Raised in upstate New York, Thomas Futrell cut his teeth working at a few restaurants in New York City, including the now-shuttered, high-end French restaurant Le Cirque.
“After that, I moved around the country; it wasn’t until I met Eric Kelly in Orlando, Florida, and he offered me a job at Scape that I settled in St. Louis,” says Futrell. “That was in 2013.”
It was at Scape that Futrell met Jonathan Schoen, co-owner of Polite Society. “Jonathan and I just clicked, so when he was opening Polite Society, I asked if he had a chef in mind. He said I was welcome to apply,” Futrell says with a laugh. As part of his “application,” Futrell cooked for co-owner Brian Schmitz – he made the original tofu dish that he would later serve on Polite Society’s first menu.
Currently, Futrell’s focus is on The Bellwether, which opened in June, as Daniel Sammons, formerly of DeMun Oyster Bar and Grand Tavern, has taken the reins at Polite Society as chef de cuisine.
We caught up with Futrell to chat about his inspirations, from a cookbook his mother gave him as a child and versatile ingredients to St. Louis chefs he’s gotten to know since moving to the city.
What is one of your first food memories? I have three brothers, one older and two younger, and when my mom went back to work, I discovered a new desire to help out around the house. She picked up The Good Housekeeping Cookbook and I found myself, at 10 years old, reading this cookbook, putting together a grocery list and testing out different recipes.
Winters can be brutal in New York, so the first thing I tried was the beef stew recipe from The Good Housekeeping Cookbook. The recipe is well-written, beautifully explained step-by-step, and it came out really well. Looking back, I simply followed the instructions, not understanding at the time that it was teaching me the process of braising – which, to this day, is one of my favorite techniques.
What inspires your cooking today? I love working with acids: vinegar, citrus, whatnot. I find that they give a certain depth to a dish; they make a plate pop and provide a necessary cleansing of the palate for an enjoyable eating experience. But other local chefs are also a huge inspiration. Brian, my girlfriend and I went to Indo last night, for example, and let me just say, Nick [Bognar] is killing it.
How do you approach R&D at Polite Society and The Bellwether? I’m all for going out, trying new things and taking away little bits and pieces as inspiration for something surprising in my own kitchen. As chefs, we’re never really reinventing the wheel; instead, we’re combining ingredients and techniques that may not have been paired before to come up with a fresh flavor profile.
Do you have a favorite ingredient? There are so many great ingredients out there, it’s hard to choose. I guess, recently, with tomatoes being in season, sherry vinegar has been fun to work with. We have a sherry vinegar gastrique that we use for our beef tartare, the chicken confit has a sherry-mustard vinaigrette, and we use a sherry vinegar in the beef short rib ragout, which gives a brightness to what is normally a relatively heavy, unctuous dish – and that’s just at The Bellwether.
Do you have a secret weapon: a spice/ingredient/technique? It has to be salt. Salt is always going to get you across the finish line, whether you’re finishing a steak with a little Maldon salt or doing a final check for seasoning before a dish leaves the kitchen. I used to be a smoker, but I quit two weeks before Polite Society opened – which is the best thing I could have done for my health, but also for my career. By not smoking, my palate became more sensitive to salt and I was no longer at risk of overseasoning things.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently? I would have to say the octopus at The Bellwether – it’s a dish I’m very proud of. We do not sous vide our octopus; we poach it in a court bouillon. It’s a classic technique, done right, and, honestly, I find it to be one of the best ways to prepare octopus. We plate it with a simple roast of crunchy Carnival Cauliflower, and take a classic sauce, such as the red curry and pickled mustard seed beurre blanc, and readjust it into the dish.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? Whole roast chicken, using whole-grain mustard on the outside, is one of my favorites. There’s just something about it – that provincial feel – that I thoroughly enjoy. There are times where I simply don’t want to cook for myself, but I think that’s natural; no one should ever be afraid to admit that that happens. The good thing is, St. Louis has an amazing food scene – I just finished eating lunch at Grace Meat + Three, where I also, honest to God, picked up one of Rick [Lewis]’ famous fried chickens to have for dinner – so I won’t go hungry.
What advice do you have for home cooks? First, read the full recipe, along with the method. Then, understand that the recipe is just a template; put a little bit of your own spin on it. If you feel it needs a little something different, maybe something extra, don’t be afraid to experiment – that’s the only way you’re going to grow as a cook.
Are there any local chefs who you admire for what they’re doing at this moment? Oh man, there are so many. I may be biased, but I really admire what Dan [Sammons] is doing at Polite Society. I appreciate that he’s stepped into the role there and taken control of it in a way that allows me to focus on The Bellwether with peace of mind.
Although he has a different background and can bring other things to the table – which is refreshing – I find Dan and I think alike. A good example of this: Every year we feature soft-shell crab at Polite Society, and every year I’ve prepared it with some form of a succotash. I never told Dan that, however, when he made soft-shell crab for the restaurant, he paired it with a succotash. [Laughs.] We were in pre-shift together, he was explaining the dish, and one of the servers who’s worked there since we opened said, “Oh, we’re doing the succotash again.” Dan looked up, met my eye and we both just kind of shook our heads and chuckled.
St. Louis is so different from other cities in that you see much more genuine camaraderie within the industry. In other cities, it’s more competitive and people have a tendency to tear each other down rather than lift each other up; I love that St. Louis isn’t like that.
The Bellwether, 1419 Carroll St., Lafayette Square, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.380.3086, thebellwetherstl.com