Chris Voll used to be a chiropractor. Now he's landed behind the bar at the soon-to-open Bulrush.
Chris Voll had a successful career as a chiropractor and had just come up on his two-year anniversary working for another practitioner. Granted, he knew he wasn't altogether fulfilled, but he had decided to trudge along, feeling that he was on a path that had been set for him.
But during a critical conversation with his boss, he got an abrupt wake-up call — one that would end up reshaping his life.
"I went in to ask for a raise, and he said, 'Let's talk for a second. Do you even like being here?'" Voll recalls. "He asked me if I was happy, and when I told him that I wasn't, he said that he doesn't believe in doing what you don't want to do, told me to go out and find something that made me happy, and gave me a month's severance to go out and find out what I wanted to do."
Voll credits his former boss for giving him the push he needed to find his passion — one that has led to his recent appointment as beverage director for Bulrush (3307 Washington Boulevard)
, the foraging-based restaurant that acclaimed chef Rob Connoley is set to open this spring in Grand Center.
However, looking back, his path to the hospitality industry stretches much further back, well into his childhood.
Voll's father was also a chiropractor, one who practiced in the Chicago suburbs. On the side, however, he had a second career as a waiter at a popular downtown Chicago steakhouse and would often bring his son along to sit at the bar and soak in the scene.
"I grew up listening to him narrate and comment on restaurants, so I always had that hospitality mindset in my brain," Voll says. "I always loved it. I'd sit up at the bar drinking Sprites with grenadine and cherries and getting autographs from the Chicago Bulls players when they came in. It was all so cool."
Voll's experience instilled in him a fascination with bars, one that stuck with him after he graduated high school and went on to the University of Kansas for undergraduate studies and into chiropractic school. During that time, he taught himself about drinks and cocktails and began mixing things for himself and his friends at home, getting more confident in his skills.
However, he would not get his first bartending job until after his chiropractic career ended. At first, that initial gig was nothing more than the Sunday daytime shift at Gringo's original Central West End location. When that restaurant closed, his severance money was gone and he needed a full-time restaurant job to pay his bills.
He found that job at Olio after being blown away by a meal at its sister restaurant, Nixta. Though he initially applied at the Mexican hotspot, it was Olio that was hiring. And that turned out to be exactly where he needed to be.
"It's where craft cocktails started to become a focus, but I also learned about hospitality," Voll explains. "I got to work with Nika [Marble] who just has this cool academic brain, and I learned so much from her, just hearing her talk about stuff."
Voll excelled behind the bar at Olio and credits his time there with teaching him the artistry involved in the food and beverage industry. But when the chance to work for Connoley at Bulrush came up, he knew it was a one-of-a-kind opportunity.
"The more I think about it and the more I dive into Rob's concept and ideas, I get to see the way he approaches things," Voll says. "There is so much he has considered that I haven't even thought about."
As Bulrush's beverage director, Voll will be responsible for bringing to life Connoley's vision for a hyper-local, forage-focused restaurant inspired by Ozark cuisine. It's an ambitious undertaking, one that has Voll asking questions not just about cocktail recipes, but about how to make classic cocktails with non-traditional ingredients and how to incorporate a zero-waste philosophy into his bar program. He's learning as he goes, relishing it as yet another push to take him further in his craft.
"There will be a lot of challenges," Voll says. "But I've found out that in life, both professionally and personally, those times are when the best things come."
Voll took a break from his Bulrush-related research to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, the importance of coffee, and the one ingredient you will never see on his drink menus.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I’m Jewish. It’s kind of strange, being a Jew named Chris, but it’s true. I converted in my early twenties.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Coffee. Pour-over, iced, gas station, injected into my bloodstream, whatever.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
The ability to understand and speak in any language. Then I could tend bar anywhere on earth, whenever I like.
What is the most positive trend in food, beer, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
More local distilleries and spirits. We’ve had great beer for a long time. I’m really hopeful and optimistic about Missouri wine in the future.
What is one thing missing or that you’d like to see in the local food and beverage scene?
Who is your St. Louis food or drink crush?
Ben Grupe, forever.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis food and beverage scene?
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Campari: Bitter yet fun, and really needs others to help it shine.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis’ food and beverage climate, what would you say?
Ready to blow up. Almost there.
If you were not tending bar, what would you be doing?
I’d probably still be a chiropractor or in architecture school.
Name an ingredient never allowed behind your bar.
Butterfly pea flower tea. Please stay in 2018.
What is your after work hangout?
The Gramophone if I’m hungry, otherwise CBGB. The Royale on my day off.
What’s your edible or quaffable guilty pleasure?
I need a bag of Sour Patch Kids every road trip. Also, bad margaritas, especially if they’re in a pitcher.
What would be your last meal on earth — including drinks of course.
Oysters, daiquiris, shots of Cynar. Probably Taco Bell at the end of the night.
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