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Kitchen Q&A: David Timney, Frontenac Grill

A renowned chef returns to Frontenac.

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

Remember the chocolate fritters at Balaban's? Or the pasta with morel mushrooms? Meet their genesis, David Timney, one of the older and still-working veterans of the local restaurant scene. With a taste for quality he honed at the original Balaban’s, and at Kreis’ Restaurant, and at Mangia Italiano (he co-owns its fresh-pasta company), Timney’s now the anchor and lead chef at the 3-month-old Frontenac Grill. They say if you want to learn how to do something right, ask a veteran. So we did.

Where did you get your start?
I opened clams and oysters at the London Chop House, a famous restaurant in Detroit, for 9 years. Then I went to the Rattlesnake Club in Denver, under Jimmy Schmidt and worked with Michael McCarthy at Michael's in Santa Monica. Then, I was ready to fly, had nowhere to go, but had a married brother in St. Louis. So I got a job with Balaban's in 1988. It was already 16 years old but was still rockin'.   

How well did you know its owner, Herbie Balaban?
He had just sold it to Steve McIntyre, Tom Flynn, and Matt Malinckrodt, but Herbie stayed on during the transition. I got to know him then.

He was an icon.
He was way ahead of his time and had a great palate for food. He'd allow me to bring in unusual items, different crabmeats and caviars, things only world travelers would know of. I could tell a lot of stories.

Tell a story about Balaban's. There are a million of them.
Herb Balaban's wife, Adalaide, was always on him to eat better. Unbeknownst to her, he'd go to White Castle and pound a few sliders just before joining her for lunch, then order only a salad, and comment how perfectly satisfying it was and how good he was being. If she only could have seen his car.  

OK, another.
I heard stories that due to, um, circumstances, some of the clientele wouldn't eat for three days then come in and order like 5 entrees; others would order a bunch of food, then get, uh, distracted, and never eat a bite.  

A lot of temptations, were there?
Yep. It was a place you could catch fish right off the dock. Ya had to be really was pretty easy to get sucked in.  

How long were you there?
Thirteen years. Was made a partner after three. Some employees who had been there when the place opened were still there when I left. Everyone enjoyed working there. It was the best experience I ever had.

What made it so special?
The bar rocked. People waited two hours for dinner on the weekends; no one minded because they wanted to be seen. Mick Jagger stopped by, Susan Sarandon was there a lot, Seinfeld...and B-Bans' [his word] clientele was cool enough not to bug any of them.  

What went on in the kitchen?
We were encouraged to be creative, and having two distinct restaurants helped.

That doesn't happen now.
Monarch tried it for a while and then went back to one menu; the new Balaban's in Chesterfield started with a small plates-only menu; but on Euclid Avenue, in that same footprint [at Herbie's], there are still two menus and two restaurants.

Let's talk about Mangia Italiano. A lot of people don’t realize they are a major pasta wholesaler. 
We private label pasta for all the Dierberg's, and for Whole Foods in three states, plus restaurants. Charlie Gitto's in Chesterfield buys 600 to 700 pounds a week alone.  

For a place that focuses on making and selling only fresh pasta, why isn’t it more popular?
For a long time, it was a smoking den and late night bar. When I became a partner there, we went the other way and outlawed smoking, nine months ahead of the ban.

Did business increase or decrease?
The bar business completely dropped off, but food increased dramatically. The gross numbers were much higher, but due to smaller profits on food, it became a wash.     

Do the Hill restaurants use any fresh pasta?
Most of them do not. It's a different flavor and texture that some people like and some don't.   

How many different types of pasta do you make?
Twenty. Ribbon pastas, sheets, stuffed pastas, gnocchis, all the flavored pastas. All the durum and semolina is freshly milled downtown--which makes it not just a good, but a great, product. Many of the other fresh products are using flour that's months old.

Are you still involved in Mangia?
Just in the pasta making operation. We sold the restaurant about a year ago. The two partners gutted it and reopened 5 weeks later. It was due for that and looks great now. I know they're still serving great pasta...

For a time there was a food truck called Mangia Mobile, but it wasn't affiliated with Mangia Italiano.
Right. That happened just as I was leaving. The truck owners had to change the name of their truck, and now I understand they are being sued for damages as well. Mangia Mobile's attorney originally wanted the matter settled by a toasted ravioli contest. Seriously. But that didn't happen.

How did you end up at Frontenac Grill?
I compare it to coming on in the seventh inning of a baseball game...another chef was here already but we hadn't opened. Then the owner, Michael Faille, died a week before opening, and I was put in charge shortly thereafter.

There were also issues with the restaurant's name...
The original name was to be Ol' Blue Eyes, and I said, Michael, do you think that's a good idea? He said it would be great advertising for Sinatra. The only advertising we got was when Sinatra's estate attorneys told him to cease and desist.   

What kind of guy was Faille?
He grows on you. Employees were very loyal to him. He was friendly and fun and loved music. And that was his dream for his restaurant. And he loved Sinatra...saw him seven times. 

The oversize photos and prints of Sinatra show what an icon he was. 
You get a better understanding, even if you were never a fan.

So what Timney touches are on the menu?
I can make up a stuffing, call my partner [Dave Burmeister] at Mangia, and have a stuffed pasta the next day. I can get a special flavored pasta... all appear as menu specials. We have five to six fresh pastas here at any one time.

Any DT classics? I remember a white chocolate dessert ravioli you did at Mangia.
I let that one stay at Mangia. I am doing a slightly different version of the chocolate fritters that were a signature at Balaban's. Theirs were made with Bailey's, these are made with a mocha cappuccino liqueur.   

Are there any famous entree items that we might recognize?
Even though I developed a lot of items at Balaban's, I can't go there. People would say, yeah, that's exactly like Balaban's. Well, I didn't want to be exactly like Balaban's. 

Kind of a shame.
It is. That was some of my most creative stuff! And you don't just see them at Herbie's; you see them at the new Balaban's as well. I'm lucky I can go in a different direction.

What makes the Grill different. Why should I go there?
I just made a fresh made cannelloni with shrimp and crabmeat in a pasilla pepper sauce and an angel hair pasta with salmon and fresh herbs. Fresh pasta just seems lighter and healthier to me.

How's the pizza? SLM critic Dave Lowry has said it's the best in town.
The Talayna family runs that part of the business, which is fine with me. There are four styles: thin, New York, thick crust, and grilled, where we char-grill it then finish it in the oven.  

What's their secret?
Over 50 years, Mike tinkered with the recipe and the process. We now have a machine that presses the St. Louis-style dough, and steams it to cook it halfway, so it's uniformly thin and crispy. The cheese is a special blend made in Chicago that we further customize here. 

The menu mix at Frontenac is unusual.
And what makes it different. You can get a great $10 pizza or an equally great fresh pasta or Prime steak.

I almost forgot about the steak part...
Being just down the street from Kreis', the steaks have to be good. So ours are Prime grade as well. Really everything's high-quality and fresh, right down to our breads.

Do restaurants price items on par with neighboring restaurants? 
They have to; it's one barometer everybody understands, which is why our lasagna is priced low, because our customers have all been to Sugo. We can't have the highest price steak in town; Kreis' is just up the hill. We're all playing in the same sandbox.         

What other staffers might we recognize?
Bob Tucci from Annie Gunn's runs the front; Chris Morris is the bar manager. He knows what he's doing...infusions, fresh squeezed juices to order, bottled tonic and club soda...

What’s one thing that folks don’t know about chefs?
Our unusual eating habits. We're around the freshest, healthiest, and most beautiful food all day, and then we hit up a fast food joint on the way home. Or eat something like a PB and J. Chefs don't get hungry till they walk out the door.  

Ever take any time off?
When I do, I travel. I've been to almost 30 countries. I was just in Ecuador for a month. It's impossible to spend money there...$5 for a hotel room, 50 cents to go 50 miles on bus. And the place is beautiful. Only one weird thing—the national dish is guinea pig.

What's next on the travel itinerary?
Cuba. If you go there through Mexico, for some reason they don't stamp your passport, so no one knows you've been. I'd like to see it before the American influence hits. I'd love to take a year, and spend a month at a time in 22 countries. What you learn through immersion is immeasurable.

Are you married?
Never pulled the trigger. We just opened for lunch so I get here at 10 and leave at 10. That life is pretty hard to buy into. But I love what I do.

How would you advise someone with restaurant stars in their eyes?
First, you have to be a great people person or you'll have turnover, which'll kill you. But it's also passion and dedication: I've worked 6-day, 60-hour weeks for 25 years...and I love it. My home is in the kitchen. Not many people can say all that and honestly mean it.    

What other back doorsteps have you graced?
I learned a lot about meats when I worked for Kreis'. George Tompras is a meat quality fanatic--he accepts only the top 3 percent of Angus Prime beef. Not many have his standards or his personality. My interview there lasted eight hours, and I was never bored...but he never even offered me a glass of water. By the way, you want something to drink?

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