Samantha Pretto The Dark Room

Samantha Pretto is executive chef at The Dark Room.

The past few years have brought a lot of change for Samantha Pretto, but what’s remained unchanged is her passion in the kitchen and the family recipes that inspire her cooking.

When Pretto took over the kitchen at The Dark Room in Grand Center almost three years ago, she transformed the small collection of snacks and small plates on offer into robust Italian- and Mediterranean-inspired lunch, dinner and brunch menus. Pretto quickly won over returning customers with beloved dishes like her meatballs and weekly gnocchi program, both nods to her father’s Italian heritage. It was her first time leading a kitchen; she’d previously worked under chef Carl Hazel, then executive chef at The Scottish Arms, an experience she credits with her success today.

“[Hazel] taught me so much, him and [chef] Ben Guthier,” Pretto says. “It was just insane; I’d never broken down a whole animal, or done sous vide or any of this stuff before. I was just like a sponge; I took it all in and kept asking questions. Carl taught me the strongest work ethic.”

In early 2017, under the umbrella of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, The Dark Room moved around the corner into the renovated Grandel Theatre. The larger space enabled Pretto to expand her menu even further, adding dishes like shrimp and grits that reflect the New Orleans roots on her mother’s side of the family.

“Shrimp and grits is a staple for lunch and dinner; it’s crazy how much polenta we make in a week and how much shrimp we sell in a week,” Pretto says with a laugh. “That’s our No. 1 for dinner and brunch.”

The changes didn’t stop there: In May, The Dark Room expanded again, debuting a new 35-seat patio, and Pretto is currently developing a new food menu for Sophie’s Artist Lounge & Cocktail Club, a nearby cocktail bar located on the second floor of the .ZACK. She is also in the process of rolling out a new summer menu at The Dark Room, which she says will likely reflect even more of a New Orleans influence.

We recently caught up with Pretto is learn more about her new menus at The Dark Room and Sophie’s and why St. Louis needs a raclette-focused restaurant.

What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? I will say tomatoes – I’m very Italian. [Laughs.] They’re almost like another blank canvas. You can eat them raw, roast them, they can take on a whole different flavor profile. It’s insane to me. I use them in quite a few different things; I would say the simplest form would be our tomato-pesto flatbread.

What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? That’s a hard question because I never get to dine out. I like to go to Hiro [Asian Kitchen] when I get the opportunity, because Bernie [Lee] is my friend and he’s great. He takes me out of my comfort zone as far as eating goes; I’m a really “safe” eater, if that makes sense, and he doesn’t allow me to do it. I like Margarita Monday at Mariachi II’s on Gravois [Avenue] by Bevo Mill. It’s Tex-Mex, and it’s good, family oriented and they treat you like family. And then my after-hours spot is [The Original] Crusoe’s [Restaurant]. I’ve been going there for more than 15 years, and Stevie [LaChance] and I kind of grew together; we’re just family. There are so many places I’d want to go… I had Shake Shack with my mom for the first time last week, and it was so good. I’m simple – burgers and fries it is.

Who are St. Louis chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? I always admire Bernie [Lee], always. I’m his biggest fan. He was one of the first chefs who I met when I stepped into The Dark Room, and he accepted me, encouraged me and I don’t think I can thank him enough. And then Carl Hazel, who taught me so much – what to do and what not to do. I’m so excited for him and proud of him to see him growing at Gamlin [Whiskey House]; he’s doing awesome. We still talk to this day; we just talked the other day. He’s so proud of me, and it means the world to me.

What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in St. Louis? I’ve been doing a lot of research on French cooking. We don’t have a lot of that here, and I really want somebody to open up a raclette restaurant. When I’m doing Sophie’s, I’m going French. It’s just doing to be snacks and stuff, but I’m trying to do some interpretation of raclette on that menu. I’m lactose intolerant, but I’m fascinated by it. Sophie’s is just a cool little spot.

What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? I cook a lot. My mom is my neighbor, and we have this small group of friends who all live in these condos in South County. I just moved in October. They’re always cooking, barbecuing, smoking meat, and we’re making all the other stuff. There’s so much. I bake biscuits for my mom at least every other week; biscuits are my favorite thing to make, period, because they’re another blank canvas; you can do anything to them.

What’s your favorite comfort food? I told you, I’m a safe eater, so Lunchables, Totino’s pizza rolls and Little Debbie stuff. It’s awful. [Laughs.] That’s what I turn to.

If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? It’s not as easy as you think it is. If you see something on TV and think it would be easy to make, remember that during commercials they’re [prepping], and you can’t do a lot of these things in just an hour. They’re doing it in 15 minutes, or that’s what you see, and that’s not how it goes. It’s not the glamourous life you see on TV; some days we barely eat or sleep. It’s hard work, dedication, love and passion. If we didn’t have that, we couldn’t do what we’re doing. That’s what I always come back to: My love of the food and what I’m doing.

What’s your first food memory? I have to say my momma’s red beans and rice; it’s just that good and it’s one of my comfort foods, for sure. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes she’ll make them, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten. The sound of the red beans and rice – the beans popping in the pot and the rice just boiling away, and then it’s like when you walk into her house and she’s making it, it takes me back to childhood and growing up in the French Quarter. I can’t eat anybody’s here; I just don’t want to be disappointed. And my Aunt Gloria’s risotto. It’s unlike any risotto you’d ever eat; it’s almost like mush, because the rice has been cooked for so long, like 12 hours long, but there’s everything in it. Those are two staples in my mind that I will never be able to give up, and I’d never want to.

What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? We’ve been running a bunch of featured specials to work into this new menu, and I would say the egg-yolk ravioli is my favorite. It’s spectacular, but it’s the most trying thing to make. It’s nerve-wrecking. We make the pasta and the egg yolk is the filling, and you have to cook the pasta twice. You blanch it, shock it in ice water and when it’s time for service you cook it in a pan. And being able to keep that egg yolk a yolky texture is so hard, but if you know what you’re doing, you do it right. It’s so delicious and so beautiful. It just makes me cry every time I make it, which is not often. [Laughs.] It’s the perfect dish to me; I do it with some asparagus, really good pecorino cheese or Grana Padano cheese and brown butter. Keep it in its simplest form, and it’s just a beautiful thing. I take so much pride in making those.

What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? A lot of it starts with magazines and social media. I look at what others are doing and how I can do something similar but better. My coffee table at home is full of food magazines. I thumb through them, and if something catches my eye, then I think about what I’d want to eat and how. That’s what really pushes the gears and gets my engine turning. Then I get into the kitchen and start playing around and execute some beautiful things.

What are your future plans? I want to see where the Kranzberg Arts Foundation is going to take me. We have so many projects coming up, and a lot of them involve me and what I do. And then I really hope to travel in my future – I’ve been quite a few places, but there’s so many places I’m itching to go. I’m really drawn to the South; I want to just be a tourist and eat.

The Dark Room, 3610 Grandel Square, Covenant Blu/Grand Center, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.776.9550, thedarkroomstl.com