Sunday, June 19, 2011

rap session with terrene's john mcelwain

shockingly, of all the attention that terrene has received over the last six years, almost none has been focused on john, the restaurant's owner. we see him there literally every time we go--and he's not just walking around taking surveillance; he's hosting, he's serving, he's expediting, he's answering your questions. john is like an omnipresent food fairy making sure everything is just right. and it's not because he's a tightass: he just wants you to have a good time, and he's happy to do whatever it takes to make sure that when you depart, you leave with a good taste in your mouth.

on his unexpected start in the restaurant biz:
my friends and i from high school, we all [worked at] kreiger’s pub and grill, just as line cooks. when that place opened, we were some of the first staff in the door. that was my first restaurant job--just making pizzas and salads and things like that. i never wanted to go into the restaurant business; i just did it as a part-time job during the early years of college. then i got a job at cardwell’s busing tables in 1997. i started busing tables there, and i really enjoyed the pace of the business. it's really addictive for somebody with my personality and how my synapses fire: i have to constantly be going. they allowed me to be the only busser, instead of having two, because i was willing to work twice as hard. i kept that going maybe two or three years, and eventually i moved on to become an expediter, which is the liaison between the front of the house and the back of the house. it's a little bit of management in the sense that you are basically communicating for everyone. everything that goes to the chef goes through the expediter; it just keeps it easy. i worked there until 2003 or 2004 with the exception of moving in 2000 to portland, oregon, where i was the site director for a childcare program at a public elementary school. i was hired to develop and implement a before- and after-school program and run it. that’s sort of what i was doing before; i started a double master’s in secondary ed and counseling. 

on gaining experience while pursuing his secondary ed career: 
portland was just a year, but i went to a lot of really good restaurants and wineries [and] really developed a love for willamette valley pinot, and i think you probably see an influence on the wine list with that. we did some foraging and stuff like that. i was part of a mushroom society out there, just trying to immerse myself in as much stuff as i possibly could in the shortest period of time.

on leaving cardwell's to start terrene and bringing chef dave owens with him:
[dave] was the executive chef over at cardwell’s. he and i opened terrene in 2005, and we had about nine months worth of build-out leading up to that. [our leaving] wasn't a big deal because notice was given, and i think dave was ready to do something else. it's just change, and people in this business need change sooner or later because nobody wants their creativity to stagnate--people like a change of scenery, people like to work with different people. and with the level of intensity that you have to fire with a career like’s okay. we're not going to, but if for whatever reason it’s all over tomorrow...totally worth it no matter what. 

on dave's role in establishing terrene as a vegetarian-friendly restaurant: 
[dave is] vegetarian, and i think that’s kind of how we got branded as a vegetarian-friendly restaurant. i think that’s a lot to do with dave and the cuisine that he was into. it’s also his lifestyle. he was in charge of the vegetarian sandwiches and entrees over at cardwell’s, but i think one of the reasons he wanted a change is because his food wasn’t so much appreciated by the folks at a mall. people were much more receptive to what he does [at terrene]. he's an awesome chef. and it’s really funny, we were talking about having a photo shoot one time, and he was like, "i want a brick of tofu in one hand and then i want a suckling pig in the other." his approach is just all about taking care of the customer and being a really good chef and respecting the food. he definitely did that. he did the whole animal approach as often as he could, which is similar to what we do right now. 

on choosing the role of restaurateur: 
i think that true success in st. louis and in the restaurant world is being a chef-owner. if you look at the true success stories in st. louis--at kevin nashen at sidney street, gerard [at niche], steve gontram and now nick miller [at harvest], bill cardwell, fraser cameron--all these places that have stuck around and stood the test of time in terms of quality: they’re all chef-owners. but i never wanted to do that for a living. i enjoy food, but i [also] enjoy people, hospitality, how you make somebody feel when they're in your restaurant. my dad had a relatively good friend named peppe. he had a restaurant on the hill called gian peppe’s, and it's long gone, but i got to go there for my junior prom. huge deal. took my girlfriend there, borrowed mommy’s volvo. and the way this guy made me feel...i thought, "i could do this for a living." that guy made me feel like a rockstar! 

on how that experience has shaped his attitude in his own restaurant: 
what i want people to do when they leave terrene is just smile at each other and be like, "that was nice." it doesn’t necessarily have to be food or anything--just how it all comes together, how you find yourself with an overwhelming sense of, like, "ahh, i feel good!" but when one thing’s missing, you start to notice and pick apart other stuff. the minute that you’ve waited too long for iced water, the minute you’ve had to reach for some seasoning, whatever it is. you can watch it on people’s faces; i know this from my own dining experiences. it has to be consistently good. it’s the little things.
there's always going to be somebody that's working harder than you, [or] that's more successful, but the flipside is that you find yourself comfortably in the's okay. the first few years of working six to seven days a week--and it's no exaggeration--in the very beginning, i worked from about eight a.m. to one o'clock in the morning about six days a week because we were open for lunch and dinner, and i did that for two years straight. and it went really fast. dave was here at six a.m., seven a.m. if i worked 90, he worked 110. it's just nuts, but when you're surrounded by people that do this.... it's important to be strong from the beginning.

on his own experiences with vegetarianism:
my wife, for a very long time, maybe until a month before the pregnancy, has been a very consistent vegetarian. since i've known her she's only eaten fish occasionally, but for the most part [she's vegetarian]. so i've developed an appreciation for being able to cook with tempeh, with tofu, with some of the different match products, and things like that.
i was a vegetarian--and i totally picked the wrong time--but i was a vegetarian for three months. i [was training] for the st. louis marathon and i remember hitting a wall one day. [i was] running forty miles a week to get ready for this thing and i would say midway through, my body wasn't taking it, and i wasn't feeling good. i tried; i just picked the wrong time.
i was also taking a class at webster with professor corbett called "man's relationship with animals." i read john robbins's book called diet for a new america; it's an awesome book. it will strengthen your belief in being a vegetarian. it just hit me, learning about factory farms--and i'm just talking about a very objective standpoint about where food comes from. and, you know, meateaters like to say, [pointing to his mouth] "well, man has canines," but i just don't buy all of it. i could probably do the vegetarian thing for the rest of my life, but if there's one thing, it would just be seafood.

on his relationship with farmers:
we definitely adhere to the "naturally-raised" no matter what. i'm not going to say we can do that every single time we're at dierberg's, [but] i try to be as aware of the food that i’m buying as i possibly can be.  it’s also wondering, what’s the credibility with these farms? have you been to these farms, have you seen these farms, how do you know? people challenge me on that all the time, [and that’s] why i’ve got the menu laid out the way that i do; and it’s no problem if somebody wants to see a mussel tag from when the mussels came in or you want to see an invoice from missouri grassfed or something like that. it’s frustrating as a business owner because i know it incurs more cost to me, and i don’t know if people appreciate it the way that i'd hoped. 
what i enjoy [about] the relationship that i have with the farmers is being able to call them and say, "hey, what root vegetables do you have? we need some new beets for this salad, we’d like to mix up the colors, do you have anything going?" kirk and sally scott are my good friends out at buck creek farm in cedar hill. they went to an heirloom seed convention two years ago for tomatoes, and they called us while they were there and asked us if there was any specific varietal [we'd like]. and I was like, "awesome! just get what you want, i'm sure we’ll love it!" sometimes your farmers are the ones who are giving you ideas for your menus.

on his role in menu development:
the message of terrene has never been lost in translation with a menu change. so: here we are, philosophy’s here, these are the ingredients we're using, these are the local guys that we've been using, [and i ask the chef] is there anyone else that you want to bring on in terms of farmers? and he gives me a menu. mykey [warhover] will hand-write it and i'll look at it and make any immediate suggestions that i see, and then we'll go into the process of actually making the food. mykey will make the food, and--usually its just me and mykey--we’ll taste the food and talk about what needs to change, then we’ll have a line-up where all the servers taste it and we get feedback on that, go back to the drawing board, and then we go live with our menu. i let them have free reign over the presentation, and every once in a while i'll offer up a different cut of meat that i’d like to try, maybe a different starch that i think is appropriate for a dish, and then ultimately my palate will decide. so i guess my palate is sort of the barometer for what gets served to customers. and i thank my mother for that because she is an amazing cook and the house that i grew up in was a lot of that: always really good, clean, fresh food. so, thanks, mom!

on how vegetarians factor into each new menu: 
i will say this: if i had to give a percentage of the menu that is vegetarian right now or can be made vegetarian, i bet it’s about 15 or 20 percent. and i do it based on the needs of my customers and what people ask for. if i thought i needed two vegetarian/vegan entrees, i would do it in a heartbeat, but the business doesn't warrant it. but if people are doing a dinner and i know they're vegetarian, we can do something special for them. so i would say it's dictated by business; that’s the bottom line. vegetarians are really easy to accommodate, we have all the stuff here. vegetarian food goes into every single freaking dish we cook, so it's not difficult.

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

favorite childhood memory:
i guess it would just have to be just summers of skateboarding and swim team, and just being a kid and not having any schedule whatsoever. just feeling like six a.m. to ten o'clock that night just lasted a year and you got everything that you wanted done. i was a big swimmer, that was my thing. it was a life that was so simple. very good childhood. i grew up in st. louis county, by laumeier sculpture park. my mom was a docent there, and i got to learn a lot about art. culture’s good. we got to travel as kids all throughout the united states, but i want to expose my child to as many cultures as i possibly can. it's going to be difficult with a restaurant, but we have a few years to figure it out. 

top two bucket list items?
i've gone skydiving tandem, so i want to do an advanced free fall and just jump with nobody. i would say the wingsuit, but that’s unrealistic because i would need, like, 2,000 jumps to do that. so jumping out of an airplane...oh! and the nurburgring. it’s a 14 or 15 mile roadcourse. i would love to take a lambo. i wanna go, like, 200 miles an hour. i want to go faster than 200 miles an hour in a car. i love adrenaline, jumping out of planes, fast cars, stuff like that! two very attainable things!
though he may be an adrenaline junkie, nothing about your visits to terrene make you feel rushed, and the pace is never frenetic. john's intuitive approach to hospitality and his obvious love for his business make terrene feel like a home away from home. we're thankful for the great food, but we remain terrene's biggest fans because of the relationships we've formed with the people.

1 comment:

  1. You're welcome, John. And I have you to thank for bringing Terrene to fruition. XOXO Mom