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Kitchen Q&A: Edward Farrow

A restaurant with a panoramic view opens atop Art Hill.

Photography by Kevin A. Roberts

In the art world, minimalism combines the fewest and most fundamental elements—broad stripes, blocks of color—to create the maximum effect. You don’t see it so much in restaurants, though, as today’s trend leans toward gimmickry rather than subtlety. Architect David Chipperfield, who designed the Saint Louis Art Museum’s new East Wing, wanted to complement the grandeur of the original 1904 building, so the new galleries are open and airy, contemporary qualities that extend to the museum’s principal restaurant, the aptly named Panorama. Its executive chef and general manager, Edward Farrow, speaks in museum-appropriate hushed tones. His dishes do not.

You came here from Phoenix. How familiar were you with the Midwest?

My wife is originally from St. Louis and we visit at least once a year, so I'm pretty familiar. We try to catch all the newest, hottest restaurants when we're here.

So which ones stand out?

Niche is the most demanding from a chef's standpoint. Pastaria was fantastic. Brasserie, Salt, Farmhaus...

All solid choices.

And Dominic's on the Hill—very old-school, but very good.   

So you were already familiar with the St. Louis Art Museum.

I've been through the galleries countless times. I'm not in the museum-rating business, but it must be one of the most comprehensive in the country, if not the world. I still can't believe I got an opportunity to be a part of it. I jumped at the chance to be a part of something new and significant.     

Did you always aspire to be a chef?

I grew up playing tennis—I went to the University of San Diego for tennis, not to study or anything. [Smiling] After an injury derailed that plan, a friend who worked in the school's food service needed a hand and asked if I could wash some dishes, as it was finals time and she was shorthanded. I said yes, and I stayed on. One year after I graduated, I was having so much fun I was still there.

Washing dishes?

You eventually move on to prep.

Your resume is impressive—while in Phoenix, a food publication called you a "local hero." When did your culinary career really take off?
One Saturday morning, I was with a friend who was picking up his paycheck, and the Department of Immigration had just raided his restaurant. There was no one left—zero hourly employees. I was asked if I could cook, I did not say no, and so I started work the next day. For a few days, I was his only employee. It's amazing how quick you can learn in situations like that.

How long did you stay?

Several years. I went from there to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. When I called there to inquire, I was informed that there was a six-month wait to get in. When I told them I planned to pay my full tuition in cash, the wait shrunk to two weeks.

The CIA opens a lot of doors, doesn't it?

It did in 1987. At that time, there were only four or five culinary schools in the country; now they're on every street corner. Someone told me there are five culinary programs just in St. Louis. It's big business now.

You went from the CIA in Hyde Park to New York City, at that time the mecca for both established and aspiring chefs. Who influenced you there?

You know, every chef I spent any time with I consider a mentor. I learned significantly different things from each one. Gérard Pangaud, though, he taught me how to taste.

How does one do that?

You can't rush the process. The item must rest on your tongue to be properly tasted: Is there balance? Is there an overabundance of a seasoning? Is it lacking something? People don't realize your palate changes throughout the day. If you drank the night before, for example, your body might crave salt, so something that is salted properly may not appear to be so, because your body is so salt-deprived. One's health affects how you taste as well; we all know a cold affects taste—things like dehydration do, too. Pangaud stressed the importance of recognizing that in yourself.

I've heard chefs who smoke have dulled taste buds and consequently over-salt and over-season what they cook.  

Some chefs who stop smoking claim they can taste a lot more—and most of them gain weight because food tastes so good again. But I also know a lot of phenomenally great chefs who are chain smokers. I don't really know the answer to that. Maybe they've all learned to adjust.

Are the palates of museum goers more or less sophisticated than that of the average diner? I would guess more. 

Not really. At MIM, we thought that might be the case, too, but remember that museums attract all walks of life, which is why we have two different restaurants here. If we only had one, we'd have to change it up—weekday versus weekend—to accommodate more families on the weekend, for example.

Your chef's belt has a lot of notches. Do you have any desire to stay put?

My wife and I say, "This is the last time we're moving." That was four moves ago. I love working for Bon Appetit [Management Company], though, and the opportunities it provided us.   
Your wife grew up here. Would she like to move back?

Sure, but she's also never wavered when we've been asked to go someplace new.

There are now two different restaurants at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
The Café is downstairs, with grab-and-go items better suited for families and people in a hurry or on a budget. Panorama is divided into three rooms and seats 120. It’s aptly named, as you can see [he makes a sweeping gesture], with a commanding view of Art Hill, the Grand Basin, and the statue of King Louis IX.

The Grand Basin and its fountains are a spectacular sight in the winter.
Can you imagine watching a snowstorm through these massive windows?

The rooms are separated by floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed copper-colored dividers that add grace and a bit of mystery.

And elegance and depth and texture.

But there's no art, no sculpture, no splashes of color anywhere on the walls. 
There has been discussion whether to add something, but this was the architect's vision. I think the thought was "some of the finest art in the world is right next door. How do you even compete with that?" Other restaurants follow similar minimalism. Here, the visual panorama is the show—along with what's on the plate.

You describe Panorama's cuisine as Contemporary American.

Precisely. The menu is locally and seasonally influenced—we even use locally made flour. And it's not at all static, but it will be approachable for a broad range of people.  

The tabletops are fairly spartan as well.
There was discussion of only using a napkin—and bringing the silverware out. Restraint can be as effective at drawing attention as excess.   

We talked about the minimalism within the space. But the food here is hardly minimalistic.

It goes both ways, depending on the dish. Some call for grandeur, others for simplicity. There's a pavé of quinoa and avocado with piquillo peppers and Oaxaca cheese or a sandwich with roasted, pink trout, but there's also a grass-fed burger and curried chicken salad.

You serve beer and wine but no hard liquor.

You see there's no bar. None of the planners and designers thought a bar was appropriate. I would have to agree. Well-chosen wines—wines that complement what we serve—are more appropriate. To me, wine is food. I think of it as an extension of the food menu.

You recently moved here from Phoenix, where you worked at the restaurant inside the Musical Instrument Museum.
MIM was based on musical instruments, with headsets that activated automatically as you approached the exhibits and a video screen that explained how the instrument was involved in that culture. If you were a musician, it was heaven. 

And your restaurant was voted the best museum restaurant in the city. Was there any crossover when planning Panorama?
At MIM, we designed menus based on the musical culture that the museum was focusing on. At Panorama, menus will play to the culture of the exhibits as well.

Speaking of musicians, I remember Sunday brunch at the former Art Museum often featured several members of the string section of the St. Louis Symphony. Any plans to repeat that?
We will have an a la carte Sunday brunch, but do not feel that live music fits the space. Again, the panorama is the entertainment, if you will. You know, in Phoenix no one does a weekly Sunday brunch except the big resorts. In St. Louis, though, it's brunch every Sunday everywhere.

Why is that, do you think?
 Tradition? Lots of churchgoers?
I really don't know.

Are any of your favorite dishes represented on the menu?

Sure, but my favorite may not be anyone else's favorite, at which point it disappears from the menu and we move on.

How far will you go with made-in-house items?

The short answer is as far as we can—not everything immediately out of the gate, but we will build from there and work to those ends. We're just getting started here.  

Except for Friday, there are no evening hours at Panorama. Why not open more nights and make it a destination restaurant?

I can only give an educated guess. The art is paramount in this building, the restaurant is an amenity. With extended hours, there's a security issue. If anything jeopardizes the art, it's not going to happen. Maybe—maybe—if the one night we're open, it's crazy busy, that issue may get discussed. 

Do you have a pet peeve?

People who don't care. I'd rather have a bologna sandwich that's made properly and with some love than some fancy item that some guy in the back just mailed in.

Do you have any oddball kitchen stories from the past that you want to share?

When I was in New York City, two guys working the line next to each other broke into a fistfight, right in the middle of service—blood gushing, noses getting broken—and the chef just leaned on the table and let it play out.  When both were too tired to go on, the chef said, "So you guys ready to start cooking again?" And service resumed.

Good stuff...

Then there was an elderly couple who came in on the first of the month every month, who would order their dinner and ask to have it all put into a blender, as that's the way they took their food. When their meal was over, they'd shuffle into the kitchen and give all of us a hundred spot. The first time, we thought, "Who are these people?" After that, we began to design combinations of things that actually tasted good, whirled in a blender. They were just two very old people that didn't want to give up the experience of dining.
Creatively, corporate restaurants are across the board. Does Bon Appetit Management Company stifle creativity or nurture it?

Panorama might as well have my name above the front door—that's how much autonomy I have. Of course, I have people I must answer to—most chefs do—but it's my show, my persona, my reputation. 

We run our places like they are our own, and we take the financial side to heart as well. But if there's any regimentation at Bon Appetit—and I've been around—I haven't seen it.    

So you've got all the benefits of having your own place without all...
...without all the bills.

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