Whether he’s worked as a dishwasher or run the establishment, one common thread keeps Brandon Vair of Meriwether Café & Bike Shop connected to his humble beginnings: “the ever-necessary task of doing dishes and cleaning bathrooms.”
Vair has filled practically every position it takes to run a restaurant, from bartender and “blendtender” (a position for smoothie experts), to server, prep cook, line cook, kitchen manager and on. Since 2017, he and his wife, Whitney, have taken on running their own business, Meriwether Café. “We have never felt more settled in our professional lives,” he says. “And I still do a lot of dishes and clean the bathrooms daily.”
We caught up with Vair to chat more about what he’s learned from his years of experience in the industry, his cooking inspirations and foolproof advice for beginner cooks.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? Crème fraîche! I think it's the kitchen dynamo that adds so much richness and zing to any recipe that otherwise would just use sour cream. We use it in all of our creamy dressings; we garnish with it, and in the summer it's the base for so many of our cakes, frostings and pastry fillings. It is really easy to make and adds such a wonderful dimension.
Do you have a secret ingredient or technique? I ask: Will it pickle? Or what does this taste like pickled? These are questions asked either by myself or one of our team members in reference to just about everything edible. We use pickling to add zest to salads or crunch to sandwiches; we use the vinegar to offset the fattiness or richness of proteins, and we use it to preserve the fresh produce that is in such abundance in the Missouri summer so we can bring it back out for the fall or winter to remind of us of the past season. Pickling has certainly always been a technique I have used and respected for its versatility.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently? I can’t take credit for the recipe or the execution of the most intriguing dish Meriwether has produced, but Allison Braun, one of our talented culinary collaborators, created a cornbread-stuffed kuri squash for a Farm-to-Table Sensory Dinner out at Bluebell Farm this past November. It was served with vegetarian gravy, and the whole dish was not only beautiful, but also on point with texture, flavor and presentation. I was very proud to be able to give voice to the talent of a special individual like Allison, and also showcase – thanks to Jim Thies at the Veggie Patch – the unrivaled quality of produce available in Missouri.
What inspires your cooking/menu? Lucky for us, our local farmers and providers are able to give us all the inspiration we can handle. We truly work very hard to find ways to highlight the local Missouri culinary tableau available year-round. We have a core group of producers that all bring their own special products. Whether it’s Jerome Grethen’s born-tender beef at Show Me Farms, Patchwork Farms’ pork, Jim Thies’ year-round produce at the Veggie Patch, The Sage Garden’s lettuces and fresh herbs or Goatsbeard Farms’ cheese, we find inspiration in the determination and hard work that informs the quality they deliver. We are only conduits through which they speak, and we hope to provide a clear sounding board for their already perfect voice.
How do you approach research and development at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? To dovetail off of my previous answer, we are driven to create by seasonality and availability of produce and proteins. Meriwether strives to create a collaborative culinary team that's free of the top-down approach of creative control so every person (there are four of us on our culinary team) has the opportunity to suggest, procure and create menu items and components that reflect our collective standard. You will not find a more supportive, cohesive and intelligent group of people working toward a common goal, which lends us the opportunity to have a dynamic wellspring of creative culinary output, and it shows in not only our regular menu, but also in specials and our pastry program helmed so spectacularly by my life and business partner, Whitney Vair.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? Our 2 year old, Freda, informs almost all of my culinary endeavors at home. We eat a lot of rice, mac 'n' cheese and chicken nuggets. I obviously love cooking for her and with her, but I also love to break out the Weber and grill, regardless of what I'm putting on. The whole process appeals to me, from marinades to spice blends to all-day smoking with wood chunks. The grill has always provided me a medium to try new flavor profiles and experiment on my own time with things that could inform my professional culinary endeavors.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Lasagna! It was the first dish my wife made for me on one of our first dates, and her mother, Sharon, has made that same recipe so many times throughout the course of our 11 years together. Every time I eat lasagna, I get that loving feeling.
What is your first memory with food? I spent a good many days after school at my great-grandma Freda’s house throughout the first years of elementary school. She was a Depression-era lady who was into whole-hog butchery out of necessity (not knowing how forward-thinking she was), and I remember her telling me and feeding me headcheese. We were raised to not question our elders, especially when it came to what was on our plate, but the first time she plunked a slice of that on my plate I remember very clearly asking her what it was. I don’t remember what she told me, but I do remember really liking it. I still feel a twinge of sentimentality when I see it on menus in what is now a “hip” culinary offering.
What's your perfect day of eating in Columbia? Early-morning Americano at Fretboard with those Hi Fi Beans. Then walk my dog, head to Uprise Bakery for pastries (roasted red pepper croissant if any are left). A mid-morning juice at Main Squeeze because Leigh Lockhart is a green goddess. The Change Your Life Smoothie with a wheatgrass shot or the Ring of Fire are my faves. Lunch at Barred Owl Butcher and Table for the O.M.T. It has house-smoked bologna, crispy shallots and pickled jalapeño. Then, a nap. Early small plates at the bar at Flyover because Adam Wells-Morgan and his wood-fire grill do great work, and Dan Dethrow is a joy to talk to. And finish the night at Osaka Sushi Restaurant and Hibachi for some chef’s choice sashimi and karaoke!
How has the local food scene in Columbia evolved over the past year? I think what has struck me most is the quality of all the new local dining options. Not to say it didn’t exist previously, but it has been wonderful to see the success of the scratch kitchen and all the emphasis being placed in those kitchens on local purveyors. I think Columbia has always been uniquely positioned to offer the bounty of local producers, and I've just been so amazed by the culinary community being so supportive and instrumental in pushing the local plot. Spots like us here at Meriwether or Barred Owl or Flyover, and the work and involvement with the Columbia Center for Urban Ag or Columbia Farmers' Market, really try to get to the point of creating a self-perpetuating system so the use of locally produced goods in quality restaurants is the advertisement. Hopefully it drives the consumer to want to seek out more local goods at their respective locally owned outlets, whether it’s the farmers' market, Urban Garden, Clovers or the Root Cellar.
Who are Columbia chefs you admire at the moment? Jess Bowman at Cafe Berlin is really one of those people who I see taking on that place as her own in the vacuum created by Jamie Davis [who moved to Chicago], who I adored professionally and personally. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Barred Owl’s whole program, so a hard nod to Ben Parks and Josh Smith is in order. Guys like Craig Cyr [of The Wine Cellar & Bistro] who revolutionized the food culture with his slow-food concepts and pushed Columbia toward where we are today, and are still putting together a great show every service. Finally, and most emphatically, I am constantly blown away by the talent and dedication to culinary creativity I am a part of every day working next to Allison Braun, Kyle Bogdan and of course my wildly talented wife, Whitney.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Columbia? I really enjoy the recognition Tortilleria El Patron has been getting for its traditional Mexican approach and no-nonsense deliciousness. I hope the best for them knowing they are a family of folks doing right by their cultural heritage and putting out a great product that casts a wide net in meeting the culinary needs of the Mexican community and beyond. I eat there at least once a week, and it’s always delicious!
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Don’t fear the fat! Butter is good for you, and it’s the difference between good and great. Also, don’t feel you have to start with a recipe that's so overly complicated you will get frazzled or confused. I’m a big fan of anything Thomas Keller [of The French Laundry] does, but the techniques and equipment he uses to execute the recipes in his books are unfair to expect a home cook to employ or own. When you’re starting out and first approaching cooking, there is an oft-used kitchen acronym I try to remember: K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid!
What are your future plans? We have some pretty big plans here at Meriwether. We're looking to continue to provide scratch-made, locally sourced favorites, as well as expand our offerings on the venue side with the opening of our backyard space. It will provide the opportunity for family-oriented controlled chaos (or at least fenced-in chaos) in the form of free play, pop up-style guest chef menus, live music and outdoor movie nights on a weekly basis. Our all-day breakfast menu has been very successful thus far, so our collaborative culinary team of Allison Braun, Kyle Bogdan, Whitney and myself are looking to expand on the brunch items and continue to try to put on a good show out here in Rocheport.
Meriwether Café & Bike Shop, 700 First St., Rocheport, Missouri, 573.698.1222, meriwethercafeandbikeshop.com