This is part one of Holly Fann's Chef's Choice profile of Chris Bork of the Mud House in south St. Louis. Part two, a Q&A with Bork, can be found here. Look for part three, a recipe from Bork, is here.
It's getting warmer out. The earth is thawing, seedlings are starting to sprout. Things are happening out there, and they're happening fast.
Things are also happening at the corner of Cherokee Street and Illinois Avenue, where the Mud House is buzzing with new activity, new growth, major changes. At the center of the impetus for this change is chef Chris Bork. A partner with owners Jeremy and Casey Miller, Bork is planning some big and very tasty new ventures.
Born in Georgia, Bork lived in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Alabama before moving to St. Louis when he was sixteen. Like many chefs, a career in food found him via the sink. "My first job was washing dishes at Fuddruckers in west county," he recalls. "We used to smoke cigarettes while we washed dishes. Classy." A few small-time gigs later, Bork was 21 and working at Fricks, which he describes as "a real blue-collar bar and grill," when he decided to visit his girlfriend in London, where she was a student.
"I went over there to visit and I ended up staying for six months. At that point I didn't really know if I wanted to cook forever. I applied to a school so I could stay and be with her. I got into Westminster Kingsway College. I studied for two years and worked while I studied. I worked for another eight months or so and then came back here when my visa expired. It didn't work out with the girl, but the desire and passion for cooking stuck. "In hindsight, don't follow a girl to a different country," Bork advises.
Back in St. Louis, Bork took up where he'd left off, moving from restaurant to restaurant, including stints at Revival and the Terrace View Cafe. "I opened Terrace View in 2009. The day we opened, I got sick. I was fighting through it and I got misdiagnosed like five times and finally they told me I had mono. That's hard, not only for me but for the restaurant. I ended up resigning."
Bork's friendship with the Millers brought him to the Mud House. "I knew Jeremy and Casey since 2005 and I knew they needed help," he says. "I wasn't thinking I'd be the chef there or I'd invest or I'd become partners with them, it just kind of turned into that. They always wanted to be a place with really great food, but they couldn't attain that, they couldn't really pay a chef and they didn't have that background. They were doing a good job with what they had, but they always wanted to raise the bar a little bit." Bork began by finding local farmers and vendors. When he wants to serve smoked pork, he does the smoking himself. Relishes, marmalades and soups are prepared with seasonal ingredients. Pastries and quick breads are served warm from a tiny kitchen that recently received a complete overhaul, complete with the addition of hoods and new ovens. What he doesn't prepare in-house, Bork buys from local purveyors. Crusty and tart loaves of bread, for instance, come courtesy of Five Bistro's baker, Alex Carlson.
Next came the Chef Nights. On two evenings each month, the Mud House keeps its doors open past the usual sundown closing time and offers a multi-course tasting menu, served family-style. A recent Chef Night featured a poached egg with truffle oil, ham fat and chorizo purée, abd local prime rib with demi-glace and roasted fingerling potatoes. Highlights from the upcoming March menu include bacon consommé with clams and roasted leek, roasted scallops, pork belly with caramelized fennel and a very cheeky homemade "pop tart." Reservations sell out quickly; the waiting list last month nearly matched the Mud House's 35-seat capacity for service.
The arrival of spring will bring regular dinner service. "We're hoping to start dinners in April," Bork says. "It takes money and it takes time, but I'm excited.
"More and more people are looking at us as a restaurant that serves coffee instead of a coffee shop that serves food," the chef elaborates. "We're more and more food-driven, every day that passes."