Tucked away in a corner of the Central West End sits a nondescript brick building, inconspicuously situated atop a platform of cement on a street lined with neatly spaced trees. This is where John Perkins, local chef and restaurateur extraordinaire, hosts underground dinners for Entre, his underground pop-up restaurant and catering business. Yet from the outside, there is no sign of the CIA-esque covert dining operation he runs indoors.
“You don’t mind people shouting obscenities during the interview, do you?” says Perkins, descending down a set of metal-armed stairs. He shares the building with his landlord, who runs a marketing firm upstairs where a muffled ruckus of voices escapes from behind a pair of clear glass doors. “See? There they go,” he says, with a laugh. He wears a pair of black-rimmed glasses, which he removes from time to time, clutching his brow while gathering his thoughts. Gracious and focused, he is sharply attuned to the demands of his kitchen: before the interview, I watched as he busily freed various tools, pots, and pans from their hooks and holsters, preparing to construct his signature palatable delicacies: cream of celery root soup, pistachio brittle, beef short ribs with mashed potatoes, charred carrots and caramelized brussel sprouts, etc., all assembled from piles of carefully selected and manicured raw ingredients.
Now as he sits down in the dining room with a cup of coffee, bursting with simultaneous threads of philosophical magnificence and harsh, hilarious, biting self-examinations, his thoughts manifest similarly to his kitchen practices: darting around from one thing to the next, he’s on a constant question for goodness, perfection, and truth. Unwinding his reels of introspection, he consistently grapples with a particular question that continues to reveal layers of complexity: “What does it mean that there’s food?” He posits aloud. “What does it mean to be creative? What does it mean to take a raw ingredient and turn it into something completely different? What does it mean to be able to actually nourish somebody? Not just practically, so the person won’t die, but to make something that’s really good to eat. What does all that mean? What’s the point of that?” Although he didn’t consciously approach Entre armed with a litany of existential questions, his ideas about food and consumption have grown in tandem with his business. What began as a small venture has become a prospering enterprise, expanding from a single underground dinner to a red-hot restaurant and full-service catering company.
“The first time we did it, it really exploded. We had the food editor from St. Louis Magazine here, who wrote about it. It became much bigger than I ever thought it would. I certainly didn’t think I’d be doing this four years later.” Initially, Perkins attended Seminary to earn a Masters of Divinity, and the switch to working in food service was born of practicality. “I graduated and didn’t have a job. I didn’t think it would be a career path. It was more about, ‘How am I going to pay next month’s bill?’” Perkins grew up in a Christian household, attended a Christian high school, and his father was a pastor. The prevailing expectation, of both Perkins himself and his family, was to pursue ministry work.
“To cook, or to have a job in the everyday mundane sense of having a job, was something I wasn’t supposed to do. I was supposed to do ministry work. There was that tension I was wrestling with.” Perkins still competes with this tension in a way that sounds as though he sees food and Christianity as mutually exclusive entities. Instead, he sees a “fantastic marriage” between the two. “But then I wonder if I’m using it to justify myself to my parents,” he says, with a fleeting, vulnerable grimace. That keen self-awareness has been both a blessing and a curse, as his fiendish perfectionism propels him towards masterful culinary solutions, yet provides little peace of mind. The success of Entre, warmly received by food critics, diners, and the St. Louis culinary scene alike, has done little to alleviate the judgment of his toughest critic: himself. “I would imagine there will always be a part of my work that is not justified, or that I haven’t made a sufficient case for what I’m doing. There will be a part of me that thinks, ‘You’re still not doing the right thing.’”
His way of accessing and articulating truths, like this one, is disarmingly acute, and steers away from over-literal connections. “There’s not a conscious, ‘I’m going to cook like a Christian today.’ What I do, and hopefully how I treat people, my customers, and my employees, is an expression of what I think about the world.’” What this offers in place of A-to-B logic is a set of sharply observed reflections about the relationships between seemingly disparate callings, revealing a deeply entrenched connection that is not immediately apparent. “Faith and food mix. Scripture is full of stories of food. The Bible is a book that begins in a garden, for crying out loud. One of the culminating acts of history is a wedding feast. These are important symbols. This is not an accident.”
However, Perkins did not begin his journey with well-formed philosophical reasoning and thought-provoking narratives about the symbiosis of food and religion. “I would love to say I was motivated by all of that stuff, but I wasn’t.” As he continued to cook and follow his intuition, where logistical, rational thinking would not have led him, he began to see the effects of a good meal, and began to understand the deeper meaning behind culinary situations. “The longer I cooked and the more we did these events, the more I saw how people were relating to each other, and strangers would sit down and become friends over a meal. I was just really struck by all that.”
Subsequently, the celebratory aspect of sharing a meal greatly impacted how Perkins built Entre. The restaurant boasts communal dining at large tables, instead of a traditional dining experience. All diners share a table and eat together from a fixed menu rather than pairing off into separate spaces, surrendering the individualized mentality that has been so deeply etched into the psyche of restaurant dining. “In America we tend to be very individual. ‘The Rugged Individualist’ is the unofficial existential model for Americans,” says Perkins. “Food is one of the very few universal things, right? Everybody breathes, everybody eats, everybody sleeps. Not a whole lot of other stuff you can think of that everybody has to do in order to live. Eating is one of them; but we can elevate it from something that’s mundane to something that’s celebrated, something that draws us together.”
Interestingly, that single-minded mentality of individualism is not reflected in the way chefs interact with each other in St. Louis’ culinary scene. Chef communities can fall victim to machismo superiority complexes, but Perkins says that has not happened here. “The chefs in this community do a really good job of supporting each other. It would be really easy to not do that.” This mentality, unique to St. Louis, supports the communally-thoughtful concept Perkins fosters with Entre, and enables like-minded creatives of his variety to succeed here. His success is not only a testament to the talent that lives and breathes here, but to the ability of a community to either abandon or support its creators. In earnest, with a perfectly acerbic John Perkins-y mix of humor, honesty, and self-deprecation, he says, “I don’t know if I would have been able to do what I’ve done in another city. This is going to be a critical self assessment, but I think someone with the limited exposure to food that I had, and the limited experience, was more likely to be successful in St. Louis, than I would have been if I had been in Chicago, with higher expectations, more pressure. It was a confluence of things that allowed me to be successful to whatever degree I’ve been successful here.”
While Perkins frames his successes as a series of happy accidents, not the least of which was winding up in St. Louis and staying here, his experiences in other cities have given him an appreciation for St. Louis’ ability to function as an optimal place to live, work, and raise a family. As a nomad in his youth, he has lived all over the world, in California, Kansas, Germany, Russia, Tennessee… Living in St. Louis has grounded him, challenged him to be fully invested in one place, and allowed him an optimum backdrop for continued creation.
Before he retreats back into the depths of his kitchen, cloaked in a thick beard, he leaves us with this anecdote: “While in Seminary I worked at Starbucks. I remember I’d been there a year, and I started freaking out, because I’d…I’d actually never worked a job longer than a year. And I remember telling my manager. It was great. I was like, ‘Look man, I’ve been here a year, and I’m kind of freaking out. Because I’m not used to this, I don’t know if I can make it much longer.’ And I ended up working at Starbucks for four and a half years. I realized in the middle of that it was really good for me to have to stay in a spot and not have to leave. To say, I’m going to be here. And that’s been true for the last ten years that I’ve been here in St. Louis. It’s really been good to stay here, with a family, to put roots down, to build a life.”
For more information about John Perkins and Entre, visit www.entrestl.com