When Ivy Magruder decided it was time to go corporate in the late '90s, he moved to the happiest place on Earth. After helping to open and then working in a small Italian restaurant, Buca di Elena, in Charleston, South Carolina, and graduating from culinary school at Johnston & Whales University in 1998, Magruder, now executive chef and general manager of Vin de Set (2017 Chouteau Avenue; 314-241-8989 or www.vindeset.com), wanted to switch gears and work in a bigger restaurant to become more well-rounded. So he packed up and headed for Florida, aiming for the corporation to end all corporations: Disney.
Make no mistake: Magruder wasn't frying funnel cakes that his customers would later yack up on Space Mountain. For two years he worked at the Flying Fish Café, a gourmet seafood restaurant on Disney World's BoardWalk, until moving back to St. Louis in 2001 to be closer to family. But just like that big mouse, it's clear that Magruder wants to make Vin de Set a magical place for his guests. Like, really.
"I have this need, for some reason, to make people happy," Magruder says. "Food is my vehicle that I've chosen to do this. If I were funnier, I could have been a comedian. If I were better looking, I could have been an actor. But I'm neither of those things, so I use food and that creativeness to make people happy."
Magruder doesn't just want to feed you. He wants to give you the entire package: a good meal and an entertaining evening. "I want you to walk away from the place saying, 'I had a phenomenal night,'" Magruder says. When you're dining at Vin de Set, he wants to make your date seem funnier or your mother-in-law seem like a nice person. "I want to blow them away every time," he says.
Owned by Paul and Wendy Hamilton, the team who recently opened PW Pizza downstairs from Vin de Set, Magruder's restaurant has been serving French-inspired cuisine since 2006. Before that, Magruder was also part of the Hamiltons' Eleven Eleven Mississippi opening team in 2003. Although the restaurants are nearby each other and similar in that both menus have been designed around fresh, seasonal ingredients, their cooking styles are different, so they're not fighting against each other. At Vin de Set, Magruder takes a French technique and incorporates American ingredients. His philosophy is knowing the restaurant's boundaries and being creative within them. That, and making all of his guests as happy as humanly possible.
But he doesn't attempt this alone. His team, which includes sous chef Kirby Jones, formerly of Lynch Street Bistro, is one that he says he's been fortunate to work with, and he'll put his service staff up against anyone's in St. Louis.
But don't think it's all sunshine and rainbows in Vin de Set's kitchen. (When questioned about his incessant positivity, Magruder jokingly answers that he drinks a lot.) The chef claims to have an Irish temper, and he, very memorably, lost it once on a server. Her crime? Not owning up to a mistake. She had messed up an order but blamed it on the kitchen staff. "I vividly remember just going apeshit," Magruder says. "I screw up all the time. And I understand that you're going to screw up all the time, but it's about taking ownership of a problem and being a team player. All she had to do is say, 'I messed up.'"
That doesn't mean he fired her, though. "Everyone deserves a second chance," he says. OK, so maybe Disney did get to him after a while.