Nathaniel Reid went from biology to pastry, and the world has never been so delicious.
Nathaniel Reid likes to say that while his mother's advice to go into the culinary arts seemed out of left field, when he reflects on it, it was actually a long time coming.
"I always liked being in the kitchen as a kid, but it was mostly making a mess. There wasn't anything successful being made," Reid says. "My mom was good about letting us play around and experiment in ways other parents wouldn't because it was extra work for [them]. But she saw we were enjoying ourselves and created a fostering environment. If I had been reprimanded for doing it, I probably wouldn't be here today."
For Reid, "here" is Nathaniel Reid Bakery (11243 Manchester Road, Kirkwood; 314-858-1019)
, the acclaimed pastry shop he opened with his wife in August 2016. Reid is internationally renowned for his craft, making it difficult to imagine him doing anything else in life. But it wasn't all that long ago that he was on a much different path.
Growing up in Farmington, Missouri, Reid was singularly focused on becoming a biologist beginning in kindergarten, and he pursued that career path all the way to Mizzou. However, after a summer internship left him questioning what he wanted to do with his life, he reached out to his family for advice. That's when his mom made the suggestion that would change his life.
"There we were, sitting at this family meeting, and it was the first time I had been unsure about what I wanted to do with my life since I was six years old," Reid recalls. "But when she said I should pursue culinary — and everyone said it — it was an 'aha' moment, like a destiny feeling."
At his mom's suggestion, Reid changed majors from biology to hospitality management and got a job in the restaurant business, working his way up from dishwasher to fry cook to the sauté station. He had his eye on the pastry kitchen and begged his boss, chef Chris McDonnell, to let him make desserts when the full-time pastry chef had to leave because of an illness. McDonnell was less than enthused.
"I was bothering him, and he was like, 'No, no, no!'" Reid laughs. "I think he finally just got tired of me asking and was confident I would try, fail and then leave him alone."
Reid admits it wasn't smooth sailing for him at first — for every dessert that made it on the menu, there were several iterations in the trash can. He persisted, though, and eventually began to get in his groove.
That confidence propelled him to apply to the pastry program at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where he excelled and impressed his teachers — so much, in fact, that they floated his name to a famous New York chef who was interested in taking him under his wing. The day after graduation, Reid hopped on a plane back to the U.S., convinced he was well on his way.
Unfortunately, that job never happened. Plagued by a perpetually delayed start date, Reid had to accept that he could no longer wait for the position. As he struggled to secure work, he found himself working with his dad in the construction business to make ends meet.
"I was all pumped up and excited, and here I was, back in Farmington pouring concrete with my dad," Reid says. "It's not that there is anything wrong with that; it's hard and real work. It's that I was so ready to start cooking, and it was hard to wait."
Reid would eventually get hired on at the Ritz-Carlton in Las Vegas, a gig that propelled him to the highest levels of the pastry world — Joël Robuchon's elite properties in Las Vegas (where a stay required an invitation and a $50 million credit limit) and the ultra-swanky St. Regis in southern California. However, though he was achieving at the highest levels of his industry, he had his sights set on opening a place of his own one day and decided it was time to pursue that.
After some consulting work, a position with the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton and numerous teaching gigs, Reid and his wife, Lee Lee, finally realized their dream, opening up Nathaniel Reid Bakery two years ago. Though the neighborhood ethos at the bakery may seem like a different world than the elite pastry one where he made his name, Reid does not approach the two all that differently.
"You can have a coldness at the high end, and our pastries would fit in that world seamlessly, but that is not my style," Reid explains. "My goal is to have a place that feels like a 1950s ice cream parlor, where it is friendly and there is engagement and all types of people feel welcome. And you can have the best version of something for three bucks, which means that anyone can come in here and is able to experience, in my opinion, one of the best things in the city."
Reid took a break from making his delectable desserts to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food-and-beverage scene, his junk-food Achilles heel and the one ingredient you will never see in his kitchen.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
Even though I’m busy at the bakery on a daily basis, I also work as a consultant and educator for other chefs and businesses around the country. I consult with Sasa Demarle to help develop new products for the baking products brand, and I also travel around the country as an ambassador for Valrhona Chocolates, teaching other chefs how to work with their premium chocolate.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Now that I’m a dad, I have other priorities in my life. I have a great team in place at the bakery, and it allows me to wake my daughter up, steal some hugs and then head into the bakery. It’s the best way to start the day!
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I always wish that there were more hours in the day. If I was like the Flash, I could work at lightning speed, still have time to test out the new desserts and items that I want to create, and then slow down to get home and spend time with my family.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Consumers are now craving artisan food products with high craftsmanship. I think this transcends from the pastry world to beverages as well. Genuine excitement about quality allows people like myself to do more and more things, and I see that continue to grow in the community.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
There is a vast amount of new technology and techniques in chocolate with the most amazing quality of cacao right now. I’d like to see more chocolate companies opening that showcase those advancements.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
My wife Lee Lee, of course! She’s an amazing chef, not just with pastry but also savory. The cookie and brownie recipe in the bakery are hers, and I crave them. Everything that she does impresses and surprises me.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Qui Tran from Mai Lee and Nudo House. I know that he’s well known, but I think that he’s one to watch from an entrepreneurial standpoint. He took a risk to step outside of his family’s business to open Nudo House. Now, he’s become a restaurateur in his own right. He’s a steward for all of us in the St. Louis dining scene, and he just brings people together. He’s so passionate and loves what he does, and I think that we both share a similar philosophy on hospitality — take time to say hello to your customers, get to know them and really care. I admire him for that, and he’s been a great support to us at the bakery.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
I would have to say chocolate. Not just because it’s something that I’m super passionate about, but chocolate is very versatile. It can be used in so many things from fancy showpieces to the perfect, simple chocolate-chip cookie. This bakery is my passion project, so I’m here a lot. I have to wear many hats, so I can relate to the adaptability of chocolate.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would be a biologist — a herpetologist, to be exact. That’s what I was originally studying in college.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Margarine. Why would you ever use the fake stuff? We use this beautiful butter from Wisconsin that wasn’t available in St. Louis until we brought it to the market to open the shop. The cows in Wisconsin make the best butter and cheese. There are a lot of false claims about using “the best ingredients,” so I encourage consumers to ask people what is in the products that they eat.
What is your after-work hangout?
Straight to the house with the family. No better place to be.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Red Hot Riplets. Sometimes when I buy a bag, it doesn't make it home.
What would be your last meal on earth?
OK, I’ve got this one coursed out. I’d start with a Salume Beddu charcuterie platter with some cheese from Baetje Farms, with olives, pickled vegetables and one of my jams. Second course, John Dory fish with fava beans and morels followed by chicken roasted on a spit with root vegetables, and then barbecue duck with hoisin and scallion pancakes. To finish, I would keep it light with a homemade fruit sorbet and chocolate bonbons. My favorite flavor combination is lemon dark chocolate ganache with crispy hazelnut praline.
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