Adrenaline Junkie Joseph Hemp V Finds a Home in the Kitchen

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This is part one of Gut Check's Chef's Choice profile of Joseph Hemp V of Robust. Part two, a Q & A with Hemp, and part three, a recipe from Hemp, will be available on Friday.

Joseph Hemp V, chef of Robust | Ian Froeb
  • Joseph Hemp V, chef of Robust | Ian Froeb

Growing up, Joseph Hemp V always looked forward to Sunday breakfast. "We were all together as a family," the chef of Robust (227 West Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-963-0033) and its new downtown outpost (635 Washington Avenue; 314-287-6300) explains. "Dad always worked nights. We had school and everything else. But Sunday breakfast was always big."

But Hemp was no passive participant in the feast.

"We'd have a little tiny footstool we'd put next to the stove so I could sit there and watch. And then eventually it came to a point where my mom got six recipes on a looseleaf paper, and I kept watching and practicing with her until one Sunday she said, 'All right, I want you to make breakfast.'

"I was like maybe seven by then. It was fun. Everybody was all excited about the terrible eggs I made or the overcooked this, that and the other."

See Also: - Ian Froeb's RFT Review of Robust (2013) - Corey Woodruff's RFT Slideshow of Robust (2013)

Hemp's family encouraged his nascent kitchen ambitions throughout a childhood spent in southern Illinois, St. Charles and St. Louis County.

"My grandma on my mother's side grew up and still lives in southern Illinois and had a plot of the side of the house for the garden," he says. "Throughout the summertimes I'd spend with her, we'd till the garden, we'd take care of it. At the end of the season, she'd teach me how to put things up...how to can and preserve and everything else. And she would take vegetables just right out of the dirt and rub it on her shoulder or pants and make me eat it.

"And as I kid, I thought that was gross, but I was also a little boy, so I was like, 'Yeah, sure, whatever.' It showed how good food can be when you put in the time, when you put in the labor."

Meanwhile, his paternal grandmother had noticed how much he seemed to enjoy being in the kitchen, helping someone else or making himself a snack or meal, and she made sure to tell him that this could be his career. For Hemp, whose adolescence was, by his own admission, wild, such encouragement mattered.

"I couldn't last in an office," he says. "I couldn't do anything like that. I'd lose my mind. [Cooking] forced me into an environment of what I loved, and everybody supported me on both sides of my family. They always praised my cooking and everything else.

"So that was the big push."

After high school Hemp worked briefly as a server at Dick Clark's American Bandstand Grill in Northwest, but a buddy soon helped him score his first cooking gig at the Central West End institution Dressel's. Helming the kitchen at the time was a young Patrick Connolly, who would go on to win a James Beard Foundation "Best Chef: Northeast" award for his work at Radius in Boston. (He has since returned to St. Louis to lead the kitchen at Basso.) Connolly, Hemp says, "taught me speed and agility and things like that, and how to read all the tickets instead of just one."

The rush of the kitchen hooked Hemp, a self-proclaimed "adrenaline junkie": "We're listening to good music, we're cooking, we're humping it out. This was my first time really seeing this push, so it pulled me in. It was what I loved doing, and from then [on], it's been nothing but busy kitchens. That's what I strive for."

Dressel's also introduced Hemp to a broader adult world. He'd hang around for its weekly "Monday NIght Socials," listening to conversations about sociology, religion -- "Things that were way above all my knowledge because all my friends were skateboarders," he says.

The eighteen-year-old Hemp still had some growing up to do, however. His first attempt at attending culinary school at Forest Park Community College ended with his being kicked out for, in his words, "partying too much and working too much and not really caring."

He returned the next year, humbled but determined: "I took a lot of the core classes again to, one, raise my GPA and, two, to prove to these teachers I was serious this time."

"Second time around was much more fun because then my teachers actually realized what I was doing," he says. "They wanted to be part of my career; they wanted to be part of my life. A lot of them [remained] mentors after I left."

Hemp was maturing as a professional as well. He'd taken a job cooking at the Westin Hotel downtown and its restaurant, Clark Street Grill.

"This isn't just a job," the chef there told him. "This isn't just a paycheck. You're wearing a chef jacket now, you're wearing a hat now, you're part of a culinary team now."

"It was my eye-opening moment," he says now. "This isn't just flipping burgers. This isn't just making a sandwich or two. Food means something to me."

Flashback: Joseph Hemp V at Dressel's in 2009 | Jennifer Silverberg
  • Flashback: Joseph Hemp V at Dressel's in 2009 | Jennifer Silverberg

Hemp's early career included stints at Portabella in Clayton (now closed) and under Lou Rook at Annie Gunn's as well as at Norwood Hills Country Club.

("We had some fun old-school stuff you only see in country clubs any more, so I got to experience some of that," Hemp says of his country-club experience. "The buying power was nice. The benefits of it are good. When I can't handle the line in an independent kitchen anymore, I will probably retire to a country club or a hotel.")

Meanwhile, Hemp had remained close with the Dressel's family, and when Ben Dressel bought the restaurant from his parents, intending to bring its cuisine up to date, he sought Hemp's advice. So in 2006 the chef returned to Dressel's to lead a thorough overhaul of the menu -- and also a much-needed renovation of the kitchen, where, he says, "You put two burgers on the grill, the whole restaurant fills with smoke."

After about a year of gradually introducing new menu items and then a six-week closure for renovations, the "new" Dressel's opened.

"It was a big bump," Hemp says. "Everybody had been coming there for years for this hot dog -- just a regular crappy quarter-pound hot dog. I took that off to put on a housemade sausage with onions and everything else, doing everything by hand, and people kind lost their wigs at first.

"I don't want to take away from this institution. They've been there since 1980, and I don't want to rock the boat that much, but I don't want to be serving just fish & chips and burgers. We want to move forward. It took a while.

"I'd keep Garden burgers in the freezers. I'd keep hot dogs in the freezer. If people want it the old-fashioned way, I'll do it. It's their restaurant, they've supported us this whole time."

Hemp praises the work that current chef Michael Miller has done in continuing Dressel's evolution. By 2010, however, after four years at the pub, Hemp was ready for a change.

Hemp was already a big fan of Gerard Craft's restaurants, and Craft himself had eaten at Dressel's and told Hemp how much he enjoyed the food, so Hemp joined Craft's company as a sous chef. He worked as needed at Craft's restaurants for a while and then settled into a permanent spot running Taste in its first incarnation adjacent to the original Benton Park home of Niche. When Taste moved to the Central West End, Hemp moved over to Brasserie by Niche.

Meanwhile, Hemp and his wife learned they were expecting their second child, which led the chef to a career crossroads of sorts.

"I love [Craft's] restaurants, the environment. The chefs they have running each of those places are phenomenal. They have great heads on their shoulders, and they're making great food. But with the commitment it takes to get to that level, it's a young man's game -- it's next to impossible when you have kids."

Hemp took a step back, returning to Annie Gunn's as a line cook until his daughter was born. (His daughter is now two, his son five.) By this point he was ready to step back into the role of a chef, or at least a sous chef, and started asking around about job possibilites.

One of his friends, Eric Brenner thought he might have something. Formerly the owner of the late Moxy and now the chef at the new downtown spot Alumni, Brenner was at that point Robust's "chief culinary officer" and needed someone to lead both the original Webster Groves spot and the planned expansion to the new Mercantile Exchange development downtown.

For Hemp, Robust seemed a natural fit. For the notoriously tiny, unconventional kitchen in the Webster Groves location, he could call upon his experience in the equally tiny Taste.

"I waited about a month or two to make changes" to the menu, Hemp says. "I learned how tricky it is to create ideas in my head for food -- and then apply it to the kitchen. We have four induction cooktops. We have two tabletop convection ovens. We have this psycho oven that goes against all science and physics and everything else. Manipulating that environment to make things work -- it was fun."

The new downtown Robust has a much larger kitchen, but Hemp still faces a unique challenge and designing its menu: wine. Owner Stanley Browne assigns each dish a "Robust Factor," which matches with a certain body and flavor of wine.

"It's a process," explains Hemp. "Sometimes we'll think something looks good, and then he'l taste it and [say], 'There's way too much of this on here, no wine's going to work with this.

"He'll be my final palate. His mouth memory for wine is amazing."

For Hemp, who calls himself "more a beer guy," Robust presents yet another opportunity to continue his lifelong development as a chef.

"Stanley's been majorly involved in trying to get me away from beer into appreciating wine." he says. "I still have a hard time pulling the flavors out that he can smell: vanilla, tobacco."

He pauses and laughs. "I can smell that this wine tastes expensive."

This is part one of Gut Check's Chef's Choice profile of Joseph Hemp V of Robust. Part two, a Q & A with Hemp, and part three, a recipe from Hemp, will be available on Friday.

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