What does a James Beard Award-winning chef cook when he comes home to St. Louis for Memorial Day?
His choice of condiments provides the first clue: "Hey, you got any Maull's?"
Yes, the grill is covered with — what else? — pork steaks. Chicken thighs and bratwurst will soon take their place. It's quite a departure from the ever-changing foie gras plates chef Patrick Connolly made at the four-star Radius restaurant in Boston and from the crispy duck leg he currently serves at Bobo restaurant in Manhattan's West Village.
But it's a standard menu for a St. Louis backyard barbecue, even though the three Connolly brothers aren't exactly a standard St. Louis family.
This afternoon's host, Dan, 28, is an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots who last year set an unusual NFL record: longest kickoff return by an offensive lineman (71 yards, against Green Bay). In the off-season, he lives with his wife and daughter in a modest two-story home in Glendale. The other brother, Christopher, 31, biked 5 miles to the party from Mesa Cycles, where he works and competes on one of Mesa's road teams.
Patrick, 33, is the least-frequent attendee at the family get-togethers, owing to the all-consuming schedule of an elite New York City chef.
Patrick's first food job was at the St. Louis Bread Co. at Chesterfield Mall while he was a student at St. Louis University High School.
"I attended SLU briefly and Lindenwood even more briefly," he recalls. He got his first cooking job at Tucker's in west St. Louis County, then moved to Dressel's in the Central West End to work first as a bartender and then as a cook.
He and Christopher both worked at Dressel's on and off for about five years.
"Two things happened while at Dressel's that convinced me to move on and pursue a cooking career," Patrick says. "I bought a copy of 'The French Laundry Cookbook' from Left Bank Books (just down the street from Dressel's), and instantly I knew I wanted to pursue it as a career. Then Tony Bourdain did a VIP book signing for 'A Cook's Tour' at Duff's through Left Bank and a friend snuck me into it.
"I was already planning on attending culinary school, and when I asked him for advice on what to do upon finishing school, he said, 'Don't go for money or title. Take even the (most excremental) job at the greatest restaurant and learn as much as you can.'
"So I went on my way prepared to work nonstop for little money and with little social life. I ran into him in LaGuardia airport last year and thanked him for the sound advice he once gave me."
In 2002, Patrick enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., which is renowned for combining culinary and liberal-arts programs. Again, however, classroom learning didn't appeal to him, although he managed to pack in enough kitchen training to land a job at a restaurant in Providence.
"I got a little worried when my paychecks started to bounce," he says. So, following Bourdain's advice, he researched the 10 best restaurants in Boston and papered them with résumés, landing a line-cook position at Radius. Within four years, he'd worked up to executive chef, and in 2007 he was nominated for the James Beard Rising Star award for chefs under 30. The following year, he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef-Northeast.
"I'd known I'd be leaving Radius for about six months before that," Patrick says. "It gave me a good opportunity to find a new spot."
Bobo had been open for about nine months but was struggling for an identity, having already gone through two chefs.
"I'd been doing the four-star, multicourse thing for a long time and wanted to do something new," Patrick says. Bobo's menu concept was based on food served at a dinner party, giving him broad range.
His food has been a success, and Patrick will be working with Bobo's owners to open another restaurant in a few months. The concept for that restaurant hasn't crystallized, but he expects that the space — a former paper store at West 10th Street and Greenwich Street, a few blocks from Bobo — will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and have some sort of retail element. He also plans to work with Brooklyn Grange, a program that's putting farms (or at least large vegetable gardens) on New York City roofs, both for produce for the restaurant and as an educational outreach for local schools.
It's getting pretty crowded now at the family party, possibly because the Connolly boys' mother is one of 12 children and Dan's mother-in-law was one of 15.
Patrick stands at Dan's kitchen counter, rapidly and methodically juicing limes for a pitcher of margaritas. "We should steep a couple of those chiles in the tequila before we make the drinks," he says.
He's soon back at the grill, except this time he's roasting green onions, various colors of bell peppers and asparagus.
The augmented drinks and the roasted vegetables may not be part of the standard menu for a backyard barbecue, but this is no standard backyard barbecue chef.