Growing up, food was both a blessing and a curse for Heidi Hamamura, now of Guerrilla Street Food (multiple locations including 3559 Arsenal Street, 314-529-1328). On the one hand, it was the way she connected with her dad, acclaimed sushi chef Naomi "Hama" Hamamura, as they spent his only day off each week cooking together.
"We spent the day making these amazing meals together," Hamamura recalls. "As I got older, I would see these recipes, and I would make them for my dad to see his reaction."However, the reason their day together was so precious to Hamamura was because her dad's busy schedule kept him away much of the time. As a chef he worked as many as three jobs to support his family before eventually opening up his own restaurant, Sansui (and also, later, Sansui West). And as Hamamura grew older, she was often pulled out of school to help out there.
"He always needed help in the restaurant, so I would get pulled out of class to work," Hamamura recalls. "I was a straight-A student, but it got the point where I couldn't pass because of attendance. Finally, I told them, 'Listen, I'm going to just quit school and help you full-time.'"
Though Hamamura left behind her studies in fine arts, she still did not see herself pursuing food as a profession. However, when family reasons compelled the chef at Sansui to leave suddenly for Japan, Hamamura found herself thrown on the line. She learned working side by side with her father, and quickly realized that she had a natural talent.
Hamamura eventually left St. Louis for Florida to pursue a career in fashion design. However, after some harrowing personal struggles, she returned to St. Louis with only the clothes on her back. She was in an emotionally dark place, and her father pleaded with her to get out of the house as a way to bolster her spirits. The only place she could muster the courage to go to was the office at his restaurant. There, she camped out, eating, researching recipes and reading his cookbooks.
She began baking for the restaurant, and as she watched their regulars respond positively to her desserts, she gradually got her confidence back. "Seeing that they were happy made me happy," Hamamura says. "I love feeding people, and when I am stressed out, it gets my mind away from the crap."
Hamamura decided she needed to branch out and learn as much as she could about different cuisines. Italian piqued her interest, so she got a job working for Jamie Tochtrop at Stellina Pasta Cafe. "Since my dad's restaurant is Japanese we get most of our stuff from Japan through a Chicago purveyor," she explains. "Jamie is an amazing chef and taught me so much about all the different local places you can source from. It was an eye-opening experience."
Hamamura left Stellina to help a friend run a downtown nightclub, and then found herself back in the kitchen at the global tapas restaurant, Mosaic, which has since closed. From there, she worked at a few sushi restaurants, the St. Louis Country Club, and Hiro Asian Kitchen before leaving the industry for a while to have her son.
She returned to cooking as the pastry chef at United Provisions, but after the store shut down the program, she went back to work at Hiro, which felt like a culinary home. Working for owner Bernie Lee, Hamamura learned a variety of different styles of Asian cooking and techniques — everything from Cantonese to Taiwanese to Malaysian.
Hamamura thought she would stay at Hiro for a while, but when Ben Grupe of Elaia called and offered her a job as his sous chef, she couldn't refuse. "I'd always said that if Ben Grupe were to open a restaurant I would drop everything and totally go," recalls Hamamura. "And a week later, he did. The stuff he knows is amazing and unlike anything I'd ever seen. It was the best job I'd ever had."
Though she loved working at Elaia, the evening hours were difficult as a single mother. She began helping Brian Hardesty and Joel Crespo of Guerrilla Street Food here and there, and eventually they asked her to come on board full-time as the executive chef of their forthcoming Delmar location. There, she will be executing the restaurant's classic dishes even while having the creative freedom to make other aspects of the menu her own.
Hamamura is thrilled with the opportunity, most importantly because it allows her to learn about yet another cuisine: Filipino. She credits her drive to understand as many different cooking styles as possible for giving her such an eclectic array of experiences.
"I just find it all so interesting," Hamamura says. "My dad always told me that you have to find a job that you love doing. To me, this feels like play."
Hamamura took a break from the kitchen to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, her love of movement, and why she's like a chile pepper.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That I’m a trained Chinese reflexology masseuse. Need a massage? Haha.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Movement. Being a single mama makes me drained out sometimes, but no matter how much life takes out of me, I still try to move. If I’m not working, I’m either at the park with my son, at the gym or just anything to stay motivated — not just for myself, but for my son. The only time I slow down to rest is when I’m sleeping.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Omnilinguism. It’s the ability to understand and speak any form of language.
What is the most positive trend in food that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
All the affordable, fast-casual, diverse cuisines that have been popping up everywhere. I love how the food scene is becoming more open to other cultures.
What is one thing missing or that you’d like to see in the local food and beverage scene?
I wish someone would open a sake bar with Japanese street food. If St. Louis was introduced to Japanese street food with an array of sake and beer, it would definitely be a big hit. Sake is way under-appreciated.
Who is your St. Louis food or drink crush?
Chef Tello Carreon and Chef Malou Perez-Nievera. They both make food with the most important ingredient in a kitchen, and that’s love. Every bite of anything they make makes you scream for more. I’m seriously lucky to have both of them as friends and people I look up to. Their passion for food and their amazing talents to feed your soul with happiness is motivational and inspiring. My drink crush is Drew Lucido from Taste. He made me fall in love with gin. He creates some of the most amazing drinks. They all had me at “try this."
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis food and beverage scene?
My mentor chef, Ben Grupe, at Elaia. Being his sous chef was the most exciting time of my life. He is seriously one of the most inspiring chefs that I have worked for. His food is not just a beautiful on the plate but is an amazing experience. If you haven’t had the chance to try his food yet, you are seriously missing out.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
I have been told that I remind people of a Thai chile pepper. I’m small, spicy, pack a lot of heat and can bring a dish a lot of flavor. You should never underestimate a tiny little pepper.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis’ food and beverage climate, what would you say?
It’s come a long way, with a wide diversity of international foods that are affordable. Ten years ago, it was either fine dining or bar food. Now there is still amazing fine dining but also an array of affordable fast-casual international food options that are traditional or fusion and filled with deliciousness.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would be a potter/ceramist/sculptor. I love anything hands-on and making one-of-a-kind works of art.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
The only thing that I have ever came across that made me shake my head in disgust was when I was working at a sushi bar back in the day and saw a powder that the cooks were putting inside the rice before cooking it. When I asked the cooks what it was, they had no clue. I asked my dad what it was, and he told me that the powder is used to make cheap rice look shiny and fluffy, and that he couldn’t believe they use it because it was more expensive to do that then actually buying premium sushi-grade rice. Things like that would never be in my kitchen. It’s gross and disgusting.
What is your after-work hangout?
I am either at home with my son cooking with him, cuddled up with him watching a movie, or I’m at the gym. The only time you would ever see me out late after work is if it was a night that I didn’t have my son and Aaron Kamm and the One Drops just happen to be playing that night at a venue somewhere.
What’s your edible or quaffable guilty pleasure?
Gjetost. This cheese is my weakness.
What would be your last meal on earth?
If I had to choose, it would definitely be a huge plate of the finest sashimi or a Kobe steak from Japan with a fat piece of seared foie gras on top. My last drink with either meal would have to be the Hakushika Gold Yamadanishiki. It’s a premium Junmai sake with gold flakes. My mouth is watering just thinking about this meal!
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