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Dec 17, 2017
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Posts Tagged ‘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

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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