PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
In some ways, Audra Luedde is the Keyser Söze of the Libertine (7927 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-862-2999)
— minus the part about being a crime lord, of course. The acclaimed restaurant incorporates her vision, her influence is woven throughout the menu, and she spends her days cooking in the kitchen, doing everything from recipe development to pickling radishes for the restaurant's CSA program. And by 5 p.m., she's gone.
"My job is done before anyone walks through the doors," explains Luedde. "No one sees me there, so I think they assume I'm not as involved as I am."
Everyone knows Luedde's husband Nick as the face of the Libertine, or, as she describes him, "the person who's going to fill the room." And indeed, his larger-than-life personality makes him the restaurant's mascot — the person people associate with the brand. But Luedde provides the essential yin to his yang.
"We balance each other out," Luedde explains. "We have to."
And Luedde provides much more than balance. A trained chef, sommelier and restaurateur, Luedde has been in the business ever since she left her small agricultural community in rural Illinois to go to school in Chicago.
"I grew up in a farming community where everyone raised either livestock or produce," Luedde explains. "My love of food comes from my family — there was never a time in my life when food wasn't there." As a college student, she consistently worked in kitchens or restaurants, and after graduating, decided to go to culinary school. "I just knew that food and wine was what I wanted to do with my life."
During culinary school, Luedde worked at Chicago's Tasting Room where she did double duty as a chef consultant and sommelier, and then met (and married) Nick
, a restaurant general manager. Though she loved her career and the life she had created there, the couple knew that they wanted to own a restaurant. Doing so in Chicago, though, was simply not possible.
"The cost was just a stumbling block there," says Luedde. "We just wouldn't have been able to do our own thing there with how expensive it is. Nick started looking at how much the food scene in St. Louis had changed since he'd left fifteen years earlier, and we decided it was the right place for us."
The pair returned to town and opened the Libertine in 2013, and Luedde has never looked back. "St. Louis is such a warm and inviting place, and people really get what we do here," she says.
And what a lot she does. In addition to helping to conceptualize the ever-evolving menu, Luedde runs the restaurant's "Meals to Go" program and its CSA, which has evolved from her days doing in Chicago. "Restaurants used to be just access points for people to pick up items from farmers, but that's changed," Luedde explains. "Now, we try to incorporate the restaurant and ourselves into it: spice rubs, pickles, housemade goods, sausages."
"It's my baby, but not my third," Luedde laughs. "I have two boys and my third baby is Nick, so I guess it's my fourth."
Luedde took a break from the kitchen to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, her front-row seat to bartender Ben Bauer's fireworks, and why St. Louis could really use a wine vending machine.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I’m a mother of two, and people know my husband and his wild and wacky beverage and culinary antics ... but I’m here right beside him most days overseeing one of St. Louis’ most successful CSA programs, working with local farmers, writing recipes and cooking. It’s a lot of work and a lot of fun, but most of the time I am off to pick up the kids before the diners arrive.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Coffee. Hands down. The whole world around me could be falling apart, but I don’t notice for those few moments while I am having my first cup of coffee.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Mind reading. Geez, that would make my life so much easier.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
I really don’t get out as much as I’d like to these days — two kids and a busy restaurant makes Audra a dull girl. That said, I enjoy little more than watching our head barkeep Ben Bauer juggling liquid nitrogen and setting things on fire at the Libertine!
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
It’s such an eclectic and diverse food scene here now, and it’s grown so much in the four years since Nick and I left Chicago. It’s really difficult to think of what we are missing….drive-thru bars? You know, for when the baby is napping. Okay, that’s probably a terrible idea. Wine vending machines in parks? For when the baby is napping? I’m starting to notice a trend here.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
My hubby, of course!
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Meredith Berkowitz, our manager at the Libertine. She’s doing some pretty special things here in regards to hospitality. She makes the Libertine so warm; it’s a pleasure to watch that lady work her magic.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Cheese. It’s comforting. Everyone wishes they could hug cheese.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Sleeping on a beach in Liguria. I could use the rest. But seriously, I chose this lifestyle because I’m so passionate about this industry — great food, great drink, great friends. I’m exceptionally proud of what we have here at the Libertine and I am grateful for my part in having helped create it.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Any negativity or attitude. When you’re here feeding St. Louis, do it with love and a smile.
What is your after work hangout?
My deck, with music playing and the stars above. What could be better? Nick’s bartending.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
A dry Austrian or Alsatian riesling — but I feel no guilt whatsoever.
What would be your last meal on earth?
My Grandma’s bolognese…with her.
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