Ones to Watch: Food and drink pros with promise

They’re talented, they’re innovative and they’re ready for their close-up. From what to drink to what to eat and who gets to eat it, these eight culinarians are poised to make an impact on the local food landscape. We’re keeping an eye on them -- and so should you. Benjamin Love Why to watch him: Everything he does is deliberate and caring. When Karen Hoffman left The Four Seasons Hotel last spring, it was sous chef Benjamin Love who stepped in to keep the Cielo kitchen running and get the new exec chef up to speed. To be successful in that role, he called upon his stints at more than two dozen restaurants around the world, from Texas to Tokyo, and in NYC at places like Aquagrill, Daniel, Bouley and Danube – experience he said was “like going to graduate school.” What unites those global experiences is his utmost care – for the food, the people who eat it and those preparing it. An avid cyclist, the conscientious chef spends his off hours riding out to farms to find unusual ingredients to use on Cielo’s menu. Run a special to get rid of food? Never. “Something special is something fresh and beautiful and something I am proud of, not a piece of fish that needs to be sold.” His MO? “To duplicate the food your grandmother cooks … food that your grandmother would be proud to eat and wouldn’t have problems understanding.” “Everything he does is deliberate,” said Robert Jenny, the hotel’s food and beverage director. Every ingredient has a purpose. There’s a correct method of preparation. Love abides by these principles and teaches them to his staff. One of his favorite dishes? Borscht, which he often prepares for the staff meal in order to provide his predominately Eastern European kitchen crew a taste of home. “That’s where he earns respect from his team. He takes time to show them how to do things properly – that it’s about the culinary art and not just earning a paycheck,” said Jenny. Eric Scholle Why to watch him: He pushes Kevin Willmann to greatness. Officially, he’s the manager and wine director at Farmhaus. Unofficially, Eric Scholle is chef-owner Kevin Willmann’s “little helper guy.” The two met by happenstance: Scholle, then a SIU-E student, was living in the apartment above Erato on Main, where Willmann was executive chef, while it was undergoing construction four years ago. When construction was complete, Scholle told Willmann, “You woke me up every day for a whole summer, so I think you owe me a job – and I know how to work hard.” It landed the Chicago native a position as a busboy and later as a server, despite never having worked at a restaurant. The 26-year-old has been Willmann’s utility man ever since, whether helping him open Farmhaus, accompanying him to farmers’ markets, making Farmhaus T-shirts or staying up until 3 a.m. to can chow-chow. “No single member of any of my crews these last years has pushed me to greatness with more frequency than Eric,” Willmann said. Scholle is the face of the front of the house, but shows immense appreciation for the kitchen, such as by putting 2-buck brews for the kitchen on the menu, whereby customers can buy a beer for the kitchen staff. “When they are cleaning the kitchen after hours, it’s nice to have a beer and not have to pay for that.” Scholle also aims for equanimity with a tip-out system for the kitchen. “Servers do pretty well with tips. We want it to be a little more balanced here.” Managing a small bar means being highly choosy about what wine and spirits to offer. Scholle’s opted for American beers; wines from Missouri and other small-production estates that pair well with food; craft spirits with connections to the region; and house-made infusions. Since his early days with Willmann, Scholle has graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education. For now, though, he’s sticking with Farmhaus. “I want to see where it takes me. I think St. Louis is ready for some cool new ideas.” Travis Garner Why to watch him: He’s been crafting great cocktails since before he could drink them. Back when the tiny space at 1831 Sidney St. was Veruca Bakeshop, a buser from neighboring sister restaurant Niche came in early to help prep. He was cutting parsnips when Niche’s owner and executive chef Gerard Craft asked him if he knew what he was doing. After a timid, “no,” Craft got to teaching. “Right there, he gave me a one-on-one knife lesson,” Travis Garner reminisced. “That he stepped away to show me how to dice parsnips … I’m the kind of person [to whom] that means a lot.” Craft hasn’t taken his eye off Garner since. When he needed a server for Taste by Niche, the cocktail bar that replaced Veruca, it was Garner he tapped. And soon, it was Garner’s turn to watch – observing master mixologist Ted Kilgore. “You watch Ted and you see the passion he has,” Garner said. “I thought, ‘I wanna do that.’” Over the next two months, Garner soaked up everything he could. He completed Bar Smarts’ Wired course and even raided Kilgore’s basement for bartending books while over for Sunday dinner. But for those two months, at just 20 years old, all he could do was watch. “I had a notebook full of stuff but I couldn’t taste anything,” he remembered. Garner turned 21 last December and soon after, his first drink, Garner in the Rye, appeared on Taste’s menu. Since then, four to seven of Garner’s creations have joined it, including the first collaboration between him and Kilgore. “He’s one of the best employees I’ve had,” Kilgore said. “His drive is above and beyond not just to bartend, but to really understand this craft.” Now, with recipes for 100 original cocktails scribbled in his notebook, the possibilities for Garner’s future are endless. What’s in them? Who knows, maybe something with parsnips. Agi and Aaron Groff Why to watch them: They’re bringing the neighborhood bakery back. As soon as you walk into 4 Seasons Bakery, it’s clear that owners Agi and Aaron Groff have this whole team thing down. He greets you by name and she asks how you’re doing. He runs through the gamut of what’s available today, she scoops your order into a bag. And when one customer wants one of the last four quiches the customer beside her has already snagged, the couple happily negotiates the trade. “Would you be willing to give up just one quiche today, Barb?” Aaron asks. Barb happily abides, ordering four biscotti to fill the void. At their new shop in St. Charles, the Groffs are bringing simplicity back to baking. “Most bakeries nowadays, it’s all mixes and cookies in a can,” Aaron said. “Not here; everything is made from scratch.” The couple has garnered quite a following over the last four years, selling the seasonal bread and pastries they made in a church kitchen at area farmers’ markets. Now, they’re counting on their all-natural ingredient list (no corn syrup or shortening here) and breadth of experience to see them through – that, and a very friendly business plan. “We wanted to bring back the local bakery, where the bakers are behind the counter, greeting you, answering questions about the food,” Aaron said. “We know their name and they know ours.” These days, it’s hard to tell whether 4 Seasons’ customer list is expanding due to the mocha macaroons and chocolate summer squash bread or from customers clamoring to get a glimpse of the newest member of the Groff family, born in August. But that’s just fine with the proud parents. “Everyone comes in with a bag full of baby clothes,” Agi mused. “A few have even taken on the role of grandma.” Sounds like another friendly negotiation is in the mix. Jayce McQuerter Why to watch him: He’s not a wine snob. Less than two years after tasting his first Sauvignon Blanc, Jayce McQuerter earned a CSW and a second-level sommelier certification, making the 23-year-old quite possibly the youngest person in St. Louis to hold such a distinction. “He’s gone a long way in a short period of time,” said Robust Wine Bar owner Stanley Browne of his wine director. “He’s controlling $750,000 in wine sales. That’s an important part of our business.” Stuck-up wine lingo isn’t McQuerter’s style. While studying communications design at Wash. U., he titled his senior thesis You Don’t Have to be a Wine Snob, writings based on his experiences learning about wine while working at The Wine Merchant. “I want to bring wine to people in the same way it was accessible for me as a 21-year-old,” he said. The guy dubbed Vino Virtuoso by his co-workers gives a nod to screwtops and opposes philosophies that presume expensive and aged always equal better. McQuerter’s sniffer and taste buds are big parts of the Robust Factor, the Webster Groves wine bar’s method of classification. “His palate is really impressive, he often picks up things others don’t notice,” said Robust GM Frank Romano. “It’s rare to find this kind of talent at this age.” McQuerter’s tasting notes are often highly experiential, another way to tear down wine’s intimidating mystique. “I can smell it and say, ‘It’s like potpourri – like walking into my mom’s house during the holidays.’” This holiday season, he’ll be uncorking a 1995 St. Innocent Pinot Noir. “It’s time to drink it.” City Greens Produce Why to watch it: The nonprofit is putting the first lady’s words into action. When Michelle Obama started talking about reversing the trend of childhood obesity, one local group knew where to start: close the grocery gap. “Obesity is an American issue but if you’re low income, it’s going to be more of a problem for you,” said John Pachak, the director of Catholic Charities Midtown Center. “The convenient stores near you may have one or two potatoes in a bin for $2 per potato, and the groceries sell ‘dead food’ that lacks nutrients.” Using a creative business plan that melds a farmers’ market with a co-op, Pachak and other staff members founded City Greens Produce, an organization that found a way to offer fresh produce to lower income families at cost. Each Thursday and Friday, City Greens holds a members-only market in the basement of Catholic Charities Midtown Center, with all membership fees and market sales going toward paying farmers a fair wage for their products. For just $100 a year (those with an annual income below $30,000 get free memberships), members can peruse farm-fresh eggs and fresh bread, natural produce and organic coffee, homemade jams and natural whole-wheat flours at a cost below any farmers’ market in St. Louis. Watermelons that are $8 at most markets sell for just $5; day-old loaves of bread from Black Bear Bakery go for $1.50. “We’re giving them affordable options,” said Meg Walsh, a City Catholic Charities staff member who provides the healthy recipes that accompany each item at the market. “It’s not a good diet if they’re not going to eat it,” she insisted. “We’re teaching them how to cook with vegetables for their families.” Up next, the nonprofit will take the market on the road, parking in several lower-income neighborhoods. Last year, the staff used leftover profits to give a loaf of bread and two dozen eggs to regular customers twice a month during the off season. So far in 2010, they’re on track to double last year’s sales. Ian Vest Why to watch him: Jim Fiala has put his flagship restaurant in his hands. “We don’t do hierarchy,” said 26-year-old Ian Vest when asked his official title at The Crossing. The St. Louis native who began busing tables at Busch’s Grove at the age of 13 guesses he’s now an executive chef, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. His main focus is staying within owner Jim Fiala’s concept for the Clayton restaurant: using high-quality ingredients to prepare a cross between French and Italian cuisine. Fiala couldn’t be more pleased that he handed over the reigns at The Crossing to Vest last year, when opening The Terrace View demanded Fiala’s attention. “He takes care of my customers like you wouldn’t believe,” Fiala said, visiting tables when he’s got all of 90 seconds to spare or discerning guests’ palates before commencing a seven-course tasting. In the case of the latter, Vest admitted that he usually has zero idea what he’s going to make. “I think of what will be cool together and taste good.” Recent results: wooly pig ribeye with chanterelles, roasted potatoes and a shallot-sherry buerre blanc. He geeks out over working with food purveyors – like the teenage boy who sells him heirlooms tomatoes or a fishmonger who sends him beautiful wild Alaskan salmon – and even calls them on the phone to thank them for incredible product. “Sometimes I have to slow down and contain myself. I find myself out of breath because I get so excited about it.”