18-1755 TPX is the Pantone color number for Rouge Red. According to Chris Bork, that’s the color of the shirt he’s currently wearing while sitting at the bar, right outside his kitchen, at Blood & Sand. His co-workers disagree: Bartenders, servers and hostesses alike reach a unanimous decision that the shirt is, in fact, sockeye salmon. It says something about a place when the color of one’s shirt is described using a type of fish indigenous to the northern Pacific Ocean and its tributaries – especially when salmon or, better yet, pink would do – but such is the company that Bork keeps. The good-natured argument goes back and forth for a few minutes, ending only once everyone’s jokes have run out. As the staff members regroup and busy themselves with work, Bork shakes his head and, seemingly only to himself, chortles, “But it is rouge.”
Chris Bork is all about the details. In a town that has its fair share of renowned chefs, you may have yet to familiarize yourself with him or his work, but you’d be hard-pressed to not be able to put together that he’s a chef. His arms are, of course, tattooed – on one side a pinup girl and on the other a meat cleaver. He likes his jeans skinny and slightly rolled, his glasses plastic and nerdy, and his beer cold and Busch. It’s like he came straight from central casting: a request fulfilled for a young urban chef. As the chef of the young, urban, members-only entertainment amalgam that is Blood & Sand, he fits right in.
Bork has been quietly building a buzz based on the mad-scientist–like creations that come out of his kitchen six nights a week. With a constantly changing menu, his food is contemporary without bowing to trends. Pecan agnolotti with sunchoke and goat cheese; sausage made from lobster, salmon and scallops – thank Jobs for iPhones because even the savviest of foodists may have to Google an ingredient or two when looking over the menu.
“We try to have fun with it,” explains Bork over a beer after work; he’s already said his requisite hellos to the staff at the bar he’s taken me to. “My goal is to make food that’s interesting and cool but also recognizable and approachable.”
And Bork makes interesting food all the time – the result of being the chef at the city’s only private restaurant and bar. Blood & Sand members pay monthly dues to have the opportunity to drink and dine at the Downtown space, and much of those dues goes to purchasing the freshest and best ingredients. His clientele expects more because it literally pays for it. Each week a new menu is printed up, and each week Bork and his crew add a few new dishes. No dish is safe from elimination or tinkering.
“Except the tater tots,” Bork says about the truffled tots dusted with Parmesan that sit on his bar menu. “I’ll never screw with the tater tots.”
Bork must really love his job because he lives right next to it. Literally. He shares a ground-floor loft with his girlfriend, Toni Monaghan, and their dog, Anchovy. It’s here, on what has to be one of the few private residential patios in Downtown St. Louis, that Bork’s work begins.
A circular glass table sits in one corner of the patio. On it lays a MacBook (chewed up, courtesy of Anchovy), a pack of cigarettes and a requisite ashtray, old menu inserts from the restaurant, and basically the entire culinary section of your favorite bookstore.
“I read a lot,” Bork says sheepishly. “I’m constantly reading books and websites, watching TV; anything I can find on food, I take it in.”
Even on a short trip to the bathroom, I notice that he has Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw and – I kid you not – an Italian Michelin Guide from 1979 sitting atop his toilet. When I come out, I ask straightaway if he staged that since he knew I was coming.
“That’s been there practically since we moved in,” sighs Monaghan. “It’s real. He’s just that obsessed about food.”
It’s that obsession that drives Bork to sit on his patio for hours at a time. Reading. Writing. Planning. His purveyors provide him with lists upon lists of vegetables, fruits and proteins, and it’s here under a darkened sky after a long day in the kitchen that he mashes it all together.
There’s no defined methodology to what Bork does, but he usually begins by thumbing through one of his books: Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, Chris Cosentino’s Beginnings, A Girl and Her Pig by April Bloomfield. Those are just the spines that are visible from where I sit. And while he boasts that his library is constantly growing, it’s hard to see how he can keep coming back to the same books for new ideas.
“Any cook who tells you that he made something up completely on his own is lying,” says Bork. “Everything comes from something. I can go back to the same books and take one idea from one dish and put a twist on it to make it my own.”
He also YouTubes. A lot.
In between this back and forth – books, computer, books, computer – there’s hurried scrawling on the backs of old menus, an irony that I’m not sure even Bork is aware of: his old creations as a canvas for the new. Words are everywhere; Vietnamese egg cake; fig leaf; and his favorite seasonal love, corn – a slew of arrows crisscrossing the page – circles, question marks, more arrows. At a glance, it’s chaos, especially as you get to the bottom of the page.
“That’s usually after I’ve been out here for a few hours and had a few beers,” explains Bork.
In the end, though, it’s meticulous in its detail. Bork sketches out every last ingredient and component for each dish. Sometimes it takes him only an hour or two out here, with Earth, Wind & Fire playing in the background. Sometimes it takes him three. Sometimes more. Once his mock menu is complete, he can begin to whittle it down. Later, he’ll start with a fresh piece of old menu and rewrite the dishes in a more organized fashion, shifting things around as he goes if it feels right. Even if he rewrites every last concept anew, something will always be changing. Evolving. Out of all the dishes he dreams up, only two or three will make the menu.
At 11:30 on a Thursday night, Chris Bork opens the back door to Blood & Sand. Apparently he’s not that under the radar because he’s just finished serving an eight-course meal to a party that included staffers from Bon Appetit magazine. (Bork’s recipe for Lemongrass-Basil Sherbet appeared in Bon Appetit’s August 2012 issue.) For a chef who just went through the culinary equivalent of taking the SATs eight times in a row, he seems oddly at ease and relaxed.
“Come on in,” he smiles. “You want a Busch?”
Gathered around a table in the dining room, beers in hand, is his crew: sous chef Casey Kohler and cook Chris Krzysik. Together, they talk about the things you’d imagine most young male cooks talk about: food and girls. It’s an after-service ritual that occurs every few weeks as they mull over menu ideas and spitball new ones. Tonight, Krzysik is excited about the idea of soup dumplings.
“I know it’s not really the season for it,” Krzysik admits, “but I really want to do it.”
Bork is completely on board. “Go for it, man.” He then proceeds to give a mini-lesson on soup dumplings, asking Krzysik if he’s seen the giant ones in Asia that come with a straw stuck in the middle for slurping. All the while, Krzysik is scribbling in a pocket notebook that definitely wasn’t there a minute ago. The three continue talking, yay-ing and nay-ing ideas and throwing out terms you rarely hear on cooking channels.
“What if we used agar-agar?”
“Can we oil-poach that?”
When talk turns to the idea of stuffing okra, Bork runs to the kitchen to grab a few pieces and a paring knife to experiment. While he’s gone, I ask the two guys sitting before me what it’s like to work with Bork.
“We’re blue-collar cooks,” Kohler says about the kitchen mentality. “We just care about making good food, not just for the customers but for ourselves. That’s all Chris cares about too. He’s a chef’s chef.”
When Bork returns, veggies and knife in hand, they begin dissecting the okra and discussing options for how to stuff it. The experiment never reaches a definitive conclusion but instead is set aside for now, left to be tinkered with another day.
It’s now 11:30 in the morning, a few days later, and for once Chris Bork looks tired. He quickly perks up, however, once we start getting ingredients out of the walk-in. Bork is working on dishes for a special-event dinner centered on corn. He pulls out a basic outline of what he wants to do: It’s the word corn followed by his usual list of ingredients and ways to prepare them.
Bork quickly heats up a sauté pan and begins making an egg mixture for tamago yaki, a Japanese omelet that is folded over to create multiple layers.
“When we started on this menu, I knew that I wanted to incorporate uni (sea-urchin) because I knew its saltiness would work well with corn,” explains Bork about the genesis of his dish. “Then I decided on tamago yaki because I liked the idea of egg on egg.”
Adding butter to the pan, he heats the egg mixture and rolls it up in a matter of seconds before placing it on a cutting board for slicing. He places the pieces of tamago yaki in a serving bowl and adds slivers of uni before topping it with roasted corn and kombu, Japanese seaweed, which he reserved from the dashi broth he made specifically for this dish and pickled. He then pulls out the dashi, which he also has turned into a gelée using the coagulant agar-agar. When asked why he decided to turn the dashi into a gelée, he responds with a shrug, “Why not?”
Squeezing it out of the tube and onto our fingers, we try it.
“It’s not bad,” I say.
“It’s not great,” Bork responds.
Discarding it on the counter, he then pours the cold liquid dashi over the dish, just like one of the options in his notes details. Handing me a spoon, we try it.
“That’s pretty decent,” I say.
“It’s missing something,” says Bork. “And it doesn’t need the kombu.”
He grabs two more sauté pans and throws sesame seeds in one and dashi broth in the other. Making another batch of tamago yaki, he prepares a freestyled version of the dish sans kombu and this time with sesame seeds and hot dashi. After trying it, Bork smiles. “Not a bad breakfast.”
He makes another one, the exact same way, except this time he uses rice seasoning instead of just sesame seeds. He grabs Kohler and Krzysik to try it. Both agree that it’s good, and with that a dish is born. Only three more to go, each undergoing similar creation processes, before the special-event dinner in four days.
“I love it,” Bork confesses about the special menus that he’s coming to be known for. Members can attend one of the frequent events that are put on throughout the year, such as the corn-focused event, or they can simply come in for dinner and request that Bork whip up whatever he wants – a true one-to-one American translation of omakase, Japanese for “I’ll leave it to you” – assuming the kitchen isn’t too busy. “When you pull it off and people like it – that building of flavors and heaviness from course to course – it satisfies the creative side of being a chef.”
Having witnessed Bork’s creative process firsthand, I’m elated that all that tinkering has finally resulted in a finished product. The meticulous repetitiveness with which Bork approaches food is exhausting, even just to watch. As he walks me out of his kitchen at Blood & Sand, I’m wondering whether he’s as happy about the dish as I am, or whether this is just another day for Chris Bork.
“You know what?” he asks as we shake hands. “That dish would be pretty awesome with some fresh pork rinds, don’t you think?”
Blood & Sand, 1500 St. Charles St., Downtown, 314.241.7263, bloodandsandstl.com