Review: Local Chef Brings Brilliant, Affordable Farm-to-Table Cuisine to Ballwin

Oct 12, 2016 at 6:00 am
Shiitake-roasted chicken with bourbon-pepper cream, zucchini-tomato salad and fall squash mac'n'cheese.
Shiitake-roasted chicken with bourbon-pepper cream, zucchini-tomato salad and fall squash mac'n'cheese. PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN

Nowhere on Local Chef Kitchen's menu does the word "organic" appear. Nor will you see "sustainable," "farm-to-table," "humanely raised" or even just "locally grown."

But don't let the lack of buzzwords fool you. Just like a large-handed Presidential candidate wouldn't have to brag on the size of his mitts, chef Robert Uyemura needs no slogans to prove his eco-cred. For years the acclaimed chef has stood quietly at the forefront of the local food movement and, since 2012, has dedicated himself to causes like getting real food into schools and connecting farmers with restaurants. He's a bona fide gardener in his own right and founder of one of the area's best CSAs. Eating locally goes well beyond lip service for Uyemura. It's a way of life.

Beyond that, if he were to include a note about every local, sustainable or humanely raised product he used, Uyemura would have to triple the size of his menu. Local Chef Kitchen doesn't just use these products; it owes its existence to them.

An outgrowth of Uyemura's CSA, the small Ballwin restaurant opened this past March in a beige strip mall among the numerous other beige strip malls on this western part of Manchester Road. It's not the first locale you'd think of as a haven for fiercely farm-to-table cuisine, but the spot actually makes sense — Uyemura's m.o. is to make this type of eating accessible to everyday folks, even in unexpected places. Maybe especially in unexpected places.

Indeed, Uyemura has been doing this for decades, even before the word "locavore" entered the lexicon. The Culinary Institute of America graduate, a 1994 nominee for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award, came to St. Louis in 1999 to open Yia Yia's Euro Bistro in Chesterfield. A year later, the same restaurant group that owns Yia Yia's tapped him to open Eau Bistro in the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, where he served as executive chef for several years before making his way back to Yia Yia's. Though the bulk of his employment history is at a chain restaurant, Uyemura has been committed to conscientious sourcing and earned a reputation among his peers as one of the town's staunchest local food advocates.

After leaving Yia Yia's in 2013, Uyemura dedicated himself to his CSA, also called Local Chef, with the long-term goal of opening a restaurant and farm stand that would embrace his vision of what food ought to be. The idea is that good local food doesn't have to be expensive, difficult to find or relegated to the city's upscale restaurants. In that spirit, Local Chef Kitchen follows the fast-casual model. But don't expect a foil-wrapped burrito — in roughly five minutes, Uyemura and his team produce wholesome meals on real plates with real silverware.

And the offerings are dazzling. With so much emphasis on his commitment to local sourcing, the focus can easily become where the food comes from, not what happens once it gets into his hands. To discount Uyemura's culinary prowess, however, would be a mistake — and considering that his complete meals come in at $13 to $15, the restaurant is a bargain to boot.

The chef transforms humble Salisbury steak, the go-to dish of lunch ladies, into a gourmet meal with Wagyu beef and peppery portobello mushroom gravy. Had they served this at my school cafeteria, I wouldn't have been able to hoard my lunch money.

Uyemura coats his fried chicken in a light blanket of white pepper-spiced breading — his mild seasoning blend and non-greasy technique alone make it a worthwhile dish. Dipped in the accompanying peach sorghum barbecue sauce, however, it is transformed into a marriage of sweet and salty that enhances, not masks, the flavor of the chicken.

Even beans and rice — a simple dish straight from Missouri's bootheel — are otherworldly. Smoky black beans are perfectly cooked to the point they begin to break down but still retain their texture. Uyemura ladles them over brown rice, then tops them with tangy mustard greens, okra and herbed farmers cheese. There is not a more satisfying vegetarian option in town.

Though admittedly not local, Local Chef Kitchen's sautéed Atlantic sole ranks among the finest cooked seafood in the area. The tender white fish tastes as if it has been poached in the juice of marinated tomatoes. Uyemura's penchant for simple elegance carries forward into his side items: sautéed tomatoes, squash that are sprinkled with basil and a perfect tomato bisque. All three demonstrate that there is no better ingredient than peak-of-the-season tomatoes.

Those tomatoes also feature prominently on Uyemura's BLT. Instead of pork, he cures Wagyu beef pastrami bacon, then stacks the black peppery meat onto housemade bread with thick slices of tomatoes, basil mayonnaise and arugula. It's not far from a traditional BLT, but, as with most of his cooking, the minor tweaks and smart showcasing of seasonal produce make it transcendent.

These thoughtful updates show up in side dishes like macaroni and cheese, a luscious, cheddar-laden pasta flecked with shreds of yellow summer squash (shh, don't tell the kids about the camouflaged veggies). Kale, dressed with Mayfair dressing, proves you can build a better Caesar, and lest you thought french fries were already a perfect food, Local Chef Kitchen's plump, crunchy miniature spuds, peeled and deep-fried whole, are the best things that have ever resulted from potatoes hitting the deep fryer.

Uyemura's pastry chef Cheryl Herbert keeps the dessert cooler stocked with seasonal gelato, sorbet, pies and cakes. I had to laugh at the table behind me complaining that the pistachio ice cream tasted like nuts — not, apparently, the synthetic version they're used to. And like the pistachio, the peach sorbet could've been plucked straight off a tree — a joyous way to honor the end of summer.

Amidst all of this mirth, however, is tragedy. This past July Local Chef Kitchen's sous chef, Patrick Hartman, passed away unexpectedly in his sleep from an undiagnosed heart condition. He was just 35. As a way to honor his memory, Uyemura still serves Hartman's chicken salad recipe — a classic medley of chicken, celery, onions and mayonnaise — on housemade crusty bread. He calls it "Chef Patrick's Chicken Salad" to honor his friend.

This is all the name-dropping Uyemura needs.

click to enlarge Chef-owner Robert Uyemura and chef Tom Balk. - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
Chef-owner Robert Uyemura and chef Tom Balk.

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