Senada Grbic laughs when she tells the story about how her love of cooking got her into trouble at school. At the time, she was in second grade.
"We had to do a book report, and our teacher said we could pick out any book we wanted," the executive chef at Lemmons (5800 Gravois Avenue; 314-899-9898)
recalls. I chose a cookbook, but my teacher said it wasn't a real book. They had to call my mom because I got into an argument with the teacher about it."
Grbic attributes her passion for food at such a young age to her family's deep culinary history. Her grandmother was a chef and owned her own restaurant in Bosnia, and her aunt is a chef. Her mother was also a chef and made a name for herself cooking for fellow refugees in St. Louis. When Grbic wanted to spend time with her, it was usually in the kitchen. "If I wanted to hang out with her, she'd just plop me on the counter," Grbic recalls. "Sometimes she'd let me wash dishes so I could get extra cake for dinner."
Grbic got an early taste of the restaurant business — when she was eight years old, her father bought the restaurant in the city's Bevo Mill neighborhood that they would turn into Grbic. As a family, they toiled for four years to get the place open for business. Grbic was by her mother's side in the kitchen, trying out recipes and helping her develop a menu.
It was natural that she would gravitate to a career in the culinary arts. After graduating from high school, Grbic attended Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, then returned to St. Louis to become her mom's official sous chef.
However, Grbic has been branching out beyond her family's namesake restaurant. This spring, the family opened a reimagined Lemmons in south city, where she serves as executive chef. Though she considers herself very traditional when it comes to her cooking, her approach at Lemmons is to blend her Bosnian roots with American fare. "I grew up eating Bosnian food, but I also grew up eating American food," Grbic explains. "This is the food I like eating."
Now that she has come into her own with her cooking, Grbic is keeping an eye on a special little helper who seems more than willing to carry on the tradition of women chefs in the family. "I can't keep my eleven-month-old daughter out of the kitchen," Grbic sighs. "I'm secretly hoping that she will choose something else, because this is a hard life, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen."
Grbic took a break from Lemmons and Grbic to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, why she never skips her morning coffee, and why there's no shame in the square beyond compare.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
Everyone thinks that I'm a very serious person, but I think I am way more goofy than serious.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
morning with my husband. No matter what is going on I will always have a cup of coffee with him. (Bosnian coffee, of course!)
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Super strength. Out of every superpower out there, super strength appeals to me most because my job would be a lot easier if I could just pick up everything and move it around without a problem.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
The coolest thing I have seen happen lately is that people are becoming more open about themselves, and they are showing it through the food they cook and the cocktails they mix. When someone puts their heart and soul into something, you can really tell.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Late-night dining! Have you ever gotten off a twelve to fourteen hour shift, forgotten to eat all day and come home to find that everything is closed? You just don’t feel like doing any more cooking.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Loryn Feliciano Nalic [of Balkan Treat Box]! This woman is my idol. There isn’t a question out there that I have asked her that she hasn’t known the answer. She is extremely talented in every aspect of the kitchen, and she is one of the most helpful people I have ever met. Watching her cook Balkan food just like my mom and my grandma do is amazing.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Alex Cupp, owner of the Stellar Hog. He is extremely skilled and has so much passion for what he is doing.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Ha! My "Moonshine Fire Glaze" that I'm using on my wings at Lemmons is totally me — sweet in the beginning and a huge kick of spice at the end.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would totally be a stay-at-home mom. There is something about being a “Suzy Homemaker” that has appealed to me my entire life. I love the idea of being home with my daughter all day and cooking for my husband every day and greeting him when he comes home from work in a bright sundress and a vintage apron.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Celery. My dad is allergic to it so I would never risk having it around. And since I haven’t had it around I'm not used to cooking with it.
What is your after-work hangout?
Work! Even after I get off work, I love to hang out there and just talk to my family and friends who work there. That’s the best part about owning a family restaurant; we get to see each other all the time and talk, eat, laugh and just hang out.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Imo's. Every Sunday my husband and I have a “date night” where we order an Imo's pizza with hamburger and onions and watch a movie.
What would be your last meal on earth?
That’s a tough one. Anything my mom cooks is good enough for me. Mom can basically create miracles in the kitchen. If I have to be specific, it would be her burek pita.
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