Thursday, April 7, 2011

rap session with schlafly's scot smelser

we sat down last week for a little q & a with scot smelser, g.m. and executive chef of schlafly.  it's been one of our standard spots in st. louis from the beginning, and we've always been curious about the menu--like, when it's being designed, how much of a focus are vegetarian options and how do they decide on what specific vegetarian items to add?  (we could ask questions like this at a number of places around the city, and in fact, we will.  stay tuned for more interviews to come periodically.)  schlafly has a daring and forward-thinking philosophy, so we thought it fitting to make them our first interview.  one of the many interesting things we learned is that scot is a former vegetarian, which obviously has great influence over the shape of the menu.  we hope you have as much fun finding out about scot and schlafly as we did.  enjoy!

on designing a brewhouse menu for vegetarians, too:
when i moved back to st. louis, i saw a big emptiness.  we moved back in 2001, and there was no vegadeli--there was really nothing, and so when we were designing the menu here, we weren't necessarily going to be a strict vegetarian place.  we have a pretty broad base of people we cater to in our restaurant, but i knew there was a void that could be filled with some nice vegetarian options.  

i've always wanted to have more than just the raw veggie sandwich that you get just as a token sandwich.  i hated that when i was a vegetarian.  we wanted something that was unique for vegetarians, and i think right now we have three vegetarian sandwiches on.  i just always want [there to be an] option, and another option that i wanted to have was to make sure we always had a vegan cheese.  we serve a lot of different animal proteins, so obviously that's the furthest thing vegans want to be by, but they can still [eat here] with meat-eaters.

the schlafly beer name is really an excellent thing to be associated with for this restaurant because we can get people in here for schlafly but then actually showcase what we're trying to do food-wise.  because it's local beer and then local food.  it's a nice tie-in.  
i have a chef [matt bessler] i work with and he runs day-to-day operations, and we've worked together for ten years.  we're constantly battling because i always want to add more vegetarian options and he's like, 'well, we're not a vegetarian restaurant!'  but even people who aren't vegetarians are trying to eat healthier.

when we first opened, i really wanted to have tempeh.  i think i had just moved back into eating meat again, but i still wanted to have veggie meatballs.  the tempeh wasn't holding [the meatballs] together, and then when match came along, we found it.  so we have match chicken and match beef, and the match pork is in our biscuits and gravy for brunch.  that's something we don't even tell people about when they're ordering.  when people find out, a lot of times they're surprised.  they're like, 'this is phenomenal!'  it's right on it.  that's a fun one that we won't be changing.  we've had a good relationship with [match owner allison burgess] for years.  we're constantly working with her to get some new products in here to expand it.

on schlafly's dedication to supporting local businesses
something i found out about out west [in boulder] that really went hand-in-hand with the vegetarian movement was the local movement.  that's really caught on in the last ten years, which is awesome, [and now] it's one of those things you can see even in the grocery.

[for vegan cheese] we're using teese right now, and teese is out of chicago, so that kind of spills back into our local philosophy.  we actually just sourced a missouri guy making tofu; we're gonna call it "mofu."  it's gonna be fun, yeah, and that's coming on with this new menu.  it'll initially be in our tofu curry. 

in both schlafly restaurants, [the food] is from scratch and...we get a lot of our stuff locally.  the purveyor list is maybe up to 40 local businesses we're supporting.  and it goes beyond food, even.  it goes into the chemicals that we wash our dishes with: they make those chemicals here in st. louis and they're designed [with the environment in mind].  we're trying to spread it as close as possible.

on schlafly bottleworks's philosophy:
we still don't have fryers here.  when we opened, that was part of the concept.  at the time we called it--and we never really wrote it down--but we said we were celebrating the midwestern table.  that was kind of what we were doing, but we had stuff not from the midwest; we're getting closer to celebrating the midwestern table now more than any time.  we also said we're not going to have a hamburger, so we have a bison burger.  it's still a red meat burger.  and we said we're not going to have fryers because there's a health benefit to not eating those kind of fats, but there's also the good feeling about the food that you're getting, that you don't have this greasy slop.

we definitely have had people that are really surprised when they come into the brewery and they can't get a burger and fries.  or hot wings, or toasted ravioli.  i'm okay with it; i try not to eat that kind of food anyway.  it was a big move when we added those [billy goat chips] and tortilla chips, because for the longest time we were like, 'okay, no fried food.'  but then we thought maybe we're not really selling ourselves out by selling these fried items because at least they're not ruffles and tostitos.

on vegetarian options in st. louis
we've had our [tofu curry] since the beginning, and i was telling the chef in the back that i want to move to this tofu sandwich i used to eat when i was down in the south.  when i lived in atlanta, there were a lot of vegetarian restaurants, and we're just now in st. louis getting that open-mindedness to the vegetarian diet and even vegan diet.  it's really awesome that there are even strict vegan restaurants out there.  it's really cool to be part of that scene, to say the least.

some fun quick-fires, just to get to know scot a little better:

strangest request at work:
one time when we were at the taproom, where we do a lot of private parties, and i was trying to help cater food.  this person really wanted me to make an authentic chinese dinner.  asian food is some of my most favorite things to eat, but i didn't know anything about how to cook it.  but they loved it!  the bride was a caucasian woman and the groom was chinese, so here i am cooking for all these chinese people.  that was pretty weird.  i did it, but i don't know how, really. 

favorite thing to do when not working:
i like to hang with my children.  we like to do whatever...make art, go hiking.

favorite thing to do when working:
it's really about beer and people. so. beerpeople.

favorite city:
ooo.  gonna have to say maplewood; it's where i live.  but #2's brooklyn.

top two bucket list items:
samuel smith brewery and take the kids to the redwoods.

sitting down with scot for the first time was like sitting down with an old friend.  he really made us feel welcome.  not only did we learn a lot about schlafly's philosophy, we learned a lot about the type of people who are transforming st. louis into a destination rather than a layover.  when we asked scot how he felt about st. louis as a foodie city, he was, as expected, optimistic: 

i think we got a lot going on.  for a long time i think people in st. louis kind of looked down on themselves, like, 'well, we're not chicago'...but in a sense there's a lot of pride now because there's a lot of treasures here and there's a spirit that we're stronger than that.  i think people are happy.  i think we're good!


  1. the tofu curry is a delicious vegan option at Bottleworks. I'll have to ask what they can serve me with the Teese next time. Thanks for including vegan info in your posts, even though your primary focus is vegetarian!

  2. it's great to hear from you, lisa! we love the tofu curry, too, and we'll definitely be ordering it again on our next visit. as for the teese, we were thinking a pretty straightforward spaghetti and match meatballs would make a delicious platform for the vegan cheese. those meatballs are good enough to eat by themselves, so we wouldn't want too much of anything getting in the way. anyway, if you discover another combination, please share it with us.