Asked to draw the United States, would your map look like this?
If so, listen up, this post is for you.
Once the frontier to European immigrants migrating west, the stretch of mountain and meadow between our country’s coasts is, once again, the frontier. Finally, we, the middle, the easily forgotten, the hardly noticed, and the barely known, stand at the gateway to our nation’s culinary future.
Or, that is what the media will conspire to have us believe in the coming months and years. Just you wait. They’ve spent their quota on the big cities, made destinations out of satellites (like Brooklyn and Oakland), raised Austin and Portland from obscurity, killed the pig, and most recently, discovered the South, Bourbon, fried chicken, and grits.
So, what’s left?
You’re looking at it. The jumbled mass between San Francisco and New York, Chicago and New Orleans.
* * *
* * *
As I’ve said on this blog before (and here too), most of what is being cooked in the Midwest has already been done, and done better elsewhere. Very little, outside of barbecue, church potlucks, and mediocre corporate chains, has been created here in the Heartland.* So, until fairly recently, it’s understandable why the mainstream media overlooked the middle.
But there’s a rising class of Midwestern chefs that is writing an exciting, new chapter in our region’s kitchens. As I have been advocating for quite some time, these chefs have begun to take ownership of our local, culinary identity, looking within instead beyond for inspiration.
I am, in many ways, one of my region’s harshest critics. Ask the chefs in Kansas City who know me.
But I’ll be the first to champion its causes too.
I happily devote my time and resources to learning about our culinary community and bringing awareness to it. I have, for example, worked with Debbie Gold at The American Restaurant to bring some of America’s best chefs to Kansas City to raise money for Harvester’s, a local food pantry (This year’s Harvester’s Chefs Classic will be held on June 24. Guest chefs will include Susur Lee of Lee in Toronto, Matthias Merges of Yusho in Chicago, and William Bradley of Addison in San Diego), and to move the national spotlight to the middle, if only for one night, with a Friends of James Beard Foundation dinner each fall (This year’s dinner on November 4 will include chefs Joshua Skenes of Saison in San Francisco; Gavin Kaysen of Café Boulud in New York City; Michael Cimarusti of Providence in Los Angeles; and Brooks Headley of Del Posto in New York, among others).
I had the tremendous privilege of helping Colby and Megan Garrelts tell the story of bluestem, one the Midwest’s first restaurants to wade against the tide to establish fine dining in Kansas City. The bluestem cookbook not only features six important farmers and food producers in our area, but, for the first time in recent memory, put a Midwestern chef on bookshelves across America.
And, most recently, when Anthony Bourdain came to Kansas City to film an episode of “No Reservations,” I was thrilled to introduce him to Green Dirt Farm, an organic sheep farm in Weston, Missouri, a few miles from my home. You can watch us eat Sarah Hoffman and Jacqueline Smith’s lamb and award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses on the Travel Channel.
I don’t tell you these things to publicly congratulate myself, or to shamelessly plug events with which I’m involved. Rather, I do so as a reminder that, although it may not be readily apparent from this blog, which is heavily devoted to my travels abroad, the Midwest remains ever in my sight, ever on my mind. It is home, after all.
More importantly, if not people like me, who will advocate on behalf of the growing, silent majority here? Certainly not the mainstream, which remains largely parochial in its scope.
* * *
* * *
So, allow me to take you to the other side of my state, to St. Louis, where a band of brothers is growing an exciting dining scene just this side of the Mississippi River.
I had visited “The Lou” briefly in January and welcomed the opportunity to return last week when Kevin Nashan hired me to photograph a Celebrity Chef Tour dinner at his restaurant, Sidney Street Café, in the city’s historic Benton Park neighborhood.
For this dinner, Nashan gathered four of St. Louis’s best chefs, including Kevin Willmann (Farmhaus), Gerard Craft (niche), Josh Galliano (formerly of Monarch), and Fabrizio Schenardi (Cielo at The Four Seasons).**
He also invited some chefs from afield, including Debbie Gold of The American Restaurant in Kansas City; John Shields, formerly of TownHouse in Chilhowie, Virginia; Michael Sullivan, the butcher at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee; Kelly English of Iris in Memphis (he also owns Kelly English Steakhouse in St. Louis); Martin Rios of Restaurant Martin in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Nashan’s hometown), and the august Alex Lee, formerly the chef de cuisine at Daniel, now at Glen Oaks Country Club on Long Island, New York.
* * *
* * *
I spent the day with the chefs in the kitchen, moving from station to station, as they prepared for over a hundred and thirty covers. The kitchen at Sidney Street is capacious; two rooms with two stoves, and a large storage area with a separate walk-in space at the far back. But with more than ten chefs, and a fleet of prep cooks, who trickled in throughout the day – never leaving, only coming – we were a cozy crew.
While John Shields foraged for spruce shoots outside (literally, on Sidney Street), prep cooks shucked nearly two gross of oysters for his dish, a swirl of colors and flavors from land and sea: spinach, seaweed, oysters, buttermilk, spruce, and mussels.
I watched Debbie Gold fillet a dozen mackerel, sleek and spotted, leaving not an ounce of meat on the bone. She lightly pickled the fish and served it over stewed morels with a ramp stalk to one side, its bulb tempura-battered and fried. Dusted with dried red miso, Gold’s fish dish was aptly described by a diner as being umami-rich.
Josh Galliano’s prep cooks turned hundreds of cavatelli, colored green with nettles. They trimmed just as many asparagus, unusually sweet ones. The color of butter, with beautiful, purple tips, they’re grown and harvested by a local farmer who’s in his seventies, Galliano told me.
The lamb that Alex Lee used for his dish was also grown locally. It was from the cleverly named EIEIO Acres Farm, about an hour west of St. Louis. Lee’s station was perhaps the most animated corner of the kitchen. He, Nashan, and chef Carey McDowell of Winslow’s Home, who came to lend a hand – all three veterans of Daniel – recalled their days in Boulud’s kitchen while they helped Lee prep. The stories they told were priceless.
Lee’s dish showcased EIEIO’s lamb beautifully. He served a nugget of shank meat, coated with a bubbly, rich gravy, beside a blushing slice of loin, juicy and moist. The duality of this plate carried over into the garnishes as well: two different radishes (white and daikon, both glazed in fonde blanc), and two crispy toppings – chopped almonds and fried Meyer lemon zest. The chefs and cooks swarmed the left overs like no others’. It was a great dish.
* * *
* * *
Throughout the day, chefs and prep cooks circled Michael Sullivan’s station to watch him at work, stuffing sausages, slicing terrines, and butchering a whole lamb. They also paused to swipe scraps off his cutting board: a variety of saucissons, a jellied pig ear and tail terrine, pâte, and slivers of pickled pig tongue that he sandwiched between mini biscuits with red pepper jam as a canapé. By the time guests arrived, he had assembled a magnificent buffet of charcuterie for the reception, a pre-meal feast that, alone, was worth the price of admission.
Bob Zugmaier, the pastry chef at Sidney Street Café, worked quietly, migrating from corner to corner, as space became available. You’d hardly know he was there. I had been impressed by his desserts when I ate at Sidney Street Café in January. And I was impressed by the dessert he served at this Celebrity Chef Tour dinner, a tahini-black sesame sponge with pickled green strawberries, dill, and buttermilk sorbet. It was mellow in sweetness, and tart too. I loved it. Bob Zugmaier: that’s a name you should know.
* * *
* * *
Kelly English walked up to me with a mischievous look. He opened his palm, revealing a mini meat pie he named Natchitoches, the town near New Orleans where he was raised. It reminded me of the meat pasties of the Caribbean, spicy and hot. Later, he came to me with a tempura-fried pickled okra stuffed with pimiento cheese. I can’t tell you how delicious that was. I’d go to Memphis just to have it again.
The one thing I’ve learned about chefs is that they love to feed. And they love to eat. I do too.
Nashan had welcomed all of us to St. Louis the night before with ribs, pastrami, hot wings, and all the fixings, catered by Mike Emerson’s Pappy’s Smokehouse.
The next morning, when we arrived at the restaurant, there were dozens of World’s Fair Donuts waiting for us: glazed, cakey, braided, and ones filled with pastry cream.
And, as if all the grazing and snacking during prep wasn’t enough, in the mid-afternoon, everyone paused for family meal. Nashan had made a pot of posole and roasted two whole suckling pigs, which we wrapped in freshly pressed corn tortillas. Afterward, Nashan handed out cups of Ted Drewes’s frozen custard, a St. Louis icon, like it was Christmas morning.
We were well fed.
* * *
* * *
Collegiality and patience goes a long way when plating over a hundred covers in a tight space. Service was a rush, but smooth. It was a joy to watch these chefs at work and play.
At the close of service, Nashan toasted the crew with shots of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Afterward, chefs and guests from around St. Louis, showered the kitchen with gifts – chocolates from Bissinger’s, beer from around the world, and Ben Poremba of Salume Beddu passed around a plate of his charcuterie, which was excellent.
We wrapped up the night at Gerard Craft’s Taste by niche in the Central West End.
Here is the Sidney Street Café Celebrity Chef Tour menu in full:
Crispy Okra Tempura
Pimiento cheese, local cucumbers, Greek yogurt
Natchitoches Meat Pies
Baci di Dama
Pecorino cheese and rabbit truffle mousse.
Oyster Seasoned with New Spruce
Spinach, an infusion of fresh seaweed, frozen black radish, buttermilk vinaigrette.
Segura Heredad N/V
Stinging nettle cavatelli, local pecans, bottarga, purslane.
Château Chase Sauvignon-Blanc, 2010
Lamb, green garlic, mint.
Rodney Strong Reserve Chardonnay, 2009
Grilled, Wild-Caught Cobia
With its “belly bacon,” spring onion Soubise, quick-braised greens,
Golden raisin chutney.
Bethlehem Valley Chardonel, 2009
Ramps, morels, finger lime.
Domaine Serene “Evanstad Reserve” Pinot Noir, 2007
Crispy Newman Farm Pork Belly
Roasted tenderloin, cherry-soy caramel, curried celery root, polenta parchment.
Hirsch Pinot Noir, 2008
Roasted EIEIO Acres Lamb Loin and Shank
Moroccan spices, apricots, olives, spring turnips and radishes.
Ethos Reserve Syrah 2008
Green strawberries, balsamic, dill, buttermilk sorbet.
Chateau St. Michelle Late Harvest Riesling 2008
* * *
* * *
I stayed in St. Louis a couple of extra days to eat.
For lunch, I dropped by Winslow’s Home with my friend Laundry Girl. It’s a modern-day general store, more boutique than convenient mart, with a menu of homey comforts like egg salad (served as a scoop, with a toasted slice of baguette on the side) and torta rustica, layered with spinach, mushrooms, fontina cheese, and red bell peppers. The brisket sandwich, served on a hefty rye scarpetta, is saucy and delicious. It arrived warm, with Brie cheese oozing out the sides. If you go, you must order it. From the dozen or so baked goods, I can recommend the pecan pie with a rich carmel-like filling sweetened with maple syrup. You should order that too. (See all the photos here.)
The next day, I met my friends, the Herefords, for a midday meal at Willmann’s Farmhaus. For lunch, the restaurant only serves one “blue plate,” which changes every day. Wednesday was fried chicken day. For $10, we each got a drumstick and a juicy fist of breast meat with macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes and gravy. Also included is iced tea, sweetened or unsweetened. (See all the photos here.)
* * *
* * *
For dinner, to niche, where I hadn’t eaten since 2008 (the dinner in January was a collaboration dinner inspired by the bluestem cookbook, so it wasn’t Gerard Craft’s food). Gerard Craft, offered to cook for us. I did not resist.***
I’ll highlight my favorite dishes.
At the beginning, there was a delicious cheese roll made with tapioca flour. Named after Dia, the Brazilian woman who taught Craft how to make them, they were served with slices of Benton’s ham and whipped lardo.
I loved Craft’s take on the lobster roll. The nuggets of lobster were coated in a creamy, brown butter Hollandaise and served with a toasted clod of squid ink Pullman bread, togarashi sugar glass, and green apple. Hello!
And at the end, there was beef. In the Midwest, there’s always beef. This rosy round came with creamy whey, potatoes pureed with leeks, and a fibrous paper made of leeks. It had all the flavors of comfort, in a lighter, unexpected form.
Summer Wright should be added to the list of pastry chefs you should know as well. Both of the desserts we had at niche were great, especially a lemony “Vacherin” with lavender and thyme. But it was her lemon-chamomile sorbet – just a scoop, served as a pre-dessert – that stole my heart. That was delicious.
* * *
* * *
A big thanks to Kevin Nashan for hosting a great event in St. Louis – the Midwest needs more ambassadors like you. And, to all the other chefs that I met, thank you for being a fantastic group to photograph. It was a privilege to work alongside of you all. Thanks also to The Four Season for the great accommodations and hospitality.
St. Louis, I’ll be back.
PHOTOS: Flower garnishes; Kevin Willmann’s grilled, wild-caught Cobia; Kevin Nashan plating; long exposure shot of prep work; Michael Sullivan breaking down a whole lamb; posole and suckling pig – family meal; plating dishes for service; brisket sandwich at Winslow’s Home; pig’s head with rhubarb, mint, and buttermilk at niche; chefs from the Celebrity Chef Tour dinner.
* Of course, the Midwest is only one of many regions between out country’s borders. But it is the one I know best, and the one with which I’m primarily concerned in this post.
** Only Gold, originally from the north shore of Chicago, is a native Midwesterner. Nashan is from New Mexico; Willmann is from Florida; Craft grew up in the D.C. area; Galliano is from New Orleans; and Schenardi is from Italy; near the French border.
*** I was a guest of Craft’s family, and was refused a bill.