For Thomas Futrell, Polite Society Is Exactly Where He Wants to Be

Feb 13, 2018 at 6:10 am
Thomas Futrell of Polite Society. - MONICA MILEUR
Thomas Futrell of Polite Society.

Thomas Futrell still isn't sure whether his parents were conspiring to get him to become a chef or just trying to keep him occupied when they suggested he pass some time in culinary school.

"In hindsight, I'd say they were nudging me," Futrell muses. "However, in this industry I don't get a lot of time off to see them, so they probably wouldn't take credit for that."

It's hard to imagine Futrell, who is at the top of his game as executive chef at Polite Society (1923 Park Avenue, 314-325-2553), as anything but a culinarian, but there was a time when his path was uncertain. Instead, he had plans to study radiology at the State University of New York but was placed on a two-year wait list for the highly competitive program.

Rather than spend those two years idly, Futrell's parents suggested that he attend the local community college. As part of the SUNY system, any credits he accrued there would transfer to the radiology program, putting him ahead of the game. Since he loved cooking, they reasoned, he might as well explore the culinary program so he could spend the time doing something he loved.

What he didn't count on was that he would fall so head-over-heels in love that he would never look back.

"I loved it, and the next thing I knew I was working in restaurants," Futrell says. "It ended up leading to a career."

Still, even with the roundabout way he got here, Futrell is not surprised to be making a career out of cooking. Growing up one of four boys in upstate New York, he has fond memories of spending time in the kitchen with his mom. When she went to work when he was ten, Futrell took on the role of cook, going through her cookbooks and figuring out how to make the family dinner. It was an experience he likens to cooking for an army.

It would serve him well when he graduated from culinary school and ended up in Orlando (via Albany) working for Disney's California Grill. That led to a gig at the resort's Wolfgang Puck's Grand Cafe where he worked his way up to sous chef. Though he was happy there, he was up for a change when a friend working at a resort in Mackinaw Island, Michigan, asked him to move there to work for him.

Never one to pass up an opportunity, Futrell later made his way to St. Louis and Scape restaurant in the Central West End, when the restaurant's former chef Eric Kelly recruited him for his team. He worked there for several years, making the connections that would lead him to his current gig at Polite Society.

"It's a really great process there," Futrell says of the collaboration between himself, co-owners Brian Schmitz and Jonathan Schoen and bar manager Travis Hebrank. "It's like workshopping. Some people might find that annoying, but I appreciate getting a perspective outside of mine."

Futrell has been running the kitchen at the popular Lafayette Square restaurant since it opened last February, a feat he refuses to take credit for without mentioning his superstar sous chef, Christopher Arnold. "I couldn't do this without the people who work with me — the line guys and gals, the dishwashers — everyone I work with makes a difference. I can't do this on my own."

Though not a native, Futrell feels at home here. And though he has bounced around from New York to Florida to Michigan, he feels he has hit his stride in St. Louis.

Except for the pizza.

"I've tried St. Louis style and I just can't get on board," he says. "Luckily, I found this hole-in-the-wall place where the owners are from New York. The first time I went in there, the person in line in front of me was from Brooklyn, and the one behind me was from Long Island. I thought, 'Yep, this is it.'" (At the risk of blowing up Futrell's spot, his favorite pizza comes from University City's La Pizza.)

Futrell took a break from preparing his take on the Impossible Burger to share his thoughts on the St. Louis restaurant scene, his caffeinated lifestyle and why it doesn't get any better than his mom's pot roast.

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I try to be an open book. The one thing is — and I may not show it as often as I should — the appreciation that I have for our team at Polite Society. We have really built a great crew front and back of the house. These are the individuals that create the experience for our guests. I may be hard on them at times, but I appreciate them all for what they bring to our restaurant.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
A cup of coffee, or to most who know me, six cups of coffee.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would love to have the ability to see into the future. As chefs, there are times that we must make predictions: predicting how a dish will be received by your guests, predicting which items will sell or how much of certain items to prepare. To be able to know these things rather than take an educated guess would make my life that much better.

What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Evolution and diversity: craft cocktails and food that are executed incredibly well but served in comfortable settings rather than in a stuffy environment.

What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Pizza! I am biased in saying this. I am from New York originally. There is one place that I can go and get a great pie. Go figure I would find a pizza place where the owners are from New York.

Who is your St. Louis food crush?
So many: Kevin Nashan, Rick Lewis, Samantha Mitchell. But one stands out. My girlfriend and I dined at Olive + Oak recently. Jesse Mendica did a pork cheek sauerbraten that was one of the most well-executed dishes I have had here in St. Louis. It was approachable and familiar, but done in such a way where the pickled apples carried the acidity rather than the traditional way of marinating the meat in vinegar. The thought behind that reinvention of this classic really set her apart in my mind.

Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Rob Connoley. He currently has Squatter's Café, but I look forward to Bulrush. Talking to him shortly after he came back to St. Louis, he has such a passion for food and creativity. He's like Salvador Dali.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Thyme: It's earthy and it can go with anything savory or sweet.

If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Radiology. But then I fell in love with cooking and did not look back.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Balut: I have tried it. I do not see the appeal. I will never serve it.

What is your after-work hangout?
I do not have one. I am away from home so much that I prefer to go home. I guess you could say my home with my girlfriend Karri and our three dogs — and, yes, one cat — is my favorite after-work hangout.

What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Burgers. I love a great burger. It does not matter if it is our "Jimmy Burger" or a double Whopper from Burger King.

What would be your last meal on earth?

One of my favorite meals growing up was the pot roast that my mother made. Nothing can be made better than how your mother makes it. It may surprise people that it is not something outrageous or decadent, but food always invokes great memories. I have many great memories growing up cooking with my mother.

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