Monday, April 13, 2015

Chef Chat: HandleBar's Chris DiMercurio Brings Sicily to Russia with (His Grandmother's) Love

Posted By on Mon, Apr 13, 2015 at 6:00 AM

Chris DiMercurio of HandleBar. | Mabel Suen
  • Chris DiMercurio of HandleBar. | Mabel Suen

HandleBar's (4127 Manchester Avenue; 314-652-2212) Chris DiMercurio has an impressive pedigree -- cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America, stages at Le Bernardin and Aquavit in New York City, and a resume that includes stints at some of St. Louis' hottest restaurants, including Niche, Element and Elaia. That he now finds himself at the helm of, as he describes it, a "kitschy, hipster bar in the Grove" may seem like an odd career move, but DiMercurio doesn't see it that way.

See Also: A Look At HandleBar's New, Revamped Menu from Chef Chris DiMercurio

"I'm having so much fun," DiMercurio says of his gig as executive chef at HandleBar. "I'm really enjoying doing something that is totally out of my comfort zone. I think that, if you look at places like Quincy Street Bistro, you see people doing really fantastic food at casual places. That's what I am trying to do here."

DiMercurio grew up with two Italian grandmothers who instilled in him a love of food early in his life. "On one side, I have a Sicilian grandmother who taught me all about food and patience with recipes. She made me see the love that comes from food," he explains. "My other grandmother is from the middle of nowhere Alabama. She taught me to appreciate where food comes from, the importance of respecting it and utilizing everything."

The family connection to cooking continued with his stepfather, who gave DiMercurio his first job in the industry and encouraged him to cook professionally. "When I was in high school, he had me think about what I was going to do when I graduated," DiMercurio recalls. "He asked if I would think about culinary school, and I said, 'Sure, why not?"

It's fitting, then, that DiMercurio finds himself in a position at HandleBar where he is responsible for connecting family and food. "[Owner] Tatyana [Telnikova] approached me to help her create a menu that would remind her of the food she grew up on," he says of his boss' Russian ancestry. "She told me, 'Use my heritage as a touch point and just make good food."

DiMercurio took a break from HandleBar's kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, his guilty pleasure, and his Thomas Keller-influenced last meal on earth.

What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? I have a near-encyclopedic -- and utterly useless -- knowledge of the Marvel Universe. And I'm a sweetheart.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Spending time with my wife. I'll rearrange an entire day to hang out with her.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Reality manipulation, like Franklin Richards. What chef doesn't want to bend the world to his will? Does that sound maniacal?

What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? Food-wise, I think Niche's intensely regional approach to cuisine is amazing. For cocktails, it's the resurgence of the B-list classic cocktail and pretty much anything Ted Kilgore [of Planter's House] does.

Wine -- Andrey Ivanov's involvement with Reeds American Table. How do you not get excited about that?

Who is your St. Louis food crush? It's a tie between Matt Daughaday and Ed Heath and Jenny Cleveland [of Cleveland-Heath].

Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene? Matt Daughaday, hands down. That guy is going to blow minds.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Foie gras -- fancy, offensive to some, unapologetic and kinda bad for your health.

If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' culinary climate, what would you say? Finally getting some of the attention it deserves. Being in the shadow of the Chicago dining scene has been tough for this city. A lot of people -- Gerard Craft [Niche], Kevin Nashan [Sidney Street Cafe], Josh Galliano [the Libertine], Ed Heath, Kevin Willmann [Farmhaus], Ben Poremba [Elaia] -- have been working tirelessly to bring the St. Louis culinary scene into the national spotlight. Their efforts are invaluable to this place.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. Truffle oil. I can't stand it.

What is your after-work hangout? Planter's House. It's like my own personal Cheers.

What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? Little Debbie strawberry shortcakes, frozen.

What would be your last meal on earth? A dish I had at Per Se during my bachelor party: roast foie gras with a tart cherry reduction and hazelnuts. Perfection.

Follow Cheryl Baehr on Twitter at @CherylABaehr. E-mail the author at Cheryl.Baehr@RiverfrontTimes.com.


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