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Chef Logan Ely: Why cook with a $2,000 truffle when you can make a $2 rutabaga taste really good?

Logan Ely is the chef behind Square 1 Project, a pop-up restaurant concept.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Logan Ely is the chef behind Square 1 Project, a pop-up restaurant concept.

Sound Bites is produced in partnership with Sauce Magazine, our monthly installment exploring cuisine in the St. Louis area.

Chef Logan Ely has been around the globe and back a few times since growing up in St. Louis. He spent time at Chicago’s North Pond Restaurant after graduating Forest Park Community College’s culinary program and from there went to Hong Kong and New York.

While in New York, he worked at the prestigious Blue Hill Restaurant. After that, he left for Napa Valley, where he learned to bake bread with Thomas Keller of Bouchon Bakery. He then moved to Houston to help open a restaurant and “bounced around” for a while in Scandanavia.

Now, he’s returned to St. Louis, starting a popular “pop-up” restaurant, which will help him determine the format and menu he makes for a forthcoming full-operation restaurant.  A pop-up restaurant is a temporary restaurant with short hours of operation and may move locations over the course of several events.

“I came back, my family’s here, I still have friends here,” Ely said. “I thought it was time to play for the home team a little bit. I’d been keeping an eye on what was going on here. I think there’s been a lot of change for the better in 5-6 years. I think that will keep snowballing. I thought I’d try to be a part of that.”

Ely joined St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter alongside Heather Hughes, managing editor of Sauce Magazine, to discuss the trend of pop-up restaurants and how Ely makes his dining establishment work.

Ely said he thought chefs in the St. Louis area had done a good job in the past decade of “getting the public excited about food and excited to dine” outside of chains like Applebee’s and Chili’s. For the record, though, he loves a good jalapeño popper.

In St. Louis, the trend of pop-up restaurants have been growing for some time, said Hughes, pointing to examples like Michael and Tara Gallina’s pop-up Rooster and the Hen, which they used as preparation for the recently-opened Vicia in Cortex. Gerard Craft did something similar before opening his fast-casual concept Porano and also with Sardella.

“Get your foot in the door with people you want to work with on both sides of the dining experience,” Hughes said.

Ely’s concept has its own space, featuring four tables that can feed up to 12 diners at a time.

“It started out with finding a space that I could do something in and then putting everything in there that I knew I needed, the bare minimum, and then begging friends and acquaintance to come in and let us cook them food,” Ely said.

Using social media, Ely spreads the word about reservations and what may be coming up on the menu – a series of experiments in the form of 12 to 14 small-plate courses. You can follow the process on Twitter and Instagram at @square1_project.

“You can work off word of mouth, it is a smaller project in general, so it is easy to get some people excited about it than filling a restaurant with a whole new group of regulars,” Hughes said.

Ely’s pop-up is known for the unique ingredients he puts together for his dishes. He uses things like carrot peels, lemon peels and other normally-discarded items to create something new.

“I have no interest personally cooking with luxury in ingredients like wagyu beef or white truffles,” Ely said. “It is silly for me to spend $2000 on a white truffle. I’d rather buy a rutabaga and make it taste really good.”

One of the most interesting dishes he cooks is a celery bulb buried and baked in used coffee grounds for a few hours. He then takes them out, brushes them off and covers them in a sauce of different onions that was baked at 40 days at a specific humidity and temperature.

“It creates this really aromatic, sweet, molasses-like sauce,” Ely said.

This process serves as a beta test for the public.

“It’s a way for us to slowly define our own style and our own core values,” Ely said. “Every week, the menu changes a little bit. Every week we get a little bit better at something, and make a ton of mistakes. We fail forward not only with food, but with services. I hope we’ll evolve into a restaurant space and team.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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