As a kid, Joseph Hemp V would stand on a step stool next to the stove to help make Sunday breakfast, his family's breakfast. In the summer, he'd tend his grandmother's vegetable garden -- and dutifully eat the vegetables that she'd just plucked straight from the ground.
Was Hemp destined to become a chef? Maybe, though the course he took to his current position at the popular wine bar and restaurant Robust (227 West Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-963-0033) and its new downtown outpost (635 Washington Avenue; 314-287-6300), was a long one. It took him to hotels and country clubs and some of the best restaurants in St. Louis; it included two stints in culinary school -- the second necessary after the first ended with his being kicked out.
Hemp and I met at the downtown Robust this week to discuss his journey as a chef (read more about that path here), why you should smile while you cook and why you should give new restaurants a chance to get it together before you lambaste them online.
What were your favorite foods growing up? Breakfast I always loved. Things with eggs -- even if it was lunchtime. It's a bit white-trashy, but my grandma would have me fry bologna till it curled up, and then in the cup put an egg in there, and let that cook itself, and then make a sloppy sandwich out of that.
What's a typical meal at home for you? Sunday is the one day of the week where everybody's off in the house -- my wife and the kids, we're all there. Monday is the chef's day [off], so it's also the only day we don't have sitters for the kids, so it's my day at the house to relax.
Sunday nights, my in-laws do Sunday dinner. It's one of the things that really drew me into that family: Every Sunday they're having dinner together. On the Sundays that [my mother-in-law] doesn't cook, then usually we don't do anything crazy. There's a really old Chinese restaurant down the street from my house, or there's a really nice pizza place up by my kids' school that we like to go to.
We try to stay away from as much processed food for the kids as we can, but it's incredibly hard when we both work as much as we do. We've been doing a lot of vegetable curries and rice. I really like the fact there's a shit ton of flavors in it and that I don't need all the meat in there to make it shine, just some spices and some good vegetables. But then again, since the weather's been warming up, I've also just been going and buying a couple of steaks and sitting out back. The kids can play, I can barbecue and enjoy the day.
What's on top of your pizza? If I do it myself, it'd be blue cheese, mozzarella, bacon and chile flakes.
What's your drink of choice? I've been fancying manhattans lately. The entire time I spent at Taste, I wasted it on the fact I could drink gin, but couldn't stand bourbon or any other spirit. [Hemp asked Taste mixologist extraordinaire Ted Kilgore to help him expand his spirits palate.] Slowly, I started with rye -- I could drink rye faster than I could drink bourbon -- now it's to the point, rye or bourbon on the rocks, I can appreciate every little part of it. Manhattan's just been the way I've been doing it [lately].
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