Kate Wagoner Yellowbelly

Kate Wagoner is sous chef at Yellowbelly in St. Louis.

If you’ve tried the charred carrots with chimichurri or the seared salmon with Spam fried rice at Yellowbelly, you’ve tasted Kate Wagoner’s work.

One of St. Louis’ most anticipated new restaurants of 2018, Yellowbelly was developed by Retreat Gastropub co-owner Travis Howard and co-owner and bar manager Tim Wiggins, with a food menu developed by celebrity chef and consultant Richard Blais. Wagoner, who has spent her career so far working for Blais at restaurants across the country, has been leading the kitchen at Yellowbelly since day one.

“I talk [to Blais] two to three times a week or whenever he’s able; we hop on a call, or we’ll text dish pictures back and forth,” Wagoner says. “He’s always been very inspirational to me; he’s equally an artist as he is a cook. He’ll have this crazy amazing idea and say, ‘How do you make it happen?’ So I get to be the technician to his dreams, and that’s been a lot of fun.”

Although she now speaks about cooking with clear passion and fire, Wagoner didn’t grow up with that passion. She recalls early memories of watching her mother bake fresh bread and picking ripe tomatoes from her grandmother’s garden, but in undergrad, she wanted to study political science.

“I was trying to round out my credits one semester by taking a home-ec class – and that sounds really crazy, because home-ec and working in a kitchen don’t really translate – and I realized how much I enjoyed working with food,” Wagoner recalls with a laugh.

After a year of soul searching in her native rural West Virginia, Wagoner applied to the Art Institute of Atlanta’s culinary school and was accepted. While studying in Atlanta, she was encouraged by an instructor to get a kitchen gig to supplement her education, emphasizing the importance of hands-on experience in a restaurant setting. The instructor connected Wagoner with Blais, then the face behind Flip Burger Boutique; the two connected, and Wagoner was soon working the line. Although it was her first professional kitchen job, the experience still informs Wagoner’s approach to cooking today.

“It was a burger restaurant, but there were all of these really great fresh ingredients,” she says. “We’d take a burger and top it with a beautiful lobe of foie gras and a red wine jam. We’d use truffles and all of the best ingredients – how you would treat a steak, but with a burger. So it really kind of opened my eyes to the fact that it doesn’t matter what the cuisine is – it’s how you treat the ingredients that you’re given. That has really inspired a lot of the dishes that we create today.”

After a year at Flip, Wagoner graduated from culinary school and Blais presented her with a huge opportunity: The sous chef position at his new Atlanta restaurant, The Spence (which closed in 2016). With a menu rich with fresh seafood dishes, The Spence afforded Wagoner a new sort of education.

“At The Spence, it really opened my eyes to a lot of other product that I’d never seen – I hadn’t worked with a lot of seafood, and that was the first time I was really exposed to fresh oysters and octopus,” Wagoner says. “It was learning techniques at the time – making sauces, learning how to break down raw octopus, how to execute the dishes to perfection. It was a crash course – in just three years, a wealth of information just washed over me. It was amazing and it kept me pushing forward.”

It’s easy to see how Wagoner’s work at The Spence prepared her for Yellowbelly, where Blais signatures like the Oysters & Pearls find new life. The same can be said for Wagoner’s time at Juniper & Ivy, her third concept under Blais, this time in San Diego.

“In San Diego, I worked with some chefs who encouraged me to put a few items on the menu; they encouraged me to figure out my spin on it,” Wagoner says. “And then what makes it Juniper & Ivy? And now, what makes it Yellowbelly?”

At Yellowbelly – Wagoner’s fourth time collaborating with Blais, for those keeping count – the answer to that question is often what feels coastal. For Yellowbelly’s spin on Oysters & Pearls, for example, Blais and Wagoner landed on serving oysters on a bed of edible seaweed with Baja cocktail sauce.

“We would talk about walking around the beach and the things you see and draw inspiration from that: You see oysters attached to rocks, and what do you see around it? You see seaweed, kelp,” she says. “So when we go to plate that dish, how do we incorporate that? We bring in edible seaweed, which really adds an umami flavor to that dish.”

Since opening last fall, Yellowbelly has added lunch and brunch service, as well as opened its 35-seat patio this spring. We recently caught up with Wagoner to learn more about her work at the restaurant, how she collaborates with Blais for menu R&D and why you should be buying more carrots.

What’s your favorite ingredient to work with and why? This is going to seem weird, but I’m going to say carrots – it’s literally my favorite ingredient. Carrots are a workhorse; they’re the base of every stock, every mirepoix, every sauce that’s in a kitchen. And as an ingredient, they’re delicious raw or however you prepare them. In our kitchen, we take beautiful organic baby carrots and pan roast them in a copious amount of butter, thyme and salt. We take the tops, which are completely edible too – which I don’t think a lot of people know – and we make a chimichurri from the greens. It’s one of my favorite dishes on the menu, and just in general, one of my favorite ingredients. The carrot is so versatile and so delicious.

What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? I’ve been to a few places so far – but not as many as I’ve wanted to try. I’m not the biggest breakfast person, so for the first meal of the day – and this is what I do on some of my days off – I love to go to Union Loafers for their really amazing chilled beet sandwich. I probably get that once every two weeks; it’s made with their perfect ciabatta and a really delicious sauerkraut. That’s my go-to place for getting the day started. For dinner, there’s a really great Ethiopian restaurant – everybody here probably already knows it, but it’s new to me – called Meskerem. That’s one of my absolute favorite places; some of my buddies and I like to meet up there, and we’ll eat a communal meal. We’ll get their lentil sambosa and the vegetarian combo platter that comes on a base of injera, and we’ll just chow down on that; that’s definitely one of my favorites. For a drink, I’d go to Taste; I just love their ambiance, and they have this cocktail called She Doesn’t Even Go Here, which, I love that name. [Laughs.] They have the most amazing cocktails there. I really love a savory beverage to end the night – I’m not really a sweet cocktail person – so I really enjoy their cocktails.

How have you seen the national food scene evolve over the past year? This is more of a philosophical trend than a food trend: The industry used to be more competitive in a way, and now, I feel like most of us are just fans of each other, and that’s been really encouraging. We’re rooting for the restaurant down the street because they do X, Y and Z really well, and I’m not worried that it takes away from us. Everybody has their niche here, and I’ve found in general that chefs have become fans of each other.

Who are St. Louis chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? [Michael and Tara] Gallina have absolutely been my food crushes since moving here. Everything about Vicia is done right – they source locally and they treat every ingredient with the utmost respect. So most definitely, the Gallinas – they’re so talented.

What concepts or styles in food or drink do you hope to see added or expanded in St. Louis? I don’t know if you guys have this [in St. Louis], but I haven’t experienced it here myself, but I’d just kill to have some street carts – hand-to-mouth food items, like tacos or hot dogs, done super well and super simply. I’d love to see that on every corner here.

What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? Being a savory chef, my pleasure at home is baking bread. I love to make a yeast bread with some homemade jam and fresh butter; I could live off of that. It’s cathartic, and it’s just so different from what I do on a day-to-day basis. It’s really awesome – it’s a living thing. You see the yeast activate and rise.

What’s your favorite comfort food? Summer tomatoes and cottage cheese is my go to – that’s my craving. My grandma had a garden in her backyard, and we’d go pick tomatoes, slice them up with a little olive oil and salt and put it over some really good cottage cheese, and that’s the perfect meal to me. The tomatoes are super seasonal – you can get them in July, August and September. Just delicious heirloom tomatoes.

If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Keep your knives sharp. I know a lot of people don’t feel confident using a whetstone, but I would encourage a home cook to take their knives to a shop – they’ll sharpen them for you for $5 apiece – and it’s an investment that will make your life so much easier. You don’t realize how much energy you’re putting into cutting things with a dull knife. 

What’s your first food memory? Probably beans on toast. [Laughs.] I know it sounds really weird, but it’s a meal that my mom would make for us pretty often when I was a kid. I actually used to groan every time the bean pot would come out, but over time it’s become one of my favorite dishes. She’d soak beans overnight, cook them all day. She would make her own bread, we’d toast it and we’d top the beans with diced white onion. It was super simple but really delicious. When I think of home and my mom, it’s that dish.

What inspires your work? How do you approach dish R&D, and what inspires that process? R&D is a huge part of Yellowbelly and every restaurant when you’re developing a new menu. It starts with dishes that excite you – something different yet your own. That’s generally how I, as a chef, like to make food – it’s a riff off of something and something else. It can take four or five different turns to get right, but the trial and error is probably the most fun part of this job.

What are your future plans? Currently my future plans go hand in hand with Yellowbelly. This spring we opened up the patio with 35 extra seats and we added brunch, so lots of new menu items for that. Right now the goal is to just continue pushing the team; my own personal goal is to really grow the chefs I’m working with. A lot of the chefs [at Yellowbelly] have come in really green, and that’s exciting; they’re people who really want to learn. I’d say that my goal is to get them to the point that they want to be at. I feel like that’s really a chef’s job – more than the creativity and the food part of it, it’s growing people. Long-term, I hope to be with Travis [Howard] and Tim [Wiggins] for many years to come. It is my goal, one day, to own my own spot. I don’t know that that concept will be yet, but that’s happening in the years to come.

Yellowbelly, 4659 Lindell Blvd., Central West End, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.499.1509, yellowbellystl.com

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