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Conversations with Jeff Friesen

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jeff Friesen.

Hi Jeff, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
Growing up, I loved to cook. Whether it was baking with my grandma, making pasta or Chinese food with my dad, or making pancakes by myself, the kitchen was one of my favorite places to be. I’d never thought of it as a career path until much later in life. Throughout high school and college, I was interested in medicine and planned to go to medical school. After plans changed, and changed again and again, I ended up back in STL and wondering what I really wanted to do with my life. A family member mentioned something about a culinary school in Florence, Italy and just the idea of that possibility opened my eyes and my mind. Ultimately, going to school for 3 years in Italy wasn’t gonna be a good financial decision, although it would’ve been fun and educational. I did find just what I needed in NYC, however.

The Institute of Culinary Education was intensive culinary training and gave me the foundation that in was looking for. My first gig post-school was at a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant, A Voce, off Madison Square Park. Surrounded by great cooks and chefs, I learned more in my relatively short time there than I could’ve imagined. I loved New York but St. Louis was beckoning me home with a renaissance of great restaurants, a low cost of living, and family I was missing. Once back in STL, I connected with John Perkins, then known as The Clandestine Chef, who was running Entre Underground. I was so excited to be a part of the underground restaurants he and his friends were doing. It was a great experience while I was “staging” at local restaurants looking for a permanent home.

In April of 2010, I came on board at Farmhaus as they were starting that very new restaurant. It was a small kitchen and a small staff but had a big vision. We were determined to use as much produce, meat, and product as locally as possible and make everything from scratch. Our menu was ever-changing and after a few years I was given opportunity to explore and create components and dishes using all that we could find from our farmer and purveyor friends. After five years there, it was time to move on. I found myself at Sugarfire in Olivette.

After 9 months there, my old friend, John Perkins, asked me to be the chef at his southern restaurant, Juniper. I immediately said yes. I was pretty familiar with Juniper, loved the food and beverages they were known for, and thought John was a great guy. Two years there was fun, educational, trying, delicious, and so memorable. I loved so much about being the chef there but felt it was time for the next stage of my life. I didn’t know what that was at the time. I spent many months doing gig work and even taught cooking classes to a large co-op of homeschool families. It was so wonderful every week to teach kids from 5 to 17 how to cook, make their favorite foods taste better, and to have fun in the kitchen. I even taught a class for moms! That fall, I was introduced to Kurt Eller, the owner/operator of Taco Buddha. We hit it off.

Just after the new year 2019, there was a fire at his restaurant and he was forced to close for some major rehab work. It was then that he called me and asked if I would run his kitchen and “maybe a little front of house stuff too”. After meeting with him, that turned into “running the entire restaurant”. That was a big ask! We spent the next few months rebuilding – the physical interior, the staff, the menu. Everything. I spent a lot of time with Kurt and learned as much as I could about his vision for his restaurant. We reopened in April 2019 and even though I had heard how much people loved Taco Buddha I wasn’t prepared for the swarms of faithful customers that came. And they kept on coming. The last three years have been a ride. I have staff of wonderful people that I really enjoy being with everyday and look forward to growing with. I work with an owner, Kurt, who is so involved in our restaurant, the health and growth of our people, and taking care of our fantastic customers. He’s the mentor I need and we’re a great team. I’m truly excited for what our future holds as we grow.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Of course, there have been so many obstacles along the way. Too many to count. Most recently and presently our greatest challenge has been navigating the COVID pandemic. While it has obviously affected everyone to varying degrees, my industry has been dealt a tough blow. I feel so deeply the struggle of restaurants across St. Louis that have had to almost daily make decisions to ensure the health and safety of their staff and customers while keeping a business operating successfully. Since the pandemic started, we’ve been determined to do 3 things. 1. Ensure the safety of our employees, customers, and the community, 2. If there is a need, provide food for our community in the safest possible manner, and 3. Keep as many employees as possible on payroll for as long as possible. We have done this with transparency and consistent communication.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I’m most proud on a day-to-day basis of my incredible staff. The work they do, their great attitude, and the environment they create is something I love to brag about! I have the best employees. People ask me about how I scratch my creative itch since I’m not in the kitchen like I’ve been for so many years throughout my restaurant career. While I am responsible for the menu and the consistency and quality of the food, I spend most of my time in the front of the house. At the restaurant, I put a lot of thought, effort, trial and error, and testing into developing the new Tacos of the Month our customers look forward to. I look for ways to take familiar flavors and dishes from across the country and the world and put them into a taco. Even the traditional tacos get a fresh look as I will find ways to enhance flavors and textures and make them “our own”. Outside of the restaurant, I do the occasional private dinner. These are certainly at my discretion as I stay fairly busy with work. This summer I did a 7-course dinner for 4 continuing a tradition they started in 2020 when the pandemic squashed travel plans. I love highlighting local, seasonal ingredients while creating dishes that most people would rarely or never make for themselves. A few months later, I catered a get-together for a couple with five of their friends. I ended up making 11 courses. Quite a large undertaking for one person with a small kitchen. I really love doing these dinners but they are a LOT of work.

If you had to, what characteristic of yours would you give the most credit to?
Being teachable is the first thing I think of that has contributed to my success. I’m humble enough to know that I don’t know everything and I have so much I can learn from others. I’ve learned how important it is to growth to be open to the ideas, thoughts, lessons, and experiences of others, especially those who are so different from me.

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1 Comment

  1. Darryl K Vennard

    January 19, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    Jeff and Kurt are amazing fixtures in our city. Besides being great restaurantuers they are great citizens. I work for with a group called Tent Mission Stl and these guys have donated hundreds of healthy meals loaded with protein and veggies. I cannot begin to say how much we appreciate thewm

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