Wil Pelly thinks he's found a home at the Libertine — but is the feeling mutual?
Wil Pelly has been busy these days, slinging king crab-stuffed lobster thermidor at the Libertine (7927 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-862-2999)
, where he's been promoted to executive sous chef under Matt Bessler. When he's done making mayhem in that kitchen, though, he's not resting — he's doing catering gigs for Dweezil Zappa. "He's my idol," Pelly gushes. "I started cooking for him a few years ago when I was at Sanctuaria, and every time he comes into town, he sends me a message and asks if I can feed him."
It's no coincidence that Pelly cooks for rock stars. Growing up in a Cuban family, he was surrounded by food. "We lived in a duplex; we were on the top floor and my grandma and grandpa were on the bottom," Pelly explains. "I used to watch grandma cook tamales. And every night it was a ritual: We sat down for meals together."
As much as he loved food, it wasn't the cooking bug that captured Pelly; it was music. "When I was a kid I discovered rock and roll and wanted to be a musician," says Pelly. "That was my path for a lot of my life. I played guitar in different bands and had the opportunity to go on tour with the military where I got to see the world — and eat some really interesting food too."
Pelly's music career seemed like it was taking off. His band, Neptune Crush, was getting regular radio play and they had a record deal. That all fell through, and Pelly was left wondering what he would do with life. His mom had the answer. "She looked at me and said, 'Why don't you just cook?'" recalls Pelly.
He'd worked in restaurants for most of his life ("they were the only places that would hire me because I had long hair," he laughs). So Pelly jumped right into the business, first at Flamingo Cafe and next at Sandrina's. He barbecued outside of a strip club on the East Side for a while — "drunk guys and bachelor parties are easy targets for barbecue," says Pelly — and then made his way to Sanctuaria, where he really started to hone his skills.
Pelly admits to bouncing around a bit, next to Sugarfire Smokehouse and then to various consulting gigs before settling down at the Libertine. "I've been looking for a home this whole time, and I've finally found it," he says. "They are great guys and [put up with me] because 90 percent of the time I am a moron."
Pelly took a break from prepping the Libertine's new decadent fall menu to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, pancakes and why he'll never give out the name of his favorite bar.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That even I, Wil Pelly, can be serious from time to time.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Well, I have always liked the villains more, but none of them had super powers. So I’d have to say the ability to read minds; then I could find out what women really want!
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Unique neighborhoods becoming dining destinations. It’s not just the Loop, Central West End and Clayton anymore.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Stunning, courteous and attentive service across the board. I’m not saying it's awful here, but it can be hit or miss.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
This one is easy! The Bahrami family [of Cafe Natasha's]. Hamishe and Natasha and the rest of the family always make you feel like family. And Hamishe pulls no punches. I don’t remember the dish I served her but she pulled me aside and told me how she truly felt about it, and for that reason she will always be an idol.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
There are two of them — Chris Ladley [Quincy Street Bistro] and Dan Sammons [DeMun Oyster Bar]. These guys know how to put food out that make me want to go back to the woodshed.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
A lime. I’m sweet and sour.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Probably following parades with a broom and shovel.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Pre-fab frozen junk.
What is your after-work hangout?
There is a bar that Matt Seiter and I would go to after work at Sanctuaria. It's a lovely, dingy joint where the canned beer and rail whiskey flowed like molten lava and the jukebox played only the finest Motorhead and Slayer songs. I’ll never say her name.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Pancakes. No syrup, just a little fruit, butter and sea salt. Well, a lot
What would be your last meal on earth?
Anything made by my mom. Or the warden’s wife!
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