This is part one of Gut Check's Chef's Choice profile of Andrew Ladlie of Sassy JAC's. Part two, a Q & A with Ladlie, will appear Wednesday. Part three, a recipe from Ladlie, will be available Thursday.
When I reviewed the southern-fried Soulard joint Sassy JAC's (1730 South Eighth Street; 314-932-1280) last year, I enjoyed my meals -- so much so that I wanted chef and owner Andrew Ladlie to expand his menu beyond its modest confines of appetizers, sandwiches and an entrée of the day. I understood, though, why he didn't. The Sassy JAC's kitchen is very small, and on my visits Ladlie worked it by himself.
"I knew I wanted to cook homestyle -- soul, stick-to-your-ribs food," Ladlie says now. "But I was also smart enough to know I had a lot to learn about this, so I had to start out slow. I told myself, 'Don't jump the gun on anything. Make sure you can put out a good product.'"
Ladlie and his wife, Jennifer, opened Sassy JAC's in May 2012. (JAC is an acronym of the first names of the couple and their four-year-old daughter, Clara; the Ladlies are currently expecting their second child.) For the 34-year-old Ladlie, the restaurant is the culmination of a career in which he has eagerly sought new experiences and challenges. Or, rather, for Ladlie, who over the course of our conversation was candidly self-critical about Sassy JAC's first year of operation, refining and improving his restaurant presents him with his greatest challenge yet.
Ladlie took a roundabout route to the kitchen. In fact, he enrolled at Truman State University to study chemistry. Though the chemistry major did hint at his true calling.
"Cooking and chemistry, they go hand-to-hand," he says, "but I don't have the precision it takes to do some of those things in chemistry. That's why you won't see me bake. I want to blow shit up!"
Ladlie grew up in O'Fallon. At the time, he says, this was still the country. "It was a two-lane road."
"My family life growing up was awesome," he continues. "I tell my parents all the time what a great job they did. Not because of how I turned out necessarily. My parents both worked so hard. We didn't have a whole lot, but until I got older -- I mean, my twenties -- I didn't even realize they didn't have as much as we needed."
Ladlie's adolescence certainly didn't suggest a future with food or restaurants. "In my high-school years, I ate such a stupid diet because of wrestling," he says. "I've had more tuna-fish salad at my parents' house than anything else, for sure."
After college, he found restaurant work in the front of the house: "It looked like the kitchen was the beating heart of the restaurant, so after I worked out front, I thought, let me go and try this.
"I kind of fell in love with it there. I liked the hustle. I liked the pace, the instant gratification of cooking."
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