by Cheryl Baehr
Brian Hale, executive chef at the new Jax Café's (2901 Salena Street; 314-449-1995), isn't shy about discussing his bad-boy reputation and the colossal ego that defined him throughout most of his culinary career.
"I used to be a real dick," he says. "Really, I was all about the ego. A a total prima donna."
Hale enjoyed the notoriety that came from running the kitchen at the now-defunct Monarch, at the time one of the most innovative dining establishments in St. Louis. Hale became something of a rock star and that came with perks -- VIP status at the city's hottest clubs, complimentary meals at trendy restaurants, the works.
"I was going out all of the time. I knew all of the bouncers at the clubs on Washington, and they would wave me right in," Hale recalls. "I was totally into the scene. To be honest, I got a reputation that wasn't great."
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Following Monarch, Hale took on an 80-hour work week as the head of culinary operations at the Chase Park Plaza. Burnout set in. Finally, he decided to drop out of the scene for a full year and a half. During this self-imposed exile, he occupied his time consulting for local restaurants like BARcelona and Coastal Bistro and did a pop-up concept with Bocci. That venture proved to be fateful because it brought him face to face with a ghost from his past -- long-lost dear friend and "soul mate" Gina Seltzer. She approached him about doing a restaurant that appealed more to his love of cooking and less to his ego. In other words, she made it clear that the attitude had to go.
"She wasn't going to put up with my bullshit," Hale laughs. "This was a real a-ha moment."
Jax Café, the result of this partnership, is not at all about ego. As Hale describes it, the theme of the menu is "recognizable comfort food with a bit of a twist." Sure, there's grilled cheese on the menu, but it's grilled cheese made with Cotswold cheese, bacon and tomato jam. Another dish that encapsulates the food vibe at Jax Café is the chicken biscuit.
"You can't go out to eat without seeing fried chicken and waffles on a menu. Everyone is doing it," he says.
Using his grandmother's recipe, Hale chose to replace the waffle with a biscuit; he even makes it in the same wooden bowl that she used to use. He adds a little sriracha butter to the biscuit, drizzles it with clover honey, and ends up with a something you'll only find at Jax.
Hale uses the word "love" several times when describing his thoughts on Jax Café. He says what matters to him now is that he is able to pick up his ten-year-old daughter from school on Friday afternoon and spend the entire weekend with her; that he has found a place where he would work for free if he could; that he finally gets to play and take things as far as his imagination will go. Just don't ask him to change his rock-star look.
"I still have long hair, I paint my toenails black and wear eyeliner when I go out. That won't change."