Daniel Sammons found his way in the kitchen and never looked back.
Daniel Sammons has been cooking since he was a young boy — so young, in fact, that his kitchenwork got him into hot water. Literally.
"I started cooking with my mom when I was five or six years old," Sammons recalls. "I remember burning myself when I was really little because I saw the bubbles in a pot of boiling water and put my hand in it."
Sammons has learned over the years — with a nearly two-decade-long career that has led him to his current role as chef de cuisine at Polite Society (1923 Park Avenue; 314-325-2553).
From humble beginnings working as a dishwasher at an all-you-can-eat buffet to staging at Charlie Trotter's when he was in culinary school in Chicago, the southern Illinois native says he has taken something from every place he's worked, honing his skills along the way like it's what he was born to do.
However, Sammons was not always so certain that he'd find his path in the kitchen.
"It was never my intention to create a future out of it. I just always thought it was fun to cook with my mom and stepmom," Sammons says. "It was just a hobby, but after my first year of college, I found myself in a basement staring at a computer screen, and decided to go to culinary school."
Culinary school was a big departure from his original plan to go into computer programming. His father was an electrician, and Sammons thought he would follow that lead and work in digital voice and data installation or selling computer networking. However, once he was in school, the field failed to inspire him. Realizing that sent him into a panic.
"I remember laying on the floor of my basement not knowing what I wanted to do with my life," Sammons recalls. "My parents were telling me that I needed to figure it out when a friend suggested cooking. I didn't think it was a career, but I decided to apply."
Sammons admits that, while his mom and stepmom were supportive, his dad was apprehensive. That changed, however, when father accompanied son on a culinary school tour in Chicago and saw how much the younger man lit up when he talked to the chefs and learned about the program. Once Sammons made good grades and hustled in kitchens outside the classroom, his dad was convinced.
After graduation, Sammons worked at a handful of properties around the country, including hotels in Las Vegas and Chicago. From there, he decided to go the corporate route and got on with McCormick & Schmick's for a few years before leaving for a nose-to-tail restaurant and butchery in Berkeley, California. Though he loved the job, he decided to move back to St. Louis for personal reasons — an arrangement that was supposed to be temporary but has already lasted four years.
One of the reasons he decided to stay was Rex Hale, chef at what was then the Restaurant at the Cheshire. Hale not only took Sammons under his wing, but he opened his eyes to all that had been going on in the city's restaurant scene the years he was away. It was the right relationship at the right time.
"My life had fallen apart, and I was trying to put the pieces together," Sammons says. "He was the mentor I needed. I was able to re-find myself in the kitchen."
After the Restaurant at the Cheshire, Sammons moved on to the now-shuttered Demun Oyster Bar and Grand Tavern. In need of a change but unsure of what to do, he reached out for advice to Thomas Futrell, the executive chef at Polite Society's (and now also the newly opened Bellwether, from the same owners). He ended up with a job offer.
"It's an amazing group of people to work with who want you to express yourself with what you are doing," Sammons explains. "Thomas and I have a similar palate. Plus, all chefs are a little off, but we are off in ways that complement each other."
As for his family, they are still cheering him on, happy he is closer to home so they can enjoy his food on a regular basis — even his once-skeptical dad who has had a major change of heart.
"He has an autographed menu from every restaurant I've worked at," Sammons says. "He's my biggest fan."
Sammons took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis restaurant scene, the importance of constantly growing and why good things can happen when you leave a Pop Tart un-iced.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I feel like I am constantly a student. If I'm not listening or watching a "how to" or cooking video, I'm reading. It comes from a chef I worked for who told me that if you want to become an expert in something, read or try to learn two hours a day.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Every morning when I swing my feet off the bed, I say, "Play music." It doesn't really matter what it is. I really enjoy waking up to music. It is kind of like a cup of coffee to some people; they have to have it.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would have to have the power over metal. Could you imagine seeing Magneto as a chef? That would be pretty crazy — a one-man kitchen. Pans flipping, knives cutting and only one guy standing there doing it all.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
How St. Louis chefs, and the industry as a whole, have each others' backs. It really feels like, while we are separate in our own restaurants, we really try to support each other and push each other in order to make us all better as a whole.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Late-night taco delivery — and not Taco Bell!
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Wil Pelly. I'm so excited for Rockstar Taco I cannot even put it into words. Wil is an amazing chef and comes up with some amazing food, and I will eat it all.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Sierra Eaves. She is with Guerrilla Street Food and comes up with some amazing food. Look for her to do great things.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
I'd have to say an egg. Very versatile.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I really enjoy working in a wood shop. It is something I do with my dad, and if I wasn't cooking, I'd like to build furniture.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Rocky Mountain Oysters. Not a fan.
What is your after-work hangout?
I like hitting the Gramophone for a sandwich and a drink.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
An un-iced Pop Tart with peanut butter on it. Don't judge until you've tried it.
What would be your last meal on earth?
A full-on Thanksgiving meal, whole nine yards. And then a turkey sandwich for good measure.
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