St. Louis Character: Ben Grupe goes from US Culinary Olympic Team to opening a long-awaited restaurant – St. Louis Business Journal – St. Louis Business Journal

After working in some of St. Louis’ top kitchens and competing on the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team, St. Louis native and James Beard Award-nominated chef Ben Grupe finally has his own restaurant.
Grupe’s long-awaited Tempus restaurant opened its doors in The Grove this past October — but it’s a little different than how he initially imagined it. The restaurant, which serves chef-driven, American cuisine, offers to-go service only. The Covid-19 pandemic and staffing issues have made it difficult for the restaurant to offer indoor dining services.
“It has been very hard to find staff,” Grupe said. “We have run ads with job recruiters and reached out to people. We’ve had some interest but we feel that since we are trying to do things a little differently, instead of hiring the first person, we want to make sure the team members are the right fit.”
Grupe says he is passionate about doing things differently and dismantling some of the toxicity that comes with working in the hospitality industry, and that starts by being more selective when hiring his team members.
What sparked your interest in food and cooking? Throughout high school, my friend and I had a lawn care business, but in the winter months, I worked at a banquet facility and did everything from setting up rooms to setting up parties and bussing tables. I came to a crossroads at the end of high school where I could continue this lawn care business or do something else. The lawn business just didn’t excite me. Because of my banquet experience, I started working at a restaurant in Clayton as a dishwasher, and at the time, I was just attracted to that party environment inside a restaurant. One day the salad cook didn’t show up and the chef asked me to step in. I moved up the ranks from there. They encouraged me to enroll in culinary school. Eventually, I met Racquet Club Ladue’s chef Chris Desens. He took me under his wing after that. He encouraged me to go to the Greenbrier Culinary Apprenticeship program in West Virginia.
What did you do after Greenbrier? I graduated from Greenbrier in 2009 and had a job lined up with Chris at Racquet Club Ladue, but he accepted a job with the culinary institute at Hickey College. He wanted me to replace him at the Racquet Club, but I had all these goals and ambitions and I didn’t think there was a way I could successfully run a kitchen and do all these things. I started working at private clubs and was in the process of trying out for the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team.
You’ve worked in several country clubs. How was that different from working at a traditional restaurant, like your time at Elaia and Olio? There are a lot of similarities because there are a lot of moving parts in both. In restaurants, you have guests come in and your purpose is to service those guests and create a nice environment for them. The members of a country club pay money to be a member there. You have a general manager you report to but in a way, those guests are your bosses, too. If so and so wants an omelette with king crab and oysters during dinner rush, you have to oblige. In a restaurant you can say no, we don’t serve that during this time. Clubs are also usually three-meals-a-day establishments with breakfast, lunch and dinner.
What was the process of trying out for the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team like? You basically applied and had to have letters of recommendation. If you were accepted, then there were two phases of tryouts. If you pass the first, you get invited to the second one. They put you in scenarios and you had to develop a menu that was multifaceted. Six chefs made up the Olympic team. Once you make the team, we had to fly out and train once a month and work on our menu. In reality, it was a second full-time job. I was on the 2012 and 2016 teams. In 2016, we got first place in one category and fourth place overall.
Why did you decide to open your own restaurant? When I worked at Elaia and Olio here in St. Louis, I was trying out for another competition. I was obsessed with competitions at that time. I told myself if I win, I am moving to California where they had a training facility for this particular program. If I didn’t win, I’d come back and reassess and figure out what I wanted to do. I decided to leave Elaia and Olio and chart my own path. I had all these ideas and concepts and designs. We announced Tempus in 2019 and finally opened it in October 2020.
How has the concept of Tempus changed? With construction setbacks, we had to redo a lot of stuff. It was frustrating, but the concept of the food hasn’t really been altered. The focus has always been to offer familiar and approachable food. That’s challenging because people always ask, “What kind of restaurant are you?” I just cook food. It’s hard to articulate that sometimes. We opened as a to-go establishment only and we haven’t been able to open our dining room yet.
How has Covid impacted operations? Covid definitely put a thorn in our side at first. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to furlough staff. Our leadership has been operating the restaurant. But now we find ourselves in this position where we want to dismantle what the norms are when it comes to the hospitality industry. We are building a safe and inclusive work environment. Something as small as being inclusive with interview questions. There’s the stereotypical “do you have reliable transportation?” question, which really means you’re likely poor and can’t make it to work on time. Covid has exposed a lot of these things. A lot of people working in hospitality were presented with the option of staying or getting out. They got out because of toxic work environments. My goal is to break those systems and do it differently.
More about Ben Grupe:
Title: Chef operator of Tempus in The Grove
Age: 39
Education: Greenbrier Culinary Apprenticeship program
Family: Married to wife, Alex, and has two boys, Thomas and Bennett
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