St. Louis Chef Ramon Cuffie Reflects on This Full-Circle Moment in a Noteworthy Culinary Career
For the past couple of months, Chef Ramon Cuffie has been making himself comfortable—building a home of sorts—at Herbie’s in Clayton, where he was recently appointed executive chef. “It’s going great. You know, it’s a machine,” Cuffie says with a laugh, while fielding my questions and doing “a million different things” at the restaurant. “It’s not just that I’m having fun here, it’s a great restaurant that not that many people talk about.”
Given his experience in some of St. Louis’ premier dining institutions, Cuffie is not only deserving but exceptionally well prepared for a position like this. As a teenager, he began working at a restaurant at The Chase Park Plaza, and he went on to work at the fine dining restaurant Al Baker’s and to hold a decade-long tenure at Bar Italia before leaving to travel across the U.S. and France.
After returning to St. Louis and earning additional acclaim locally, he left again—this time to pursue an accelerated degree at the Culinary Institute of America—and returned again, picking up the culinary reins at Parigi in Clayton.
Taking the helm at Herbie’s is a fulfilling moment for him, especially considering his fond childhood memories of his mother taking him to dine at the restaurant’s former location in the Central West End, back when it was Balaban’s.
Now, after committing more than 35 years to fine dining, Cuffie is enjoying the fruits of his labor: a kitchen that feels like his own. Cuffie spoke with ALIVE about the trajectory of his experiences in restaurants, memories of his mother’s cooking and reflections on this full-circle moment in his career.
ALIVE: I’ve read that it’s rare for you to do interviews. Is there a reason why?[Laughs.] I guess I struggle with the race issues, as far as chefs are concerned: As far as how we’re looked at from restaurant to restaurant, or in general. Everything I’ve done in St. Louis has, in some form or fashion, been noteworthy, but still not to the point where I felt like [to the] awareness of others. [Laughs.] But I got to the point where I didn’t care about it. I was more interested in doing something good on the plate.
ALIVE: Did you find that when you were being interviewed, people were focusing on your race or was it just your understanding of the history of black people in restaurants and in kitchens that made you uncomfortable?
I guess it was both. To be able to travel was really something. After traveling, I felt like they were more focused on where I worked and the people I worked for—and basically, with that experience and tutelage, all of a sudden, “I arrived.” But that wasn’t really true; the bulk of my career was in St. Louis. I’ve always had great write-ups or great things said about my food.
ALIVE: Tell me about the path you followed once you left St. Louis and your trajectory once you returned?
I left in ’96. I was just finishing a tenure at Bar Italia. I lived in Seattle and Oregon for a bit, then France for two years. I worked as a chef on a train, and I worked in D.C. Upon returning to St. Louis, I came to a restaurant in The Grove neighborhood to work for a friend of mine who had been the pastry chef at Bar Italia and owned a restaurant and bakery called La Dolce Via. When she opened a new restaurant, Jaboni’s, I was the chef there. I think there was a big splash about me at Jaboni’s. It didn’t last long, only a year, but [I had] some really strong accolades that year for a restaurant chef.
Around that time, I had two motorcycle accidents. They kept me out for a year and a half from cooking.
I think the big thing was going to the Culinary Institute [of America] at an older age. That changed everything. Even with all my experience, making an executive chef salary was still a tough thing to come by without any sort of education, a.k.a. a piece of paper. But then, all that changed.
ALIVE: What attracted you to that institution?
It’s like the culinary Harvard. [Laughs.] And they had an accelerated program for experienced cooks. I think [being an] African American, you don’t make it in the world by just saying you were self-taught. … In New York, if you’re born and raised in a city like that, it’s different, but that wasn’t going to happen in St. Louis. My whole life was spent here in great kitchens, but I have to say, I think what changed everything, as far as I’m concerned, was the larger reach the Culinary Institute gave me.
ALIVE: You mentioned being an African American and that having the narrative of being self-taught wasn’t going to necessarily work in a place like St. Louis. Why do you think that is?
I experienced working with one as a kid. One of the last interviewers [Cheryl Baehr of the Riverfront Times] asked me who was my food crush, and his name was Van Hardy. He was the executive chef at Al Baker’s, which was a famous restaurant here for almost 30 years, like Tony’s …. Just recently in [Herbie’s], one of the black waiters came into the restaurant and he remembered me from that time, and I interviewed the guy, who—now an older guy—remembered me as a kid there.
It’s funny to me, you can do things and they get a big splash—but then time goes by and it’s like they never happened. I’m not going to say it’s race, but you wonder sometimes in this city. There’s also other chefs that I remember as a kid, like Van Hardy, and it’s weird that no one ever knew who they were.
ALIVE: Van Hardy was self-taught?
Yeah. Van Hardy was definitely self-taught. This was before the whole celebrity chef thing. At the same time, he was the chef at one of the top restaurants in the city for many, many years.
ALIVE: Did you keep in touch with him as you progressed through your career?
Early on I did. We talked a few times. But after that, no. And, again, it wasn’t until Bar Italia, and I might have been 24, 25, when I felt like this was going to be the job that I was going to do. People would ask, “Don’t you want to go to college?” They didn’t think of it as a glamorous job. It definitely wasn’t considered a great job for anyone.
ALIVE: What shifted then for you at Bar Italia?
There were so many people there from different cultures; not to mention, the owners were Italian, and the waiters were from all over the world. And everyone was interested in food in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I never saw that [in St. Louis], except in my own household. It was refreshing. I think that’s where [things shifted]. And even then, I remained reluctant because, [like I said], it just wasn’t a glamorous job. I don’t know if it was an epiphany, but the first year or two at Bar Italia changed everything for me.
ALIVE: And you mentioned your household …
My mother went to Hadley Tech, where she wanted to be a cook, a chef, as her trade. It’s how I got my first job: She knew a lot of people in the restaurant business. She was the one that started showing me different things; my mom was a really good cook.
ALIVE: That’s what I was going to ask you. Growing up in St. Louis, was your household filled with a love for food?
ALIVE: Did you inherit any recipes from her that you carried over into your own career?
Not necessarily recipes—I don’t think my mom had recipes. She kind of just went to the stove and started cooking. And, like that, we were much the same, but culinary school kind of changed that for me, or maybe Bar Italia did. Now I have more exact recipes I follow because as a career cook, you start noticing that everything you do has a ratio to it.
So no, there weren’t any recipes, but she definitely lent her influence. My love of vegetables and legumes, for example. Things like that [I got from her].
ALIVE: You went to the Culinary Institute of America and you traveled. You were in Europe. You were in the Pacific Northwest. What brought you back to St. Louis? And were you excited to come back or did you feel like you were being drawn back?
Well, I wasn’t excited [to leave France]. I was a month or two away from getting my residency and I loved being there. I wasn’t interested in being a chef or world famous or any of that. I didn’t care if my name was known at all. Running a kitchen and being a chef, any old chef, there, I loved it.
It’s weird when you go to Europe. It’s not the same class system as it is here. Even though you work every day, if you’re a cook over there, it’s [like] you’re a lawyer or a doctor. It’s just different … I just really enjoyed it. Some people go there and can’t wait to get back to the States. I wasn’t that person. If you’re engaged–I speak French–after staying there for a period of time, you can understand certain things and you can pick up things. I was very lucky.
ALIVE: So, what brought you back to St. Louis? I read that it started when Olio and Elaia were opening and the owner, Ben Poremba, contacted you.
Yeah. Before he opened the first restaurant, he talked to me about being the chef there. I was intent on going to the Culinary Institute, however, and I wasn’t really concerned about being someone’s chef. We kept in touch for a year, while I tried to figure out what I was going to do.
ALIVE: You said earlier you weren’t excited. So what pushed you to make the decision to come back when he offered you a lead role at his restaurant Parigi?
I had just graduated from the Culinary Institute, and to do something like that at 50 is a big deal. It’s just that those two years [abroad] were really different, and coming back home and doing this restaurant was bittersweet. It’s a beautiful restaurant, but I never really had the chance to let it all sink in, nor did I have a choice of where I was going or what I was doing. It was just sort of a quick thing.
ALIVE: I also read that when you were younger, your mother took you to Balaban’s, which is where Herbie’s used to be located. So your new position as executive chef at Herbie’s is a full-circle moment for you. Has it felt that way for you?
Oh yeah. The owner [Herbie Balaban] used to hang out with the owner of Bar Italia, who I started out with there. He would come in for lunch, so I had met him and knew of the restaurant. It[’s] definitely full circle. And as an institution, I’m probably the first black man at the helm in the restaurant. At least noted. [Laughs.]
ALIVE: So now that things have come full circle, is there something that you’re interested in trying at Herbie’s in your new position as executive chef, maybe something you haven’t tried yet in your career?
As a chef, I just want to develop a place that does solidly great food, with some classic things on the menu such as a Wellington—even though everybody will probably think that’s kind of passé with all the new things going on. Herbie’s is almost like a private restaurant—you have regular customers who like a dish and come here two or three times a week to have it. So it’s hard to change anything on this menu because of that. You can’t walk in with an ego. You have to build a relationship. It’s like a negotiation, really.
I’d really like the restaurant [industry] and my colleagues in the city to recognize that we are serving good food here. You don’t hear about the food much; you hear about Herbie’s as being a fun place. People love it, but they don’t necessarily come for the food. We definitely want to change that, so I think that’s where I’m going to start.
I would also like to develop the cooking team. I think this is one of those life jobs, and I can’t wait to be a part of something like I was when I started my career.
ALIVE: My last question for you I hope is a fun one. Could you can give a cooking tip to readers of ALIVE, maybe something they think they do right that they’re often doing wrong, or something people overlook when they’re cooking?
Have fun. The other thing is, don’t add oil to your water when you’re cooking pasta. [Laughs.] But mostly, I would say, have fun. Get in there and cook. Try making your own pasta.
I enjoy those little things, doing them myself if I can. … When you work in a restaurant, you’re thinking all the time, “How can I get the best food out there in 15 minutes?” [Laughs.] But when you get home, you don’t want to do that. You want to take your time. And if I go out to a restaurant, very seldom [do] I have to think about how long my food takes or whether the waiter was paying much attention to my table or any of that. I think the enjoyment of dining out is one of the best things in life.
Join Chef Ramon Cuffie and the rest of the Herbie’s team on Friday, July 12, for Herbie’s annual patio party. Sample selections from the restaurant’s summer menu along with seasonal cocktails.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Images courtesy of Gregg Goldman.
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