AN URBAN WINERY
By Kristi Ruggles
When Dave Rook steps out of the kitchen at Copia Urban Winery to greet a guest, he opens a Budweiser Select. If the guest lingers, he opens a second one.
If Rook were awaiting execution at midnight (a hypothetical, of course) and needed to write the menu for his last meal, he would want Jim Beam to wash down his strip steak and crab legs.
This, from a man who runs the kitchen in a restaurant billed as an “urban winery”?
Well, yes. Copia is about far more than wine. And Rook is about far more than beer and whiskey.
The chef arrived at Copia Urban Winery when it opened in October 2005. He brought experience from a cruise line kitchen, a few big-name restaurant spots in St. Louis, and time spent making griddle burgers and homemade root beer at his family’s first restaurant in Illinois.
Rook possesses a genetic predisposition to cook. His dad, Lou Rook, was a welder who helped build trains. But when Dave Rook was 4, his dad bought the local drive-in in Alton, Ill. They no longer own that business, but its griddle burgers remain on the menu. Visitors to Copia Winery also will notice “Chef Dave’s Old-Fashioned Burger” on the menu, a griddle-seared sirloin.
Lou Rook has stayed in the restaurant business, and so have two of his sons. Today, Lou is assistant chef at Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield, where his son—Lou III—also is a chef.
“It is the life he chose, and it’s what we know and what we do,” said Dave Rook. “I could do other things, but this is what I do best.”
Dave Rook wasted no time in launching his career. After high school, he joined the Clipper Cruise Line and embarked upon a grueling schedule: 16-hour days for 90 days straight, then a month off.
“I flew there with $5 in my pocket and my dad’s jacket,” he said. “No one was going to fly me home if it didn’t work out. I learned how to work, how to really work.”
Rook began at Clipper as a third chef, then became sous chef and ultimately head chef. He left Clipper after four years and got a job on the Mississippi Queen, an entertainment cruise ship that docked in New Orleans.
The New Orleans job taught Rook one thing: he was ready to go home. The Queen attracted an interesting clientele—the San Francisco 49ers rented the boat for family and friends during Super Bowl XXIV at the Lousiana Superdome—but the city proved brutal. Rook endured muggings and stabbings and drama on the job that he decided he could do without.
When then-girlfriend and now-wife Lisa visited Rook in New Orleans, he decided he had had enough and returned home.
Rook joined brother Lou and Lou’s business partner in a new restaurant venture in the city’s Central West End—Grappa Grill.
When Grappa closed, Dave Rook accepted an invitation from an investor to help open Fitz’s American Grill & Bottling Works in the city’s Delmar Loop. The restaurant’s launch became somewhat of a group project, with brother Lou helping and a few other chef friends pitching in.
On opening day, Dave Rook arrived at 5 a.m. and spent the day in a room without windows. Imagine his surprise when he took a break, sat down in front of a television, and saw a local television news anchor broadcasting live from Fitz’s parking lot. The line to enter the restaurant wrapped around the corner.
That first day gave way to three years at Fitz’s. Rook’s next stop was Crazy Fish Fresh Grill for nine years and then Aqua Vin, both fine dining ventures with restaurants in west St. Louis County. Coincidentally, the people planning Copia Urban Winery occasionally ate at Aqua Vin. They liked the way Dave Rook put together a meal.
Rook had left Aqua Vin to find something new when someone suggested he talk to the investors at Copia. He showed up at a rough-looking, unfinished space in the 1100 block of Washington Avenue, and he knew he wanted the job.
The restaurant opened in October 2005. One reviewer called it a “radiant million-dollar smile” where “a formerly toothless grimace of abandoned old buildings” had been. Others applauded the service, the food, wine selection and wine prices.
“One of the greatest things about this place is the space,” Rook said. “We have a 200-seat patio. There’s not another spot like it in St. Louis. In the summer, we open one side of it. It’s got a big dome roof, and a fireplace, and a fountain, two eight-foot television screens. It’s awesome space for an event. Our other spaces have a fireplace, big cozy couches, 12-foot ceilings. It’s great.”
Copia does indeed have several spots that invite groups, including a private dining room that seats up to 50 or accommodates 75 standing; an upper wine cellar, which has room for 16; a lower wine cellar that fits 22 for a meal and 35 for a cocktail event; and the wine garden—the year-round outdoor space that Rook describes as unduplicated in the metro area. Copia Urban Winery also closes for private events.
The private dining room is fully equipped for events that require audio-visual equipment.
Cozy or not, guests continue to return to the urban winery for its food. Rook’s menu ranges from the fancy to the old-fashioned. On the dinner menu are grilled chicken lasagna, house-smoked rack of ribs, sesame-crusted tuna and pan-roasted sea scallops. There is plenty of beef, too, including Rook’s last meal, strip steak, prime rib, filet mignon and the much-talked-about Copia Surf & Turf.
The restaurant also offers more everyday choices with a few special twists, such as grilled vegetable pizza with olive oil, eggplant, yellow squash, red and yellow peppers and other veggies and cheeses; a “Yankee pot roast,” served over mashed potatoes; and a pulled pork sandwich with roasted green chile mango barbecue sauce.
Rook said he used to want to teach people how to eat, but now he is happy simply knowing they enjoy the meal.
“I used to think, ‘Don’t order the tuna well done, because that’s not the way to eat it,’” he said. “I didn’t like you ordering A1 sauce with your steak, because your steak didn’t need it. Now, I’m just into good food done right, whatever makes you happy.”
Copia sells wines from six continents. They come at retail price from the next door market (part of Copia), so even after an $8 corkage fee, guests pay less for wine.
Rook often cooks for wine dinners at Copia. He also is among an elite circle of chefs who have prepared meals at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles, California, where big-name chefs are invited to cook six times a year.
Still, in his off time, Rook might lean toward being a beer-or-whiskey guy. He says his favorite meal is anything his wife cooks, especially her spaghetti.
Rook’s career as a chef was so certain that he cannot immediately decide what he would have done otherwise, but after some thought, he lands on it.
“I would like to have a farm with lakes and horses and different animals, but no pigs,” he said, “and to have a bed and breakfast there. People could come and go and do the country thing and have a great meal. That’s what I’d be doing if I wasn’t doing this.”
When his guests arrived at the bed and breakfast, odds are good he would crack open a Bud Select.
For more information visit:
www.copiawine.com, or call Jenni Surtin at 314-621-7275.
(Kristi Ruggles is a contributing writer from St. Louis, Mo.)