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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Chef's Choice: Clara Moore of Local Harvest Cafe and Catering

Posted By on Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 12:46 PM

This is part one of Robin Wheeler's Chef's Choice interview with Chef Clara Moore of Local Harvest Cafe and Catering; part two is available here; part three can be found here.

  • Robin Wheeler

Chef Clara Moore is hard to catch. Her duties at Local Harvest Cafe and Catering keep her moving, and the kitchen's always busy. But the kitchen in her 100-year-old home in south city is calm and relaxed. When she redesigned it, Moore made a spot for guests to perch on barstools opposite her workspace. It's the perfect spot for sipping wine from a vintage glass and admiring her eclectic collections of bottles, books and gadgets.

"This is my favorite thing I've ever bought. It's my salt box," she says, placing a round wooden box with a swinging lid on the counter. "It's so silly because it's just a wooden box with a lid, but I've got a friend who said that when she uses it, it reminds her that salt is a precious thing and not to take it for granted. People used to kill for salt."

That level of appreciation for food came from her family. Moore's mother cooked at home and her father still works as a server. She entered the restaurant world early, just to have a job as a teenager in St. Louis. She wanted to be a photographer, but her first job went awry. "I got really mad and was, 'I'm going to culinary school!' That was my reaction. It was a pretty wise move in a lot of ways."

That decision led to jobs in several restaurants, including the head chef spot at Mangia Italiano. After three years of the grueling schedule, she spent six months working at a bed and breakfast in Guanajuato, Mexico. "I had no clue what I was getting into, where I was going. I didn't know these people. I just e-mailed them and they're like, 'Sure! Buy a plane ticket and we'll see you in a month.' They gave me a place to stay, gave me a job, fed me, bought my toilet paper. It was the life. It was a little strange, to not be in control of your own destiny. That's not a thing I'm used to."

  • Robin Wheeler

Upon returning to St. Louis, Moore started with Local Harvest, and the focus on fresh, local ingredients worked with what she'd learned in Mexico. "The evolution of cuisines, from ancient American cuisines to the Spanish coming in and everything becoming a meld of something beautiful -- that stuff is really interesting and it's really potent in Central and South America. Here it's pretty much gone. But in Central and South America it's still really obvious, and there's still a lot of traditional cuisine you can find.

"What I learned in Mexico was how to cook things. How they dealt with food, thought about food, the way they didn't waste a thing. That's really amazing to me. It comes from a long tradition. Whereas here chefs are expected to learn the newfangled stuff and the old French stuff, then somehow make a career out of that. And that's really boring to me."

"That's one thing that Mexico and Local Harvest has helped me remember - food is precious and people tend to take it for granted. It's frustrating."

Did your family cook when you were a child? If so, what meals stand out? Mom cooked lots of "Joy of Cooking" meals like pot roast and baked chicken and beef stroganoff. Dad cooked pork chops and lamb.

How old were you when you started cooking? I was first interested at about twelve, when i became a vegetarian -- the only one in my family. Professionally I started at seventeen.

What was your first kitchen job? Working at Duff's under Jimmy Voss.

Did you attend culinary school or college? A few years at Forest Park Community College, and a degree at Baltimore International College.

What do you eat? Everything i can get my hands on. Food is exciting. I focus on eating local and seasonal.

We'd be most surprised that you eat _____. French fries -- my guilty pleasure.

What do you cook at home? Mostly simple, one-pot meals. I hate doing dishes. I like cooking breakfast best.

3 favorite restaurants in St. Louis, besides yours? Cheap: the Vine, Porter's Fried Chicken, Everest Cafe. Expensive: Franco, the Crossing, Wei Hong.

{To be continued...}

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