Sunday, July 17, 2011

rap session with local harvest's clara moore

Picture courtesy of River Front Times.
a little while ago, we had the privilege to catch up with clara moore of local harvest café. we’ve seen her all around the web in many different capacities and wondered how such a busy chef makes time for all her endeavours. of course, we’re avid—and rabid—fans of her cooking, but her involvement in the community really made us curious to know more about her. she’s down-to-earth, passionate about food in every aspect of her life (and yours), and she’s one to keep on your radar.

on being approached to head local harvest:
i had quit mangia and was in mexico, was there for a while, came back and was like, “i’m sick of the restaurant industry! i’m never going back!” famous last words, right? i was running the mangia pasta factory, training some guys, but got a little bored of that. so i started working at the [local harvest] grocery store, just once or twice a week. it was my first time working retail, and it was pretty exciting. it was really nice to be around the food community but not having to cook. and they had a little food counter, like a sandwich counter, and i helped them organize that—train staff, things like that. so about six months later, maddie and patrick were like, “we’re really thinking about opening a café, and you’re the one we really want to open it.” i was extremely flattered, and i thought about it for a little while, and said, “sure! why not?” it’s exactly what i wanted and was looking for in a restaurant. i can’t really ask for more.

on a fortuitous connection landing her in mexico:
i ended up there out of a friend of a friend situation. i was looking for a reason to learn spanish; i've always wanted to be bilingual. i was just talking to somebody, and a friend of a friend had been down in [guanajuato] and stayed at a bed and breakfast that was looking for someone who spoke english to come work there. so, i emailed them, and they emailed me back, and I emailed them, and they emailed me back. and then they were like, “okay, buy a plane ticket!” sight unseen! it was actually really wonderful, beyond wonderful. the most amazing six months of my life.

on cooking locally and seasonally:
[former employer jim voss at duff’s] introduced me to cooking locally and seasonally, but even before that, my mom always cooked seasonally—went to the farmers market, stuff like that. i didn’t always know what that meant; i just knew that sometimes we got oranges and sometimes we didn’t, and sometimes apples tasted good and sometimes they didn’t. it wasn’t really introduced to me as a concept until i worked at duff’s. honestly, he wasn’t really heady about it, he just ordered from local farmers and it was a thing he did. and on his days off he would drive to the farms that couldn’t deliver and go get the best cherries and the best asparagus. it was his passion; it was amazing to see. he’d get really excited about good food, and you’d taste the difference between the asparagus we’d get in the winter and the asparagus we’d get in the spring. that’s when i started realizing, “oh, there’s a difference!” almost every restaurant i worked at subsequently didn’t really work seasonally (the ones i worked at in st. louis), because it’s too expensive to get from different farmers. it’s easier if you just get it from the same place all year long. it was kind of a sad number of years there where I worked at a couple of places, and i strived and tried. when i was the chef at mangia i got my way, which was nice. not as much as i do here, but i got to order from farmers and started relationships with farmers and things like that.
on her own vegetarian past:
i was, for eight years. started when i was 12. i quit when i went to culinary school. it was my choice to go to a really expensive vegetarian culinary school or a less expensive regular culinary school. i thought, i shouldn’t pigeonhole myself. anyway, that’s why we have a lot of vegetarian and vegan stuff, because i really find it’s important. even for myself as an omnivore, i only eat meat two or three times a week. i really think that everyone could limit their meat consumption, if not completely take it out.

on the vegetarian fare at local harvest:
control of the menu is mostly with me and the owners. pat will say, “i want this!” and we do it. the vegetarian dishes are intentional—we want options for people. the whole point is for people to come here and be able to get good food, healthy food, and it’s for all walks of life—vegetarians or vegans or omnivores. they can all find something to eat and happily coexist. it’s really, really important for people also to understand how to get more vegetables in their diet without just eating a salad. we actually have this joke here that omnivores make the best vegan food, because you’ve learned all the skills and you’re not just holing yourself into only vegan food. you learn how to cook, and you can adapt those techniques [for other diets]. so i’m glad that i [went to a regular culinary school]. i love meat now—i’m sorry, i probably shouldn’t talk about that!

on her many extracurricular activities:
i love working in restaurants, but, as you know, i’ve been frustrated before, and i feel a little boxed in. so i've been working on trying to write and blog, trying to expand the things that i do so it’s not just always cooking. i was listening to podcasts—i got a new ipod and was checking out all the podcasts. indiana public radio has eartheats, which has really wonderful podcasts. not only are they about food, but also food legislation and food safety, and political food stuff. you rarely find recipes and political food stuff in the same place. i really found that was important, and i really liked what they were doing. i checked out their blog and saw that they had a lot of different bloggers, so i emailed them and was like, “hey! how would you feel if i blogged for you?" and they were like, “yup, send it on over.” it was as easy as that, and it’s great.  
i’m spying on them because i really want something like that for st. louis. they just do a small podcast and a really nice blog. we could do something like that here, talking about more missouri or illinois issues. the political stuff i always find gets pushed to the wayside. nobody wants to talk about what’s going on. i feel like that’s sad, you can’t divorce politics and food… although…well, it’s hard because you just want to enjoy your food, right? i find you enjoy it more when you know what’s happening to your food and when you feel connected. there’s just a lot of stuff going on that the farmers don’t even want to talk about because they don’t want you thinking about that while you’re at the farmers market. for one, they’re passing a lot of animal legislation where you have to tag—basically barcode—each animal that’s born within so many hours. it’s really hard on the small farmer who has very little support, very little money.

on her old cookbook collection & how they’re still relevant:
i started collecting in antique stores and thrift stores. my collection started with old church lady cookbooks, from the 40s, 50s, 60s. that stuff’s passed down from before there was refrigeration. and then i have some old antique cookbooks from the 20s and so forth. i have a retired friend who lives in d.c. who likes to go hunting. so now i have more than i can possibly ever read. but i do go through them. there’s a lot of interesting stuff out there. it really does help me to work seasonally and also not waste anything.
there are even a lot of vegetarian recipes. pre-50s was a time of not a lot of meat consumption. this is just in the last half-century that americans are consuming five times as much meat as they ever did. there’s really a lot of stuff that is vegetarian, or things that just have ground beef in them that you can omit and still have a really good recipe. [my friend in d.c.] even sends me a lot of natural and vegetarian cookbooks because she knows i’m into that. there’s even older vegan cookbooks out there, amazingly.
it’s really interesting to see the fads and the styles. usually in the beginning [of the book], they talk about nutrition, and what’s the nutritional fad of the day. it’s really, really cool. it makes you put it into perspective. right now you think butter’s bad for you and margarine’s the best, and then ten years later it’s like margarine’s horrible for you, butter’s better, but lard’s even better! they don’t really know. so it puts it all in perspective, which i really enjoy.

on women chefs in st. louis:
i have a couple events coming up that involve other chefs, and i’m the only chick at both of them. whenever we do slow food’s art of food, i’m always the only chick there, of all the head chefs. i never really think about it, but i was just mentioning to a friend of mine—“oh, and then this thing i was the only girl there, too, oh my goodness!” i’m just so used to it. it’s such a man’s world that i’m used to being the only girl around. i don’t really have too many female chef friends. one, cassie vires, she helped open ernesto’s—she’s now working with feast a lot and does a lot of freelancing. and another friend of mine works at frazer’s, doing all their desserts and bread. she is also vegetarian, and she is incredible. her name is kim bond. she is hardworking and amazing and really creative. i mean, insanely creative. she and i actually, a couple years ago, held our own south city iron chef. she was like, “if we had a south city iron chef who would you pick?” i said, “i’d pick you!” and she was like, “yeah, i’d pick you!” we decided to throw one, and we did it in somebody’s backyard. we competed—she won. we’re supposed to have a re-match soon. that was a lot of fun. it was total chick power, it was awesome. 

some fun quick-fires, just to get to know clara a little better: 
strangest request while at work:
i’m sure we’ve had some great ones! oh man, i got nothing. generally we just kind of brush it off! it's kind of a daily occurrence. 

favorite childhood memory:
well, this is on my mind because i was just in michigan and went to the old beach that we used to go to. my mom would get us there with the last ten dollars in gas to go see my grandparents. it was the quietest, calmest area with a little cottage, a little quiet beach, and i was soooo bored when i was a kid. but i thank god that at least i got a week of that a year, to know what comfort and quiet and relaxation can seem like and look like. i miss [that] really badly. [being a chef is] all go, go, go. going back there was a big reminder. you do have to have a little respite at least every once in a while. i have a dog now, which helps keep me tied to my house.

top two bucket list items:
oh, i’m so impulsive that i’ve done most of them already! to go back to being bilingual—i was bilingual when i lived in mexico, but now i’ve completely lost it. so i would really like to live in a south or central american country and really reconnect with the language and reconnect with the culture, because that’s a beautiful culture down there. talk about basic food and basic needs and a really to-the-earth sort of thing. that’s on my scope…eventually. most of it just involves traveling. i just want to travel as much as i can all the time. i really want a house in the city and a house in the country so i can have it all. 

on St. Louis as a foodie city:
well, i’m a little biased, of course, because i know all the little niche places. but i think we’re doing pretty well. i was just in detroit recently—the city’s a little bit bigger than ours, but about the same level of stuff going on. but really exciting things. i think we do pretty well for ourselves. it’s a nice community and a supportive community, and that’s the important part: the support. i don’t think we’d be able to exist if we didn’t have a supportive foodie community. things like taste [of st. louis]… a lot wouldn’t be possible if people weren’t slightly enlightened. and thanks to feast, and sauce, and everybody that’s out of there—there’s a lot of blogs out there writing about what’s going on.
some days i’m like “come on, st. louis! let’s do something!” but i think we’re moving forward. i just hope we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves, and we kind of trend out of it or past it. i mean, the fact that sauce has been around for, what, 10 years now…and now there’s feast…they’re making a go at it. it means there’s a large community and there’s a lot of people who are interested in what’s going on. it’s a nice social network that we have here. one of the things maddie likes to say about st. louis is that you can have an idea and go do it here. and nobody else has done it! there’s a big, huge empty canvas in st. louis for you to write on and do whatever you want.

we agree with clara on how interested st. louisans are, and we really admire her pride and dedication to her community. clara reminds us how important it is to stay connected and that there’s always more we can all do. not that we or she are getting up on our soapboxes here—we’re just impressed and touched to find people who genuinely care about the happiness of others, people who use their creativity to spread joy. we know that if you’ve visited local harvest, this feeling probably sounds familiar. so, next time you go, be sure and tell someone what a cool chick you think clara moore is! she might even show you her motorcycle.


  1. thanks a ton guys! this interview was fun.
    hope to see you soon...