Hail to the chef

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN, EDITOR

They say the best way to ruin a friendship is to go into business together. Somehow, Aaron Teitelbaum and Jeff Orbin, friends for more than 15 years, have managed to buck that trend. As business partners, they’ve opened two restaurants over the past six years and may add a third next year.

Last October, the two opened Herbie’s Vintage 72 in the space formerly occupied by the legendary Balaban’s in the Central West End. They are also partners in Monarch, a high-end restaurant in Maplewood.

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Recently, the Jewish Light sat down with Teitelbaum, 35, the culinary brains of the operations, to discuss, among other things, the restaurant biz in a recessionary economy, his Jewish grandmother as a role model and what’s missing from the local restaurant scene.

Some would say opening a restaurant in a downturn economy is meshuga. What do you say?

There are lots of thoughts on whether you open in a down economy or an up economy. If you open in a down economy, not only can you often purchase the restaurant for less than what it would typically be but a new restaurant generates buzz so that will fill up your doors. We believe opening in down economy is a good thing if you have capital to get you there and don’t have to seek out a bunch of bank loans and you get (the restaurant) at the right price.

Did you grow up going to Balaban’s?

We did. Like so many people, this was a place we went for family occasions, with friends, on dates. Both Jeff and I grew up going here. We partied many nights here together.

What was your goal in reopening the restaurant given its long and cherished history?

We had the desire to bring back a lot of the old Balaban’s. We didn’t want to keep the name but we wanted to keep a lot of the ideas behind it, which led us to the name Herbie’s (for Herb Balaban, the original owner). We wanted a lot of its old traditions, some of the dishes and to keep the look and feel, but bring it back to its glory days of the ’70s and ’80s.

Are there any new projects we can expect to see from you and Jeff in the future?

I think in 2010 you will see another project from our company. We are always looking to grow. Jeff and I didn’t go into business to just create one restaurant. We love to come up with ideas and get the right people together to create great experiences. What we feel we do really well is put that great team together and keep our guests excited.

Any idea what you might do?

We think we want to move a little West. Then again we were looking at a whole other area when (the Balaban’s space) became available. I think it would be a little more casual and fun. Everything we do, no matter what level we do it at, is about food, wine, music and art.

I heard your Jewish grandmother has played a very important role in your life. What about her recipes? Are they incorporated in any of your menu items?

I don’t have any particulars ones here. My grandmother has played a big part in my cooking. At 95-years-old, she still comes to St. Louis from New York and she will cook in the kitchens. Monarch is her favorite kitchen. She makes her holishkes — stuffed cabbage. This is a family recipe that has been passed down for years. When she’s in visiting, we’ll put it on the menu and she’ll go around the restaurant and sell it to tables. It’s amazing. I’m not going to lie. It’s a money maker.

What are your favorite St. Louis restaurants?

Sidney Street Caf é, Niche, Crossing and Liluma, Iron Barley, Araka.

What kind of restaurant town is St. Louis?

St. Louis has become a great restaurant town. Culturally, it has grown a great deal. As much as I love a great Italian restaurant that’s all I grew up going to. Gian-Tony’s was the restaurant for family events and if we wanted something special, it was Nantucket Cove for lobster.

What is the restaurant scene here still missing?

A Polynesian restaurant is something Jeff and I think St. Louis could use. I think there are some things St. Louis misses in the restaurant world but I don’t think St. Louis and the economy would support them, such as a high-end French restaurant. That’s a hard sell to a price conscious, health conscious, Midwestern city.

How have you and Jeff been able to keep your friendship intact while working so closely together?

Our accountant said to us the other day, “It’s amazing — you guys are very lucky to have each other because your friendship is so strong.” Don’t get me wrong — in six years of business you have ups and downs. We’ve weathered all of them. The 50-50 belief in a partnership goes a long way. You treat each other knowing you each own part of the company. The division of responsibilities is important. We have separate roles. We question each other’s ideas in those roles in our offices and not in front of anyone else. We keep a united front.

What’s the best and worst part of being a chef?

For me, it’s managing a very talented team. I love to have a lot of talents working with me to put out great food and then see how excited people are having the food delivered. I love creating food but I believe a great chef is also about managing a great team. And the worst part again, is managing the team.

What is it about the restaurant business people may not realize?

People work behind the scenes at restaurants so mistakes can be made. You put 1,200 plates out of a kitchen at night, mistakes will happen. Out of those 1,200 plates we may see four or five plates back in a night. Those are good odds. But guests forget and get extremely irate that sometimes a steak can be a little overdone. It then becomes about how you, as a restaurateur, handle the mistake. Everyone should work at a restaurant once.

Do you have a favorite Jewish holiday, custom or tradition?

I always look forward to the High Holidays because it’s a time for family to get together and I love family events. Family eating together is extremely important to me.

What do you cook at home for your family and friends?

I can tell you what we cooked last night. We did pork tenderloin with orecchiette pasta, roasted corn and bok choy. I believe every meal at home is as important as the ones at the restaurant.

And “we” would be?

Me and my significant other.

Aaron, this seems to have become my signature refrain: Jewish?

No, she’s not. But she’s the one.