Cooking is a second act for Shannon Thompson. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, she served for 12 years, traveling around the world, while her husband, A.J., served six years in the Missouri Air National Guard. When the couple retired from military life, they faced a familiar problems for veterans: reacclimating to civilian life.
“When you’re in the service that long and then come home to the States, it’s a totally different vibe,” Thompson says. “Even working in a corporate setting is very different than being in the military. We felt like we had so much time on our hands, because we were used to doing a whole bunch of different things at once.”
The Thompsons worked 9-to-5 jobs and began volunteering with The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that “empowers veterans facing the challenge of adjusting to life at home to find new missions,” to occupy their time, but still felt like they could be doing more. The couple also missed many of the foods they fell in love with while traveling the globe, and coupled with their passion for healthy and sustainable cooking, they decided to launch Indie4, a catering company, in their hometown of St. Peters.
That was in the summer of 2016; by fall 2018, Indie4 had expanded to include Indie Eatery, a café serving organic comfort food with a focus on sustainability. Like the catering company, the Thompsons chose to open the café in St. Peters, as they recognized a need for more local and healthy fare in the area.
Look for Belgian waffles, sweet potato nachos, handcrafted beverages and more.
“A lot of the things we had already started cooking at home, so they were like our tried and true recipes, but we tweaked them to be a little more healthy, whether it was using a castor sugar or muscovado sugar or a rice-bran oil instead of just a regular olive oil or peanut oil,” Thompson recalls. “[The food] is light but super filling at the same time. It’s filling, but not heavy – healthy food should not weigh you down.”
Menu items feature names that wink toward the café’s health focus, like the Compost Nachos, with sweet potato tortilla chips, spicy white queso, roasted corn, maple-smoked chicken, roasted kale and sweet red peppers, and the Moonbeam, caramelized milk toast with vanilla cream, strawberries and organic raw strawberry powder.
“I thought it was the cutest idea to have your main items be the sustainability items, and just kind of use eco-friendly terms that people would understand and make sure that the food kind of matched the term,” Thompson says. “It was all about [the idea] that you can eat healthy and also minimize your carbon footprint at the same time, and you don’t have to sacrifice flavor or quality in order to do that.”
For Thompson, this second act has been incredibly rewarding, both creatively and professionally; she says seeing customers light up over her flavors and dishes makes it all worth it.
“[The joy] has been mainly people who, say, never thought they’d like ginger and turmeric, or a vegan version of something, and them enjoying it and really confirming that they enjoyed it because they came back,” Thompson says. “And also, it’s kind of cool to hear people order menu items that you named and made. And I know that’s super simple, but it’s almost like a celebrity hearing someone sing their song, or knowing every word, that’s kind of what it feels like when I hear someone come up to the register and order The Moonbeam or The Global Warming. It’s such a great feeling.”
We recently caught up with Thompson to learn more about the menu at Indie Eatery, why she thinks lemon juice is the chameleon of citrus fruit and possible expansion plans.
What’s your favorite ingredient to work with and why? This is an easy one for me: My favorite ingredient is a lemon. It seems like this simple little fruit, but it’s super complex, not just in the way that it can transform the flavor of a dish, but what it does for your body. It’s a natural immune booster, it’s super high in Vitamin C, it has potassium and it’s also an alkaline fruit; even though it’s acidic, it’s alkalizing, so it can definitely help level out your pH balance. It does amazing things, just even the flavor quality. It will take roasted vegetables to a new height, you can put it on pasta with any cream sauce… It’s just super flexible. It’s like the chameleon of fruit.
What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? That’s hard, because I typically always cook breakfast at home, and I have so many places on my list for brunch. I live in St. Peters, and so I’m typically running around out this way, and I do my best to go to the most independent of restaurants. It’s kind of hard to do that out here, but I do like to get a chai tea at Scooter’s, and it literally looks like a chicken coop size, it’s that small, but I know it’s owned by a veteran, and I’ll stop there and grab a chai tea. It’s so funny, because it’s probably 100 feet from Starbucks, and Starbucks is, of course, always packed, and there’s probably two or three cars in the drive-thru at Scooter’s. So I’ll make it a point to stop there. Lunch, for sure, I know: I love some good Thai food; Basil Spice [Thai Cuisine] is one of my favorites. Pizza; I can never get tired of Imo’s [Pizza]. A cheese pizza with pineapple is super amazing for me. And then for dinner, I’m a pasta-head; my favorite pasta comes from Kemoll’s [Restaurant], which I found out is moving to Westport and won’t be downtown anymore, which is where I discovered Kemoll’s. Basil pesto pasta is what I used to get there. And for dessert, I will drive to Chesterfield for Sarah’s Cake Stop. They have these little glitter cake balls that are the most soft, white cake with this kind of whipped cream on the inside and this glitter icing, or something, on the outside. The texture between the three layers is ridiculous, and it’s so addicting. I always buy way more than I eat. [Laughs]. I’m learning to just get four, and I can chomp on those, but I usually get seven or eight thinking that I can eat more. [Laughs.]
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? What I’ve seen evolve is the vegan world; it’s taken almost every city by storm. I’m quite surprised that St. Louis has picked up the way that it has; we’re a great city, but in comparison to a lot of other cities, it’s not the most progressive. I think we tend to get stuff a little later than, say, even Texas, Portland or Seattle, when it comes to things, but I think we’re becoming like a force of our own – we’re getting just as quality and just as well thought out concepts as Seattle or Portland. But I think for sure, just in the vegan and plant-based world, we’re getting the opportunity to explore plant-based foods; it seems like there are legit options at almost every restaurant you go to, especially independent ones in Tower Grove and south St. Louis city, like Lulu’s [Local Eatery] and Lona’s Lil Eats; I think people are trying to bridge the gap, and give people who are meat-eaters great options where they can also still dive into the vegan side and enjoy it.
Who are St. Louis chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? One of my favorite places in general is Juniper; I have this love affair for their creativity, their food and how it’s simple, but their ingredients just mesh so well.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? Something simple and easy. I’ll whip up a good pasta dish or what I call a grown-up grilled cheese; I like to use any brioche bread with a smoked gouda, sharp Cheddar and a mozzarella cheese, and I’ll do that with a tomato-basil soup, and call it a day. I’m super easy when it comes to that; I just like to eat something super comforting when I can. I’m a really snacky person, too, so even if I don’t make a grilled cheese, if I just have an orange or a banana or something, I’m content. But for sure, a grilled cheese; I always have the staples for those on deck.
What’s your favorite comfort food? I guess it would have to be pasta; I’m always on the hunt for good pasta, or good Thai food. I’m the type of person that when I find something I love, I kind of wear it out. We have a place out here [in St. Peters] called Francesco’s [Family Italian Restaurant], and it’s a small, family-owned Italian spot, where I’ll go to get just a regular, basic Alfredo and some garlic-cheese bread.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Cook off of instinct. I know a lot of people get caught up in trying to find the perfect recipe online, or if people are like me, I have a lot of food blogs that I follow, and you can get lost by buying 100 different ingredients to recreate something that somebody else did, and knowing that they went through some trial and error to get there. So I would say first to just cook off of instinct; I personally try to visualize what I want something to taste like, and then I get to work. So instead of marrying yourself to what somebody else might have done or what you’ve seen, just do what you think you should first. And if it doesn’t come out great the first time, tweak it or add things.
What’s your first food memory? My first food memory was when I was probably about 7 years old. My dad and my stepmom and I used to eat dinner together every night, and I didn’t know then, but we had a really healthy lifestyle. So my stepmom had made Brussels sprouts, and for whatever reason – I don’t know if it was the smell or what – but I always hated Brussels sprouts. So we’re sitting at the dinner table and I’m not touching these Brussels sprouts, but every time my stepmom would get up or go grab something else, I would grab the Brussels sprouts and fold them into my napkin that was just next to my plate, trying to hide them. When dinner was over, silly me: I got up, grabbed the napkin by the edge of it, and all the Brussels sprouts fell on the floor. The jig was up. [Laughs.] My stepmom was like, “Well, you’re going to sit at this table until you eat at least three of these Brussels sprouts. It’s one thing for you to say that you don’t like it because you tried it, but it’s another thing to say that you won’t try it at all.” I get that as an adult – there were a lot of things I didn’t like as a kid that I do like now, and Brussels sprouts are one of them. That was probably my first real food memory, because it just had so many emotions wrapped up in it. Then, I thought my stepmom was just being mean to me, forcing me to eat something, but as an adult, I see myself doing that. We have guardianship over my nephew, and he was used to eating pizza rolls and frozen pizza, and we’re making roasted Brussels sprouts or cauliflower or some vegetable that he doesn’t want to give a chance, and I’m like, “Dude, just try it.” I 100 percent think that you should encourage kids to try something that they don’t think that they like. It’s important; it’s a learning experience.
What inspires your work? How do you approach dish R&D, and what inspires that process? I would say people. Like I mentioned earlier, I follow a lot of food blogs, or I just try to see what people are consuming on a day-to-day basis on social media. My goal, or what I strive for, is to try to tweak it in a way that you could have a healthier version of it. I just want to be able to provide wholesome food for people that tastes good, and so what inspires me is trying to figure out things that I think would really go for. I think it’s a journey to 100 percent eating healthy, and everybody falls short of it – I do too. I just try to minimize my consumption of things that I know aren’t the very best for me, so my goal is to keep that in mind with what I offer on the menu. I try to keep it as unique as possible, like we just added an iced beetroot latte to our menu. We want to become your favorite spot to grab something unique.
What are your future plans? I have a few plans, but I’m trying to narrow it down – I don’t want to grow too fast, too soon. But what I think is kind of a natural evolution for me… I’d like to get a little frolic camper, because almost everything we do at the brick-and-mortar [restaurant] we can do in a little camper. I’d love to get out to different festivals and parks and almost like a food truck, but also do weddings, birthday parties and other events outdoors. Again, I just want to make sure that we’re able to sustain ourselves, and so that doesn’t mean getting another space, per se. The thought of a second location kind of wrecks my brain, because I’m almost a one-woman show. So another space would be too much to think about, but a little frolic camper in order to go out and do weddings and things like that is definitely in my heart space right now. Also, when our lease is up [in St. Peters], I’m entertaining… Everyone who walks into our space says it looks like we should be in the city, or in Tower Grove or Main Street [in St. Charles]. I wanted to give people in St. Peters and St. Charles County an option to choose healthy food, but the people who are coming to see me live further south or in the city and they want to try something new. So I’m trying to figure that out right now.
Indie Eatery, 7827 Mexico Road, St. Peters, Missouri, 636.387.1000, eatsbyindie.com