Now executive chef at the new Quincy Street Bistro, Dakota Kolb is happy to be back where it all began.
Dakota Kolb vividly remembers the first time he walked through the doors of Quincy Street Bistro (6931 Gravois Avenue, 314-696-2269)
. It was 2014, and he was a young culinary student there for lunch and an interview with the restaurant's then-chef, Rick Lewis. Intimidated — Lewis had just been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef award — Kolb took a deep breath and gave it his best shot.
"It was my first restaurant job — my first job out of high school," Kolb recalls. "I walked back into that kitchen thinking I had no business being there and talking to Rick and Chris Tirone. They were the guys I wanted to be one day. When they offered me to come in and stage, then wanted me to come work for them, I couldn't believe it."
Quincy Street Bistro closed in 2018
, but Kolb will return to the reanimated restaurant as its newly named executive chef. He can't help but reflect on how far he's come since that day in 2014. From those humble beginnings as a young culinary student learning how to cook on a line, Kolb is now tasked with helping the new owner, Todd Tiefenauer, bring his vision for the restaurant to life. Together, they've figured out a way to balance Tiefenauer's long-held restaurant dreams with maintaining the spirit of the first iteration of Quincy Street, a task Kolb feels uniquely suited for because of his history with the place, as well as his ability to listen and adapt.
Those skills have served him well in the kitchen, even from a young age. When he was just five years old, Kolb would regularly watch the Food Network with his mom and sister and was immediately taken with chef Emeril Lagasse, thanks, in large part, to his penchant for yelling "Bam!" As a kindergartener, Kolb thought nothing was more thrilling than seeing the animated Lagasse yell out in excitement as he worked in the kitchen, so he found himself poking around when his grandmothers would cook, hoping to get in on the action.
"My grandmother and great-grandmother were really inspirational to me," Kolb says. "They were always cooking, and I was a curious kid, so I wanted to get into the kitchen and see what was going on. I enjoyed being hands-on. Most kids my age loved playing with silly putty and Play-Doh and making stuff like that; in my way, this was real-life Play-Doh. My passion really started there."
Kolb got an early start on his restaurant career. As a high school student at South Technical High School, he took cooking classes and even got to compete on a team that allowed him to form relationships with his future instructors at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, where he later attended culinary school. During that time, he also worked at Quincy Street, where he learned from the kitchen's talented team how to cook well and fast for a busy, high-profile restaurant.
From there, he took that knowledge to Pastaria and eventually to the Corner Butcher in Fenton. Though he loved the craft of butchery, Kolb missed cooking on the line and found himself back at Quincy Street before moving to Kansas City in 2018. Earlier this year, he decided to return to St. Louis, so he reached out to his former boss, Lewis, to see if he knew of any opportunities. Lewis informed him that Tiefenauer was getting ready to re-open Quincy Street and that he was looking for people to join his team. The two met, clicked and have been working together ever since to breathe new life into the storied space.
For Kolb, doing justice to a place that is so near and dear to his heart is a dream come true.
"This place has always had a strong pull on my heart," Kolb says. "It's the first place I really solidified myself in the industry and people started to know me. To come back, walk through these doors and see the same structure has made me realize that I've come a long way. It's interesting being here at this time and space. I love it, and I love being back. I can't wait to see where this goes."
Kolb took a moment away from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the current state of the St. Louis dining community, the joys of Busch beer and Chinese takeout, and why the tight-knit nature of the restaurant scene gives him hope.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
It is a goal and a passion of mine to shape and mold the minds of young chefs in the industry. I was, and still am, a young chef, and I want to be able to give and supply the next generation with as much information that I have and the experiences I will have had in this industry.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
I start my day with hot shower, and I will not leave the house unless I do my hair, even if I will be putting on a hat to work in the kitchen.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would love the ability to stop time or freeze time.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
This is unfair to pick just one. My crushes would have to be Rick Lewis of Grace Meat + Three, Brian Moxey of Pastaria and Qui Tran of Nudo House/Mai Lee. They are so incredibly talented and have been chefs I’ve looked up to for a long time.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
I would say a jalapeño. It’s a vegetable that is bold and versatile. It’s mild but still strong, much like how I am every day.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would probably an electrical engineer. When I was going to South County Technical High School, I would always drop into a class or two, and the stuff they were learning was very intriguing to me.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I wake up every morning hoping that this has all been a bad dream. This is a pandemic for the ages. My perspective on life has changed much like the perspective of the hospitality industry has changed. The hospitality industry is based off of service, and if we can’t serve people we aren’t doing our job; if we can’t do our job, we can’t support ourselves and our staff. It’s very hard to come in, look around you and think that it can all change the next day. That’s the world we are living in now. I get up and walk in to work with hope that I can make a living for myself and that my staff can also do that. But it’s a dangerous game we are playing. People don’t want to go out and be exposed, but we don’t survive as a restaurant without patrons coming and dining with us.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
I miss the consistency of business and knowing what to expect on a given day/night. I also miss the people-to-people contact. We can still have that, but you can’t see the happy faces and the great experience in a curbside format.
What do you miss least?
The hours. This the first time in my career where I’m not working from noon until 1 a.m. I get off at a reasonable time, and that is something that I haven’t had the pleasure of doing in a while!
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I may or may not have indulged in some Busch beer and Chinese takeout. I’m a sucker for Chinese food. I’m slowly working off the quarantine weight!
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
I think overall business will be the biggest change. In March, we had to switch our structure of how most restaurants are built and transfer everything to curbside. I think it will be a welcome change but a change that all of us in the industry are excited to see. I think those of us in the industry will be way more careful, and I think a lot of the cleaning procedures we've had to adopt will most likely be used going forward.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
How close and how tight the St. Louis hospitality industry truly is. We were all unsure and scared of what this pandemic might do, and during these last eight months, the local restaurants and owners have come together to try and help each other out as best as they could. The community of chefs and hospitality professionals that we have in St. Louis are some of the most genuine people, and it has been shown off now more than ever.
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