by Cheryl Baehr
If his uncle would have had his way, Josh Charles would have stayed out of the kitchen. "My uncle had a restaurant in Farmington, where I grew up," the Elaia (1634 Tower Grove Avenue; 314-932-1088) chef de cuisine recalls. "I was always there hanging out and thought it was so cool how he was the center of the community. The restaurant was where everyone in town met. He never let me work for him, though. He was trying to shield me from that life."
His uncle's efforts failed. Right after high school Charles enrolled in L'Ecole Culinaire, and began working at the acclaimed Fond restaurant in Edwardsville, Illinois, that now houses Cleveland Heath. ("I joke that I got to cook in Cleveland-Heath's kitchen," Charles laughs.) After stints at a few other places -- Harvest, Eclipse -- Charles landed at Prime 1000, first as the pastry chef, then as sous chef. A friend who came in to apply for a job at Prime told Charles about "this super high-end place that was going to do grand tasting menus." That place was Elaia, and Charles knew he had to be a part of it. He staged there on opening night and landed the job of pantry cook a month after it opened.
After a mere six months, Elaia's chef Ben Poremba promoted Charles to chef de cuisine. It was an admittedly quick rise, but Charles explains that the he and Poremba just clicked. "We seem different -- he was raised in Israel, I'm from Farmington in the middle of the Midwest," Charles notes. "But we both have the same philosophy about food -- letting the ingredients speak for themselves, using classic techniques but putting them in our current place and time. Plus, he appreciates that I understand the American palate."
As for his uncle, Charles says, he is now his biggest champion. "He told me, after hearing about chef's [Poremba's] James Beard Award nomination the other day, that my time is coming -- it's in my grasp."
Charles took a break from Elaia's kitchen to share his thoughts on the state of food in St. Louis, his heavy-metal CrossFit addiction, and why he considers himself to be much like candied ginger.
What is one thing people don't know about you that you wish they did? Outside of the kitchen, I like to live a healthy and active lifestyle. I attend Heavy Metal CrossFit at the Lab Gym almost every morning. On days off I like to play tennis, ride my bike and go rock climbing at Climb So ILL. Movement is the key to life.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? Sleep! Anything less than six hours of sleep a night turns me into a zombie.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I would love to have the superpowers of the Flash. I would have time to do anything -- whole day's worth of prep done in a couple of minutes!
What is the most positive trend in food, wine or cocktails that you've noticed in St. Louis over the past year? I love the fact that we have local butcher shops opening up, with the addition of Bolyard's Meat and Provisions and Truffles Butchery, local meat is now more accessible.
Who is your St. Louis food crush? Ed Heath [Cleveland-Heath]. His food is always delicious and comforting.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene? Patrick Devine, assistant pastry chef at La Patisserie Chouquette. His picture game is on point, and he also makes great desserts.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Candied ginger: sweet and spicy.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis' culinary climate, what would you say? Ambitious. I feel that a lot of people are getting out there taking risks and investing in concepts they are truly passionate about.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. Margarine.
What is your after-work hangout? If I were to go out after work, it would be Taste. They are always consistent with great food, drinks and service.
What's your food or beverage guilty pleasure? Biscuits and gravy with poached eggs.
What would be your last meal on earth? Red-wine braised beef with parsnip puree and glazed carrots.