How does an acclaimed restaurant reinvent itself without the chef whose ambitious vision and painstaking cooking earned it that acclaim in the first place? At Tempus, the apparent answer is to become something other than a conventional restaurant.
Following a 3-month hiatus, Tempus will reopen next week at 4370 Manchester Avenue in the Grove in Forest Park Southeast. Instead of a full-fledged restaurant, it will now mainly operate as a venue for pop-up events showcasing area chefs and other “food (and) beverage artisans,” per the restaurant’s announcement on Monday.
Now leading Tempus’ kitchen is married duo Amy and Vito Racanelli, owners of Big V’s Craft BBQ (previously based out of the recently closed Missouri Beer Co. in O’Fallon, Missouri). St. Louis diners might also recognize Vito Racanelli Jr. from such prior ventures as Big V’s Burger Joint in the Delmar Loop and the Italian restaurant Mad Tomato in Clayton.
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On Nov. 23, the Racanellis will host Tempus’ first pop-up dinner, a spaghetti dinner. One week later, Vito will cook the first dinner in a pop-up series called “Roots.” Both dinners are ticketed events.
Tempus will still occasionally function as a restaurant. On Fridays, the Racanellis will serve to-go Big V’s barbecue and other dishes from Tempus’ preexisting takeout window.
That is what is happening at Tempus. This restaurant critic would still like to know why it is happening, dating back to the restaurant’s temporary closure in August.
Tempus opened in October 2020 with Ben Grupe as the chef. Beginning with the splashy media event in April 2019 that announced the restaurant, Grupe had also been Tempus’ public face. With good reason. In his previous role as the executive chef of Elaia, he had been a semifinalist for “Best Chef: Midwest” in the 2018 James Beard Awards.
(Note: At that time, I served on the James Beard Foundation committee that assembled the list of semifinalists.)
Debuting in the headwinds of the pandemic, Tempus operated as a takeout-only restaurant for its first year. Last fall, its dining room finally opened, and the total Tempus experience won rave reviews from myself and Cheryl Baehr at the Riverfront Times. I named Tempus one of the best new restaurants of 2020-21 and included it in this year’s edition of the STL 100.
In February, Grupe was once again named a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards, this time for “Emerging Chef,” a nationwide category. (I resigned from the aforementioned James Beard Foundation committee in July 2021 and played no role in this year’s awards.)
All of which made the news I broke in August shocking: Grupe was no longer Tempus’ chef.
The circumstances of Grupe’s departure remain a mystery. He did not return a request for comment at that time, and the statement from Tempus in August offered no explanation from owner Peter Brickler. Instead, the statement said Tempus would postpone service for a few weeks to “restructure and refresh” the restaurant.
Which brings us back to this week’s announcement about Tempus’ new direction. Why was such a dramatic transformation necessary in the first place?
In a statement provided to the Post-Dispatch through a PR representative, Brickler said, “My initial vision for Tempus was to create a unique and community-focused space where family and friends could come together for an incredible dining experience. Having said that, I have no regrets about what Tempus ‘1.0’ became, or for the incredible work that Ben Grupe did — a truly talented chef.
“After Ben and I parted ways, I decided that I wanted to take the space in a different direction and with the collaboration and ideas that Vito and Amy brought to the table, I couldn’t be more excited about these groundbreaking ideas.”
I followed up via an email to Tempus’ PR representative to ask Brickler why the original concept did not continue and whose decision it was for Tempus and Grupe to part ways. In addition, I asked whether the Racanellis are considered employees of Tempus and if any of the restaurant’s pre-hiatus staff have been offered jobs.
Brickler declined to comment.
I belabor this “Why?” question because I find this Tempus news a genuine conundrum. As a reporter, I want to present readers with news of a significant opening — or reopening, in this case.
As a critic, however, I must point out the disconnect, if not outright contradiction, between a venue that now wants to highlight local chefs and artisans and to give diners a “unique culinary experience” (quoting Vito Racanelli Jr. in Monday’s announcement) and a venue that, until 3 months ago, highlighted one of St. Louis’ best chefs and provided a unique culinary experience.
There is probably a simple answer to explain this. Rather than get caught up in yet another cycle of restaurant hype, I will insist on asking what it is.
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