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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Chef Chat: Ben Grupe on Pop-Ups and Being an Olympian

Posted By on Tue, Jul 21, 2015 at 9:11 AM

Ben Grupe. | Photo by Mabel Suen
  • Ben Grupe. | Photo by Mabel Suen

Ben Grupe has had a culinary career that many aspiring chefs can only dream of. The classically trained chef has worked at some of the areas best clubs, cooked at the world-renowned Greenbriar resort in West Virginia and studied under master chefs. It's an impressive resume, but for Grupe, something was missing.

See Also: Chef Chat: Stephan Schubert Is River City Casino's High-Flying Pastry Chef

"I felt like working in clubs limited what I've been able to do," Grupe explains. "It just wasn't gratifying for me anymore. I really wanted to do my own thing and not have to run it by a board or other people. Plus, it's been hard for my family and friends to experience what I've been doing. Now that's possible."

This winter, Grupe left his position as executive chef at Meadowbrook Country Club to strike out on his own. However, instead of opening a restaurant right away, the award-winning chef has decided to test the waters by doing a series of pop-up dinners he's calling Soigne. "I thought this would be a good way for me to introduce myself to St. Louis," Grupe says. "It's a way for [the city] to get to know my food and vision."

Grupe is determined to become a player in St Louis's explosive dining scene, but he admits he wasn't always so driven. "I just sort of fell into it," he says about how he got into cooking. "I had a lawn chair business with a friend in high school and bussed tables and did banquet service at Windows in Washington in the off season." He eventually landed a gig washing dishes at a now-shuttered Clayton eatery and worked his was up the ranks -- first doing prep work and then the salad station.

"Then I went through my early twenties," Grupe laughs. "I was a punk-ass kid who wanted to party." However, the chef at the restaurant where he was working saw something more in Grupe and wanted to give him a chance. "Chris [chef Chris Dessens of St. Louis Culinary Institute] told me if I ever needed anything to give him a call," Grupe recalls. "So I did, and for some reason he gave me a shot."

Fast forward a decade and Grupe is now following in Dessens' footsteps. Like his mentor, he will be competing in the 2016 World Culinary Olympics in Germany, captaining the United States team. Between the Olympics and his new Soigne venture, Grupe's plate is overflowing -- and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Grupe took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis dining scene, why there's no such thing as a guilty pleasure and where he'd spend his last meal on earth.

What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? I am a member and team captain of the ACF Culinary Olympic Team 2016. The majority of people are not aware of the "Culinary Olympics" IKA that are held every four years in Erfurt, Germany. The Team is comprised of chefs from all over the country. We typically have practice sessions once, sometimes twice a month to prepare. We will be competing next October 2016 in the "Culinary Olympics" IKA in Germany.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Well I don't think that is appropriate to discuss here haha. I would have to say a morning pot of coffee. You know how having two kids under two that like to sleep through the night and get up on time everyday goes.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Having the ability to teleport would be sweet. It would be pretty interesting to be able to travel to any time and place in the world at any given moment. I mean, in one day you could start off in St. Louis, then hit up Napa, then go off to Lyon or Paris and then Sweden and Norway all in a days work. You will also need a superpower of endless cash or a money tree.

What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? I think that the awareness of the ingredients that we are using. Not only from local sustainable sources but on a national scale as well. People want real and honest food. I want to know where my food comes from and how it was handled.

Who is your St. Louis food crush? The St. Louis food "crush." Chefs I have a lot of respect for include Jamey Tochtrop of Stellina. We have been friends for a long time and he has been very supportive of my new endeavors. Also Josh Galliano [Companion]. I had the pleasure to stage at The Libertine under Josh and the very driven staff over this past year. It was a motivating experience to see everyone all pushing and striving to be better. Oh, you gotta throw in some Qui Tran at Mai Lee -- I mean where could you go wrong!

Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene? I don't think that you could name just one. There are so many up and coming cooks/chefs in our city it's hard to pinpoint just one. I truly believe that over the course of the next couple of years there are gonna be some great additions to the St. Louis dining roster.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Butter. Need I say more?

If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' culinary climate, what would you say? The state of St. Louis' culinary climate is on the rise. There are a lot of new independent ventures and a wide variety of concepts opening up. It's amazing to look back just a short five-ten years ago to now. The dining scene has evolved quite a bit. I am very excited for the next five-ten years.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. The "Stuff," also known as mint jelly. Just terrible.

What is your after work hangout? Well nowadays I really don't get the chance to go out as much as I used to -- which is ok by me. I've made frequent appearances at the Villa on Valcour, but its always nice coming home and just kicking back at the house.

What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? I have nothing to be guilty about. I'm a fat boy at heart. You can't go wrong with some nice crusty bread, butter, stinky cheese, chicken liver/foie mousse, pate and charcuterie. Oh yeah, mix in a little bourbon or craft beers. We're good to go.

What would be your last meal on earth? This is almost an impossible question. But I would say that it would have to be at Paul Bocuse. I was very fortunate to experience this restaurant firsthand in 2012. I have to say it was the best and most memorable dining experience that I have had thus far. I would do the Grande Tradition Classique Menu again. The cheese and desert carts were meals by themselves.

Follow Cheryl Baehr on Twitter at @CherylABaehr. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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