3 Top STL Chefs Share the Biggest Influences Behind Their Cooking
There’s some truth to the TV-fueled image of chefs as the ultimate authorities in their kitchens. But underneath those white jackets, their hearts are like ours: melting over a favorite dish, beating faster in a crisis, glowing at the memories of family, friends and mentors.
For these three chefs at the top of the St. Louis restaurant scene, creating crowd-pleasing, innovative menus that raise the bar for the local culinary community at large seems to come easily. But they all constantly evaluate how to translate their own experiences with food into approachable dishes that strike a chord with their customers. And they never stop thinking about how to bring fresh ideas to the table—even when, for one, the next big idea strikes while watching reruns at 2am.
That drive has fueled awards, achievements and new ventures for all three of these chefs—with more to come. Here, we take a look into the hearts, minds and kitchens of
some of the most intriguing chefs in town.
When describing culinary influences, Ben Poremba lists off the Renaissance-era Medici family, Napoleon Bonaparte and Italian film stars—all without mentioning his own travels, which include a stint at the Universita degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche in Parma, Italy. But he does mention his cravings for pasta: Spaghetti is his go-to comfort food at home—often with a little fresh tomato, chili flakes and pecorino—but the ever-inventive chef admits he almost never cooks it exactly the same way twice.
Between that creativity and his love of interior design, the way Poremba’s personality shapes his restaurants is apparent. The self-taught Israeli chef and restaurateur describes the renowned Olio as “a sum of experiences of myself … somewhere I would want to go.” In contrast, his upscale dining destination next door, Elaia, is “a place of the professional chef, with things I would never serve at my house but where I can excel as a cook and a restaurateur,” he says. Poremba’s new place in Clayton, Parigi, will offer Italian food with an ultra-modern French ambiance because, he says, “Paris plays an enormous role as a point of reference for me, and so does Italian food and Italy in general”—another nod to hisRenaissance-man personality as a restaurateur.
Poremba unites them all—even his fried chicken joint, Old Standard, an homage to his US home and Southern culture—through the unwavering values passed down by his mother, a chef who instilled in him his keen “attention to detail, cleanliness of flavor and joy of cooking.”[Her influence] goes beyond cooking in terms of hospitality and integrity in the cooking itself,” he says.
A 2- or 3-am wake-up call for an in-demand pastry chef isn’t out of the ordinary, but pair it with a before-dawn breakfast (usually rice pudding with cinnamon and mangoes) and a healthy dose of culinary inspiration from classic shows like “Golden Girls” and “Facts of Life,” and now you have the recipe for success—Faure-style.
“My curiosity mixed with my love of history and pop culture all led me to create the things that I do now,” she says, speaking of her creations at La Patisserie Chouquette. “… I love something with a story.” During the height of the “Hunger Games” hype, for example, she created a series of macaroons around the movies that were a huge hit among her growing STL fanbase.
It’s a departure from her initial plans: When Faure got into the dessert business, she only wanted to make cakes. But an early mentor in her hometown of New Orleans, James Satterwhite, convinced her to expand her skills for times when her cakes didn’t sell. At first she was incredulous, but now she realizes it was brilliant advice: It’s a trait that likely helped the charismatic pastry chef make it to the semifinals on the Food Network Baking Championship this past spring.
Faure’s also doing her part to phase out the overdone cupcake trend and replace it with eclairs (her personal favorite—and currently trending among the French) by offering a “D’Eclairation” series that highlights creative flavor combos like black sesame with green tea, mango-pistachio and maple-bacon.
With this litany of creative flavors in her repertoire, customers asking for vanilla anything should be warned: “You asking me for vanilla is like you asking me for salt,” she quips. “It’s meant to enhance, not stand alone. I don’t get up at 2am to make anything that’s vanilla.”
If a stranger were to wander into the well-loved Niche, Brasserie, Taste, Pastaria or his soon-to-open Downtown fast-casual restaurant, Porano Pasta & Gelato—the restaurants Craft and his team have poured their hearts and souls into building—there would be few physical clues the restaurants are related. Pastaria’s bustling, family-friendly Italian vibe is juxtaposed by Taste’s small, intimate interior, just as Brasserie’s French joie de vivre is a contrast to the elegance of Niche’s renowned cuisine.
But hospitality is the overarching philosophy that lies at the heart of all of Craft’s masterpieces. It’s a skill he learned firsthand from his travels in Italy, when he was warmly invited into the homes and restaurants of friends of friends. And those moments made a lasting impression.
“I think of Italian food more as an emotion than a cuisine,” Craft explains. Take the bolognese at Pastaria: “To me, it’s about as welcoming as you can get,” he says. “It’s like a giant hug.”
Craft’s track record of using food to express subtle messages about his inspirations and approach is impressive. For example, Dia’s Cheese Bread at Niche is actually pao de queijo, an homage to his Brazilian nanny who was “almost a second mom.” His dishes radiate the respect he has for farms and farmers, which was shaped by his time at a boarding school on a farm in northern Idaho—as well as during a Slow Food-sponsored trip to Terra Madre in Italy. Out of gratitude, he still gives the culinary organization $5 from every tasting menu to help share the farm-to-table message. “We don’t shout our philosophy from the rooftops,” Craft says. “We just hope you can feel the difference.”
This story appeared in the October 2015 issue. All photos by Jennifer Silverberg.