COURTESY OF A FINE SWINE
David Stidham went from a corner office to the smokehouse.
David Stidham may be an award-winning pitmaster and the restaurateur behind the successful Metro East smokehouse A Fine Swine (423 West Hanover Street, New Baden, Illinois; 618-588-5141)
. However, it wasn't that long ago that he nearly laughed his youngest son out of the room at the suggestion he get into barbecue.
"We were watching TV one day and the show Barbecue Pitmasters
was on," Stidham recalls. "My son said, 'Dad, why don't you go on that show? You're great at barbecue.' I just laughed at him and said, 'Jacob, those guys are at a whole different level than what I do in the backyard.'"
But even if Stidham qualified his work as mere "backyard barbecue," his talents were evident well before he won his first competitions. The son of a U.S. Navy officer, Stidham moved around a lot as a kid but spent a great deal of his childhood in Memphis, a place that proved instrumental in instilling a passion for smoking meat at a young age.
"In Memphis, you could close your eyes, throw a rock and hit a barbecue shack," Stidham says. "Having the privilege of growing up so close to so many barbecue restaurants, we ate a lot of it, and we learned to cook it too. It was a part of the culture, and it was embedded in me at a young age."
Stidham's restaurant career, however, initially went in a different direction. He began working on the corporate side of the industry, working all the way up to the role of vice president of marketing for Wisconsin-based Culver's.
Stidham enjoyed a great amount of professional success in that role, but no amount of that could make up for his desire to live closer to his family after his father got sick. After retiring from the Navy, the elder Stidham had settled in New Baden, Illinois, and the rest of the family followed suit — except for Stidham.
He felt guilty about that, and had a moment of clarity one day while en route to the hospital to see his father. Though Stidham had been winning competitions and bottling his own barbecue sauce for a while, he didn't want to seriously consider opening his own restaurant unless the perfect opportunity came along. But as he was driving to the hospital that day in New Baden, a "for lease" sign caught his eye.
Something compelled Stidham to check out the restaurant space, so he pulled over. What happened next was the clearest sign he could get.
"I called the leasing agent, and it turned out it was a father-and-son team," Stidham recalls. "I was feeling sentimental because of my dad, but when they asked if I wanted to see it, I told them no because I lived out of town and was on my way to visit my dad. It turned out, they were pulling into the parking lot that very minute."
For Stidham, the property checked off every box on his list of requirements. The only hitch was his wife.
"I took some pictures and sent my wife a text about it," Stidham says. "She said, 'Wow, this looks good. Where is it?' I texted back that it was in New Baden. I didn't hear from her for about 30 minutes."
It took some convincing to get his family on board to move to New Baden from Wisconsin, but they eventually rallied behind him. That was October 2016 and now, less than two years later, Stidham's smokehouse is proving to be not just a local favorite but a destination restaurant — so successful that he and his family are getting ready to open a second location, a barbecue-and-pizza concept in Mt. Vernon, Illinois.
"I had a really good corporate job as an executive, and it was a risk to quit," Stidham muses. "I'm not trying to be boastful, but I am good at this — I think I may have found my hidden talent."
Stidham took a break from the barbecue pit to share his thoughts on the local food-and-beverage community, why mind-reading should be a superpower and the one spice you will never find in his rubs.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
We don’t talk about it much, but we continuously try to help people through community giving. Sometimes through fundraisers, other times cash donations and quite often gift cards and gift baskets. We try to say yes as often as possible in some way — sometimes until it hurts. But we are so blessed and feel it our obligation and blessing to give back.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Praying for my team, our guests, our community and of course my family.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
The ability to fly. Always wanted that, and still do! I guess mind reading would be a close second? Is that a superpower? I submit that it is, or should be.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Personally speaking, I have to say the continued growth of the high-end barbecue segment. I truly believe St. Louis is quickly becoming one of the premier barbecue cities in the country! I have been to them all and believe we stack up nicely against anyone, including Kansas City.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
More regional collaboration to help attract more diners to an area specifically for the dining scene.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Mike Johnson and Christina Fitzgerald of Sugarfire Smoke House.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
David Sandusky of BEAST Craft BBQ.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Hmmm, I would have to go with black pepper. It's bold but complementary and not overpowering — and necessary.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
It’s actually hard to even imagine. I have always been infatuated with food and restaurants. Perhaps pro bass fishing?
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Cumin! When I was younger, one of the first briskets I ever smoked had way too much cumin in it, and it was just awful. It put a very poor taste in my mouth and I have stayed away from it since. It's probably not fair, as cumin is actually a wonderful spice ... just not for me.
What is your after-work hangout?
Home with the family.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Chorizo street tacos and bloody marys.
What would be your last meal on earth?
A two-pound Wagyu bone-in ribeye cooked "caveman style" to rare plus with a hard sear. That and whatever side is laying around as a garnish, but it’s really only about the meat at this point.
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