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ST. LOUIS

Justin Bell of Squatters Café Chats Foraging, Cooking in Yountville with Rob Connoley and Forthcoming Bulrush

Justin Bell Squatters Cafe

Justin Bell is sous chef at Squatter's Café

When Justin Bell heard that James Beard-nominated chef Rob Connoley had moved from New Mexico to St. Louis in 2016, he sent him a private message on Instagram. He knew that they shared a passion for foraging for wild ingredients and invited Connoley to join him on a hunt for pawpaws.

“They didn’t have pawpaws in New Mexico, so I said I could introduce him to a new ingredient and we could get to know each other,” Bell recalls. “I wasn’t really looking for a job with him, but we just clicked really well. I figured he was a good guy to know whether I worked with him or not; he’s a well-respected chef and we share interests, so let’s go out and hang in the woods for a couple of hours.”

That instant connection has evolved into a collaboration at Squatters Café, Connoley’s casual, seasonally driven breakfast and lunch spot inside the KDHX building in Grand Center, where Bell works as sous chef. Before working with Connoley, Bell attended L’Ecole Culinaire in St. Louis and worked in beloved kitchens at the Racquet Club Ladue, Lulu’s Local Eatery and Elaia, where he still occasionally pulls shifts. With about five years of professional cooking experience under his belt, Bell says he’s felt lucky to work with creative and inspiring chefs like Ben Grupe at Elaia and, of course, Connoley.

“I’ve never worked with anyone as creative as Rob,” Bell says. “I feel like we’re a good yin-and-yang working together, because he’ll have off-the-wall ideas, and then we sit down to talk about how to make it happen, whether with different techniques or ingredients to make his vision work. I think we do a pretty good job of translating that onto the plate most of the time. It took a while to get the synergy correct, because he’s so artistic in the way he thinks about things sometimes. Just being around that creativity helps push me.”

Moving forward, Bell is excited to work alongside Connoley as he develops and refines Bulrush, his forthcoming foraging-focused fine-dining restaurant. We recently caught up with Bell to learn about his work at Squatters Café, what diners can expect when Bulrush debuts and the beautiful simplicity of one-pot meals.

What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? Like I mentioned, I do a lot of foraging with Rob and did before we met. So I think my favorite ingredients are wild ones that most people wouldn’t know. I like introducing people to ingredients, whether it’s a wild mushroom they’ve never had before or different spices that grow wild in Missouri. Pawpaw is one of my favorite ingredients; it’s a native fruit that’s delicious but very underutilized. Pawpaw is so sweet on its own, so it lends well to desserts – ice cream, sorbet. But I like using it in savory dishes too, because it’s not as easy. With Rob I’ve done pawpaw curries, mole – trying to take it in more of a savory route.

What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? This is a tough one – you should just give me a week to list all my favorite places to eat, because there are so many great ones. [Laughs.] Currently, I think I’d start with breakfast at Knead [Bakehouse & Provisions] and get one of their donuts – their donuts are amazing. For lunch, I’d go to Mac’s Local Eats; they have probably the best burgers in town in my opinion, and the guys who work there are awesome. They share a lot of the same philosophy on food as Rob and I of using local ingredients. And then for a pre-dinner cocktail I’d stop in Olio, and then probably head over to Vista Ramen for dinner. That’s my wife and I’s date night spot for sure. We love seeing what they’re doing.

How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? The past year for St. Louis has been great. The amount of national attention that the city’s food scene has garnered has been amazing. There’s also all these mid-range restaurants that are coming out that are from some of the people who have worked under good chefs in St. Louis and they’re branching out and doing their own things, like Vista. I’m excited about Good Fortune opening; I’m excited about all of the new stuff coming out and the chefs who are doing their own thing whatever flavor profile they like to work with.  

Who are St. Louis chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? Ben Poremba is a workhorse; I don’t know how that guy has the time in the day to get anything done with the amount of stuff he’s got going on. [Laughs.] That guy never stops, and his work ethic is impressive. And then Ben Grupe, working for [Poremba] at Elaia – that guy is just an amazing chef. He’s a real world-class chef that we have here in St. Louis, and I really appreciate what he does. I’ve worked with him some, and he’s been a mentor and inspiration to me for sure.

What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in St. Louis? I’m pretty excited about [City] Foundry opening. I’m hoping that concept of a food court… You know, everyone thinks of a food court and imagines a mall from the ‘90s. But if you have a food court that’s all local restaurants doing great and individual things, and to bring that all together in one space – I think it’s great for diners. It makes it accessible – you can try new things – and hang out, shop and eat some great food. One of my culinary [school] instructors, [Matt] Borchardt, is opening a taco [spot] there, my buddy Kevin Pellegrino is opening a Filipino restaurant there with his wife. There’s going to be a lot of great things, and I really like that concept.

What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? I make a lot of one-pot meals: gumbos, stews. Currently I’m cooking braised red cabbage, which is one of my favorite comfort foods; I’m actually opening a bottle of red wine right now to dump in it. [Laughs.] I’m making pork chops with mashed sweet potatoes [to go with the cabbage]. I usually stick to stuff that’s easy that doesn’t require a lot of prep or knife work, throw it in a pot and walk away so I can relax on my day off and still end up with a good meal.

What’s your favorite comfort food? Biscuits and gravy for sure. That’s one of the things my mom always cooked for me growing up, and still to this day. I don’t see my mom a lot, because she lives out of state, but whenever we get together she always makes me biscuits and gravy because it was my favorite as a kid. We’ve got biscuits and gravy at Squatters that people love. And when people say the gravy is so good, I say, “My mom taught me!” [Laughs.] She does it best. Honestly I don’t order it out a lot, though, because I’m disappointed most of the time; it never tastes as good as my mom’s.

If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Being able to work acid into your food isn’t on the radar of a lot of home cooks, but a little splash of lemon or vinegar can really brighten up just about any dish. That’s one of those things: If you take food to your chef to have him taste it, it’s always, “It needs more salt! It needs more acid!” It’s always one of those two. And I think mastering the use of acidity is key to making great food.

What’s your first food memory? Where we grew up, my dad and my brother always hunted. And I think those memories of them bringing deer and squirrel back, and cleaning it, is a very visceral memory for me as a child. Seeing the care that they put into breaking down the animal and making sure that we used every part, respecting that animal and that ingredient.

What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? Rob and I were just out in Yountville, [California], two or three weeks ago for the Yountville Life Fest, and I really love this dessert that we did out there. We did prickly pear sorbet with candied prickly pear, an acorn dacquoise cake and Italian meringue. We brought the acorn for the dacquoise with us from Missouri, and then with the prickly pear, it was a cool marriage of Missouri terroir with Napa.

What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? The inspiration is definitely the seasons. At Squatters, it’s working with farmers and whatever local produce they have – we’re in the process of transitioning our menu as we speak, because all the fall and winter storage crops are running out and we’re starting to get the first spring vegetables. At Bulrush, we’re foraging for it; it’s whatever we can gather at that moment. Either way, it’s the seasons. And then from there, a lot of the process is just not screwing up that ingredient once we have it. [Laughs.] You get this beautiful produce or these beautiful mushrooms from the woods, and then you have to figure out how to best represent that ingredient on the plate without adding too much and detracting from its original state.

What are your future plans? I’m not a huge planner. I like to just let things happen. Next up is obviously Bulrush; we’re still in the process of looking for the building. That’s really my only objective as of now: To get in that space and start doing food with Rob. And then, who knows, you know? Put in a few years there and see what happens. I’d like to think that my ultimate plan is, when I’m old and retired, just be a professional forager for restaurants. And maybe that happens sooner than retirement age; we’ll see how that plays out. [Laughs.]

Squatters Café, 3524 Washington Ave., Grand Center, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.925.7556, squatterscafe.com

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