The relationship between an executive chef and a chef de cuisine is, in a benevolently ruled kitchen, something like that between a mafia don and his favorite capo. There is trust. There is responsibility. And there is a bond of loyalty that runs nearly as deep as blood, if not deeper.
The bond between Tenacious Eats Executive Chef / Owner Liz Schuster and Chef de Cuisine Justin Yarrington (left) is best understood by their headgear. The two would wear miners'-style headlamps to see what they were doing in the darkened back room of Meyer's Grove. It was dark because that's where Tenacious screens "Movies for Foodies," their inventive series of films "scored" with food. Schuster, who has a film degree, takes a half-dozen scenes from each film and uses them as inspiration for wildly inventive gourmet dishes served during those scenes.
During the "fizzy lifting drinks" scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, for instance, diners received house-made kombucha with mango puree and house-made ginger beer. Schuster turned a breakfast scene depicting oatmeal, scrambled eggs, bacon and toast from A Christmas Story into a toasted oatmeal brioche topped with a scrambled egg, Gruyère, chives, porkbelly and bruléed cipollini onions. She's screened dozens of films, and plated hundreds of delightfully unique courses. (And each course comes with a custom cocktail, courtesy of Meyer's Grove's Dan Stoner.)
The intense, gourmet fun is that much more impressive when you see how they do it. Sous Chef Jake Alcorn, Schuster, Yarrington (right) and cohorts have not had the benefit of major appliances on-site. There is no stove or oven at the pub. Tenacious prepares everything feasible ahead of time, and then uses various plug-in heating elements at Meyer's Grove.
And then there's the headlamps. And the whispering, so as not to compete with the film. And... the... timing. The course that accompanies a particular scene needs to be hot and ready on cue.
Under these bizarre conditions, Schuster and Yarrington learned to work in tandem, and to plate amazing creations for one-night film-and-food events to remember.
It was with great sadness we learned that on Friday, Aug. 23, Yarrington died suddenly and unexpectedly in his sleep. He left behind a wife and sons Quincy, 10, and Oliver, 6.
A service for Yarrington was held a week later at L'Ecole Culinaire in Ladue.
The school of cooking was the proper setting, explained Schuster, because "this [cooking] is our religion."
A group of Yarrington's fellow chefs, food writers, food educators, family, friends and loved ones convened to honor him.
There, Schuster eulogized her friend as a "chef's chef," meaning "he walked into the kitchen without an ego and got the job done," she said.
Others spoke eloquently of a chef's toil, and a chef's art.
Yarrington's brother described Justin's approach to cooking as "a multisensory shared experience," and a series of artistic acts "perishable and fleeting."
A visibly moved Chef Jack MacMurray, looking out from the podium at his fellow chefs, said that sometimes chefs have a way of going unappreciated, working behind the scenes and away from the limelight, but that this day was clearly different.
A wake held several days later at Meyer's Grove would prove as raucous as the service was solemn. Chefs who knew Yarrington gathered on the back patio, drinking, smoking, and sharing unprintable stories about cheffing in the area.
Yarrington's journey was not so different from that of anyone who falls in love with cooking and chooses it as a way of life.
In a bio he wrote about himself, he said that it all started when as a child he spent the holidays sitting in his Grandmother Mimi's kitchen while she prepared Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. He ground figs, salt pork and bread in her old cast iron meat grinder as she cooked and baked.
Yarrington worked in restaurants most of his life but he would tell you that he first got serious in Seattle under Chef Jan Birnbaum at Sazerac. It was a tough kitchen to get into. After months of grinding it out in the back prep kitchen and earning his stripes they let him on the line. He learned to truly love, understand and respect food in that kitchen. He enjoyed curing ham, turning pork butt into tasso, cooking with woodfire and making "stocks of every color," as he wrote. He spent many late nights with his executive sous chef learning new techniques, and sometimes they would still be there when the baker showed up in the morning.
From Sazerac he followed Chef Birnbaum to Napa Valley to work at the now-defunct Catahoula in Calistoga, California. At one point he helped coordinate the Meals on Wheels Star Chefs and Vintners Gala, and getting out into the community to help people via cooking became a new passion.
Yarrington and family would soon find themselves traipsing across New England as Justin cooked at restaurant and banquet kitchens in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire, eventually winding up in St. Louis as a Regional Chef with Holiday Retirement. He found other kitchen work around these parts at Coastal Bistro, DMR Events, and Vom Fass, where he led cooking demos.
It was about a year ago when Yarrington agreed to help out at an early Tenacious Eats film and dinner night, for a documentary about eccentric New York diner owner and cook Kenny Shopsin called I Like Killing Flies. Yarrington was excited by the concept of stopping the movie at various strategic scenes to serve related dishes. In a cooking career that may have become somewhat moribund for him, he'd found new inspiration.
Schuster said that after the lights went up Yarrington picked her up and embraced her in a bear hug. "I don't even know you that well," she recalled him telling her, "but I have to do this."
Then she told him how lousy the pay was. He decided to stick around anyway.
The two chefs became fast friends. They tried to outdo each other with wild ideas for movie menus.
"Justin's favorite movie was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," said Schuster. "He wanted to do it for Tenacious Eats."
"I told him, 'No way. That movie has too many disgusting parts. It has cannibalism!'"
"Justin said, 'Well, we're doing Silence of the Lambs.'"
"I told him, 'Yeah, but Hannibal Lecter was a foodie. And a locavore.'"
The chefs were just having too much fun.
In the wake of Yarrington's passing, Schuster has vowed to soldier on.
"Justin would be angry with me if I stopped anything we had worked so hard on together," she said.
In that spirit, Tenacious Eats will screen a movie beloved by foodies, the modern classic Japanese "Ramen Western" Tampopo this Tuesday, Sept. 10.
The estimable Schuster is also prepping for the prestigious Taste of St. Louis Battle Royale chefs' competition scheduled for the end of the month.
Then, on Oct. 10 Tenacious hosts an exciting version of Movies for Foodies with a different restaurant preparing each dish. The screening of The Princess and the Frog, a benefit for a children's charity Discovering Options, offers nine courses, each by a different restaurant. Chaumette Vineyards, Empire Deli & Pizza, Entre Underground, Harvest, Kakao Chocolate, Sidney Street Café, Three Kings Public House, Tenacious Eats and the staff at event venue the Thaxton Speakeasy form the nine competing teams. Nine bartenders will compete against one another as well.
And, oh yeah, there's the big baby that Schuster is planning to have sometime this fall: Mutti, her new brick-and-mortar restaurant, will bow at a yet-to-be-named spot on the Hill, she said.
Mutti will boast not merely an open kitchen, but a floor plan by which every single diner will eat within the kitchen.
"It will be a very large kitchen that is essentially one big open room," explained Schuster. "Everyone will be eating at the chef's table; all the tables will be chef's tables."
"Mutti is German slang for mommy," she added, "and for the diners, being in the room where we're cooking, smelling everything, and watching the food get plated is like recreating what we've all had with our moms and grandmothers."
Schuster said that the eatery will begin in gradual fashion by offering breakfast and lunch only, eventually opening for dinner.
The menu is still being developed, but she did say she has plans to offer the famous timpano drum-shaped pasta casserole immortalized in the film Big Night on a daily basis. It was a dream of Yarrington's, said Schuster.
Yarrington's bio ends in a heartbreaking paragraph.
"Thinking back to my professional experiences and my upbringing I find it difficult to describe my style of cooking," he wrote. "Southern-inspired New England cooking with some European influence? Whatever it is I now look to find it with my new chef, mentor and friend Chef Liz Schuster as we embark on this new adventure."