The Tower Grove Farmers’ Market is about routine.
For about two hours after the market opens each Saturday at 8am, the serious food shoppers buzz around the stalls in Tower Grove Park. They walk briskly and determinedly, clutching a set list of what they need – eggs from Three Rivers Community Farm, a loaf of rustic olive bread from Companion or perhaps some produce from Biver Farms.
When Kitchen Kulture, Michael Miller and Christine Meyer’s company selling T-shirts and prepared foods, first set up its stall at the market in 2012, it was not part of the routine.
“For the first two hours, people just kind of walked by us and stared,” Meyer says. “They didn’t know who we were. We were like, ‘Oh, crap.’”
Fast forward to a typical Saturday morning this summer, and you’ll find a completely different scene. Shoppers don’t just stop by Kitchen Kulture’s booth – they make a beeline for it. First, they do a quick once-over of the hand-drawn chalkboard displaying this week’s roster of prepared dishes, divided into pantry items, soups, sides and proteins. Then, they load up wicker baskets and reusable shopping bags with everything from white kimchi, basil-almond pesto and Sump Coffee-roasted carrots to lemon-thyme ruby trout, kofta beef meatballs and three-chile pork tamales.
Once their purchases are secured, shoppers stroll over to Kitchen Kulture’s shiny silver “The Kart,” where they catch up with Meyer and place an order for a freshly prepared breakfast sandwich. The TGFM Classic – with aged white Cheddar, a Live Springs Farm egg and applewood-smoked bacon atop Companion sourdough dusted with sea salt – is the reward for an accomplished shopping trip.
The Tower Grove Farmers’ Market is about routine. And quickly, Kitchen Kulture has become a part of it.
Meyer and Miller first met while working at the now-shuttered Monarch in Maplewood, Missouri, though in opposite roles – Meyer worked in front-of-house operations and Miller was in the kitchen. When the restaurant closed for three months for renovations in 2011, the pair, who had quickly become friends, wanted to find a way to continue working together. Meyer invited Miller to join her in landscaping for the summer while the two tossed around ideas for a project that would play on their culinary strengths and allow them to continue working together while also maintaining their full-time jobs.
In 2012, Meyer and Miller launched Kitchen Kulture, what was then a line of comfy, kitchen-themed T-shirts geared toward chefs.
“We would all go out after a really busy service, and a lot of cooks would wear their coats out – not just because they didn’t have anything else to wear, but because it was a pride thing,” Miller says. “They wanted to be recognized as a chef, but it’s actually kind of dirty because you end up smelling like a hamburger. If you had a nice T-shirt, you could do the same thing and be a little more stylish.”
The shirts were sold at Bertarelli Cutlery on The Hill and Local Harvest Grocery, and Kitchen Kulture soon acquired a booth at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market. In an effort to broaden their customer base, Meyer and Miller considered cooking and selling food on-site. They approached Patrick Horine, the market manager and co-founder (and co-owner of Local Harvest) with the idea, and he suggested they instead sell prepared foods, which would help differentiate them from other vendors.
“There just wasn’t anybody doing anything like that,” Horine says.
By the end of Kitchen Kulture’s first market season, the T-shirts had taken second stage to the prepared foods, which focused heavily on seasonal sides, vegetarian dishes, fermented greens and smoked meats. “It developed a life of its own that we were not expecting,” Meyer says. “We went to the market with the idea of selling shirts, and the food took off.”
Kitchen Kulture’s prepared dishes struck a chord with market-goers by taking the ingredients found at the market one step further. Quite literally, take just one step – or two – from the booth, and you’ll find the very farmers selling the fresh produce, meat, bread, eggs and cheese incorporated in its dishes.
Look to the left of its booth, and you’ll spot Buila Family Farm out of Cobden, Illinois, whose bright red radishes are used in today’s radish salad with pistachio and feta pesto. Down a few stalls is La Vista CSA Farm out of Godfrey, Illinois, whose fresh greens are pickled into Kitchen Kulture’s popular kimchi. The menu doesn’t just incorporate fresh, seasonal ingredients – it’s driven by them.
“Even at the market, people sometimes still don’t really understand the connection between the product and food availability,” Meyer says. “If you’re at a restaurant and you order something, it just appears. People will start asking in April if we’ll have a certain soup, and we’ll say, ‘No, not for a couple months when the tomatoes are in season.’”
The market’s offerings dictate each week’s menu, so as soon as the market ends at 12:30pm, Meyer and Miller begin talking to the farmers to see what’s left and trading and bartering for any extra items they haven’t sold. Many vendors will trade their leftovers, as many chefs have already been through the market. Companion might have extra bread for sandwiches, or Buila Family Farm might have extra tomatoes for miso gazpacho. Leftover carrots from Three Rivers Community Farm in Elsah, Illinois, are used to make carrot-ginger vinaigrette.
“It’s reciprocal,” Meyer says of their relationship with vendors and farmers. “We try to embody really elegant cuisine with the menu, and we treat those ingredients with the utmost respect.”
The following Sunday or Monday, Meyer and Miller will email wholesale farmers to see what they have available or meet up with smaller farmers individually at the Schlafly Farmers Market in Maplewood on Wednesday. They’ll build the menu around those fresh ingredients, and then begin production on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.
By sourcing nearly all of their ingredients from local farmers, Kitchen Kulture also hopes to show customers how to cook with familiar seasonal ingredients in creative, unfamiliar ways at home – think squash used to make kimchi and Thai curries, or spinach as the foundation of Japanese ohitashi (a cooked salad) served with fermented ponzu sauce.
“I’m inspired by foods that I find rewarding to eat – in the sense that I feel healthy and rejuvenated after,” Miller says. “We do a lot of Asian cuisine because I find that that style of food gives me those rewards. Asian cuisine is more condiment-driven whereas a lot of Western cuisine is meat-forward, and then there’s some stuff on the side. I like using the fewest amount of ingredients to create the biggest flavor explosion.”
In addition to Kitchen Kulture’s relationships with farmers, the business has a devoted following of regulars. Through connections forged at the market, Meyer and Miller began receiving numerous catering requests for events. The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, for instance, started working with Kitchen Kulture after a board member – and frequent market customer – recommended the pair.
Meyer and Miller were catering events around St. Louis while appearing at the market each Saturday, and yet the two were both also working full-time – or as Miller calls it, full-time and a half – elsewhere. Miller was the executive chef at Dressel’s Public House in the Central West End, and Meyer was serving at Blood & Sand in Downtown St. Louis. When the 2014 market season rolled around, Meyer and Miller decided to take the leap and make Kitchen Kulture their full-time focus.
“We started this idea with the hopes to grow a sustainable business for ourselves,” Miller says. “Through the years, we were able to create and develop a really loyal customer base and establish an impeccable reputation. With that comes a lot of requests for catering and events here and there. We got to the point where we were turning away more business than we were able to do. It seemed counterproductive to get to that point without being prepared to take it to the next level.”
That summer, Kitchen Kulture introduced its affectionately named The Kart, a mobile cart acquired when The Big Cheese, an artisan grilled cheese company, decided to close its stand at the market and move to New York. “We had people who we wanted to work with but couldn’t offer much work because we didn’t have a full-time business,” Meyer says. “If we had this cart, we could employ them.”
The Kart, described by Meyer as a “tricked-out hot dog cart,” also allows Kitchen Kulture to cook on-site, just a few stalls down from its main booth at the market. Breakfast is served here, and, just like the prepared foods, the offerings are constantly changing based on what’s in season. A farm egg frittata one week includes mixed greens from La Vista CSA Farm and organic and cage-free eggs from Live Springs Farm in Carrollton, Illinois, as well as caramelized cauliflower and aged Cheddar. The BLT, a standby throughout the market season, features fresh, thick-sliced heirloom tomatoes, crispy applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce and bacon mayonnaise on Companion sourdough.
With the acquisition of The Kart, Kitchen Kulture was also able to stay open in the market’s off-season, and Meyer and Miller were able to get their “fix” cooking on the spot. Each Thursday, The Kart rolls into Sump Coffee in south St. Louis city for street food-inspired lunches, born out of two seasons of winter brunches inside the coffee shop.
The dishes are internationally inspired and easy to eat on the go, but that’s about as far as the comparison to typical street food goes. In keeping with Kitchen Kulture’s creed, each week’s menu features a few dishes made with fresh, seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. Tom kha, a Thai coconut soup, features St. Louis-based Mofu tofu and foraged mushrooms; masala-spiced Missouri beef meatballs are served over cumin-scented basmati rice in kofta curry with chopped mint and cilantro; and Kitchen Kulture’s take on a Hot Brown is served on bread from Red Fox Baking & Catering in St. Louis.
“To some extent we always feel there’s a level of concern that we’re handing you food in a boat, and we want the food to exceed the packaging,” Meyer says. “With street food, no matter how I hand it to you – in a napkin, wrapped in paper – you’re going to view it as different from the packaging.”
In the spirit of collaboration, Sump Coffee owner Scott Carey says Kitchen Kulture has always made a significant effort to have the shop’s coffee play a role in the food served at the weekly lunches, whether through coffee-crusted porchetta, tamales with coffee-infused mole sauce or sweet-and-sour coffee-braised rib tips with sticky rice and wax beans.
The menu changes every week – barring the time Carey begged them to repeat one of his favorite items, coffee-crusted pastrami steamed buns.
“Every time they do a pop-up, it’s always some new creation, and that’s pretty hard to do,” Carey says. “That speaks to the breadth of their skill set in terms of the genres of food they’re willing to work in.
This isn’t them just coming and doing cold cuts for two and a half hours – this is them really innovating and doing high-concept stuff for lunch and [doing so] in an environment that doesn’t have a full kitchen.”
When Sump briefly closed its back room (where Meyer and Miller cook) for renovations earlier this year, Kitchen Kulture didn’t waste any time. They quickly set up shop Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Local Harvest Cafe & Catering in the Tower Grove neighborhood for a 10-week series of Asian-influenced dinners.
Inspired by Japanese and Korean traditions, Meyer and Miller encouraged diners to pass and share their dishes. “A lot of times the mindset of the traditional diner is to order an appetizer and entrée or soup and two appetizers,” Meyer says. “We just wanted it to be about the plates and the flavors.”
Noodle dishes and fermented vegetables play heavily into the prepared foods offerings at the market, which Meyer and Miller thought would translate easily into an Asian-themed menu. The bacon dumplings, which made a few repeat visits throughout the dinner series, were served with a red-eye soy sauce (their take on red-eye gravy) made with Sump’s Colombian brew. Mofu tofu played heavily into the dishes, including futomaki and oshinko sushi rolls and buckwheat soba.
“What strikes me is Mike’s repertoire and how versatile he is with different cuisines,” Horine says.
The goal of Kitchen Kulture is twofold: to make diners think about local ingredients in a new way and to make those local ingredients more accessible to the average shopper or home cook.
“In one dish we might source from four different farms,” Meyer says. “You’re not going to buy enough product to be able to incorporate that much into your weekly routine. By buying or eating that one dish from us, you’re still supporting four or five farms that you might like to shop from.”
By connecting both shoppers and diners with seasonal, farm-fresh products in a new way, Kitchen Kulture has developed and maintained a dedicated band of regulars. They buy Kitchen Kulture’s smoked apple-sorghum mustard in bulk to freeze and use throughout the year. They drive out of their way to pick up lunch for the office at Sump. When they host a party or event, they know whom to call.
“They have a really loyal following, and that’s mainly just because of the quality of their product,” Horine says.
It’s that very following that ensures Kitchen Kulture will be part of St. Louis’ routine for years to come.
Kitchen Kulture, 314.277.3881, kitchenkulture.co
Hungry for more Midwest food-scene news? Follow us on:
- FACEBOOK: facebook.com/feastmag
- TWITTER: @feastmag
- PINTEREST: pinterest.com/feastmag
- YOUTUBE: youtube.com/FeastMagazine
- INSTAGRAM: @feastmag
Click here to subscribe and each month you'll receive a delicious serving of Feast delivered directly to your home, hot off the presses!
Subscribe to our weekly enewsletter here!