Andy Hirstein found a culinary school trip to Italy a "life-changing experience."
Andy Hirstein knows the dreamy caricature people have about life in the country — farm-to-table meals, fresh ingredients, seasonal produce. In his reality, though, that simply wasn't the case.
"I grew up in a small town in Illinois, about 60 miles outside of St. Louis," Hirstein explains. "It's the middle of farm country, and this is odd — you'd think you could get a good meal there, but it's not the case. Really, it's just fast food or diners. There's nothing wrong with those places, but it's not the kind of food you think you'd get out there."
Now executive chef at Acero (7266 Manchester Road, Maplewood; 314-644-1790)
, Hirstein is closer to that romantic ideal of cooking than he was as a kid in rural Illinois. He says his childhood surroundings shaped him by forcing him to learn how to prepare quality food himself. With two working parents (Hirstein's dad was a union laborer and his mom worked for the Illinois State Police), Hirstein often found himself in charge of cooking the family's meals. It never felt like a chore, though; Hirstein used his time in the kitchen to experiment.
After he graduated high school, Hirstein followed in his father's footsteps, doing labor and construction work. But even when he briefly left town for North Carolina, unsure what he wanted to do, restaurant work never came to mind as an option.
That's even though Hirstein continued to cook at home, becoming increasingly skilled at it. It finally dawned on him that this just might be his path, so he enrolled in culinary school at L'Ecole Culinaire and focused on learning everything he could in a professional environment. However, his most foundational cooking experience came many miles away, outside of the classroom.
"In culinary school I went to Italy. It was a life-changing experience," Hirstein says. "The way they do things there — it's real Italian food and it's simple. I still say to myself, 'OK, here's what I would do, but what would I do if I was an Italian grandma?' That answer changes things."
After returning from Italy and finishing culinary school, Hirstein got a job as a sauté cook at the Fox Theatre, where he worked for two years before departing for the St. Louis Club. There, he learned classical French cooking in an extremely rigorous environment. It wasn't always fun, but he says it helped him become the chef he is today.
After two years, Hirstein wanted a change. Through a mutual connection, he met Jim Fiala, owner of the Crossing and Acero, and was offered the opportunity to come on board. He's never looked back.
As executive chef at Acero, Hirstein takes as his inspiration from that time in Italy, where he learned the art of doing things simply. He admits the transition from classical French to Italian was not exactly seamless, but that the whole point of cooking is to keep learning lest you stagnate in your role. More importantly, he's discovered how much he loves hospitality and the joy good food can bring to people — something that's appealed to him for as long as he can remember.
"I get a high from putting something on a plate and seeing the look on someone's face when they love it," Hirstein says. "There are days when you wonder why you do this to yourself, but then someone comes in and says they want to meet you and thank you, and you realize why you do it. You have to have a passion for service and doing things for others."
Hirstein took a break from the kitchen to share is thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, why nothing is off limits in his kitchen (except lima beans) and his sure-fire way to find the best food in town.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I have three beautiful daughters and an amazing fiancé! I’m a proud cheer dad and they’re the four most important things in my life.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Coffee on my drive in to work. I’m a real pain when it doesn’t happen — ha!
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
The power of persuasion, I guess.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
I feel like we’re getting back to cooking honest food from the heart. There’s still foams and silly stuff like that out there, and that’s fine, but I think its trending back to good old honest food that our grandmas would be happy that we’re making.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
I guess there’s always room for improvement, but I don’t know what else you could ask for from the local food and drink scene. I think we stay a little under the radar, nationally speaking, but that may be a good thing. I mean, if you want a great burger, there’s probably one not to far away. Great steak or seafood? Plenty of options there! Great and fresh pasta? Come see us at Acero! Great BBQ? Every corner! Great drinks? Everywhere. Like I said, I guess we should always look to improve, but I think we cover the spectrum pretty well here in St. Louis.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Well, actually my food crush is in Edwardsville. I live a little north of Edwardsville in a small town by the name of Gillespie. So, having a small family, when we do get out, it's usually to Edwardsville and when we do its to have spicy ramen at Oriental Spoon. It’s a small place that serves up Korean fare. Get the spicy ramen with kimchi and you won’t be disappointed. It's good for a hangover as well.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Nick Bognar seems to be doing some pretty fun and interesting stuff. Brian Moxey’s moved over to Sardella and he seems to be having a lot of fun there too. Rick Lewis is always having fun at Grace Meat + Three. I know that’s more than just one person to watch, so I guess my point is go check out anyone who looks like they’re having fun doing what they’re doing. That’s where the good stuff is going to be.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Candied pistachios. Sweet and salty.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Something outdoors. Farming or maybe a professional forager.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Why would you limit yourself? All ingredients are welcome. Except lima beans! No lima beans.
What is your after-work hangout?
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
A Sazerac made by my co-worker, Andy, after a long Saturday.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Cubed steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet corn. The only catch is it has to prepared by my mom. The meal itself isn’t as important as the nostalgia of having it made by my mom.
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