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Kitchen Q&A: Brian Hale

It’s safe to assume that almost every native St. Louisan has attended a party, a wedding reception, a social event—or at least had dinner—at the 77-year-old Chase Park Plaza hotel. Lesser known is that, besides the three hotel-owned restaurants (Eau Bistro, Cafe Eau, Marquee Cafe), and the Khorassan, Starlight Roof, and Zodiac Rooms, there are two dozen other areas to host private events and parties. The chef in charge of all of them is Brian Hale, a culinary promoter so infectious he’d have a finicky kid eating lima beans or a blue-blooded bride opting for the chicken. SLM sat down with salesman Hale--over his liver and onions.

Why did you leave Monarch? It seemed like such a good fit. 
Aaron[Teitelbaum], Jeff [Orbin], and myself opened up something St. Louis had never seen, and in a neighborhood it didn’t expect. Monarch set St. Louis dining on its ear for several years. Between Jeff’s marketing ability and Aaron’s experience at Daniel, and with all the different experiences a diner could have there…it was special for us all.

So why leave?
I was approached by the Chase two times in two consecutive years. I wanted to prove--to myself--that I could run a bigger venue. I promised the Chase five years; after that, I’ll be positioned to do something different--for this ownership group, or for another hotel, or do something on my own.

Is that in the cards?  
I could move to Miami or south Florida. In Key West, at a place called Louie’s Backyard, you can see a chef literally fishing off the dock. He’ll catch a fish, bring it inside, ask if you want it for dinner, and cook it for you. I’d love to be that guy...procuring, cooking, and getting others excited about what’s for dinner. 

That’s 180 degrees from what you’re doing now.
It is. Much of my day involves costing of menus, of labor, managing, monitoring....if you do 10 million a year and have poor costs—anywhere along the line--you’ve lost a bundle. This is a big, fast-moving machine that has to stay in its lane.

What percentage of the Chase’s business is in parties and banquets?
It’s 70/30, parties vs. restaurants. Several years ago, one company spent $600,000 in food, beverage, and rooms during its week long retreat.

Is there a difference in what St. Louis wants to eat and what you create for them to eat?
A home run in my mind frequently does not sell. I recently created a deconstructed shrimp cocktail with a horseradish cherry sorbet as the cocktail sauce. Nobody got it. The biggest seller on the cafe menu is spiced, fried chicken strips in hot sauce—your basic, boneless chicken wing. So I thought doing a riff on another basic item like a shrimp cocktail was being really smart. I should have left well enough alone at my homemade T-ravs!      

Does a corporate chef ever get to actually cook?
Sure, I make time every week to create. I love pulling a sautee cook off the line on a busy night and jumping in. And who doesn’t like to see their boss get his ass handed to him every once in a while?

Do you have more freedom to create here or in a smaller restaurant? 
You know, doing so many profitable banquets allows me to buy expensive items here regularly—like abalone and great cheeses—that independent restaurants can only occasionally afford. Chase’s restaurant diner wins out.

How so?
That customer gets better value—and more scratch-made items—because of those big banquets. And I can be more creative when cost is not as big a factor…so I guess my food is actually getting better.

Don’t most hotels take short cuts, though?
The scale and the sheer number of guests demand it. That said, my banquet chef hates me for all the extra steps I take in setting up a wedding reception, for example. I really enjoy planning menus with brides-to-be. 

That’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say that… 
I get excited, which makes them get excited, which gets me even more fired up. At the end, neither one of us can wait for the party. I personalize it and that’s all they really want. 

Did you ever have other aspirations?
I was gonna be a rock star.

What instrument do you play?
I’m a front man…vocals and I play the harp. Always the front man. But our band didn’t do so well in LA, so my mother starting arranging for interviews here—I had a degree in Marketing-- with the Monsanto’s, the Ralston’s and the TRW’s. So I came back from LA with long blue-black hair, frosted platinum at the ends, and my mother said “You can’t go interview looking like that, ” and I told her “You’re right, I won’t. I want to be a chef.” I then left for a tour of Europe, apprenticing my way around for a year and a half.

And the rock star thing?
Never happened. Would I have loved to go from city to city playing music? Sure . When I look back, though, I am so happy and so honored to be able to cook for people here. It is personal to me and the immediate gratification gets me closer to you. One table thanked me so profusely my eyes welled up. That was payment for me for a month.  

Did you go to culinary school?
Never did. I realized there were 3 prerequisites for me to be happy: I had to be on stage, I had to be creative, and I had to get paid for it. Being a chef fulfilled all three.

Do you have a mentor?
I most remember Chef Wiley Thompson, now deceased, when I was at Patrick’s. The guy had huge hands. So when he’d come up from behind and lay a big meathook on your neck, you’d pay attention. I remember every word that guy said.    
After that I went to Al Baker’s…

Never a dull moment at that place, as I recall…
Fridays were for girlfriends, Saturdays were for wives. I don’t know how much money I made by saying: “Mr. Jones, it has been so long since I’ve seen you.” And the dude had been in the night before. That was worth a hundred dollar bill. And I’ll never forget being tipped $500 for fetching a satchel full of money from the front seat of a bigwig’s car.
What is your biggest frustration working at a hotel? 
St. Louisans still are not programmed to seek out a hotel for a good meal. Try being that naïve in a bigger city. Add that to the fact that our patio is somewhat hidden--people either do not see it or forget about it. Hey, it’s good that it’s hidden.  
Does having a theater complex in house help or hurt business? 
It brings people in. But people still don’t realize they can have a cocktail and an appetizer at the cafe, then see a movie, and then grab a gourmet meal afterwards…let alone get in a workout and a massage.

Eau Bistro offers “cosmopolitan world cuisine.” Sounds like fusion. 
Classic cuisine is fine and dandy, but we can get now get produce and spices delivered daily from obscure parts of the world. For me, experimenting with unusual combinations is where the excitement is. People who dislike fusion have it all wrong. But there are limits…like mole and pesto will never go together.

I believe that’s called a mess-to.
But it happens all the time, and it’s what’s killing that style of cooking for everyone.   

Are there other dining trends that you like?
I both like and dislike the whole slow food movement. It works for the smaller restaurant, but for big guys like us, it’s just not feasible all the time. Remember Dale Hardware? I could buy one single screw…and get a mint on the way out the door! But if I need boxes of screws—and need them all the time—I’m forced to go elsewhere, even though I’d rather give your money to Dale.  
You’re right, though. Most local suppliers have smaller operations.
People that say you have to buy local and organic. For guys like us who do 10 million a year in banquet sales, sorry, it’s not there yet, although big organic suppliers like Farmer Lee Jones of Chef’s Garden are making it easier. And you know, I don’t drink Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, but I will buy it over something made close by that’s inferior, as much of a locavore hippie as I am.    

What’s your most unusual customer request?
One customer insisted on seeing his romaine lettuce beforehand, then wanted it cut in half and served so cold we would have to almost freeze it. He wanted grilled salmon on top of that and that was it. No salt, no pepper, no dressing, no nothing…ate it every time he came in.
Wrap it up with an unusual customer story.
One night a guy at a large table sent back three steaks that were not cooked medium enough, at which point I, despite being pissed, politely asked if he’d follow me back into the kitchen--which he did. Steak number 4 was already cooking on the grill. After a few rounds of “is this done enough?” he finally said “yes, that is perfect.” I told him, “Sir, the next time you order a steak in a restaurant, tell them you want it well done.”

Medium has to cover a broad, broad range.   
It’s a temperature…that unfortunately means nothing. I was asking him, “just give me a color, man.”

Is there a type of restaurant that St. Louis needs?
Well, I think we’ve got enough Italian restaurants, and chain restaurants, and chain Italian restaurants. What we need is a good, family-run, Cuban restaurant, one that gets back to loving, basic, slow-roasting and braising, making their tortillas--a place that both excels in simple seafood and knows how to utilize every part of a pig.

The roots of cooking are really quite basic.
I spend 60 hours a week cooking and still love to come home and cook for family and friends…for me, cooking is half interaction. That’s why I like station dinners, where guests get up and interact, eat something, and get up and interact again. A lot of it is deconstructed, so guests can end up making their own salsa, for example, talking and watching how others are doing it. Sharing food is an intimate, joyful experience that is not to be taken lightly.

Is there an obscure fact that no one knows about you?
How about the fact that I was the first male employee of the Chase to have a ponytail and earrings? Or that people think I’m doing something different here… I’m not doing things any differently than I ever have. My food, my philosophy, and my attitude is still the same. I’m just on a bigger stage.

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