COURTESY OF BLAKE ASKEW
The apple daiquiri is one of the tiki-inspired drinks that will be served at the forthcoming pop-up, The Mainlander.
When Blake Askew thinks back on what inspired him to get into food in the first place, it all goes back to his nostalgia for a bygone era of dining — one that he hopes to recreate with his new pop-up series, The Mainlander (www.themainlanderstl.com)
"I always had this desire to go back in time, which is what drew me to restaurants in the first place," Askew says. "I got serious about cooking in my mid-twenties, and I read everything I could get my hands on — cookbooks, memoirs of chefs. For me, it all really goes back to that period in the 1950s, '60s and '70s when my parents and grandparents were dining out and experiencing these things I didn't get to experience. That interested me and drove me into the type of food I wanted to make and the chefs I wanted to work for."
An Effingham, Illinois native who moved around the country for his dad's work all through his childhood, Askew moved to St. Louis last year from San Francisco, where he had lived for the past decade. There, he worked in the restaurant business, cooking in upscale restaurants around the Bay Area, from classical French eateries to modern American kitchens to Wolfgang Puck's restaurant group. At each property, he honed his techniques and developed a passion for fusing flavors from various culinary traditions, all the while dreaming of having a restaurant of his own one day that would capture the restaurant nostalgia he was so drawn toward.
As he got more and more serious about opening a spot, he realized that doing so in San Francisco, or California at large, was going to be an impossible feat. Every facet of the process was so prohibitively expensive (Askew notes that the going rate for a liquor license in San Francisco is one million dollars) he knew that, even if he was able to secure the investors needed to open a business, he would be so beholden to other people's visions that it would dilute what he wanted to do.
He and his partner began thinking of other cities that might be more accessible in terms of starting a business, and the more and more places they considered, the more St. Louis seemed like the right fit. Not only had Askew lived nearby in Effingham for several years, his maternal grandparents hailed from St. Louis, and he had many fond memories of visiting them during his childhood. Inspired by that connection, he and his partner visited the city last fall, and decided to take the leap and move across the country a few months later.
Since arriving in St. Louis this past summer, Askew has been working as sous chef at Rob Connoley's acclaimed restaurant, Bulrush. There, he has not only immersed himself in learning abut Ozark cuisine; he's also received an education in all facets of the St. Louis food and beverage scene, including seasonal ingredients, producers and makers. With the support of Connoley, Askew has also been able to begin sketching out ideas for what will hopefully be his eventual restaurant concept, The Mainlander, which will make its debut as a pop-up at Bulrush on January 8.
"Rob has been generous, not with just me but with everyone else on his staff," Askew says. "He has this desire to make a place where people can explore their own ideas and have it be a bit of an incubator. Things don't start and end with what we do at Bulrush. We are all people and have our own ideas, and he wants to be a part of that and push it forward. He has a really generous spirit, and I'm going to take advantage of that opportunity to do what I do."
As Askew has dove deeper into The Mainlander concept, a few things have become clear to him. First is the transportive, aesthetic component he hopes to create. Believing that people go to restaurants for the overall experience, Askew hopes to recreate the pop tiki Polynesian Midcentury vibe his parents and grandparents got to experience. Places like the storied Trader Vic's, Don the Beachcomber and St. Louis' own long-gone spot, The Mainlander, all inspire his vision, as do more modern iterations of the style that he used to frequent while living in California.
Another element that has come into focus for Askew is the food. Having cut his culinary teeth on fusion cuisine, beginning with his first job in Houston and throughout his tenure with Wolfgang Puck's restaurants, Askew is passionate about mixing what are typically thought of as Eastern and Western flavors and is inspired by culinary styles found throughout the globe. To this end, he says that diners at The Mainlander pop-up series can expect dishes like steamed mushroom dumplings, crawfish hand pies, skewers of meat cooked over a personal-sized tabletop charcoal grill and smoked ducking with a savory take on the 70s era ambrosia salad.
As for drinks, Askew is drawing inspiration from classic tiki beverages, but he is infusing them with a Midwestern spirit by using local ingredients. Cocktails include a punch made with rum from the Missouri distillery, Nobletons, an apple daiquiri based around apples from a local orchard, and a paw paw-based libation.
What Askew is most focused on, however, is making sure he hits the right note with The Mainlander. Conscious of the problematic history of the tiki phenomenon in terms of appropriation, exoticism and cultural insensitivity, he wants to be clear that he is not simply resurrecting the form but reimagining it in a respectful manner.
"There is an aspect of pop tiki that is controversial, and rightfully so," Askew says. "There is a lot of validity to the controversy, and we are trying to navigate that. This is a process, and we see the pop-ups as an opportunity to workshop and see how people respond and what they are into. We want people to get that transportative experience, where it feels like you are walking into something different and disconnected from without using religious idols or stealing from other cultures. There are a lot of Pacific Island people and immigrants here who have been imitated in this fantasy ways and that is problematic. We're trying to create something that is in a transportative aesthetic that gives people the idea of being on vacation without completely lifting from other cultures or through fetishizing and exoticism."
Askew sees these pop-ups as a way to transparently work out these issues, and he looks forward to the conversations that he knows will lead to an evolution of The Mainlander. The intimate setting lends to such interaction; the January 8 dinner, which will take place at Bulrush, is limited to two, twelve-person seatings. Tickets can be purchased through The Mainlander's website
, themainlanderstl, where prospective guests can also sign up to receive updates about upcoming events. The price for the dinner is $88 per person, inclusive of drinks. Like Bulrush, The Mainlander has a zero gratuity policy, eschewing traditional tipping in favor of building in a living wage for its staff into the price of the meal. Askew notes that this is very important to him, as he sees it as a way to address historical inequities and power imbalances in the hospitality industry.
For all the weight of these complex issues, Askew insists that The Mainlander is, at its heart, a lively, fun, boozy experience. He looks forward to seeing how the series goes with is sights set on a standalone concept some day — one that he hopes will give St. Louis diners not simply a taste a bygone dining form, but an immersive experience that will transport guests to another place and time.
"There is a fantasy aspect to it and a frivolous, over-the-top aesthetic that makes you feel like you've escaped from the mundane," Askew says. "That's what you are looking for when you go out to dinner and it is snowing outside. Why do you go out in that? Because you are getting something you can't get everywhere else. That feeling is a destination, which is what we are really going for."
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