Chef Ben Grupe is launching the dinner series 'Work in Progress' as a research and development platform for his forthcoming restaurant.
Ben Grupe has a running collection of notes and spreadsheets he refers to as his "hornets' nest" — a self-described mad scientist-style assemblage of thoughts, observations and inspiration about restaurants he's been keeping for as long as he can remember. It predates his tenure as executive chef at Elaia, as captain of the U.S. culinary Olympics team and as the second-place finisher to represent the U.S. at the Bocuse d'Or.
Now, Grupe is putting those notes to work, gathering his thoughts as he prepares for the first event in a series of dinners he is launching this month. Called "Work in Progress,"
the dinners are a platform for Grupe to formalize the concept for a restaurant he is planning to open sometime in 2019 — one that is both clear in his vision yet still being formulated.
"I've been working on this for a long time and am very strategic about what I am doing," Grupe explains. "This is not a pop-up or guerrilla-style cooking or any of that. It's my platform for research and development."
A veteran of the country club scene, including the revered Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, Grupe left that world in 2015 to pursue his dream of running his own restaurant. For roughly a year, he tested the waters with a series of pop-up dinners called Soigné before being recruited by Ben Poremba to run his flagship fine-dining restaurant, Elaia.
Under Grupe, Elaia maintained its status as one of the top dining destinations in St. Louis — no simple feat considering the chef was concurrently competing in (and winning multiple gold medals at) the 2016 Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. However, Grupe always knew that he would eventually go on to do his own thing, and he took that step when he left Elaia in the fall of 2018.
With his reputation as one of the city's top chefs firmly established, Grupe wants "Work in Progress" to be less the introduction to the scene that Soigne was and more of an intimate back and forth with guests to firm up what his forthcoming restaurant will look like. As he explains it, he has several ideas that he's been working out for a while now, but how they translate to the guests' experience is what he is looking to explore.
"It's a combination of being open and having ideas,"Grupe says. "I want there to be open, honest feedback from the guests. It will be honest and interactive — what do you like about this style of service or this progression? It's a way to find out what works."
To that end, "Work in Progress" is intentionally small — just two seatings of ten people at each dinner — to facilitate conversation. Held at Brennan's Work & Leisure, the dinners will take place in the form of counter service at the bar with Grupe, his assistants and his beverage director serving and describing each item. Though the menu will be a progression of dishes served in small portions, he insists this has to do with the logistics of the dinner series and not a precursor of what is to come at his future restaurant.
"I am not going for a tasting menu-only restaurant," Grupe explains. "Of course there is always a progression to a menu, but I do not want to be a restaurant where there are sixteen courses of one- or two-bite things. This is just a way for me to work out things by having guests sample."
Grupe also feels that there is a tendency to label what he does as French food because of his classical training. Though he agrees that what he does is rooted in classical training, he feels that it refers less to a particular cuisine and more to the fundamental techniques that underlie his cooking.
"The foundation is always going to be rooted in classical cuisine because that lays the blueprint for everything," Grupe says. "It's why I always tell young cooks to go to the center. If what you are doing isn't forged in technique, what is the point of doing it? Once you have that foundation and knowledge, it will propel you into doing other things."
With "Work in Progress," Grupe is excited to see what those other things are; even as he has an idea of what he wants, he feels that the concept will be revealed through the dinners and not the other way around. The response he has gotten is evidence that others are excited as well. His first two dinners, on January 26 and February 9, have already sold out with guests clamoring to be a part of a wait list. Two more dates will be released in the near future, and he hopes to add a few more in the coming months.
"It's not just a name; this really is a work in progress," says Grupe. "I want diners to come in and say that they helped move this project forward — that they can have a sense that they helped form what I am doing."
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