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Friday, March 4, 2016

Chef Ben McArthur Has No Need for Liquid Smoke

Posted By on Fri, Mar 4, 2016 at 8:00 AM

  • Compliments of McArthur's, An American Kitchen
  • Chef Ben McArthur.

Chef Ben McArthur credits his time in North Carolina with defining his culinary philosophy, yet he only ended up there by chance — literally. "When I tell you I closed my eyes and pointed randomly to a map, I'm being serious," the chef at J. McArthur's, An American Kitchen (3500 Watson Road; 314-353-9463) insists. "I ended up there for no reason. It just happened."

McArthur's foray into the kitchen, however, could not have been more deliberate. Growing up, he'd spend time at his maternal grandparents' farm, where they raised pigs and cattle and had a smokehouse. His experience there led to a love of food, and he naturally gravitated toward the restaurant business when he was old enough to work. "I've been working in restaurants since I was fourteen," the St. Louis native explains. "My first job was at a place called the Black-eyed Pea off Manchester Road. I was a dishwasher there. Let's just say it was an awful introduction to the kitchen."

His kitchen experience changed for the better when he moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. There, McArthur worked under the James Beard Award-nominated chef Keith Rhodes, who taught him about local sourcing and building relationships with producers. "We'd go out on a boat and catch whatever we were going to use that day," McArthur recalls. "It was such a great scene — I just couldn't get enough of it. I wanted to cook so badly that I was working at four or five places at the same time."

McArthur left North Carolina and returned to St. Louis with the intention of ultimately moving to California for culinary school. Then he had a change of heart. "Something just told me to stay," he says. "So I went to culinary school here at L'Ecole [Culinaire], did my externship at the Ritz and worked around town. Then this came up."

By "this," McArthur means J. McArthur's, the restaurant he owns in partnership with his wife, dad and stepmom, which has garnered critical acclaim since opening July of last year. He admits the menu is very different from his seafood-heavy days by the coast, but says he can easily apply what he learned from Chef Rhodes. "We use all local stuff here — when you taste the difference between the local stuff and the commercial stuff, there's just such a difference," he says. "In some ways, I think it's better here. Really, you can get almost anything."

McArthur took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, his guilty pleasure and the importance of social media.

What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did?
I spent the past four years planning for J. McArthur's, and I've been working in kitchens since I was fifteen.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable to you?
Checking social media for our guests' experiences — this is the way our guests best communicate with us, so it's important to recognize it and adjust accordingly.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would love to be in multiple places at the same time. Running a family business requires wearing many hats.

What is the most positive thing in food, wine, or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
The elevated relationship between the farmer and the restaurant chef. Our guests are interested more than ever where their food is coming from, so this is more important than ever.

Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Mike Randolph. My wife Katie and I did the tasting menu at Randolfi's for her birthday and we were blown away.

Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Michael Gallina from Rooster & the Hen. I'm a huge fan of Dan Barber and Blue Hill at Stone Barns [where Gallina was chef de cuisine], so I can't wait to check out one of his pop-up dinners.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Any fresh produce or vegetables. I'm a simple person and enjoy nature (fishing and drinking, mostly together).

If you weren't working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Trying to get into the restaurant business. I've wanted my own restaurant for twenty years, so it's cliche but true that J. McArthur's is a dream come true.

Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Liquid smoke. Take the time for the real thing.

What is your after-work hangout?
My days are usually very long, so I'm pretty boring and hang out at home with my wife and our two yellow labs.

What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Bourbon. We serve a number of craft cocktails at J. McArthur's, and my favorite is Four Roses.

What would be your last meal on Earth?
My grandmother's cube steak and mashed potatoes with gravy — comfort food at its finest.

We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]

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