO movie about her.

The 5 Star happy hour deals sound tempting.
Yes. From 4 to 6 p.m., seven days a week, it’s half price on all drafts, and mini burgers – call them sliders if you will – [are] anywhere from $1.25 to $1.50, and $2 cheese curds, and other specials. The mini burgers come in Angus beef, turkey, veggie and fried chicken.

What’s it like to work closely with your dad, who created 5 Star Burgers restaurants and operates them in New Mexico and Colorado?
It’s been fun. We’ve talked about this concept for a long time, and he has a ton of experience in the burger business. It’s fun to bring his knowledge and my chef background together and do creative burgers.

What’s the funniest and the most frightening thing you’ve seen in a restaurant kitchen?
The funniest was when we had a great server leave us at Harvest, and the kitchen decided we would bake him a goodbye cake, and we threw all this awful stuff in it including ghost chiles and served it to him with candles. He took a huge bite, and I don’t think he made it through service, I think he had to leave early. He was a good sport about it.

The most frightening was also at Harvest. One Saturday night we were extremely busy, and I was doing an osso bucco special, and I was searing off osso bucco and one slipped from my tongs and hit the pan of oil and splattered up and coated the back of my hand and burned the hell out of my hand. The skin was not really there. I was working the line, though, and there was no one to replace me. So I bandaged my hand up and kept it in a bain-marie of ice water and worked one-handed the entire Saturday night, which was pretty much an impossible task. That was a bad night. Every cook has a good burn story.

— photo by Jonathan Gayman


Extra Sauce: More from our 5 Questions Interview with Marc Del Pietro

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

101210_5qsMarc Del Pietro, the chef-owner of Luciano’s Trattoria, Del Pietro’s and Kilkenny’s Pub, is now whipping up healthy, gourmet meals for all the kids at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic elementary school in University City. For our 5 Questions interview in our October issue, Sauce contributor Byron Kerman talked with Del Pietro about the program. For the rest of our interview with Del Pietro, pick up the October issue of Sauce Magazine.

How’s the Our Lady of Lourdes school lunch program going?
Before I came along, they averaged 12 to 20 kids buying school lunches a day, and today I did 160 kids. The school holds 258, so I’m over 50 percent. I don’t know how many parents said things to me like, “My kids don’t eat grapes.” Well, now they eat grapes. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I know how to hide things and make them taste really good. The point is that this is real, fresh food, not processed.

We changed from plasticware to silverware, too, and the kids are like, “This is awesome!” The administration said, “They’re gonna throw their forks in the garbage.” And I said, “They don’t throw them away at home, do they?” They’re not aliens or monkeys – they’re great kids. Give them a little credit. One of the kids came up to me and said, “Mr. Del Pietro, was that basil or mint in the fruit salad yesterday?” And I said, “That was mint,” and the kid turned to his friend and said, “See, I was right!”

It’s really cute to see these kids come in and get pumped about food. That’s my world. They want the recipes. Their moms want the recipes. It’s amazing. Today they had turkey burgers and they didn’t know it, and they loved them. I just called it Burger Bar, and they could choose condiments like cheese slices and pickles.

What kinds of foods did you eat for lunch when you were at school?
My mom packed my lunch a lot, and you know I’m from a very Italian family. I grew up in the restaurant business, so I would bring a full order of ravioli or lasagna to school, and all the non-Italian kids were just mystified by our lunches.

For more online exclusives from October issue, visit our Extra Sauce page today!

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