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Kevin Willmann  

Chef of Farmhaus

Born into a farming family in Greenville, Illinois and self-taught in the culinary arts down South in the Florida panhandle, Chef Kevin Willmann has a community approach to his food. Since moving back to the St. Louis area six years ago, Chef Kevin has manned the helm of some of St. Louis’ best restaurants and has taken those experiences to put a culinary concept together that blends a casual feel with a fine dining experience.

“My grandfather, uncles and father were, and some still are, cash-croppers here in Southern Illinois. While all of the machinery and day to operations of running a farm were intriguing to a boy, my real interests were in the fruit and vegetable gardens and kitchens of my youth. I remember playing in the backyard and walking to the garden for a snack of raw beans and warm tomatoes. We would pull carrots and potatoes, rinse them clean from the well and eat them raw with a sprinkle of salt. My great grandfather had dairy cattle and my father and I would gulp down raw milk on visits. There were rhubarb pies cooling in windows, cobblers on the table and every jelly and jam fathomable in the pantries. I realized early in life, food was what brought families together. The canning and picking and shucking and peeling seemed to be the backdrop for all of our family gatherings.

When I was twelve my stepfather took a job in Pensacola, Florida and I instantly gravitated to backwaters, bayous and bays which I had never seen before. I began to fish religiously. I spent hours every day on the water. My friends and I would beg our mothers to drive us to the marinas on weekends to see the charter and commercial boats come in with their catch. In time we took jobs cleaning those boats, catching bait and eventually commercial fishing or deck handing charters. Many bright red snappers, vibrant groupers, odd shaped triggerfish and big amberjacks came over the rails of the boats and when we returned I cleaned them for the clients. Some tipped me in giant slabs of amberjack, whole sides of snapper, and grouper that I ran home to try and cook. I realized then that the gulf would always be a part of my life.

In time I got a job at the local seafood market delivering the bounty of the gulf and bays to restaurants in the area. The Fish Peddler had excellent seafood from local fishermen, so I got to deliver to many of the area’s best restaurants and talk to the chefs about how to prepare certain fishes and what flavors paired well. I soon realized that I might have a future in food.

I took my first cooking job of note at a busy beachside restaurant complex called Jubilee on Pensacola Beach in the mid 90s and worked on one of the fastest lines that I can recall to date. We would serve from five hundred to nearly fifteen hundred people in a day at the downstairs, casual restaurant. But I had my sights set on the fine dining restaurant in the complex. While still capable of over four hundred guests a night, “Topside,” as it was called, was one of the most renowned upscale spots in the Pensacola area.

I worked my tail off downstairs hoping to get noticed and within the year I had a chance to move upstairs. Chef Frank Taylor had purchased a few yellow fin tuna right off the boat that day and I bet him that I could clean one just as well as he could. I did, and in exchange for that and a few secret fishing honey-holes Frank gave me a shot on the line upstairs. I worked a busy sauté station and cooked brunch every Sunday. Chef Taylor moved on to Destin, Florida in 1999 and I went with him. We opened a clubhouse restaurant called Rutherfords 465 in Destin’s beautiful Regatta Bay Golf Course. Some of the best talent from the gulf coast was put together in our opening staff. I was allowed to create the amuse bouche every day. I did most of the stocks and butchered all of the meat and fish. I enjoyed my job, but decided it was time to do something new so I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee

While in Knoxville, I worked at a premier bistro for Chef Tygee Pistorio who had come from The Inn at Little Washington and, after a year with him, I took a job at Cha-Cha, a modern, trendy, tapas-fusion restaurant. We were creating some of the most interesting food I’d seen to date. Most of my training to this point had been very classic French, but there was something about the colors and aggressive presentations and flavors of Chef Cardiff Creasy that inspired me to begin to open my mind to the idea of a concept restaurant. The food we were doing was nothing revolutionary, but it was sexy. I truly enjoyed the Knoxville years, the great produce—especially the tomatoes—and the lasting friendships.

I moved back to Pensacola to exercise my new experiences with my old friends in 2001. Chef Taylor and I got back together with an idea to do a global fusion tapas bar. In 2002, we opened The Global Grill. We threw everything we had at our new concept and stole the city’s heart with our mélange of flavors, inexpensive, small portions, and globally influenced cuisine. I loved being back in Florida, but quickly realized that Pensacola was too small for the next culinary progression in my career. So I spun the globe and landed in St. Louis, Missouri.

With a new self-confidence I set out to find my own kitchen. I was ready to be a chef. I got my chance within a year and gladly took the helm of Lucas Park Grille on the city’s new urban-life friendly Washington Avenue. While at Lucas I gained invaluable information on local purveyors and farmers and had many wonderful opportunities to meet influential people and create wonderful food for them. Open seven days a week, from seven in the morning till we couldn’t stand anymore, we produced some great food in a beautifully remodeled space. After a year at Lucas, I took the head chef position at Mosaic and realized that it was time to do my own thing. I wanted to create beautiful, memorable food using only the freshest local ingredients. And I was running out of the trendy Washington Avenue restaurants.

Armed with a dream and the support of my family I set out to find a place of my own. In 2006, I caught wind that Erato was expanding to a new location in Edwardsville, Illinois and partnered with a sommelier. I got my dream 35-seat dining room where I was able to touch every plate that left my not so dreamy, tiny kitchen. Since then, Erato stole the show from the St. Louis Restaurant scene.

In 2010, with enough buzz surrounding my accomplishments at Erato, I decided to open my first restaurant on my own, Farmhaus. This has always been my dream and it's just the beginning."

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