Around the Table

Forget the coasts: The Midwestern Food Movement is alive and well in St. Louis. Gather round the table for a look at the places, the players andtrend though it might bethe traditions making it happen in the heartland.

 

For far too long, the Midwest food scene has lived in the shadows of iconic dining destinations (New York City and San Francisco among them), but forward-thinking individuals are making Midwestern culinary traditions a must for menus across the country. The popular Midwestern-style emphasis on local, sustainably sourced foods highlighted in classic comfort dishes, such as buttermilk-brined fried chicken and innovative riffs on meat and potatoes, has prompted The Food Channel to give the cuisine of the American heartland some serious cachet by declaring the Midwestern Food Movement the No. 1 culinary trend of 2014.

At the forefront of this movement are the dedicated chefs, farmers and diners of St. Louis, who are working together to embrace all aspects of Midwestern cuisine and spread the tradition of the heartland at home and beyond.

Our chefs spend a lot of time on the farm.

Devoti’s Five Bistro (The Hill), Lulu’s Local Eatery (Tower Grove South), Sidney Street Cafe (Benton Park) and Vin de Set (Lafayette Square) all operate restaurant gardens that provide seasonal fruits, veggies and herbs for chefs to showcase. Case in point: Vin de Set’s herb-roasted chicken features sautéed garden greens and tomatoes grown on its quarter-acre urban farm. Others, like Nathalie’s (Central West End), Stone Soup Cottage (Cottleville) and Winslow’s Home (University City), have multiple-acre operations responsible for a large portion of the produce used by the kitchens.

The constant collaboration between Winslow’s Home Executive Chef Wil Fernandez-Cruz and Head Farmer Paul Keeven directly influences each dish on the menu. At the start of the growing season, Fernandez-Cruz and Keeven strategize about the best options for both the farm and restaurant. Their collaborations yield delicious results, such as the heirloom tomatoes and eggplants incorporated into a flavor-packed gratin, or the roasted Alaskan salmon served with Winslow’s Farm green beans and a peak-of-the-season cherry tomato salad.

When farms or gardens aren’t feasible, a number of chefs are making it a point to locally source their produce. Gerard Craft, executive chef and owner of the Craft family of restaurants (referenced by The Food Channel as a key player in the movement), stresses the importance of supporting area farms. “We definitely try to work with a lot of the farms,” says Craft, adding that it’s his duty as a chef to help raise awareness about regional cuisine by connecting with area farms and showcasing their products. Craft’s Niche (Clayton) and Kevin Willmann’s Farmhaus (Lindenwood Park) are two of several restaurants that highlight the hard work of farmers by including the names of the farms on their menus.

Thanks to a few forward-thinking organizations and collaborative individuals, chefs aren’t the only ones leaving the city limits for a glimpse of life on the farm. Some of the hottest reservations in town are for progressive on-the-farm dinners that fully embrace and exemplify the Midwestern Food Movement’s emphasis on homestyle hospitality and seasonal ingredients.

Slow Food St. Louis—our local chapter of the international nonprofit promoting sustainably sourced food— was one of the first to bridge the gap between the farm and our forks with a dinner dubbed “Feast in the Field.” The premise of the self-described dining extravaganza is for guests to enjoy food that is plucked, prepared and plated on the same premises from which it came. All proceeds from Feast in the Field support Slow Food St. Louis’ Small Farm Biodiversity Micro Grant Program, which encourages local farmers to fill their fields with heirloom and heritage breeds threatened with extinction.

To say the theme has caught on would be an understatement. Now, each year, dozens of St. Louis chefs, artisans and culinary enthusiasts gather at establishments like Claverach Farm to celebrate the fruits of our fields in a multi-course, collaborative meal. While the dinners certainly showcase the strength of our culinary community and local ingredients, another element of the evening is to ensure that our Midwestern dining traditions continue for generations to come.

We take meat and potatoes to a whole new level.

Many Midwesterners grow up eating simple, yet supremely satisfying meals anchored by hearty portions of meat and potatoes.

The classic combination is quintessential St. Louis cuisine, highlighting both local ingredients and the culinary heritage of the heartland. Brian Hardesty of Element (Lafayette Square), Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe (Benton Park) and Carl McConnell of Stone Soup Cottage (Cottleville) are among the city’s best known chefs for tweaking stick-to-your-ribs dishes to match their own creative culinary styles.

Inside the collaborative kitchen at Element, Hardesty works with his fellow chefs to turn things like plain pot roast into a sophisticated dish of slow-braised lamb served with roasted fingerlings and carrots, all topped with a spiced wine sauce. Nashan’s interesting riff on a Midwestern classic—a yogurt-marinated rib-eye, grilled and artfully plated alongside caramelized onions, barigoule artichokes, pickled ramps, tomato confit, smoked fingerlings and mignonette—is also a must-try. Other meat and potato options can be found in the seasonal six-course, prix fixe dinners at Stone Soup Cottage, where McConnell’s breaded tournedos of prime beef are served with red pepper coulis and grilled onions.

Our fried chicken isn’t fast food.

St. Louis foodies are saying goodbye to the days of grabbing drumsticks from a grease-stained bucket and reveling instead in the resurgence of Midwestern, buttermilk-brined fried chicken. St. Louis chefs and diners have recently become smitten with the seemingly simple dish, and it’s easy to see why.

Every second Sunday of the month at The Libertine (Clayton), Executive Chef Josh Galliano offers a threecourse, prix fixe supper featuring his notoriously addictive fried chicken. The multi-day process begins with birds from an Illinois Amish farm that are tea-brined and buttermilksoaked before being coated in a mixture of cornmeal, flour and spices, creating a chicken that’s crunchy, tender and bursting with flavor. At Juniper (Central West End), Executive Chef John Perkins has certainly upped the ante with his fried chicken skins. Foregoing the meat makes this appetizer the ultimate indulgence— glistening, golden brown bites of fried goodness served with strawberry buttermilk. For a menu focused solely on fried chicken, head to Ben Poremba’s newest restaurant, Old Standard. Known for his upscale dishes at Elaia and Olio, Poremba understands the expectations when it comes to down-home cooking. “When you cook fine dining food, if people don’t like the food, you can always excuse it as they don’t know,” he says. “When you cook food that’s on the people’s level, it better be damn good, because they know what good fried chicken should taste like.”

The classic comfort food has also inspired a local group of self-proclaimed chicken connoisseurs called The Gentlemen of Chicken. Kevin Seltzer, a founding member and lifelong connoisseur of fried chicken, explains that despite their growing Facebook blog and reputation around town, the group is and always will be “about eating chicken and having a good time.” The Gentleman of Chicken have most recently been spotted at chicken joints all around town, from down-home places like Hodak’s (Benton Park) to more upscale spots like The Libertine.

Our culinary traditions have reached the coasts.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then regional chefs must be tickled pink by the surge of Midwestern dishes popping up on menus across the country. Better yet, even some of St. Louis’ most famous specialties are riding the waves of the Midwestern Food Movement out to the culinary scenes on the coasts.

Danny Meyer has long understood the mass appeal of Midwestern cuisine. The St. Louis native is one of the most highly respected restaurateurs in New York City—responsible for worldrenowned restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern.

“I think that we’re all craving authenticity any way we can find it on a plate,” explains Meyer, who found inspiration for Shake Shack, his modern-day riff on the roadside burger stand, from childhood experiences at Ted Drewes and Steak ‘n Shake. In another nod to his hometown, Meyer was sure to include toasted ravioli on the menu at NYC hotspot Blue Smoke, his ode to all things barbecue.

Others incorporating St. Louis traditions into their menus include Kevin Gillespie, a James Beard nominee and “Top Chef” contestant who’s cooking up pork steaks in Atlanta. Another area native, David Slay, stays true to his Midwestern roots in his California restaurants (La Veranda and Park Ave. Restaurant, to name a couple) with farm-fresh ingredients, including freshclipped lettuces and just-harvested beets, in addition to upscale twists on down-home dishes like the flat iron steak seared in a cast iron pan and topped with local tomatoes and housemade blue cheese dressing.

The recent influx of accolades and honors among St. Louis chefs from the prestigious James Beard Foundation has no doubt helped fuel the movement. Nashan and Craft were both finalists for Best Chef: Midwest. This past year alone, St. Louis chef Bryan Carr of Atlas (Central West End) has had the honor of cooking in the famed New York City James Beard House, while Galliano is slated to cook there later this month.

Our chefs are collaborating with others in the region.

Despite fierce competition in the restaurant industry, collaboration is what has driven the Midwestern Food Movement at the grassroots level. This heightened sense of camaraderie has St. Louis’ finest in close communication with fellow chefs from across the region—and it’s paying off for local diners.

Craft has reached out to fellow chefs, such as Michael Paley of Garage Bar in Louisville and Perry Hendrix of Chicago’s highly acclaimed Avec and Blackbird to strengthen Midwestern cuisine. These relationships have also helped address industry issues like sustainability and seasonality by redefining what regional cuisine truly means for modern-day chefs. Craft hopes discussions between industry leaders will help inspire us to live within our means by eating local, sustainably produced products.

Nashan celebrated Sidney Street Cafe’s 10th anniversary by inviting chefs from across the country to come and cook a dinner in St. Louis, while the Restaurant at the Cheshire (Clayton) has showcased the vast talent of the Midwest by welcoming a series of award-winning chefs, such as Michael Smith and Jasper J. Mirabile from Kansas City, to collaborate alongside Executive Chef Rex Hale on special dinner menus.

Hospitality is always on the table.

Midwesterners have a reputation for minding their manners. We care about common courtesies and often exhibit gracious acts of hospitality. This trademark mindset sits at the core of the Midwestern Food Movement and the philosophies of many St. Louis restaurateurs, who make hospitality within their walls as important as what they put on the plate.

A hospitable mentality has always been at the heart of Home Wine Kitchen (Maplewood), where husband-and-wife duo Josh Renbarger and Cassy Vires wholeheartedly welcome every diner as if they were guests in their own home. “For us, hospitality is everything,” says Renbarger, who sees the positive effect of Home Wine’s friendly, fuss-free atmosphere on diners firsthand. Case in point: The eatery’s “No-Menu Mondays” allow guests to forego a set menu and take delight in the surprising dishes alongside their fellow diners. “People are more willing to strike up a conversation,” says Renbarger. “We’ve had guests make friends with the people at the table sitting next to them, and the next time they come in, they’re all coming in together as a four-top.”

Even Meyer attributes his high standards for hospitality, which inspired his New York Times bestseller “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business,” to his Midwest upbringing. When he opened his first restaurant in the mid-1980s, it was natural for Meyer to want to replicate the comfort and kindness felt in his favorite hometown eateries. “[The] St. Louis restaurants that I went to genuinely made you feel that they were happy to welcome you,” he says. “It was very easy for a restaurant like Union Square Cafe to stand out from the crowd, because we adopted the welcome I had grown up with.”

And we continue the traditions in our homes.

Chefs may have led the charge, but home cooks and conscious eaters are the ones perpetuating the Midwestern Food Movement by standing behind the efforts and end products of local farmers and professional kitchens. For some, this might mean frequenting a local farmers’ market, while for others it’s buying up shares of locally raised meats or finding inspiration in Midwest-oriented cookbooks.

Recent additions to the St. Louis community are increasing farm-fresh, locally produced food options for home cooks. New grocery stores, such as Fields Foods (Lafayette Square), are stocking their shelves with a slew of sustainable and locally sourced products. Greater numbers of individuals are also turning to community supported agriculture (CSA), which keeps members supplied with seasonal produce and products. Not only do the CSAs through Fair Shares or The Libertine (Clayton) source directly from area farmers, but they also inspire members to broaden their culinary horizons with unique produce and recipes.

Entrepreneurial middlemen are another way in which the gap is shrinking between farmers and consumers. In recent years, Chris McKenzie has made it his mission to source higher quality, heritage breed animal proteins from area providers. His company, Mac’s Local Buys, acts as a facilitator between farmers and customers by purchasing whole animals and distributing the various cuts to individual buyers.

Once home cooks have their hands on sustainable, locally sourced products, they can turn to Amy Thielen—hostess of Food Network’s “Heartland Table,” filmed in her Minnesota cabin—and her James Beard Award-winning cookbook, “The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes.” Right here in St. Louis, “Missouri Harvest,” written by Local Harvest’s Maddie Earnest, and Liz Fathman, a food enthusiast and sustainability advocate, aims to introduce readers to the dedicated farmers dotting our state and encourage them to eat with the seasons and embrace the culinary treasures of our region.

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Sidebar: Evolution of a Dish

At Farmhaus Kevin Willmann showcases his from-scratch philosophy in the classic comfort dish of meatloaf. Not content with the “ketchup-coated mess of his childhood,” Willmann’s version takes this stick-to-your-ribs, Midwestern staple to new heights.

Resourceful Roots

Historically, meatloaf was a way for savvy Midwesterners to stretch and utilize all parts of an animal. Willmann gives a nod to meatloaf’s humble roots by using the trimmings from the whole primal cuts that the restaurant breaks down each week. Nothing goes to waste, including the scraps of housemade bread, which become breadcrumbs that help bind the meatloaf together.

Technical Skills

Born out of frugality and requiring only a few ingredients, Willmann’s meatloaf seems simple, but the chef considers his version a skills test for young chefs. “It helps us remember how important technique is, because there are all of these nuances that need to be executed for the dish to come together,” he says. Meatloaf is a multi-day process at Farmhaus with plenty of room for error if the cooks aren’t careful at each step—from curing the bacon to properly rolling each loaf to ensure even cooking.

Rave Reviews

Diners who are somewhat skeptical of the more eclectic and innovative dishes at Farmhaus have found comfort in the familiarity of meatloaf. “It broadens our reach,” Willmann says. “And fortunately, I don’t hear much talking when people are eating the meatloaf, so hopefully it means they’re enjoying it!” Farmhaus meatloaf is available each night on the dinner menu and is also the Wednesday blue-plate lunch.

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Sidebar: A Slice of Comfort

Homemade and handcrafted are two concepts at the very heart of the Midwestern Food Movement, which might help explain St. Louis’ growing appetite for from-scratch pies based on family recipes and featuring locally sourced ingredients.

At Pie Oh My! (Maplewood), owner Jane Callahan fills her cases with a rotating roster of handmade pies studded with seasonal fruits and fillings. Callahan’s from-scratch philosophy means everything is baked inhouse and sourced locally when possible. The extra effort is evident in varieties like the pecan pie, which is made using only Missouri-grown pecans, or the seasonal fruit pies filled with regionally picked produce.

 

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Kevin Willmann’s recipe book for meatloaf.

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Ben Poremba’s fried chicken at Old Standard.

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg

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