by Cheryl Baehr
Chef Christopher Lee always knew it was a matter of time before he and Mad Tomato (8000 Carondelet Avenue, Clayton; 314-932-5733) chef and owner Vito Racanelli would go into business together.
"I've known Vito for ages," Lee says. "He was trying to do everything himself at Mad Tomato. I was looking to leave my last job, and he asked me to join him." Lee drove a hard bargain. "I told him that I'd only do it as a partnership -- not as an employee." Racanelli accepted Lee's business proposal, and the longtime friends now find themselves making beautiful food together at the Clayton eatery.
Upscale Italian cuisine is a far cry from Lee's humble culinary roots as a dishwasher -- a gig he credits with instilling in him his detail-oriented work ethic. This led him to several of the city's finest kitchens (Melange, Balaban's, Café Ventana, Sanctuaria) where he honed not only his cooking skills but also his management and operations expertise. Lee will be parlaying these skills into a new management company, Mustard Seed, which he and Racanelli plan on opening later in the summer.
Lee took time away from Mad Tomato, Mustard Seed and his bike to chat about his thoughts on the St. Louis dining scene, his Americano ritual and why he thinks he is like a beet.
What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? That I am pretty damn funny.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Americano. Since opening Café Ventana I have had an Americano nearly every morning since.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? The ability to use my finger like a lighter would be nice, never looking for a match or lighter for the stove...like a human pilot light.
What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? The "local" movement has become more of a given, versus a marketing piece. I like that. It means the farmers and consumers have reached a level of equilibrium, prices have achieved a state of stability and consistency.
Who is your St. Louis food crush? Qui Tran [of Mai Lee].
Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene? Vito Racanelli [Mad Tomato]. I have an inside source that he's on to something (wink).
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Beets. On the surface I appear a bit unpolished, earthy in a way. Underneath there is a subtlety, an uncanny sweetness mixed with that honest earthiness and I am consistent throughout. What you see is what you get. They go well with other big flavors (personalities) and they complement rather than take the center.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' culinary climate, what would you say? That it has matured, there is always room for improvement and it's cool that so many younger people are making their mark on the scene.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. Apathy. If you don't care about what you are putting on the plate, doesn't have room with us.
What is your after work hangout? Either my garage working on a motorcycle or chilling with my wife Sandra and Brutus the boxer.
What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? Arizona Rx tea.
What would be your last meal on earth? The dinner I had with my wife on our honeymoon at Bardessono in Napa.