Kelsi Walden Baker gets back to her roots at Bakers & Hale.
When thinking back on where she got her love of food, Kelsi Walden Baker, the co-owner of the new Metro East restaurant Bakers & Hale (7120 Montclaire Avenue, Godfrey, Illinois; 618-433-9748)
, does not hesitate. It was Grandma Baker.
"I was really close to my grandma. She was a stay-at-home mother and a farmer's wife," Walden Baker says. "She was always working in the garden, and I realize now what a love she had for food because she was always venturing into different things. She's the one who taught me that you can always make something out of nothing. All you have to do is look in the fridge, and there is a meal in there to be created."
Walden Baker did not wait long before using what her grandmother had taught her in the kitchen. Even as a kid, she loved to cook, and once she got old enough, she would take over preparing family dinners for her working parents. She never felt obligated to do so; she simply enjoyed the process and relished the opportunity to explore the cookbooks around the house.
It was natural, then, that she would be drawn to the food business. When she was sixteen, Walden Baker got a job in fast food, which she describes as one of the only opportunities in her small town of Brighton, Illinois. She later got a job as a busser at one of the town's nicer restaurants and decided to go to culinary school after she graduated high school. After a brief stint at one of the area's four-year universities, she enrolled in the local community college's culinary program, interned with Disney and came back to Illinois ready to work.
Her brother suggested that Walden Baker look for a job at the restaurants on the Hill, and she was hired on the spot by Charlie Gitto's to work at their satellite concept, located at what was then Harrah's Casino. The opportunity would prove fateful, introducing her to the man who would become her biggest culinary influence next to her grandmother.
"That's where I met Rex," Walden Baker says of acclaimed chef Rex Hale. "That's pretty much where I got to where I am today. I worked with him there, and I've been working with him ever since."
In Hale, Walden Baker found not only a mentor but a friend who took her cooking knowledge and skills to the next level. The pair worked together at a series of subsequent restaurants — Charlie Gitto's on the Hill, McCormick & Schmick's, 360, Basso and the Restaurant at the Cheshire, which then became Boundary. Throughout their experiences, the pair formed a bond like family based on mutual respect and a shared cooking philosophy.
They were not always allowed to live that philosophy, however, as Walden Baker and Hale at times found themselves in corporate kitchens with recipes and ways of doing things that did not always appeal to them. They would often talk about how they would do things differently if given the chance, creating a vision for their dream restaurant without even realizing it.
They got their chance to live that dream not long after Walden Baker left Boundary to focus on her family. Her brother stumbled upon a charming property that would make an ideal restaurant, and after purchasing the building, he recruited his sister and Hale to help him create what would become Bakers & Hale. They both jumped at the offer.
"Instead of living in the corporate world where you are ruled by what you have to do, here we can have a vision, make it our own and have a say," Walden Baker explains. "Now, we are able to make those decisions we knew were right all along but couldn't."
Those decisions include making as much in-house as possible, buying in as little prepared food as they can get away with. The pair also relish the creative control they have over menu items, something they felt was lacking at many of their other jobs together.
"You couldn't ever say, 'I'm not serving that dressing' because you were always having to do other people's recipes," Walden Baker explains. "Here, we both agree on recipes and tastes and are able to control things that get brushed under the rug at larger places. "
But for Walden Baker, the creative control is not even the main allure of Bakers & Hale. Now that she is finally working in a cozy, farm-to-table spot only a short drive from where she grew up, she feels like she has gotten back to why she began cooking in the first place.
"We used to drive past this place because it wasn't that far from where I grew up in Brighton. I always thought it was beautiful, especially the outdoor space," Walden Baker says. "It feels like going back to why I fell in love with food."
Walden Baker took a break from the kitchen to share her thoughts on the area's food-and-beverage scene, raising her three kids even while running a restaurant and why she identifies with an onion.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That I have a big heart, and genuinely care about people and their feelings no matter how I am perceived.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
I get my kiddos up and off to the school bus every morning, so telling them I love them is definitely a daily ritual. My youngest always says "I love you," and then I say "I love you more," and then he screams as he shuts the door "I love you most!"
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To be able to be in two places at the same time: at home and here at the restaurant, for sure. The balance is definitely hard.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Chef Rob Beasley at Chaumette Winery. He is out there making awesome dishes and has the best view and landscape that he can wake up to every day, before he goes to work. That place is amazing.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Josh Charles of Honey & Thyme. The meals that he is preparing for people are not only healthy, but look so amazing and fresh.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Onion. They can be sweet, but they can also make you cry. I am not saying that I would ever want to make anyone cry, but being a woman in the restaurant industry is tough for sure; I definitely have to stand my ground when needed.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would venture into an occupation that has to do with taking care of the elderly. I had a wonderful relationship with my grandmother, and she is now in a nursing home. When I go and see her, I could talk to the other patients all day long.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
I don’t think I have one.
What is your after-work hangout?
At home with my husband, Nathan, and my three children.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Mexican food. There is a Mexican restaurant in Brighton, the town that I live in, called Riviera Maya, and when I get off at night, probably a couple times a week, I have been known to go there and get carryout.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Pepperloin from Tony's on Main Street in Alton, along with a baked potato and side salad. It's simple, and their pepperloins are to die for.
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