Embrace the process. Most recently I have engaged with a hospitality professional for assistance in building out the hospitality side of our restaurant. Everything from internal financial systems and management tools to building a guest facing interface. The amount of energy, time and resources that have been focused on this has been more that I initially realized, but I am fortunate to be surrounded by a strong core of individuals that make my day to day much more manageable in being able to trust and rely on them. At the end of the day if we embrace and trust the process the operation basically runs itself.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ben Grupe.
A fierce competitor with passion and drive, St. Louis native Ben Grupe has trained like a top athlete and studied his craft like a world-class surgeon. But he’s never been interested in sports or medicine; instead Grupe finds his motivation in the kitchen.
Chef Grupe built his career from the ground up, starting as a dishwasher. He quickly fell in love with the intense, team-based atmosphere he discovered in the hospitality industry, and — at the age of 18 — began cooking. He found mentors in Chefs Chris Desens and Peter Timmins, and flourished in The Greenbrier Culinary Apprenticeship Program in West Virginia. That competitive program fueled his career track, and he returned to St. Louis in 2010 to work in some of the area’s top kitchens before joining Bengelina Hospitality Group’s flagship, Elaia, as Executive Chef in 2016. Under Chef Grupe’s leadership in 2017 and 2018, Elaia was ranked #2 on restaurant critic Ian Froeb’s annual “The 100 Best Restaurants in St. Louis” list.
During his culinary tenure, Chef Grupe found that cooking food for his restaurant patrons was only part of the picture for him, and took every opportunity he could to compete at the highest level. He has served as team captain for the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team in 2016 and competed in the American Mentor BKB selection for the Bocuse d’Or, the most prestigious culinary competition in the world. Chef Grupe has accumulated over thirty national and international medals, and most recently received the honor of becoming a James Beard Award semi-finalist (2018) for “Best Chef Midwest.”
His new restaurant venture, Tempus, merges Grupe’s ambition for excellence with his relaxed nature. Combining top service elements with playful and familiar cuisine, in a to-go format (due to the pandemic), Tempus opened in October 2020. Tempus was recently named a winner in the 2020 USA TODAY 10Best Readers’ Choice travel award contest for Best New Restaurant in the United States.
“Ben’s talent as a chef continues to bring a lot of excitement to St. Louis,” says Chef Daniel Boulud, Ment’or Foundation Board Chairman. “He’s a national culinary figure who endlessly innovates and inspires his team. I am confident his new venture will be a welcome and fine addition to the region.”
Chef Grupe lives in St. Louis with his wife, Alex, and their two sons.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
One of the many stories that inspired me to become a chef was when I was introduced to one of my mentors, Chris Dessens. At the time I was lost, confused as to what I wanted to do with my life and more focused on partying than taking myself or a career seriously. He took me under his wing, really showed me what it meant to be a professional chef and assisted me in charting my own course.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
This story happened after celebrating a victory while I was on a student culinary team. After a long night of celebrating I thought it would be a wise decision to jump into a baby cradle that was in the hallway of the casino hotel we were staying at for the conference. Well, I jumped in and got stuck on my back with my arms and legs going straight up and needed to be pulled out by my teammates. We ended up walking away and laughed it off and the cradle was completely destroyed. A few hours later, still celebrating in our hotel room with about twenty other individuals the tribal police started banging on the door demanding to speak to the guy in the pink shirt. Well long story short I was the proud owner of a broken baby cradle.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
When I first started at The Greenbrier Hotel I felt completely overwhelmed. The sheer size of the kitchen itself was very intimidating not to mention the number of cooks and chefs that were running it. I was coming from a very small kitchen with approximately 10 cooks to a kitchen with multiple sous chefs and dozens of cooks. The first days on the line, in the main dining room, was incredible, I have never produced food at this volume and at such a fast pace with zero tickets. Everything was verbally ordered and the expeditor was a massive “score board” hanging from the ceiling in the center of the kitchen. Each station on the line had a correlating number on the score board and each station was responsible for a specific dish on the menu. So, for example, if you were station #6 you may be on the beef dish. You could see your number go from 5 to 50 in a matter of minutes, which meant you needed to have that many of your items ready to go at a moment’s notice. Needless to say, it took some time to get used to how to successfully navigate through service.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
The key to creating a dish that guests are crazy about is something that they have a point of reference to. For example, a childhood memory, a family recipe, a specific aroma, a dish they ate while traveling, things of that nature. A dish that can evoke a past experience and make something new feel extremely familiar.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
A perfect meal for me is one that is shared with family and friends.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My inspiration comes from many factors. I tend to find inspiration in architecture and geometry when thinking of the aesthetic or composition of a dish. Tasting an ingredient. reading a book, a food publication, social media, not in the sense of replicating what I am seeing, but finding and inspiration of a technique, ingredient or flavor profile. It could even be taking a walk through the park and smelling the juniper. For me, it really comes from all over.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Yes, currently Tempus has been my main focus and will continue to be as we are looking to raise the bar and set the standard in hospitality-forward take out (I opened Tempus in October 2020 with a dinner menu designed specifically for at home experiences due to the pandemic).
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Balance and communication. For me, I’ve been really focused on finding balance. This can be defined differently to each individual but for me it’s really trying not to overwhelm myself. It’s been definitely a work in progress, but taking the approach of mapping out your day, week and month along with realistically asking yourself the required time allotted for each task has been a game changer. Having open channels of communication from work and family have been very instrumental in this process.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
We all live in a fast pace, everything is at your fingertips, I need it now society. This has been mentioned to me before, but when you’re in the position of a leader it’s hard to embrace that things take time. Showing patience for your team and implementing processes have been my biggest challenge.
Embrace the process
Most recently I have engaged with a hospitality professional for assistance in building out the hospitality side of our restaurant. Everything from internal financial systems and management tools to building a guest facing interface. The amount of energy, time and resources that have been focused on this has been more that I initially realized, but I am fortunate to be surrounded by a strong core of individuals that make my day to day much more manageable in being able to trust and rely on them. At the end of the day if we embrace and trust the process the operation basically runs itself.
Similar to what I mentioned regarding patience. I think we all really need to focus on what it means to listen. I was told as an apprentice many times buy another fellow chef that “if you listen you have half a chance”. I understood what he meant by this, but later in my career realized that many of us only listen to what we want to hear. The ability to really understand what guests, fellow team members or members of your management team are saying, sometimes all with different perspectives, can be challenging to me. Not from a stand point of hearing them, but truly understanding what they are saying and the why. I have learned to really putting myself in their position and see/hear from their point of view.
This in my opinion is easier said than done. Most recently our restaurant project was plagued with delays. Then COVID hit. I was determined to get this project off the ground as I had spent countless hours and poured an enormous amount of effort and recourses into it. I just knew that this was our time to push forward.
You’re not alone
More times than I would like to admit I have felt that I was on an island and burdened with whatever the case at hand may have been. The reality is I put this pressure on myself by not communicating my needs to my team or those that are around me. This has become my biggest challenge especially pertaining to something that is foreign or not familiar to me.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
I have been asked this question a lot truthfully there is no particular one dish that stands out to me. The menu in its entirety is my recommendation. I feel that this determination should be up to the guest to select. What my preferences are may be different from yours. We have a unique menu that consists of familiar dishes and flavor profiles. A particular guest may be interested in a sandwich and on the other hand a couple may want to get styled out and celebrate a special occasion.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I love to work and I will always hit the ground running, but I do this for my wife and kids. As such, creating workspaces where there is a work/life balance is crucial for me. Often times 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.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!