Peruse the bakery case at Russell's Café and Bakery and you'll quickly understand why this Fenton bakery has such a loyal clientele. Everything is simple, beautiful and classic. "There is an art form to keeping things simple and letting great ingredients speak for themselves," says owner Russell Ping, who opened the café at the tender age of 22. "A perfect example [is our] Port Wine Chocolate Cake: chocolate cake, port wine and dark chocolate ganache. What else do you need?"
So tell me about your blog, fatkidatheart.com. Fat Kid at Heart started like most good ideas do, around the dinner table with friends and a couple bottles of wine. I was telling a story at dinner about delivering a four-tier all-buttercream wedding cake on one of the hottest days last year ... complete nightmare. A friend that follows a few food blogs in St. Louis mentioned that there were no local blogs that followed the life of a professional in the culinary world. Within the hour Fat Kid at Heart was up and running. The blog is simple: my life in food. Blog posts are anything from pictures of my creations on the way to the bakery case, recipes from home, stories from cooking past, or just a recap of a crazy day typed from my front stoop as I unwind with Muggins (my dog) and a glass of wine.
And what's with the title? The [name] of the blog could be taken literally ... I was kind of a chunk when I was little. Fat Kid at Heart also speaks to my personality as a "chef" that doesn't take himself too seriously.
You say you're a "striving entrepreneur." What does that mean to you? I think that small business owners, especially restaurant owners, are never quite comfortable. This is not a negative; it just means that there is a constant drive to move beyond your current stance.
Do you remember the first thing you ever baked? When I was younger I was always following my folks around in the kitchen. I was lucky to grow up in a family of good cooks. When I was eight I perfected my chocolate chip cookie recipe (the same recipe that we still use at the café) and sold them at our neighborhood pool. My big birthday present at 10 was my first Kitchen Aid mixer and the story began.
What did you refuse to eat when you were a kid? There wasn't much that I didn't like to eat when I was little, thus the Fat Kid at Heart. The only thing I remember hating to eat was frozen spinach ... yuck.
What is your favorite thing to make? I do love making biscuits, not so much for the excitement of making them but knowing I get to eat them when they come out of the oven. My dad grew up on a farm in Indiana and my grandma was known for her biscuits. She never taught me her technique, but I must have inherited the biscuit-making gene. I also like getting lost in the art of icing a simple buttercream cake.
How about the least favorite? Anything covered with fondant. I know, kind of a crazy thing for an owner of a bakery to admit. Truth is that fondant just doesn't taste very good.
How do you decide what makes the cut and ends up in your bakery case? I have dubbed my style of baking as "homespun gourmet." I think that the appeal of our product is the simplicity of what we are doing. I don't pay much attention to the trends of the sweet world or who made what on Cupcake Wars last night ... sorry, I do not want bacon on my cupcakes. There is an art form to keeping things simple and letting great ingredients speak for themselves. Perfect example [is the] Port Wine Chocolate Cake: chocolate cake, port wine and dark chocolate ganache. What else do you need?
If you didn't run Russell's, you'd be ... Probably running one of the many other restaurant concepts that I have dreamt up over the years. My mind is constantly spinning with new ideas. If I weren't in St. Louis I would probably be in northern California. I have some family out there; Em (my wife) and I went out over the summer and after spending a few days tasting wine and eating in Napa I was hooked. If the restaurant bug had never bitten me I would be doing something else to please my creative brain, maybe something in architecture or photography.
What's in your fridge right now? Up until about 20 minutes ago you would have just found some cheap wine and half of a chocolate torte left over from a party last weekend, but Em just got home from the grocery store, so I'm not even sure what's in the fridge. I do have pesto made from the basil in our garden; that should give me a few more foodie points.
Favorite midnight snack? This is a guilty pleasure that will probably get me shunned from the rest of the culinary world, but my go-to snack is reduced fat Cheez-Its. The reduced fat [crackers are] crunchier.
Favorite breakfast? Sunday morning (my normal day off), strong coffee and some time to relax on the front stoop with Em and Muggs.
Must-have kitchen gadget? I am not too much of a gadget guy. For the first year that the café was open I used a wine bottle as my rolling pin. I would say that I could survive in most kitchens with a good chef's knife and a pair of tongs. My most recent kitchen splurge at the café was a new 20-quart mixer. We'd been fighting with a beast of a Hobart that stubbornly liked to shift itself to high speed ... not too much fun when you are mixing hot sugar for marshmallows. The new one mixes like a Cadillac.
Most over-rated kitchen gadget? Anything that only has one purpose.
So, Thanksgiving. What's on your table? Thanksgiving is all about the mashed potatoes for me - tons of butter, a bit of cream, kosher salt and cracked black pepper. Other dishes invited to the party: roasted turkey with rosemary and sage, sourdough stuffing, cranberry chutney with cinnamon and orange zest, sweet potato crisp, garlic green beans, pumpkin gooey butter with fresh whipped cream and apple pie. Best part of Thanksgiving: turkey sandwiches and salty potato chips late at night.
What would be your last meal? It would definitely include a big ass glass of wine. If you're going out you might as well be having a good time.
What's one thing you'd change if you could do it all over again? I started Russell's Café and Bakery with the support and help of my parents when I was 22. When you start something so big at such a young age every day is a learning process. It would be easy to come up with a laundry list of small things that I would change if I could go back, but I can't so I prefer to look forward. Fortunately for me I am still young enough to use what I have learned to help myself grow and become more successful in the future.
Russell's Café and Bakery, 958 Brookwood Center, Fenton, 636.343.8900, russellscafe.com