Chef Ben Grupe likes the path he's on.
Ben Grupe cannot help but marvel at how far he's come in his culinary career since he first walked into the kitchen at the Racquet Club Ladue. A self-described "punk kid," Grupe had been in culinary school before starting his job at the country club, but he admits his motivations to enter the field had little to do with the craft itself. That changed when he met the Racquet Club's chef, Chris Desens.
"I was interested, but at the time, I was interested for the wrong reasons," Grupe says about his desire to become a chef. "In some of these environments, drugs and alcohol were rampant, and at the time, that excited me. People often use the analogy of the kitchen being like a pirate ship, and I thought, 'Alright, it's a party.' All that changed when I went to work for chef Chris. He took me under his wing."
Looking back on all he's accomplished — a prestigious apprenticeship at the renowned Greenbrier in West Virginia, a spot on not one but two culinary Olympics teams, a second-place finish to represent the United States at the prestigious Bocuse d'Or competition and a restaurant of his own — it's difficult to imagine Grupe as anything but singularly focused and driven. However, as he explains, it was his lack of purpose that brought him to the kitchen in the first place. A teenager in need of some extra money when his lawn-service business would shut for the season, Grupe found himself in the restaurant business first as a banquet server and eventually as a dishwasher. He didn't realize it at the time, but the latter gig — one he took for the sole reason of hanging out with his friends who worked in the restaurant — would prove to be instrumental in setting him on his path to culinary greatness.
"The first day, I showed up wearing shorts, and the chef started yelling at me," Grupe recalls. "I was like, 'Whatever,' when he told me that if I showed up the next day wearing shorts, he would fire me. But I went back, and one day, the salad guy no-call-no-showed, and I got thrown in there. From there, I worked my way up to sauté, and the chef told me I was pretty good at this. I didn't believe it, but he said that I had a natural ability and I should go to school for it. That's more or less how it happened."
Once in culinary school and working under chef Desens, Grupe discovered that he had a real knack and passion for cooking, which pushed him to take things more seriously. Hooked on the field, he was accepted into the sought-after apprenticeship program at the Greenbrier resort, where he dove headfirst into the role of a serious culinarian.
From there, it seemed like nothing could stop him. After graduating from the program, he returned to St. Louis where he worked at Old Warson Country Club and began training for the culinary Olympics. After success in that, he left the country club to strike out on his own, then landed at Elaia as executive chef. There, he worked while training in the hopes of securing a spot on the team that represents the U.S. at the Bocuse d'Or, the most prestigious culinary competition in the world. Though being on the team would have been the pinnacle of a competition-heavy career and was something he'd always dreamed of, it nearly wrecked him.
"I was in this mindset of 'go, go, go' and 'push, push, push' working twenty hours a day," Grupe says. "After service at Elaia, I would go train into the wee hours of the night, and do it all over again the next day. I got sick and was so exhausted that one day, I laid down some boxes on the floor of the kitchen to lay down for what I thought was ten minutes, and crashed for three and a half hours. Then, I woke up and started training again. I realized then that this was not right and that I had a problem."
Grupe came to terms with the fact that he was not just a workaholic, but that he was addicted to competitions. Though he finished in second place for the Bocuse d'Or team — a finish that devastated him — he also believes it was the wake-up call he needed. Determined to pick himself up and recalibrate what was important, he left Elaia and decided to follow his dream of opening his own restaurant.
That restaurant, Tempus, opened last month in the Grove. Though Grupe understands that people might have expected a high-end, tasting-menu concept from him, he created Tempus to be much more approachable — something especially important in the midst of the pandemic. He admits that the carry-out-only concept may not have been what he envisioned when he originally conceived of the place, but he's embracing the format and doing it in the best way possible, hoping that the finer details can create a memorable experience for his guests, even if they aren't sitting in his dining room.
"All of us in the hospitality industry are starting with a clean slate," Grupe says. "Service is going to be completely different now. It's thoughtful, inclusive and conscious. For us, it's taking a look at how we are treating our team while taking care of the guests with details like packaging and things like that. The little things are how you separate yourself from the pack. I hope it works, because we believe in it."
Grupe took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the state of the city's restaurant scene, the changes to the industry that he sees on the horizon and how he hopes that this crisis has given everyone a new appreciation for the work that goes into running a restaurant.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I’m a family man above anything else. I love to work, and I will always hit the ground running, but I do this for my wife and kids. As such, creating work spaces where there is a work-life balance is crucial for me. Oftentimes in kitchens and restaurants, the work culture is perceived to be "whoever works the longest hours wins," and to me, as operators, we need to be healthy and balanced to be good leaders and team members, which leads to an improvement in work-life balance for employees.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Spending as much time as possible with my family.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Ability to create more time. As we all know, there is never enough time in the day.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Loryn Nalic of Balkan Treat Box. This is not because she’s a woman, but because we need to see more women in leadership roles in our industry. Also, I think she cooks some of the best food in town.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I have no clue; I've never really thought about that.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
Right now will be the most dynamic and crucial time we’ll likely ever see in our industry. We’ve made slow progress and growth — new techniques, modern approaches — and things like this have always happened, but right now we’re literally having to start over. As businesspeople, we’re learning how to tighten things up; as community cornerstones, we’re having to learn how to be part of a massive recovery, and some of us are even becoming political lobbyists. At the end of the day, though, we’re resilient, and this is what has made us successful. With very little support from our local and national governments, we’re banding together, finding ways to survive, and this is inspiring. However, as we get through this, we should never lose sight of those who were lost, especially knowing that it didn’t have to be this way. In our operation (and many others), the key now is taking hospitality, packaging it in a box and sending it in to someone’s home. We’re doing this by making sure we’re thoughtful about food packaging, travel times, etc. Whether it’s our elegant black cod or a more casual chicken sandwich, we want people to feel excited and happy when they open it. We all need excitement and happiness right now.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
Guest interaction. Seeing people take the first bite of a dish is something all chefs live for. Without saying a word, seeing how a guest reacts to your creation is what it’s all about. A full dining room and the energy that comes with it is something all hospitality professionals feed on. At times, it feels a little surreal, but we try hard to stay positive as much as we can.
What do you miss least?
The secretive and independent nature of our fellow restaurant operators. What is really awesome to see is a level of collaboration in our industry that has never happened before. We all used to hold stuff so close to the vest — ideas, concepts, etc. Right now, I’ve connected with amazing people from all over the country and world — some of the best restaurateurs, operators, chefs and relative brands — about best practices. It’s been incredible. I work with a local hospitality professional who has connected us with so many resources, including medical data and processes. We’re working closely with OpenTable, who has been an incredible partner by connecting us with resources, and other times we’re just on Zoom sharing updates about what’s working and what’s not. I really hope this level of collaborative support is something we keep well into the future.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
All of Drew's drinks! Oh, and of course we’re all stress-eating. Why else do you think I put a chicken sandwich and a burger on the menu?
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
Everything from best practices, to financial stability, to how we treat our staff, to what guests know about experiences. I think I’m most hopeful that the general public never loses sight of what it means to be an operator. I think people always thought restaurant operators were rolling in the bucks and in it just for the money. My hope is folks really remember that often we’re happy just to turn a profit, which any other industry would consider a failure. I don’t want to say the guests aren’t always right, but I’m hopeful now we’re able to really offer a sincere insight into our side of things. We really are in this to create memorable experiences for those that visit us. Prior to COVID, when you tried to explain to a guest about ‘turn times,’ because they were 30 minutes late for their reservation, it rarely connected. My hope is now, guests really understand that while they are the most important person in the place, the entire night is an execution of a giant Tetris game (or chess board) of moving all the right pieces, at all right times, to come together.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
The people: whether it’s all the other professionals who are sharing their wisdom, our employees who are truly in the trenches every day with such a huge level of insecurity to what the future holds, or our guests and communities who are banding together to get us through. It’s so disappointing to see folks out there fighting mask mandates or restaurants who are throwing tantrums and bringing forth legal issues, which are all really just self-serving. However, the vast majority of us are really in this for all the right reasons, which are the people. We’re an industry of people designed for people and so it’s inspiring to see everyone come together for the general good of the people.
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