This is part one of Gut Check's Chef's Choice profile of Joseph Hemp V of Robust. Part two, a Q & A with Hemp, and part three, a recipe from Hemp, will be available on Friday.
Growing up, Joseph Hemp V always looked forward to Sunday breakfast. "We were all together as a family," the chef of Robust (227 West Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-963-0033) and its new downtown outpost (635 Washington Avenue; 314-287-6300) explains. "Dad always worked nights. We had school and everything else. But Sunday breakfast was always big."
But Hemp was no passive participant in the feast.
"We'd have a little tiny footstool we'd put next to the stove so I could sit there and watch. And then eventually it came to a point where my mom got six recipes on a looseleaf paper, and I kept watching and practicing with her until one Sunday she said, 'All right, I want you to make breakfast.'
"I was like maybe seven by then. It was fun. Everybody was all excited about the terrible eggs I made or the overcooked this, that and the other."
Hemp's family encouraged his nascent kitchen ambitions throughout a childhood spent in southern Illinois, St. Charles and St. Louis County.
"My grandma on my mother's side grew up and still lives in southern Illinois and had a plot of the side of the house for the garden," he says. "Throughout the summertimes I'd spend with her, we'd till the garden, we'd take care of it. At the end of the season, she'd teach me how to put things up...how to can and preserve and everything else. And she would take vegetables just right out of the dirt and rub it on her shoulder or pants and make me eat it.
"And as I kid, I thought that was gross, but I was also a little boy, so I was like, 'Yeah, sure, whatever.' It showed how good food can be when you put in the time, when you put in the labor."
Meanwhile, his paternal grandmother had noticed how much he seemed to enjoy being in the kitchen, helping someone else or making himself a snack or meal, and she made sure to tell him that this could be his career. For Hemp, whose adolescence was, by his own admission, wild, such encouragement mattered.
"I couldn't last in an office," he says. "I couldn't do anything like that. I'd lose my mind. [Cooking] forced me into an environment of what I loved, and everybody supported me on both sides of my family. They always praised my cooking and everything else.
"So that was the big push."
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