A St. Louis bartender's journey in a world without smell or taste

Last December, Joel Clark, one of St. Louis’ top bartenders, lost his sense of smell. It was the result of a head injury that he suffered during a seizure. “Without your sense of smell, you can’t taste,” said Matt Seiter, veteran bartender and Joel’s former colleague at Sanctuaria in The Grove. “And if you can’t taste, it’s really hard to tell if a drink is too sour, too sweet, boozy or bitter, if it’s balanced. It’s damn near impossible to do that. Of all the senses to lose, that would be one of the most detrimental.”

It’s been more than 10 months since Joel’s fall. He still cannot smell. He can barely detect flavor. Yet he is still bartending.

I became acquainted with Joel in 2009 while researching a feature story for Missouri Life about the best bartenders in the Show-Me State. Joel was one of 15 people spotlighted in that article, “The Art of the Mixologist,” published in October 2010. By then, he’d bartended for six years and was shaking things up at Pi in the Central West End, one of the few places in town to adopt a progressive cocktail program.

After a year at Pi, Joel took a bartending position at Sanctuaria, helping Seiter, the bar manager at the time, turn it into a cocktail mecca, the likes of which St. Louis had never seen before. With a notch or two on his belt and a stronger understanding of vintage drinks, Joel was then hired as bar manager at Mission Taco Joint. He struck gold with a launch list of cocktails that stayed true to the restaurant’s Cali-Mex concept while introducing a craft bartending ethos – freshly squeezed juices, quality spirits, everything measured. “Our first cocktail list was amazing,” said Mission co-owner Adam Tilford, lauding Joel’s creativity and use of ingredients. But as soon as Mission opened its doors, it became a high-volume bar. How many days could Joel stand on his feet for 12 hours at a time and shake made-to-order margaritas until his arms ached? And he wasn’t just a bartender there. He was management, accountable for paperwork and people.

How did he cope? A drink. A smoke. He’ll admit to both, along with a poor diet and little sleep. By September 2013, he was so overwhelmed that he and Mission parted ways.

Any or all of the former may have contributed to what transpired inside a gas station in Blue Springs, Missouri on Dec. 27, 2013. What is certain is that what was supposed to be a quick stop on a road trip to Estes Park, Colorado for a family gathering changed his life.

joel clark // photo by carmen troesser

Jan. 28 – You are not the person you once were. Today … you are part yesterday, bit of tomorrow. Embrace for change - don’t fight it. You are the NOW. You be it. Own it. You. Now!

This is the first entry of Joel’s journal, a project I asked him to undertake after he told me about his seizure and loss of smell, a condition known as anosmia. I did not know then whether his story would ever be published, or that I might be one of its tellers. The journalist in me wanted that. The friend in me knew writing to be a form of healing.

I’ve run through a gamut of emotions and confusions, laughs and tears, and even some very real anger. I’m still hopeful for it to return. I’m told by physicians and neurologists alike to expect it to come back to me. Well, kind of. In Estes Park, Dr. Chene said it’s about a 51 percent chance, considering the type of injury I suffered. … So, I’m in a coin-toss state of mind. Could be worse. So much worse. Also, a good amount of sufferers of anosmia will have all their sense of smell return ALL AT ONCE! Which, obviously, would be a true moment of overwhelming ecstasy! Fingers crossed.

joel clark's journal // photo by carmen troesser

Joel experienced his first seizure in 2007. He was 26 years old and working at Brennan’s in the Central West End. I’m walking in to open up the store on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, swinging my keys on my finger, whistling a tune, and BOOM! Lights out and down I go, landing squarely on the back of my skull. A nurse happened to witness the fall and his convulsions. Joel spent three days at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. A neurologist concluded that his blood test - aside from low blood-sugar - was normal. Overwork and stress caused my brain to hit the reset button. ... He told me to take it easy and improve my diet.

Three weeks later, Joel was shopping at a grocery store when he experienced what he described as “strange visual sensations” similar to those that occurred during the first seizure. This time, I sat down immediately, put my head between my knees, and concentrated on my breathing. I was back up and picking out apples and oranges in roughly a minute or two. The thought crossed my mind to call the Drs., but then it went away as I went on shopping. What a dumbass. (Also, I don’t like hospitals.) In 2010, he blacked out during a car accident. Did a seizure cause the accident? Was it a seizure at all? Nothing was confirmed, but he quit driving, fearing for his and others’ safety. Two years passed before another incident occurred. This time, it was in his apartment after church on Christmas Eve 2012. His girlfriend, Melanie Cooper, was in the room with him when he suddenly felt dizzy and light-headed, then collapsed to the ground. He reassured her he would be OK. He was, until Dec. 27, 2013.

We stopped at a mega-truck stop in Blue Springs, Missouri for a bite and a stretch. I ordered my burger and salad and went to look at stupid little gifts that I might get for the kids in the gift shop. I remember looking at the back cover of a Duck Dynasty DVD and then ... the same shit. I feel like I’m inside of an oil painting and the next thing I know I’m on a gurney in an ambulance and the only question I can answer is my name. Witnesses said it sounded like somebody dropped a watermelon. My head. I had fallen directly against the back of my skull, again, and had suffered a major seizure, again. This time, things got scary. My blood-sugar dropped to half its normal level. I was approaching a state of diabetic and cardiac shock. Morphine and insulin brought me back to normal. Attending physicians ran all the applicable tests. Negative. They prescribed rest and hydrocodone. That got me to Colorado.

photo by carmen troesser

Joel thought it was just one more seizure.
It wasn’t.

New Year’s Eve, we were in the cabin, and I was in some real pain ... starting to feel pretty strange. At midnight, I had a Bulleit Rye with my brother Dan to celebrate New Year’s, and I remember looking at the empty glass a little confused. Sure didn’t have the same qualities I so fondly remember(ed) of my favorite rye. ... I woke up in severe pain, couldn’t get out of bed and remained there all day. I was finally able to join the family at the dinner table and realized that I couldn’t taste Dan’s venison meatloaf. Mostly because I hate venison, but also because he had made bacon to go with it. Couldn’t smell that.

“We only have five senses. When you lose one, it’s a big deal,” said Laura McLaughlin, an assistant professor at St. Louis University School of Nursing, who specializes in taste dysfunction in head and neck cancer patients. “Anosmia is a complete lack of ability to differentiate odors. It’s global smell loss,” she summarized, before ticking off the major difficulties that the roughly 6 million Americans living with anosmia contend with on a daily basis. There’s the potential for danger, since an anosmic cannot smell smoke, leaking gas or spoiled food. Flavor recognition is also impaired. “Flavors are recognized by taste and smell. Even if you have perfectly intact taste, if you can’t smell, flavors are off. That’s where a lot of pleasure is derived from.”

What has life as an anosmic been like for Joel? It’s fucking weird, he wrote in early February.

It should come as no surprise that 84+ days without my nose has been challenging. My confidence has and is being tested. I’ve had days spent in bed, others spent in anger. I have to continually walk in this “smell.” It isn’t pleasant, it isn’t offensive. ... It’s just an “as is” feeling. It’s a displacement. ... I’m missing the smell of a cold morning chill. ... I just took a shower and all I can say of that experience is that the hot water felt good.

Everything has an aroma – people, places, things. Joel couldn’t smell any of them. It’s uncomfortable, unpleasant and so desensitized it makes me feel disconnected. But it wasn’t just the smells of daily living that Joel missed. Food and drink no longer held flavor. Man, I really, really, really miss the taste of Triscuits and Plochman’s mustard. So bad. Also, Snickers bars. Next to big red wines and mezcal, those might be the two big ones. One day, desperate to experience something, anything, Joel made a sandwich of peanut butter, avocado, bacon, turkey, onion, lettuce and banana. WTF, he wrote next to the list of ingredients.

It would be traumatic for anyone to have his sense of smell and taste impaired, but when your career revolves around food and drink, the loss is more keenly felt. (Read any article about chef Grant Achatz’s bout with oral cancer and you’ll get the picture.) For Joel, the acute scents of the workplace that he was accustomed to were gone, just like that.

Brooke Roseberry, owner of The Purple Martin, hired Joel as bar manager at her new restaurant in the Fox Park neighborhood with full knowledge of his condition. She didn’t think his olfactory impairment would matter much, because she wasn’t looking for a bar that would do “glitzy modern” cocktails. Her vision for The Purple Martin was “a small neighborhood place, get a G&T, maybe a Manhattan.” She deemed Joel’s bartending experience and knowledge of cocktails to be more than sufficient for making unfussy, old-time drinks.

I just made it through the opening of The Purple Martin. I couldn’t smell the fresh paint on the walls, the freshly cut salvaged wood, the few spilled beers or the sweat and energy I’m used to walking into. I couldn’t smell the lamb, the garlic, the harissa or the vinegar. I couldn’t hover over an earthy tempranillo. ... I couldn’t and still can’t taste a Jack Rose at Purple. I believe it may be one of the best contemporary cocktails in the country. I will make it an “item” at Purple. I just wish I could taste one!

photo by carmen troesser

Joel looked to the past for inspiration when creating the cocktail menu for the March debut of The Purple Martin, but he tweaked those recipes – including the apple brandy-laden Jack Rose, the bar’s best-seller this summer – to give the drinks a contemporary bent. How did Joel devise a cocktail menu despite his chemosensory disorder? I pause and reflect and “savor” each flavor in my mind. When it comes to imagining recipes, the mixing is done in my thoughts and begin to make sense or clash or “sour” in there. He relied on information that was already in his head. He knew every bottle behind the bar; his brain held a catalog of proven formulas and ratios for mixing together base spirits with modifiers and what he categorized as “kitchen” ingredients that range from fruit juices to herbs to egg whites. What I’m realizing is that I’m in my element regardless of whether or not I can “smell” it. ... I know each and every ingredient in my arsenal from the inside-out. I can’t experience them like I used to, but I KNOW them!!

“Had he not told me he’d lost his sense of smell before creating this menu, I wouldn’t have known the difference,” Seiter said.

It would have been easier for Joel to shake and stir only proven drinks, a safe route that bartenders like Seiter and Nicholas Crow, Joel’s peer at The Purple Martin, have done when suffering a head cold. But Joel wanted both to put The Purple Martin on the map of cocktail bar destinations in St. Louis and to stay on top of his craft. I would still love to be a part of an STL transformation. I’m so afraid that my situation will prevent that, he wrote. Throughout the spring, he experienced bouts of depression and anxiety as he struggled to imagine achieving those goals.

I think it will never come back. I don’t know if I’m prepared for that. That means I’ll never smell winter, I’ll never smell cinnamon, I’ll never smell banana bread with chocolate chips with my mama again. I don’t know if I’m OK with that. ... It’s not gonna be easy, the rest of my life. My dream was to go to a vineyard in France, spend a year in the soil, learn the grapes, sweat and toil and come back strong. I’ll never get that now. Is everything lost?? Yet at the bottom of the page, in big capital letters, he added, FUCK IT ... KEEP GOING!

Joel’s neurologist at St. Luke’s Hospital Brain and Spine Center in Chesterfield informed him that if his sense of smell would return, it would likely occur during the six months after his injury. The end of June came, but the smells did not. At that point, Joel began to curb his emotional trauma and approach his new state more pragmatically.

photo by carmen troesser

He subjected himself to tests with whiskey, gin, tequila and other base spirits. He took notes regarding appearance, viscosity (which he labeled “touch,” since he evaluated the spirit by rolling a few drops of the liquid between his fingers or the palms of his hands) and “taste.” He could detect sensations on the surface of his tongue where he knew he should taste sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Logically, he knew these were the flavors he should be experiencing.

In losing his sense of smell, Joel’s other senses have become heightened. He thinks harder about visual aspects of a drink, like garnishes. In late June, I watched him prepare drinks for an Asian-themed multi-course dinner at The Purple Martin. He was tying fresh herbs together to serve alongside a shot of the Korean spirit soju. “Having them smell the herb bundle will be like porn to me,” he said. “I want them to be overwhelmed with smell.” For one course, he initially considered serving the cocktail, then walking across the dining room holding a branch of burning sage. “Whoever said a garnish has to be in a drink?” he said.

Even his sense of hearing is keener. Joel now rarely serves drinks with a straw. Instead, customers are served their Brandy Old Fashioned or Silver Sour Fizz with a demitasse spoon, the metal utensil clinking when it touches the glass.

Not only has Joel changed his method of making drinks, but he also desires to interact with patrons and staff at the bar more intimately. “I want to create a personal connection with guests at the bar,” he said. That means making eye contact, shaking hands. And when he does, Joel will sometimes cup the person’s hand inside both of his.

“My body is saying, ‘Pay attention.’ It’s bizarre,” he said.

Joel is 33 years old. He doesn’t see himself tending bar forever, but he does plan to remain in the hospitality industry. “I’m a lifer,” he said. “You find what you’re good at and you excel at it. I love making people happy. I love serving people. Hospitality isn’t just serving food or drink. It’s connecting with people.” For him, the most obvious path for someone with his experience is as a brand ambassador. Over the summer, he interviewed for an opportunity with Jim Beam. He didn’t get the job, but he lasted through a couple interview rounds. Through networking, he has also been in talks with a national restaurant group. The job would entail revamping the bar program at its flagship location. If that goes well, there’s the potential for doing the same at the company’s 13 other restaurants.

He began to take better care of himself – and let others take care of him. He drastically cut down on smoking cigarettes (“I can’t taste or smell it anyway,” he said). He focused on eating better so his spindly 120-pound frame wouldn’t whittle away. He’d lost 10 pounds since December. Food offered so little pleasure, and he had always tended to be forgetful about eating; plus, his schedule rarely included time for a sit-down meal. He armed himself with Ensure protein shakes while his girlfriend, who works in the restaurant industry as a server, began to stock their kitchen with healthy snacks. The Purple Martin kitchen manager, KT Ayers, started preparing Joel a balanced dinner prior to his work shift.

On Sept. 8, Joel sent me a text message: He had suffered yet another seizure two days before. It was late afternoon on a Saturday, and he was in the back office at The Purple Martin. This time, he was sitting down. Since his fall last December, Joel has taken the prescription drug Dilantin to control his seizures. He’d forgotten to take his medicine two or three times that week. When paramedics came, his blood pressure was a relatively high 142/70. He didn’t regain consciousness until he was lying on a gurney, some 30 to 40 minutes after the seizure. “This time, it took me a lot longer to come to. I’m a little spooked by that,” he said. “I’m a little shaken, but I’m OK.”

Joel continues to take Dilantin to ward off seizures, but he does not treat the anosmia with medication. He has reached out to the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, the nation’s preeminent research institution for taste and smell. But the answer he received said, essentially, “Sorry, there’s no cure for this.”

photo by carmen troesser

At times he is encouraged, like when he puts on deodorant and senses the “awareness of a clean smell,” or during a recent descent into the damp basement at The Purple Martin, when his nose detected something that registered, “Hey, I’m in a basement.”

“I tell myself it’s going to come back. I pray for it to come back,” he said.

But what if it doesn’t? “Humans are amazingly adaptable,” said McLaughlin, noting that people with an impaired ability to taste learn to appreciate other qualities of food and drink. But her observation applies to life’s many unpredictable challenges. In Joel’s case, by early October, his optimism was at its highest level since last December. He and Ayers are slated for a dinner-cocktail event at Kitchen Conservatory Dec. 14, and an ongoing discussion continues with that national restaurant group about the bar management position.

Oct. 6My job, my aspirations and goals, and the rewards that I take from this chosen profession of mine are so far outreaching of this one challenge, that it has made me a more focused, more driven and more appreciative professional than I have ever been. ... I don’t think that I’ve ever worked at a higher caliber or done so more willingly or openly. That comes from perspective. I and my perspective have been humbled.

Joel doesn’t know what the future holds for him, but it appears brighter than it has for months. Wherever and whatever it is, I’ll be waiting for my people with a smile and a handshake, a quick joke or a story to tell, and then the best part – “What can I getcha?!”