Ashley Shelton of Pastaria (7734 Forsyth; 314-862-6603) was fourteen when her mom passed away, and she turned to cooking as a way of staying connected. "My mom was a fantastic cook," Shelton explains. "Not a restaurant cook — she was a home cooking mom, and I was always with her in the kitchen. When I was fifteen or sixteen and trying to figure out what to do with my life there was no doubt: I had to cook."
Shelton's family was supportive of her career path inasmuch as she could prove to them that she was serious. They'd agree to culinary school on one condition — that she get a restaurant job first to make sure she knew what she was getting into. "I pounded the pavement all around the [Chesterfield] Valley trying to find a job," Shelton recalls. "Finally, I got to Annie Gunn's. Lou was the only one who would take me."
Lou Rook, Annie Gunn's esteemed chef, took Shelton under his wings and taught her the ins and outs of the business. When she graduated from high school, there was no doubt that she wanted to go to culinary school, so Rook wrote a recommendation for his alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She enrolled in the program and was well into her studies when she had a revelation.
"It was bucatini all'amatriciana," remembers Shelton. "I was taking a class called Cuisines of the Mediterranean. We made this dish and I just fell in love. All of the flavors just came together, and it sung to me. The tomatoes — they are my favorite ingredient to cook with — the guanciale — using another cured pork besides bacon was a revelation, and it spoke to my interest in whole animal utilization. There's just a little bit of spice from Thai chili and the noodles are hollow. It's just perfect. I had it and knew that this was the sort of food I wanted to cook for the rest of my life."
Shelton enrolled in a study abroad program and spent nine months in Florence cooking in a professional kitchen and learning everything she could about Italian food culture. While there, she heard that Gerard Craft was gearing up to open a new Italian concept, Pastaria, and knew she had to be a part of it. "I emailed Gerard my resume, and we ended up doing our interview when he was in Florence researching Pastaria," Shelton says. "I was offered the job there in Florence — oddly over the worst meal I'd probably ever had in Italy."
Shelton worked her way up from line cook to executive chef at Pastaria, where she is able to bring a bit of the culture she experienced in Florence to St. Louis. "Everything is about food there. They go home for lunch, and they have apperitivo before dinner. Food and wine is essential to everything they do," Shelton explains. "But it's also much simpler than we sometimes think it is. I try to think about that when I am coming up with dishes. I close my eyes and ask myself if I can imagine eating it in one of my favorite restaurants in Italy. It's important for it to be as simple and true as what I felt there."
Shelton took a break from running one of the city's busiest kitchens to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, the importance of morning coffee, and why she can't shake her love of Provel cheese.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
My morning coffee. I cannot begin my day without having a delicious cup of coffee. It's my zen time to collect my thoughts before the craziness of the day begins.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would want to be able to fly so I never had to drive again and could get places quicker.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Collaboration. Chefs from different restaurants getting together and doing dinners to showcase one of their dishes in another restaurant that would be as special as in their own. Whether it's a dinner for charity or just chefs from different restaurants cooking together in the kitchen, it's inspirational and fun!
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
That's a hard question. St. Louis is bursting with amazing talent but I would have to say my STL food crush right now is Jesse Mendica. Formally the executive sous chef at Annie Gunn’s, she is now gearing up to run the kitchen at the much anticipated Olive + Oak. Her devotion to Annie's for so many year, the way she commands the kitchen, and her passion for cooking have made her an inspiration to me over the years, and I can’t wait to see what she does at Olive + Oak.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Danielle Luisi, pastry chef at Annie Gunn’s. She is bursting with talent, everything she makes is delicious, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Wine. I can be sweet, bitter, smooth and harsh. I have a lot of passion and can come on strong. My best friends will tell you they hated me when they first met me, but now they love me. Like a good red, I get better over time.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Is there more out there? Being a chef is what I know, what I love, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Jarred mayonnaise. I just don't like it and if I want mayo, I can make it.
What is your after work hangout?
My couch. My husband and I recently purchased our first home, and after a long day of work, there's nothing that I want more than to go home, have a glass of wine, and relax on the couch with a good book.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Imo's pizza. I’ve eaten a lot of pizza in my day — New York, Chicago, Naples, Florence — but there's something about Provel, Italian sausage, and black olives that makes my taste buds so happy. I was born and raised in St. Louis so you can’t blame me!
What would be your last meal on earth?
A cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce, and lots of pickles.
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