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Kitchen Q&A: Patrick Connolly, Basso

An acclaimed chef returns ho-ho-home.

Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts

St. Louis received an early Christmas present of sorts when Richmond Heights native Patrick Connolly moved back in December. While in Boston, the chef earned Radius restaurant four stars (making it the first Boston restaurant to secure the honor in 11 years). Then, in 2009, he picked up a coveted James Beard Award while at Bobo in New York City. So it’s ironic that Connolly has been lured to run Basso, the rathskeller gastropub at The Cheshire with a name that means “low,” when his star is clearly on the rise. Predictably, Basso opened to white-hot reviews in mid-December.

You began your culinary career at the St. Louis Bread Co., home of the legendary bread bowl.  I think they've changed that up. I was at the store at the King of Prussia mall where they put croutons on that soup and then asked you if you want bread with it. A bread bowl, croutons, and a roll? Really?

Then where? Tucker's in Ballwin, and Dressel's, working in the upstairs pub, then to the kitchen full time, and by full time, I mean seven days a week for the three years I was there. It was at Dressel's, though, that I got to be creative.

What led up to your decision to leave St. Louis? When I bought the French Laundry cookbook. I'd never seen that kind of food before, the interrelated stories, the farmers behind the food. And it clicked. I immediately started researching culinary schools, but knew I had to work, too, which in meant the CIA was out, as it was somewhat isolated, so I ended up at Johnson & Wales ...for a year.

That leads into one of my questions: To put it simply, are culinary schools worth it? Not for everybody. My experience was not good. I was older—22 instead of 18—I had more experience, and since I was working Monday through Friday, I began attending weekend classes, which was good and bad. Ends up I had a better cooking background than I thought I did, but didn't know it until I got there.    

So you moved on... I heard a fourth year guy saying he'd just taken an internship at Radius, the best restaurant in Boston, and although I was only in my first year, thought I'd dedicate all my time to doing something similar. Were I to do it again, rather than spend all that money on school, I'd have moved to a city where you can learn a lot—and St. Louis is becoming such a city--knock on a few well-chosen doors and say "I would like to work at your place for a couple of months, for free." That's 100 percent what I would have done, but a lot of people have positive experiences.

As tuitions rise, so do a budding chef's expectations, correct? The reality is that a good percentage of graduates do get jobs, but it's at places like Marroitt and Aramark, which is fine, but I'm a restaurant guy. I didn't want that kind of job. So it all depends; it's very subjective. 

I understand you had an encounter with Anthony Bourdain early on. I met him at a book signing and asked his advice for an upcoming chef. He said, "Don't work for money or title, just work for the most talented person you can." The one regret he had was that he went for money and title too soon. 

Did you listen?
That advice led me to the best restaurant in Boston, Radius, where I was promoted almost too quickly, and I fought it. I wanted to slow down and grow and just be a cook, but it ended up being a good thing. 

Right, as in a James Beard nomination. At what point did you know you possessed that kind of talent? It may have hit when I was in Providence at Al Forno. The husband and wife chef/owners had just been named two Food & Wine's Top Ten Chefs in America, and I was working their most difficult station. But I really wasn't creative until years after that, at Radius. Once you master the techniques, that's fine, but for years I couldn't put a dish together to save my life, then one day it just clicked. 

Was Radius a four star restaurant when you got there? It won three and a half stars even when it opened in 1999, but did not receive four stars until 2006, the first restaurant in Boston to be given that honor in 11 years.

When did the James Beard people take notice?  I got nominated for an award in 2007 and won the award for Best New Chef Northeast in 2008. We had a great team; we were doing great things; one of them—Kevin, who worked at Flour + Water—helped me perfect the pizza dough here. But when I won the Beard award, I had given a six-month notice—which was pretty much the norm for an exec chef. The boy from Missouri wanted to go to New York.

So how was New York? I'd had huge staffs, huge kitchens, and just wanted to get down and dirty again, so I took the job at then at nine month old Bobo. We developed two menus—a tavern, pub grub type of menu, similar to what we'd done at Dressel's—and a forward-thinking menu similar to what I'd been doing in Boston. Then the economy tanked and we went more bistro, more casual.

What was the biggest thing you learned while in New York? Survival. I can have all this beautiful equipment, like we have here, but I know how to survive with none of it. At Bobo, there was a two-month period when our gas got shut off and we never missed a beat. We cooked on cassette butane stoves and electric table top units until the gas service was restored. While at The Kitchen NYC, I prepped for an event by candlelight for days. New York was a story of survival.  

But your intention was to ultimately open up a restaurant in New York. It was until my wife and I considered the logistics. One day I realized I'd done New York, I'd done well in New York, that it got checked off. All I wanted to do was make good food...and where you are doesn't matter. People will travel for good food...foodies from Chicago come here to eat and we go there.

Which brings us to St. Louis... We've got a huge apartment, a big garage, washer and dryer, a short commute. No big deal for you guys but a big deal for us.

And you visited St. Louis and fell in love with Basso. What makes it so special? I'm cooking the food I like to eat...a lot of small plates--and all affordable. I'm not a big "your salad/my salad" kind of guy. When we go out, we share things. I believe food should be shared. A few long tables are set up near the kitchen just for that.

How about tasting menus? Doing it for others is fun, a separation from the other things I do, so we'll do an omikase-style, sit down and let me cook for you counter. It's fine if other people want to sit and eat for four hours, it's just not for me.

Basso will be open for both lunch and dinner? Plus a later component. The Cheshire address has attracted late-nighters for years, so we plan to serve an abbreviated menu till midnight, until one on the weekends.

What's on the menu? Six kinds of fresh pasta, both half- and full-size orders, priced the same in each category, and pizzas, priced identical as well. They'll be three a la carte grilled items—one poultry, one red meat, one fish—five sides, five desserts, 25 items in all. That's all you need to do.

Describe the pizzas. Our wood-burning oven cooks at 800 degrees, instead of 1,000, so they'll be more structured than traditional Neapolitans, with the bottom firm for the most part, and with a sense of humor: one is an homage to the Imo's Deluxe, with a Provel blend, creminis, poblano peppers, and homemade pancetta.

St. Louisans love a heavy hand with toppings. How will you address that? Toppings will be sliced thin, with nothing too weighty, ranging in quantity from "light" to "enough," but not so much to jeopardize the won't have a soggy puddle in the center or have to flip it back to eat it.

Will any "sure fires" from other restaurants appear here? A beef carpaccio similar to what we did at Bobo: it gets heavily seared on the wood grill, then frozen, then hand-sliced. I like to maintain the integrity and the texture; I don't like to pound the hell out of it. Then honey vinegar, chili oil, a little Pecorino. There's a brisket ragu on rigatoni, like we did at Radius, that's excellent, too.

Many rathskellars are small, Basso is not. One hundred and sixty seats total—a big oval bar, booths along both sides,  banquettes in back, the original stone fireplace, two loungy areas, and two communal tables near the kitchen, where the chefs can interact—I only want cooks who want to be chefs, and to be a chef nowadays, you have to be good at interaction. People love the attention.

What do you love to cook personally? Bouillabaisse or any kind of seafood stew. We'll maybe do that in spring and serve it the way I like it...with a glass of rosé.

Is there a dish that most exemplifies your philosophy of food? My approach to food is to react to what's available rather than have to go find something. I like when someone loads the fridge with what's available and I can go from there. In New York, I had an amazing duck supplier and did  a Peking duck dish with a crisped slice of confit leg, a foie gras rouille, and a slice of a pickled vegetable, wrapped in a raw green—we used Swiss chard. It was fresh, natural, and flavorful. We have a great duck guy here, too, Ben Roberts, so we'll see.

Chefs continually struggle trying to keep prices low and quality high. What's your secret? With The Restaurant being right upstairs, we can share some vital organs, as it were, and economize. A standalone place does not have that luxury. Wil [Fernandez] has a history of working with whole animals, as do I. Or he'll use the leaves of Swiss chard and I'll then pickle the stems for our salumi platter.

Having a bunch of restaurants under the corporate umbrella never hurts either. Meat and vegetables and dairy... If anything, raw materials are better here.  

OK, it's late at night, and you're raiding the fridge. What do you come up with? Mayonnaise and a squirt of sriracha between two Nilla Wafers is surprisingly good... so good I thought about putting it on as a bar snack. Another possibility involves my thing for sausage pizza and grape jelly—I know, I know—just try it. I was thinking of calling it Il Cuoco Ubriaco...The Drunken Chef.       


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