|By Joe Bonwich, St. Louis
Post-DispatchMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 19, 2012--It may sound like a culinary fairy tale: A 14-year-old kid gets his first glimpse of the restaurant world when his mom asks him to help make salads for a New Year's Eve buffet. Flash-forward about 20 years, and the kid has transformed himself into the executive chef of a restaurant that serves three meals a day, 365 days a year, and has earned a star in the Michelin Guide.
Did we mention that he was also put in charge of redoing the restaurant's concept from the ground up (or from wherever you start when the restaurant is on the seventh floor)?
This particular fairy tale came true for St. Louis native Ryan LaRoche, 34, executive chef at NoMI, the main restaurant of Hyatt Hotels' flagship Park Hyatt hotel in Chicago.
LaRoche moved to St. Louis as a child when his father, a pilot for TWA, was transferred here. The New Year's Eve party was at the old Sunset West restaurant in Ballwin. LaRoche later worked as a dishwasher at a series of restaurants, including an Outback Steakhouse, where he worked his way up to busboy and later to cook.
"I knew I was good at cooking, but I didn't take it seriously," LaRoche says.
He was still working as a cook and attending St. Louis Community College at Meramec when he got hooked on a TV show on the Discovery Channel, "Great Chefs, Great Cities."
"I guess I had an epiphany," he says.
By that time, his mother, Karen, was working at Annie Gunn's restaurant in Chesterfield, whose kitchen was (and still is) helmed by one of St. Louis' top chefs, Lou Rook.
"Whenever we're looking for someone, we always put the word out with the staff," Rook says. "He was working at Outback, and I figured they did quite a bit of volume there, so I gave him a go."
"I remember the first time I ever put on a chef's coat, it was at Annie Gunn's," LaRoche says. "It was also eye-opening to be involved in the local culinary scene."
"He was an incredible employee, a hard worker," Rook says.
About five years later, and about a year after LaRoche had left Annie Gunn's to take a job in a hotel restaurant in Breckenridge, Colo., Rook gave him a recommendation letter for the Culinary Institute of America.
His studies at the CIA led him to an internship under Michael Mina at Aqua restaurant in San Francisco. He then worked under a series of big-name chefs, including Rick Tramonto at Tru in Chicago and Joel Robuchon at L'Atelier Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, where LaRoche worked his way up to executive sous chef.
"He did it just right," Rook says. "He got in under a series of truly great chefs."
Returning to Chicago, he was chef de cuisine at NoMI when it earned its coveted Michelin star. He was promoted to executive chef at the end of 2010, just as NoMI was changing its format.
The recession had caused a drop-off in business for NoMI's high-end, French-Asian fusion motif. The restaurant element of the new NoMI was reconceived as NoMI Kitchen, with the dining area wrapped around the open kitchen, making the kitchen the focal point. (Or at least more of a focal point, because the dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows across the front, overlooking the Chicago Water Tower from seven stories up.)
LaRoche designed a slightly less expensive menu driven by seasonal, regional ingredients. He also made ingredients part of the room design, expanding NoMI's extensive cheese program and promoting it through a "cheese cave" that was added into the restaurant's visible wine cellar.
A sleek, kaleidoscopic display of house-pickled ingredients now greets diners, and house-cured charcuterie --whole artisanal hams and the like -- are arranged almost like sculptures at the front of the kitchen. The Dale Chihuly glass sculptures that had been in the dining room were relocated to private dining areas.
"Our goal was to create an atmosphere that was above casual and below fine dining," LaRoche says.
"My job up until that point had been to be the best cook I could be," he adds. "Reconcepting the menu, and many other aspects of the restaurant, was a tremendous amount of pressure."
In the midst of the transformation, LaRoche married his wife, Grace. "One was planned before the other," he says wryly.
LaRoche's father is retired from American Airlines, which purchased TWA. His mother continues to work as a server at Annie Gunn's.
LaRoche spends his limited spare time with his wife and their new Rottweiler puppy. He also plays hockey, which he played for Parkway West. (He attended Parkway's Fern Ridge High School, which didn't have its own sports teams.)
"Every good chef always has his vision of what a restaurant should be," LaRoche says. "This has been amazing, and I'm incredibly happy right now."
(c)2012 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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