Nudo House's Chris Ladley Learned How to Cook Through Grit and Google

Mar 17, 2020 at 6:07 am
Chris Ladley leads the kitchen at Nudo House in the Delmar Loop. - TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS
Chris Ladley leads the kitchen at Nudo House in the Delmar Loop.

Editor's Note: We encourage all readers to order carryout or delivery from Nudo House today and in the coming days as a measure of social distancing due to COVID-19. Nudo House works with Postmates for delivery and also offers easy and efficient carryout services.

When Chris Ladley thinks back on what he learned about cooking from his parents, he realizes that each taught him an important side of food.

After his mom and dad divorced when he was six, his time with each of them seemed to center around the kitchen. At his mom’s house, his culinary education was all about resourcefulness. Because money was tight, he watched in amazement while she repurposed dishes multiple times or made a big batch of cheese sauce for the week because it was cheaper than opening a box of Kraft.

If his mom’s house was about learning to stretch a budget, his dad’s was about ingredients and technique. The pair would get inspired by classic cooking shows together — including Julia Child’s The Frugal Gourmet — and would head out to the store to buy ingredients so they could recreate what they saw in their home kitchen. His experiences with his dad taught him about technique and higher-end ingredients — something he felt that rounded out what he learned with his mom.

“I like to joke that I learned one hundred things to do with a can of green beans from my mom,” Ladley laughs. “We learned to repurpose and made a game out of it. At my dad’s, we’d go out and get shallots and cut them with his Henckels knives. There, it was all technique and higher-end stuff. I think it was the perfect yin from my mom and yang from my dad.”

As chef at the Delmar Loop location of Nudo House (6105-A Delmar Boulevard, 314-370-6970), Ladley uses the skills he learned as a kid on a daily basis. However, he also draws upon the trial-by-fire training he got while working at his first restaurant job.

As a teenager, he was hired at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in south county as a busser and was regularly scheduled to work the Sunday “post-church” shift, an experience he describes as positively brutal. Though he was exclusively front of house at first, his job description drastically changed during an overnight shift he just happened to pick up.

“One night, I picked up the third shift — the overnight drunk shift — and was bussing when a couple of cooks went out to go on a beer run. They never came back because they had warrants and got arrested. One guy in the kitchen threw me an apron and said to me, ‘You make pancakes and bacon.’”

Ladley continued to work at Uncle Bill’s throughout most of high school until he left the industry to work for a local disc jockey company. For five days out of the week, it was his job to entertain people, or as he says, “throw the best party in town.” This led to jobs as a bouncer and eventually working in nightclubs — one of which led him back into the restaurant business.

“I was working at a nightclub on South Broadway, and one of the partners had a restaurant space in Bevo that just didn’t work out for him,” Ladley says. “He asked if I wanted to take it over, and I said, ‘Sure.’ Instead of hiring someone, I decided to run the kitchen. It was definitely a case of not knowing anything so we tried everything.”

That bar and grill, the Wicked Lady Pub, was a rapid-fire education in every aspect of owning a restaurant. Half of the equipment didn’t work, the heater and air conditioner didn’t work, and the roof was so bad that if it was snowing outside, it was snowing in the kitchen. Ladley rolled with the punches, though, and in the process also learned how to create menus and make some seriously good food.

“I learned through Google,” he says. “If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I wasn’t going to use pre-made pizza shells, so I looked up an easy pizza shell recipe. If we didn’t like the way something turned out, we tweaked it. There were a lot of happy accidents and a lot of friends helping who allowed us to learn as we went and not fall flat on our faces.”

The Wicked Lady Pub had a good run but shut down when business in the overall neighborhood declined, Ladley says. He knew that he wanted to keep cooking, so he reached out to chef Gerard Craft, explaining that, though he’d never gone to culinary school, he had a wealth of experience and a work ethic that would make him a good member of the team. Craft gave him a job, and Ladley worked in various positions throughout Craft’s restaurant group before leaving the country to work in France, where he fell even further in love with cooking.

After returning from France, Ladley landed the chef position at Herbie’s. Although he admits he didn’t think he would get hired, he rose to the challenge and learned what it was like to run a large-scale restaurant. From there, he went on to work at the Block and then Quincy Street Bistro. After that restaurant closed, he again found himself working for Craft at Sardella before getting the offer to run the now-shuttered Snax Gastrobar in Lindenwood Park.

“The food was great; the staff was cool,” Ladley reminisces. “The neighborhood was great. We got to see people bring their kids into the place in wagons, walking up from their homes. We were so proud of the place, but things just weren’t there.”

Following Snax’s closure, Ladley was contacted by his friend, Qui Tran, about coming to work for him and his partner, Marie-Anne Velasco, at Nudo House in Creve Coeur. The restaurant was an immediate and roaring success and eventually expanded to include a second location on Delmar Boulevard. Now, Ladley runs the kitchen at that location, thrilled to be in a position where he gets to spend his days making people happy and doing what he loves.

“I feel like, growing up where going out to eat wasn’t something we always got to do, I learned not to take it for granted,” Ladley says. “That’s why I love to make others happy when they come into the restaurant. Cooking and taking care of people — now that I have a chance to do it, it’s a real trip.”

Ladley recently took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, the one ingredient never allowed in his kitchen and why chef Brian Moxey is an inspiration in the kitchen.

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That’s a toughy. I guess most people don’t know that I’m a huge fan of the Muppets. All the classic movies, the TV show — I own them all. Even going back to the OG Sesame Street Christmas special; I’ve got that soundtrack on vinyl. I also love Billy Joel.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Fresh air. Every day around 3 p.m., I have to get outside for at least five minutes. Whether it’s walking down to get a cup of coffee from Suite 100, or even just standing outside, I’ve gotta get outside and get fresh air.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
My superpower would be being fluent in every language. Does that count as a superpower? I think it would be amazing to be able to communicate with anyone.

What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
The food scene in St. Louis was built on people looking out for each other. The ability to make a call and get product, equipment, advice, whatever has helped foster such a tight scene that has grown into what it is today. It’s super rad to see young talent and people who are new to the area come into the industry in St. Louis and keep that tradition going. Is there some level of professional competition? Sure. But, for the most part, no one is out to destroy anyone else’s business. I think back to when I was a butcher for the Block restaurants; the folks from Seoul Taco would be prepping in the butcher room early in the morning because the Delmar store was still under construction. You give people prep space if they need it, cooler space if someone’s walk-in dies — it’s what made us who we are as an industry, so seeing it continue with the next generation of restaurants/bars/staff is refreshing and shows that our scene is just going to get better and better.

What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
More offal and a dank Spanish restaurant. Nasty bits, when cooked properly, are super delicious. It also furthers the idea of using the entire animal when cooking. I’d also love some great Spanish food. I think that cuisine is greatly underrepresented in St. Louis. I don’t think you can get much better than a bowl of callos — Spanish tripe stew — and a big chunk of crusty bread.

Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Brian Moxey from Sardella. His food is fucking dynamite. It’s not just his talent, or his palate, it’s also the way he — as a leader — cultivates an amazing team that always executes amazing and consistent product. He’s a great cook, leader, friend and one of the nicest human beings on the planet. Plus: Hot Dog Casserole. If you know, you know. #HDC Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene? Koda Williams at Nixta. Dude is a tiny tattooed ball of raw talent. We met years ago at Sardella, and I knew he was going to be a heavy-hitter. Work ethic, palate, technique — dude slays it all. His food is incredible, but he doesn’t have an ego. Keep an eye on him; he’s going to do great things for this city.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
That’s a tough one. Thyme, maybe? It’s my favorite herb, so I’ll stick with that.

If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I’d be on the production side of live music, most likely in the lighting end of things. I spent a few years as lighting director at Velvet downtown, running and maintaining the light rig and a badass water-cooled argon laser … it melted a ladder.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Truffle oil. It’s fake, perfumed garbage. And it smells like the inside of a hockey glove.

What is your after-work hangout?
If I go out after work, I’ll either go see my friend Dan at Three Monkeys for some good conversation, or I’ll go downtown to see my dudes at Flamingo Bowl. You never know what kind of shenanigans are going to happen there. What I do know is that you can put a toasted ravioli into orbit with a Nerf gun.

What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
I don’t really ever feel guilty about eating anything … maybe cheese? A few weeks ago I got off work and spent way too much money on cheese and then went home and ate it. Guilty pleasure beverage? Champagne. I spent time at G.H. Mumm and Krug when I was living in France, so I’m a bubbles snob. I’ve also, on occasion, been known to put the hurt on some black cherry White Claw.

What would be your last meal on Earth?
Pieds paquets (lamb tripe filled with parsley and salt pork, slowly stewed with lamb trotters and potato); a crusty loaf of French bread; Velveeta shells and cheese, made by my mom (I don’t know what she does, but they’re always best when she makes them); a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvee; and my dad’s lemon cookies. Take me now. I am ready.

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