By Krisit Ruggles
The Florentine Room.
Commencement speakers have dispensed three pieces of advice to countless graduates. Take risks, they’ve said, work hard, and build friendships. After all, no telling who will be your next boss. Whether Robert Tedesco heard that advice and seized upon it, or whether he simply conducted himself as Robert Tedesco, he has, at 40, become a classic example of risk-taking, hard-working, friend-making success.
Tedesco is executive chef at Kemoll’s in downtown St. Louis. He and Jim Thomas, banquet and lunch chef, prepare food for groups who gather in the restaurant on the ground floor of Metropolitan Square, as well as in Kemoll’s banquet space on the 42nd floor, known as Top of the Met.
The job offers Tedesco an opportunity to perfect his Italian cooking, a chance to return to his hometown – the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Illinois – and a sense of normalcy that perhaps he missed cooking on a ship for years or cooking for movie stars in a kitchen-on-wheels.
Tedesco’s career began as a deckhand for a cruise line based in St. Louis. He carried luggage, scrubbed the deck, threw lines overboard, and washed dishes. The workdays were long and brutal, but when days off rolled around, Tedesco could play on a Caribbean island.
A full-time restaurant job opened on the cruise line, and Tedesco took it. His workday began at 6 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m., and he worked three months without a day’s break. The payoff: a month off between three-month stints.
Tedesco decided to become a chef while he was aboard the cruise line, so he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. His study required an “externship,” so Tedesco returned to the cruise line as an assistant chef. When he finished school, he went back to the cruise line and ultimately rose to the job of executive chef.
Then, Tedesco decided it was time to see Europe. The cruise line didn’t cross the Atlantic, so the chef left the job to find something that would.
A phone call turned into his ticket. His sister, who lives in Los Angeles, called to say her boss was going to Italy and wanted a personal chef. Tedesco took the two-week gig. When the boss returned to the States, the chef didn’t.
He explored the country and looked for work. He bumped into an acquaintance from his cruise line days who offered to let Tedesco stay in his apartment.
“I threw all of my stuff on a train,” he said. “I found the apartment, which was in a popular yacht harbor town. I just started going to docks, put out my resume, and I found a job.”
Tedesco spent five months cruising the French Riviera and cooking for a Saudi Arabian family. When the family would travel on land, he’d stay aboard the yacht with the captain. The family invited Tedesco to join them as their chef at their home in Virginia. He went. They then invited him to return to Saudi Arabia with them. He declined.
Instead, he bought a plane ticket to L.A. to visit his sister. He and another traveler aboard the plane struck up a conversation. The man gave Tedesco a business card for an associate who lived in L.A. and owned a catering company.
“When he gave me the card, I didn’t think that much about it,” he said. “But when I got to my sister’s, I pulled it out of my pocket, and the address was on the same street. He lived five blocks away in L.A. It was unbelievable.”
Tedesco paid a visit to the catering company owner. Three months later, he was in Seattle, cooking on the set of “Northern Exposure,” a network sitcom. Hence began his career in motion picture catering, a job that he said made endless days on the cruise line seem simple.
“It was a demanding job,” he said. “Film crews are on a schedule, and there is little room for error.”
He cooked in a 40-foot long mobile kitchen that the company drove to each set. The company would feed a film crew of as many as 250 people and cook separate meals for the stars.
Tedesco knows the dinner whims of celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis and Drew Barrymore. When Oprah Winfrey interviewed Michael Jackson at his Never Land Ranch, Tedesco was there to cook. When Stephen King’s “The Stand” became a television miniseries, the crew on hand in Salt Lake City ate Tedesco’s cooking.
The chef got tired of the travel and pressure of the catering job, and decided to let go of it. He was 32 then. He’d been cooking on the road – and the water – since he was 23.
Tedesco moved back to Belleville during this break, as he had with earlier breaks. This time, though, he stayed. He got married and started a family, and said the Kemoll’s job was a perfect match. Tedesco, who says he is 80 percent Italian, prefers cooking and eating Italian to any other ethnic cuisine.
“This was not a difficult transition,” Tedesco said. “This is a great restaurant in a great place.”
Kemoll’s restaurant dates to 1927, when it was a one-room confectionery on North Grand Boulevard in St. Louis. Dora Kemoll studied her mother’s recipes from Sicily and tinkered with them until she perfected them, said granddaughter Ellen Cusumano, who began wiping spoons after the dishwasher when she was 9. Today, Cusumano is director of special events and catering.
“I can remember testing a recipe, and testing it and testing it and testing it,” Cusumano said, “until Grandma would say, ‘OK, now you can put it on the menu.’”
The business drew a clientele well beyond the neighborhood. As it grew in popularity, the family grew, too. The Kemolls’ daughter, Mary Grace, married Frank Cusumano, who became an active business partner in the restaurant. The family bought storefronts along North Grand to expand the restaurant, which created a meandering effect through the dining rooms.
Dora Kemoll was no longer living when the restaurant moved to downtown St. Louis, but her family sees her legacy in every room. The new Kemoll’s, which opened in 1990, is designed to replicate the meandering dining rooms of the Kemoll’s on North Grand.
The fold of the linens on each table is a fold that Dora Kemoll introduced. The china is a pattern she chose. Many of the gold-leafed mirrors and paintings that decorate the restaurant were brought to St. Louis from Italy under Dora Kemoll’s direction. The cheese bread, cannelloni, puglia e fieno and linguini con vongole are her original recipes and are still on the menu today.
The odd configuration of rooms, although designed as a tribute to the woman who began it all, makes for convenient event space at Kemoll’s. The rooms provide privacy for groups that range in number. The smallest room seats up to 20 and the largest up to 100. The rooms in between can accommodate up to 40 and 45.
The Cusumano family, the generation of Kemolls now running the restaurant, opened Top of the Met in 2003. That event space, which offers one of the few vantage points in which one looks down on the St. Louis Arch, can seat up to 300 for a meal and as many as 500 for a reception. MM&E
(Kristi Ruggles is a contributor from St. Louis, MO.)
Ellen Cusumano (314) 750-6240 Tiffany Hutchinson (618) 939-0416.