This is part one of Chrissy Wilmes' Chef's Choice profile of chef Grace Dinsmoor of Modesto tapas bar on Shaw Avenue on the Hill. Part two, a Q&A with Dinsmoor, is available here. Part three, a recipe from Dinsmoor, is here.
Grace Dinsmoor, a St. Louis native, was first exposed to the concept of tapas (or as they were called, "flying saucers") at Blue Water Grill. She was attracted to the freedom of choice tapas allowed -- the ability to try several different dishes within one meal. "I don't want to be committed to one item, one thing to eat. I always wanted the soup the salad, this and that," she explains.
Enthralled, Dinsmoor had to know more.
"I loved the concept, and I started looking into it," she recounts. "And at that time, it was in an encyclopedia -- that was all the information I had available. So it was more so the history of the country and basic parts of the food, versus what's going on now with it."
Thus began a love affair with a nation and its cuisine that grew into a groundbreaking restaurant and a home away from home.
It could be said that Dinsmoor introduced St. Louis to Spanish specialties with the opening of Modesto in 2001. "It was fairly difficult in the beginning, trying to get [suppliers], because it was just being introduced, and Spain was becoming popular in the United States," she says.
Dinsmoor has since developed relationships with cheese-makers, winemakers and other vendors in Spain. She has visited four times and tries to make the most of each trip, focusing on exploring as many regions as possible, during as many seasons as possible.
She changes her menu with the seasons, reflecting trends she has witnessed in Spain, as well as what's fresh and available locally: "We do large changes in the winter and the springtime, of course, and minor changes when fruits and vegetables start to ripen locally." She also adapts the menu depending on what imports are available. The new menu, which Dinsmoor released this past Wednesday, is largely influenced by recent imports of two kinds of goat cheese, along with various meats.
When creating specific dishes, Dinsmoor draws on more than ingredients. "I focus in on experiences that I've had in Spain with my cooking, the people that I've met and the friends that I have that live there," she says. "Because that's basically all the country's about when it comes to their food. It's very passionate -- that's why I fell in love with it."
Although the inspiration comes from across the Atlantic, the tapas Dinsmoor cooks and serves are very much her own creations. "I moved away from traditional tapas, where now it's more my creative touch as a chef," she says. "I'm influenced by the original dish, but I'm creating it into my own."
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