Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater talks with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photos: Greg Rannells/courtesy Little Country Gentleman]
Restaurateur Mike Randolph already operated two of St. Louis's popular casual spots — the Good Pie pizzeria and breakfast restaurant Half & Half — before deciding to push himself creatively with a third restaurant, Medianoche, which started popping up every night in the Half & Half space in January 2012. Medianoche didn't take off, so in Summer 2012, Randolph announced plans to swap it for an even more ambitious culinary concept, an all-tasting-menu restaurant Little Country Gentleman. "We call the farmers and basically say, 'What are you throwing away?,'" Randolph says of LCG's menu, which is fueled by local products. "With the regular six courses of options, you're kind of pushed to try things. So it could be stuff like snails or pig tails or trotters, things like that that maybe you haven't tried before... you're never going to see filet mignon on the menu at Little Country Gentleman."
The gamble paid off: Nearly instantaneously, LCG's accessible approach to fine dining garnered positive reviews, and Randolph celebrates the restaurant's first anniversary this week. But first, Randolph talked to Eater about making the concept switch from Mexican to Midwestern, the difficulties in sharing a kitchen with a breakfast restaurant, and future plans for a separate Little Country Gentleman home.
This is unique concept in that you run a completely separate restaurant, Half & Half, in that space during the day. Why do two restaurants in that space?
It really was just born out of leaving the kitchen at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, 2:30 in the afternoon, and getting the sense that we were wasting the space for the rest of day. And that there was an opportunity, as a business owner, to maximize the space and maybe do something else.
Why not do a Half & Half dinner menu?
[Laughs] That was kind of basic undercurrent from most people, that's probably what made the most sense, but I was just: If I was going to do it, I was going to get some fun out of it and try to open up a new concept that I thought would be a fun thing, as well.
So tell me about Medianoche and why you ultimately decided to move away from that concept.
It was Mexican food done well. There were a couple different sections to the menu; we did some rustic stuff like pozole, where we would get in a whole pig head and stew that for a day, and make the traditional soup out of that. And then we did tacos, and some more intricate food. And the whole idea at first was for me to set the menu, get the kitchen all set up, get all the dishes done, and then be kind of in-and-out — and have a chef. That situation didn't work out, so once I took over the day-to-day operations as the chef of the restaurant, we started to do more and more intricate food. And we just started to get frustrated because we would have this great stuff to offer, and people wanted fish tacos with cheese. We would get tables of four adults, and their ticket would come in, and it would be like, three kids' cheese quesadillas. It was just like, ugh, spare me. And I'm not saying anything about what people eat — I love cheese quesadillas as much as at the next guy — it's just that when we had just brought in this beautiful lamb, or flown in fish, or whatever it was, it was not being ordered while people were ordering this. It was just a very frustrating process.
So how long into that process did the conversation start to consider switching it up again?
We originally looked at some restaurants in Mexico City that were doing some food that I thought was as cool as any being done in the world, really. We wondered if we could do that in St. Louis and twist it — get rid of the tacos. And we just thought it was probably better to move on with something else. So Little Country Gentleman was just born over kitchen talk over a couple of months, and then solidified over a hot pot at a local Chinese restaurant one day. [Laughs] Like all good ideas.
Why Midwestern food? What made you gravitate toward that concept?
It was never going to be one of these businesses that draws a line on the map and says, "We're only going to use products within this radius," but we're a bunch of Midwestern kids, so I think our cooking philosophies are certainly impacted by where we grew up. So that philosophy overrides everything we do at Little Country Gentleman: We use fish from all over the world, but when it comes to proteins, we use things as locally as possible. When it comes to vegetation, stuff like that, we use farms locally. So it was just this idea to connect with some... Country Gentleman is an heirloom variety of corn grown in the Midwest. So it was just this idea to connect with our Midwestern roots. [...] Medianoche is something — Mexican food is something I'd always loved and something that I'll do again.
Let's talk about the tasting-menu format. What made you decide to go that route?
I worked at Moto in Chicago for a while, and that was my first real exposure to doing tasting menus. I think that as far as? I think there's a lot of pretense that goes into tasting menus, and we're trying to shed a lot of that. I don't think you need to be in a coat and a tie; I don't think there needs to be no music or boring music playing. So we try to have it be a less formal setting, people can come as they are. If they just got done with the Cardinals game and they're in a ball cap and flip-flops, come on in. For me, in an a la carte setting, somebody can come in and get a salad and maybe a sandwich — and like it — and think, "That place was good." But they don't really have a great understanding of what's going on. So, it just depends on what the goal of the restaurant is. At Half & Half, we're not trying to form a real connection with our diner. But with Little Country Gentleman, we really think that six courses or 20 courses gives them a much better understanding — love it or hate it — of who we are, what we do in the kitchen.
In transitioning Medianoche to Little Country Gentleman, did you make any changes to the space?
Yeah, we did. We did a pretty serious kitchen overhaul. We replaced some equipment, got some new equipment, and then put in new cabinets, did a new pass. We did some changes to the dining room, as well, but actually Little Country Gentleman now has kind of shifted — when we opened up, we were doing about 50 seats, and now we've shrunk our seating capacity down to about 22 seats. So that's basically the big evolution of the restaurant over the past year, is just shrinking it down to the size that I can control everything that goes on. ? And now, the kitchen is a wide-open kitchen, so everybody sits right there, they have a wide-open view, and there's a lot of interaction between the cooks and the diners. We run food out to the table and finish quite a bit of the food out at the table. Just trying to make it — if you're going to spend three hours with us, we don't want you to be stiff and uptight, we want you to laugh a little bit and relax and hopefully see something you haven't seen before.
Did any of those kitchen changes you just mentioned affect the menu at Half & Half, or the way things are run there?
No, it's like putting two kids in the back of the car and going for a 10-hour car ride every day. Having two kitchen staffs and sharing a kitchen, it's an exercise. It's tough. It's difficult to do. So they co-exist, we try to get our stuff in cabinets away from them as much as possible. There's a very different set of standards for a restaurant that's doing 400 covers and one that's doing 22 covers. The kitchen's always clean; it's just not as meticulously organized the way Little Country Gentleman cooks would like it to be, it's not as turn-and-burn as the Half & Half crew.
Do you get frustrated with the shared space?
Yeah, almost daily. We come in and straighten things up, I'm a freak about mise en place, everything's gotta be at a right angle, everything's gotta be clean. So even though we have a limited time in the kitchen, we always make sure that we spend a couple minutes? the worst thing we can do is start our day in a dirty kitchen.
Do you remember opening night?
Yeah, I do remember, and it was busier than I expected. And it was kind of — we got through it — but it was kind of like, "What the hell have we done here?" At Medianoche, we had done tasting menus, but certainly not with any frequency. So when we did our first opening night, just for friends and family, it went pretty well, but there were large spacing? it was basically just timing and stuff like that. The menu that we tried to execute round one was very simple compared to what we're doing today, but there were definitely three-course menus, let's say, that waited 40 minutes between their first and second courses. You had a kitchen of four kids that had cooked together doing tacos, but had never done this kind of food together. So, we learned, we simplified for a while and we were doing really well. But for me, I felt like the more covers that we did and the more success we got, the more control I had over the restaurant and over the food.
How long did it take to nail down?
I think it just took getting the right people in place. I have a great team now, I have a chef de cuisine, a great sous chef, and a pastry chef. Together, the three of those guys and me do everything — we do the dishes, we do all the cleaning. So, I think more than anything, I think it took about eight months to find the right team. And then once you find that continuity, things become a lot more simple, things seem to slow down a little bit, services become more and more relaxed.
In those early days, were there any people coming by looking for Medianoche?
Yeah, we certainly did. And it was like, "Where the hell were you months ago?" And now in St. Louis, ironically, the new fad is tacos. So everybody's up in arms about these new taco places in St. Louis, and I'm such an asshole about it, because that's what I did. And obviously I think mine were a million times better.
The reviews for Little Country Gentleman were also overwhelmingly positive out of the gate. Do you notice a bump in business when those gets published?
You know, St. Louis's fine-dining scene is a funny one. And people, I think for a large part, know there's four of five restaurants in town where for years, they've been spending their money for a special occasion. And I think what we realized is that it's a harder rotation to break into. So yeah, we expected to see a major bump, and we did for a week or two. But nothing really? business is, we've had ups and downs. But the reviews have been good; I don't read the Yelp stuff, I read some of the OpenTable reviews because those people I know have actually eaten in the restaurant. Those kinds of things continue to be positive. We just wish we were cooking for more people, but so does everybody, you know?
What are your future plans? What do you see coming up for LCG?
I think for now, hopefully continue to book further and further in advance, which allows us to get more creative in the kitchen. If we go into a week and we know we're at 75 percent capacity on Monday, then I can order in a whole lamb and know pretty well that we're going to get through it that week. Obviously, the goal of Little Country Gentlemen is always to get its own space, but that's a little bit off in the future. So, for now, keeping good relations with Half & Half and continuing to push the boundaries with the product that we have, I guess.
I was going to ask if its own space was in the cards. Would you stay in the same neighborhood, keep it the same size?
Yeah, a small, 20-seat [restaurant] would be ideal. Small, open kitchen. Maybe an attached bar, something like that. But we've gotta sort some things out where we are and get the ship righted before we can do that. I also have a pizza place and we're in the process of moving that right now — we're moving it to the Loop, University City, the area adjacent to Washington University. So we're excited about that. But one project at a time, as my wife says.
And finally, does it feel like it's been a year at LCG?
I would say it feels like it's been seven years. We've changed so much, so many faces have come and gone in the kitchen; there have been so many frustrations. For me, running a fine-dining restaurant for the first time compared to running a pizza place or a breakfast establishment, I mean, it's been great. I've had some of the best times I've ever had in a kitchen, some of the most gratifying moments of my life in the last year. But it has been a tough battle, too.