At every step of Brian Lagerstrom’s culinary career, research and education has been crucial.
During his tenure as executive sous chef at the late, great Niche in Clayton, Missouri, Lagerstrom was tasked with creating ingredients such as soy sauce, miso and garum, a condiment similar to fish sauce, using other local ingredients. The chef would spend hours researching ancient and modern fermentation techniques and days upon days testing new recipes through a process of trial and error.
Much of that research, Lagerstrom says, came from watching YouTube videos, whether it be learning how to make sourdough bread or how to ferment miso from scratch.
“A lot of my cooking education has come from YouTube over the years – things that I wanted to teach myself how to do,” Lagerstrom recalls. “It started with bread eight or nine years ago and moved into cheesemaking when I was at Niche, and then other fermentation projects that we were doing. I was trying to find these very specific, rare videos, like Japanese guys making miso in their basement. This was kind of before YouTube was what it is now.”
When he wasn’t crafting unique sauces, vinegars and pastes at Niche, Lagerstrom was making another type of fermented food for the restaurant: bread. His passion for bread baking would eventually lead him to Union Loafers, the Botanical Heights bakery famous for its hearth-baked breads. In both kitchens, Lagerstrom recalls the joys of working with less experienced cooks who he could mentor along the way.
“One of the pros is that you get to share your knowledge with younger cooks,” Lagerstrom says. “For the most part, the restaurants that I've worked in, the types of cooks that come in, they work at the place because they want to learn. They're not there just for a paycheck. They're there to learn what you know and they really listen to what you say.”
More recently, Lagerstrom was working as a chef for US Foods, a food-service industry distributor, to help area restaurants refresh their menus. When the COVID-19 virus hit the St. Louis area, though, Lagerstrom found himself out of work and with a lot of time on his hands. Never someone to stay idle for long, Lagerstrom decided to launch a project he’d been turning over in his head for years – one that would allow him to share his knowledge and years of experience with home cooks.
“I think people want some of this information packaged in a way that's both entertaining and instructional, and for me, it's kind of inspiring to find that balance,” Lagerstrom says.
Given that he learned much of what he knows about cooking from “random YouTube videos,” a cooking series with episodes uploaded for free to YouTube made the most sense to Lagerstrom. After discussing the idea with his partner and wife, Lauren Adermann, the couple purchased a $600 DSLR camera off of Amazon and got to work.
On March 30, Lagerstrom posted the first episode of his new series, Weeds & Sardines. In just one month, the channel has garnered 270 subscribers and 823 Instagram followers.
So far the videos have mostly focused on easy recipes made with accessible ingredients, such as a broccoli Caesar salad, spring minestrone soup and homemade rotisserie chicken. That simplicity and accessibility is by design, Lagerstrom says – he knows it’s challenging for people to shop for groceries and stock their pantries right now, and he’s taking that into account with every recipe.
“I think my sister has cooked almost every recipe so far, and she's a mom – she has two young kids, she's working from home and she's got her hands full. And so right now, her pantry is my target audience. She knows a good amount about food and she's cooked a lot, but she's definitely closer to the majority than the minority in terms of her [cooking] abilities and what she has in her house. So I try to keep it not too crazy.”
Lagerstrom is a funny and engaging host, peppering his instructions with humor and helpful tips. In his most recent video for pan-roasted fish, for example, he shares tips on how to dry the skin of a piece of fish before searing it to ensure the best result.
“When you spent 10 years trying to get this knowledge, to communicate it, like why some of the details matter, passing that down is very rewarding,” Lagerstrom says. “All of a sudden they believe you and then they do it; it's not like I made it up. For example, I know that if you dry the skin of a piece of fish before you sear it, you're going to have a better result, because I've cooked 10,000 pieces of fish.”
In addition to Lagerstrom’s considerable talents as a host and teacher, the chef also gets to flex his skills as a video producer and photographer. Those last two titles aren’t ones he feels super confident about so far, but watching the episodes he’s released so far, he certainly should – they are polished, professional and feature cuts and transitions with just as much humor and finesse as the chef himself.
Lagerstrom wasn’t totally green to pivoting to this type of work – he holds a degree in audio engineering and spent a year working as a professional recording engineer. He says the video editing software he’s using to produce Weeds & Sardines is very similar to audio editing software he’s used in the past, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been learning curves.
“The photography part has been by far the hardest part for me personally: doing the cooking and making sure that I'm getting the material I need to tell the story and have that,” Lagerstrom says. “I'm worried about the food having to look a certain way, and I have to execute it a certain way and then I also have to capture it in a certain way.”
Lagerstrom says that St. Louis food writer and photographer Spencer Pernikoff of Whiskey & Soba has been a huge help with Weeds & Sardines, teaching Lagerstrom more about photography and answering whatever questions the chef has had in recent weeks.
Another friend, Ted Wilson of Union Loafers, recently joined Lagerstrom for an episode dedicated to perfecting sourdough bread at home. Wilson is the first guest who Lagerstrom has invited onto the show – an appearance captured on speakerphone to maintain responsible social distancing – but unlikely the last.
For the sourdough video, it was important to Lagerstrom that he communicate the complicated and time-consuming process of bread baking at home in a digestible manner, something he knew Wilson could knock out of the park.
“I texted him and he was like, ‘Oh, I actually have this PDF that I've been working on that we're handing out [at Union Loafers] with sourdough starter for the people who are buying it from the bakery,’” Lagerstrom says. “It was just kind of serendipitous how that happened.”
A wealth of information on bread baking, Wilson is also a funny and engaging presence in the video. Even if you have no intention of baking a loaf of sourdough at home, the video is entertaining if only to see Wilson and Lagerstrom riff off of one another. The approach worked: Weeds & Sardines doubled its Instagram following in just a day after the video was posted.
“I wanted it to be kind of light and funny, because the video is super instructional; it's almost an exhausting amount of instruction,” Lagerstrom says. “I didn’t want people to get bored, so I thought maybe I can just show them what Ted and I are like together.”
Finding a balance between entertainment and accessibility is important to Lagerstrom. With Weeds & Sardines, he wants to empower home cooks to not just learn more about how to nourish themselves at home, but to enjoy it – especially during this time when so many more people are cooking at home.
“I think there’s a big streak in food entertainment where they want to paint stuff as being precious or hard to make for entertainment value – it makes it seem more special,” Lagerstrom says. “But to me, that seems kind of like the opposite approach. We should be like, this stuff is super democratic; everyone should know how to make a vinaigrette. That's my approach.”
So much is uncertain right now for so many people, including Lagerstrom, who doesn’t know if or when he will be able to return to his full-time job. For the foreseeable future, he plans to keep posting two episodes of Weeds & Sardines weekly, and he’s hopeful that the project will continue even if he finds himself back at work soon.
“I'm very stoked; my wife and I both are very super grateful for the audience we have right now,” Lagerstrom says. “We just want to make meaningful content, be consistent and collaborate with other people who are doing similar things. There are people out there who are doing the high-end chef type thing, and I'm not super interested in that. I want to make food that people want to eat and want to make themselves.”
Weeds & Sardines, youtube.com/channel/UCn5fhcGRrCvrmFibPbT6q1A