Armin Grozdanic is St. Louis' king of cevapi.
Armin Grozdanic, chef and owner of Yapi Mediterranean Subs and Sandwiches (5005 S. Kingshighway, 314-354-8333)
, sees his job in the restaurant business as no surprise. "The majority of my family members were cooks, butchers or restaurant owners," Grozdanic says. "My aunt owned a place very similar to [Yapi] and my uncle did too. I've been around food my whole life."
Grozdanic was born in Bosnia in 1982 to a mother who was a superb home cook and a father who worked in a flour mill. His childhood was filled with fond food memories; going out to eat was more an experience than a simple way to feed yourself. "When I was a kid, restaurants were energetic and fun. It felt like going to a concert every single time," recalls Grozdanic. "The places were packed. People would be singing outside and playing music and dancing. Then the war broke out and everything changed."
At that point, Grozdanic's life was upended, and he and his family were forced to flee for their lives from their homeland. Though he does not speak of it directly, Grozdanic's wife Lisa explains that her husband and his family were in a concentration camp for nearly ten months before escaping to Germany and making their way to the United States.
They arrived in St. Louis in 1996 and created a new life for themselves, along with the thousands of other Bosnian refugees who'd fled the war. As Grozdanic adapted to life in his new home, he looked to cooking as a form of solace and a way to make new friends.
"I began barbecuing when I was fourteen," Grozdanic recalls. "It was winter, and I was trying to barbecue chicken, but I didn't cook it all the way through. It was raw, and all of my friends got sick."
Grozdanic can now laugh at the experience, though he admits it was a breakthrough moment for him as to the seriousness of food preparation. "It made me realize how important it is to do things right, so I started learning as much as I could," he explains. "I began really watching my mom and doing my own research and began asking questions."
Fortunately for Grozdanic, his friends were not scared off by the chicken experience, and he used them as his test audience for experimenting with different dishes. Every weekend, he'd invite people over for research and development sessions where he'd cook at least seven different dishes and then get their feedback.
These days, his guests at Yapi Mediterranean Subs are benefitting from his extensive research in the form of what's arguably the city's best cevapi. It's so delicious, Grozdanic explains, that even curmudgeonly old-timers can't help but enjoy the food.
"We call it getting tested by the 'old-schoolers,'" Grozdanic laughs. "Every week or so, there is this group of old Bosnian guys who go around to all the restaurants and test out the food. Even they like it. I mean, they have something to say of course — 'it's too spicy' or whatever — but they still think it's good. That says something."
Grozdanic took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on his commitment to making healthful food affordable, his love of Bosnian coffee and why the city needs to know that, despite his humble storefront, he is indeed a great chef.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That I am a great chef.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
My morning coffee (Bosnian) and morning prayer.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
People are using non-GMO products and fresh produce.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
More halal and kosher restaurants.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Chicago steak seasoning.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Still working in management.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
What is your after-work hangout?
Milano Hookah Lounge on Delmar.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
What would be your last meal on earth?
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