PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
Summer Wright doesn't hesitate when she thinks of the advice she'd give to her younger self. "I'd say you're crazy!" she laughs. "I was so naive back then. Here I was, nineteen years old, with no money. I'd just moved to New Jersey and was calling up DB Bistro Moderne asking to speak to the chef for a job. Who does that?"
Wright, who was recently tapped to head the pastry program for the hotly-anticipated Vicia (4260 Forest Park Avenue)
, doesn't regret her decision to pack up and move to New York City with the dream of working for the acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud. She just wishes she'd done it sooner. After graduating from high school in Kansas City, she opted to follow in her older sister's footsteps and study business at Rockhurst University.
However, Wright immediately knew it was the wrong fit. "I had this moment during a final exam," Wright recalls. "My teacher picked up on it and asked me what was wrong, and I told her that I just didn't want to be at this school, that I didn't feel like it was what I was supposed to be doing."
Wright found herself confiding that she wanted to go to culinary school, a fact that delighted her teacher — her professor loved food and had friends in the restaurant business. She told Wright about the culinary school just across the border in Kansas, at Johnson County Community College.
Wright soon enrolled in the school's hospitality and culinary program and secured an apprenticeship (and later job) with chef Michael Turner at the Classic Cup Cafe right on Kansas City's Country Club Plaza. She dedicated herself to her craft, spending what little spare time she had at the bookstore around the corner. Poring over culinary books, she became obsessed with working for Boulud in New York City. Without much of a plan, she packed up her car and set off for the Manhattan restaurant scene.
It took three months and innumerable phone calls to secure a stage at Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne, but her persistence paid off when the garde manger spot became available. To her surprise, she got the position and simultaneously enrolled in a culinary certificate program.
The schedule proved unsustainable. "My commute was two hours each way," explains Wright. "I'd get up at 4 a.m. to drive to a bus stop to catch a bus to catch a train into the city. Then I'd walk to school, get to work by noon and work until around midnight. I'd often miss the last train and would find myself standing outside of a Wendy's thinking that I had no idea how I was going to get home. Once, I even had to hitch a ride with total strangers back to New Jersey."
She quit the culinary program, but continued to work at DB Bistro Moderne for two years before getting completely burnt out. Unsure of her next move, she moved to St. Louis. While working at Five Bistro, she saw an ad seeking help at Gerard Craft's new restaurant, Niche. She decided to apply, despite her best efforts at talking herself out of it. "I didn't think I was good enough to work there," Wright confesses. "I think a lot of chefs feel that way. I hear it all of the time."
Craft gave her a foot in the door as his garde manger cook, but when the position of pastry chef at Craft's Brasserie opened, she jumped at the opportunity. After a few years there, she returned to Niche as its pastry chef.
More moves followed; Wright went to California and cultivated her culinary identity before returning to St. Louis to join her former Niche colleague Matthew Daughaday at Reeds American Table. There, she ran the pastry program, creating sweet treats that reflected her penchant for simple flavors and processes.
When the opportunity came to work with Michael and Tara Gallina at their forthcoming Vicia, Wright knew she could not pass it up. "They are get-shit-done sort of people," Wright laughs. "They're so professional and skilled. We're going to be milling our own flour and will maybe even have a bakery there someday. It's amazing to see what this is going to become."
Wright took a break from developing Vicia's pastries to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage community, the peculiar shape of slivered almonds and why she's her own biggest critic.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
Several things come to mind. First, I always take the risk. Also, I am my own biggest critic, and finally, I’m the best dining partner you’ll ever find!
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
The first thing I do before getting out of bed is check my email, messages and my bank account. The last thing I do before going to bed is guided meditation.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Teleportation. There are so many places I’d love to travel and friends I'd love to visit from across the miles that I rarely or never get to see. It would also be beneficial to have the ability to speak any language. Imagine the possibilities and the connection you could make with any person without a language barrier.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Watching the growth and achievements as my industry friends and cooks that I used to work with on the line, or who were part of my extended restaurant network, become owners, executives, and industry leaders. I’m proud of their relentless work, and it’s exciting to see their own artistic style and personality come out through their work.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
For food, it's late-night dining options across the board, low to high-brow — anything from ramen shops and izakayas to taco street vendors and more food truck freedom, to full-service dining. Also, more from-scratch bakeries (one on every corner please!). More wood oven/hearth cooking, too. For wine and cocktails, I'd like to see people embrace offering natural wines. Industry-wide, enacting no tipping policies to close the financial gap between the front and back of house, affordable employer-sponsored health care, more farmer appreciation, charity-driven food events designed by the restaurant to benefit organizations they believe in.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Patrick Devine, Chris Bork, Michael Gallina, Ted Wilson, Brad Bardon, and Ted and Jamie Kilgore. They are all wonderful people doing great things.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Tara and Michael Gallina. Their skill and experience is top-notch. They are great people, have incredible taste, and are super fun to hang out with to boot. I’m also curious to see what the very charismatic Matt McGuire creates in the coming year at Louie. I imagine we’ll all see a lot of familiar faces in the crowd of what will probably be one of the most soulful restaurants in St. Louis.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Eggs. They'r indispensable, applicable for many savory and sweet preparations, and a workhorse in the kitchen.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I’ve thought about this a lot, many times, and the outcome is usually artistically driven — photographer, ceramicist, editorial layout and graphic design, interior design, food historian or cookbook writer.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Skim milk. What’s the point? And slivered almonds. I dislike the shape.
What is your after-work hangout?
Home. But if I’m going to hit up a spot, you’ll find me at Lona’s Lil Eats, the Royale, Union Loafers, Taste, Vista Ramen, Planter’s House or El Bronco.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
My food guilty pleasure is cheese; beverage, it's Champagne. Enjoy them together for a win-win.
What would be your last meal on earth?
This is ridiculously hard to answer but I’d probably host a giant party with all my friends and family and we would all cook, dance, drink and laugh together from evening to sunrise. Cheers!
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