Thanks, Dad! St. Louis chefs celebrate their dads' influence on their careers

Barbecue may be the culinary calling card of many a dad, but in the careers of four local chefs, fatherly influences reach far beyond the grill.

Justin Coleman

One of the earliest and most important lessons Justin Coleman learned from his father, also a chef, is that women love men who can cook. As an adult, the day cook at Tin Can Tavern and Grille in South City has received mentoring from his father both on the job and at home.

“He was my boss at my first cooking job, so as far as restaurant cooking goes, he influenced me to be quick and consistent or find a new job. As far as cooking for friends and family goes, he taught me to be really good at a few dishes and stay out of Mom's way for the rest,” he said.

When the two professionals share a kitchen, Coleman sometimes picks up new techniques. “When I first became a cook, I’d just slowly [peel garlic], but he’s got a method where you [quickly rub the bulb between your palms] and all the skin comes right off.”

Coleman claimed his father “will go crazy for anything and everything as long as it's cooked right,” but a particular favorite is stuffed chicken breast. The recipe, however, remains his dad’s closely guarded secret.

Jorge Calvo

“Mangia la polenta! Mangia la polenta!” It’s been decades since Jorge Calvo resisted eating polenta at the family dinner table, but the owner-chef of Mango Peruvian Cuisine still remembers the imperatives of his Italian-speaking father telling him to eat.

By the time he left his native Peru, Calvo had owned four restaurants. This entrepreneurship made his father smile. Tallarin Verde Con Carne, a dish on the menu at his current restaurant in Shrewsbury, would put another smile on Padre’s face. “If my father dined at Mango, he would order Tallarin Verde Con Carne,” Calvo said. “Because of his Italian origins, my father was a lover of Italian-inspired cuisine, specifically pasta! The Tallarin Verde is a Peruvian tradition with an Italian twist ... a pesto pasta and grilled steak prepared with walnuts, spinach and olive oil.”

Ceviche is something both father and son enjoy. “On Sunday afternoons, my father and I would kick back to watch soccer with a ceviche and a beer … the two go hand in hand,” he said. During weekends spent camping at the beach, Calvo’s father taught him to fish –without a pole, just a fishing line – and took him to the cevicherías that dotted the beach. To this day, the dish that most reminds Calvo of his father is ceviche. One might be tempted to think this is why he offers it at Mango.

Pam Smith

Pam Smith, owner and operator of Your Home Bistro Personal Chef Service, thinks of baked goods when she remembers her father.

“My great-grandmother was a pastry chef. She and [my grandmother] baked together. As a young man, he’d go home to all kinds of baked goods – doughnuts, coffee cakes and pies. Peach pie was his favorite,” she said.

Smith’s father taught her how to shell peanuts. “When you’re a little kid, you don’t know how to do it,” she pointed out. Unfortunately for Smith, her father also saw to it that she ate peas, a vegetable she prefers to avoid.

Although her father did not cook so much as man the barbecue grill, he still contributed to her interest in the culinary arts. “As soon as you’d come into the house, he’d be offering food and drinks. And he looked at food as a very social, giving type of thing,” she said.

“I think that influenced me more than him actually cooking, because to me, food is a social experience. I think if [chefs] looked at [food] as just ‘OK, we eat to maintain our bodies,’ I don’t think anybody would bother to be a chef.”

Thank goodness for all the fathers out there like Smith’s.

Ivy Magruder (pictured with his dad on the home page)

When he was executive chef at Eleven Eleven Mississippi, Ivy Magruder put brussels sprouts on the menu because his father insisted he eat them as a child. Magruder never did develop a liking for them, though he enjoys telling the story. In fact, the anecdote became so popular with patrons that he now offers pickled brussels sprouts at Vin de Set Rooftop Bar & Bistro in Lafayette Square, where he is general manager and executive chef.

Magruder’s father challenged his palate often. “Going to a Moroccan restaurant was not uncommon. Or going to a Chinese restaurant. Not take-out Chinese – authentic, roasted-ducks-hanging-from-the-ceiling type Chinese restaurants. I am a chef because [he] turned me on to different cultures [and] different flavors,” he said.

When Magruder was young, his father mainly put in kitchen time on Sunday mornings. Now cooking is the elder Magruder’s “full-time hobby.” Does the professional chef like dining at Dad’s table? Absolutely. And not just because of creations like Tomato-Pancetta Sauce – Magruder gets a lot out of observing his host.

“[When I cook for guests], I think I still struggle with turning it on and off. I still worry. And he [says], ‘The work is done. Let’s enjoy the company.’”

Steve Scherrer (pictured above with his dad)

Steve Scherrer, café chef at Eau Bistro and Café in the Central West End, has a father and a stepfather. “I’ve been blessed,” he said.

Both men travel a lot and often they’ll bring back menus for Scherrer to peruse. His fathers are also a source of valued – because it’s honest – feedback. “Through the years, my fathers have always [said], ‘Oh, I don’t know about that [dish you made]. That’s a little strange,’” he said. Scherrer’s father also helps out sometimes by rolling up his sleeves. “When I owned Arthur Clay’s, he would come there and help. It was a family effort,” he said.

Growing up, Scherrer watched his father whip up meat marinades and grill steaks to everyone’s liking. “And this wasn’t [just] on Sunday,” Scherrer added, “this was on a Monday or a Tuesday after a long day at work.” Memories of these family meals give Scherrer a boost in the kitchen. “You gotta think of something back there all the time,” he said.

What Scherrer perhaps most appreciates is his father’s approach to dining. “That’s always been a real motivation for me, to see how outgoing he is in the restaurant atmosphere. Because it shows what this really can be. [You] just don’t sit down, order and leave – it’s an experience.”