Monday, June 29, 2015

Chef Chat: Matt Bessler on Taking Over at The Libertine

Posted By on Mon, Jun 29, 2015 at 8:00 AM

The Libertine's executive chef Matt Bessler. | Mabel Suen
  • The Libertine's executive chef Matt Bessler. | Mabel Suen

"My family used to joke that I couldn't hit a nail straight," Matt Bessler laughs when asked about how he got into cooking. "So they sent me off to help out Mom in the kitchen." The Libertine's (7927 Forsyth Boulevard; 314-862-2999) new executive chef credits his tight-knit family with showing him the importance of food at an early age, making the family dinners he helped prepare a mandatory event. "You got in trouble if you weren't at the dinner table," he recalls.

See Also: Chef Josh Galliano Leaving The Libertine; Matt Bessler Named New Executive Chef (UPDATED)

Bessler took the love of food that his mom instilled in him and parlayed it into some part-time jobs as a kid -- concessions stands, pizza places. As his interest in cooking matured, he became focused on attending culinary school and set his sight on the top: The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.

However, his dreams of attending the prestigious school were dashed thanks to a serious car accident. Instead of heading out of town, he stayed in St. Louis and attended St. Louis Community College at Forest Park's culinary program. There he met a friend who got him a cooking gig at Schlafly. Bessler started out as a prep cook and worked his way up, eventually ending up as chef at the brewery's Bottleworks location

Bessler worked for Schlafly for fifteen years. But when his high school buddy Nick Luedde, proprietor of The Libertine, approached him recently with an offer to come on as executive chef, he couldn't refuse. Together, he and Luedde plan to redefine the acclaimed Clayton restaurant, fueled by marathon menu discussions over cases of beer -- Schlafly, of course.

Bessler took a break from working on his new recipes to share his thoughts on the St. Louis culinary scene, some of the dishes he's working on for The Libertine and why he'd love to be invisible.

What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? I am similar in many ways to many of the hardworking chefs in St. Louis. I love cooking 'from scratch' cuisine and love seeing how happy tasting something truly delicious makes them. I love preparing food that makes Mom and Dad proud. I also love to forage. There are so any interesting and cool opportunities for "found food" in Missouri. Mushrooms (morels) are a personal favorite.

I also love fly fishing and fishing in general -- there are so many great places that this state has to offer for world-class trout fishing.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Definitely morning coffee and a dog walk! I've got to have my coffee, heavy on the sugar and cream. My dog Dylan is 16 and in pretty good shape because of all of her exercise.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? It would be invisibility. That way you could witness people in their natural state without the inhibitions, fears and stress that comes from everyday life. It would be a chance to see people as they truly are, just being themselves -- something that I feel is important. Just be yourself. Everything always seems to work out when people are performing in a way that is natural and true to themselves.

What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? It's obvious that the farm-to-table movement is prevalent in St. Louis. That said, Nick (Luedde) and I think along the same lines that the term farm-to-table is perhaps overused. Isn't this just how people should cook? Isn't this how restaurants should simply operate -- finding food from local farms and preparing it in a way that is creative and delicious but that still showcases the beautiful product the specific farmer or rancher worked so hard bringing forth? We are here in the Midwest and close to all the really, really great stuff, so why wouldn't one want to showcase what is the most fresh and best tasting? Sure, at times it may be a bit pricier for us to use, but we all have a responsibility to support those around us. It's much more than simply buying food from someone.

Also, St. Louis, in its heart, will always be a beer town. I think it's great to see restaurants and bars like The Libertine introducing great and unique wine and really spectacular cocktails to people that have for too long grown too accustomed to mediocre drinks and the same boring wine. Educating the consumer is essential to expanding the palate. Most people don't know that we even have a wine country just to the southwest of us!

Who is your St. Louis food crush? Do you mean food crush or I'm "who I'm attracted to" crush? Food crush is Lona's Lil Eats. I've known Lona and Pierce Powers and their family for years. They are such an amazing family, and to have the chance to see their passion turn into success is really special. They strive to put the focus on the food and add their own personal touch. I wish they were open on my day off!

Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene? Me? No, I'd have to say Brandon Keyes, who took my spot at the Bottleworks in Maplewood. He is a foodie rising through the ranks, and with Andy White and the Schlafly crew backing him it will only get busier and better at the Bottleworks. That said, this is a very tough question. There are so many underdog chefs in this town that just need the right light to shine. There are so many great places to eat in St. Louis and so many upcoming chefs on the rise.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? This is the toughest question on here...maybe water? I can be comfortable and cool or have my blood boil. All depends on the situation.

If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' culinary climate, what would you say? Phenomenal -- on par with so many other large cities with great food traditions. But that said, we're still in the Midwest with Midwestern sensibilities. I've tried to keep that in mind as I've been laying out what the new menu will be at The Libertine. Look for such things as our takes on classics like steak frites, whole roasted chicken and dumplings, fondue, and whole fish in papillote. But also, I know St. Louisans are always up to try new things as well. Look for our own takes on poutine, a tableside polenta and trout saltimbocca, among others.

St. Louis is top notch, but not always ready for what the country's trend is. We're in the Midwest. It's almost harder here with what people will try, pay for and be a repeat customer for. I mean, look at how many James Beard nominees and award winners we have in this small town compared to others. I remember a Jeopardy question from maybe fifteen years ago that asked "Which city has more restaurants per capita?" The answer? St. Louis. Whether that is the case any longer, you would still have a difficult time eating out every day for a year and come even close to covering all the great spots. I think we have ten restaurants per every 10,000 people and that isn't mentioning all the bars in this city.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. Can't think of one. If someone can show me something new or interesting that's great and a delicious and creative way to highlight the ingredient, I'd put it to use!

What is your after-work hangout? Well, I live in Maplewood, so places that are close to home used to be the norm -- but now that I'm at The Libertine, Clayton, here I come. I cannot wait to hang out with a new family. All of that said, home is always where my heart is, and I have to let my dog out. I wish I got out more, but being a chef and being focused and driven, I spend lots of time cooking at home, reading, doing research or just trying to decompress.

What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? I don't really have a guilty food pleasure. There really shouldn't be any guilt with food. I like everything. I personally don't partake in much red meat unless I know who raised it. Asian is a favorite. I love sushi and vegetarian food because you can gorge and feel OK afterwards, but a phenomenal locally raised steak is always a treat!

What would be your last meal on earth? Wow! A jailhouse death row question. It would be something that my mom used to make for the family, like a holiday meal: The classic Midwest family get-together. Something that brings back great memories like pot roast, barbecue, chicken and dumplings, fish fry, my dad trying to grill something. Of course I could list any number of great meals in restaurants, but for me a little nostalgia and family is what's most important.

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


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