In preparation for Vox's annual farm-to-table dinner, Columbia Grown, we're running a short special series called "Here's The Dish." Each week, we'll spotlight a local seasonal ingredient or a talented local chef working with farm-to-table foods. Watch this space for interviews, recipe ideas and quick tips as we gear up for the big night. Tickets are now available for the main event, so get 'em while they're fresh!
Last year, Meggie Ladendecker was a self-described "passive" contributor to Vox's Columbia Grown farm-to-table dinner, for which she made chocolates and handed them off to last year's head chef, Melissa Poelling, the weekend before the dinner. This year, Ladendecker is at the helm of the big event, where she'll aid Poelling again with desserts.
The MU alumna started out in computer science classes; she didn't consider a career in baking until she was a sophomore, growing tired of lectures that didn't excite her. Growing up, Ladendecker's aunt, a cake decorator, had brought her bags of icing to play with, so that she learned to craft her own sugary flowers and cake borders. Inspired by these childhood antics, Ladendecker soon switched majors to pursue a life of baking. Now, it's been a year since she first opened Bijoux Chocolates, her handcrafted chocolate business in Ballwin. And if her time with Columbia Grown is any example, the young chef is only just getting started.
Vox chatted with Ladendecker to learn more about baking, risk-taking, and why chocolate isn't — believe it or not — her favorite treat.
Describe your journey to becoming a chef. Where did you start?
In my sophomore year, I kind of realized I didn’t enjoy my classes, and I was looking forward to graduating or to my future. So I kind of took a step back and kind of re-evaluated and went back to the things I really enjoyed ... and I tried to figure out, What can I do with these things to make a career that I actually enjoy? Baking was one of the only things that stuck out, so I ended up transferring to Mizzou’s hospitality program for food and beverage.
After that, I graduated in 2015, and I went to this French pastry school in Chicago, and I did their patisserie program, which was just strictly pastry. I knew I wanted to go to culinary school, but most culinary schools make you do a little bit of of everything, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I was 100-percent sure I never wanted to do anything savory; I only wanted to do pastries.
After I graduated from pastry school, I worked in a chocolate place in downtown Chicago ... I worked at a chocolate place in St. Louis for a couple of years after graduating before deciding to do it myself.
(Now) I have my own chocolate company, and I make chocolate candy and confections. My very first “debut" — or the first big thing I did where I was, like, “This is me, finally having a business” — was at last year’s Columbia Grown.
Do you have a particular chocolate you like to make?
Personally, I’m a fruit-in-chocolate kind of person, but I mostly enjoy the experimentation of it. I like making my own recipes. So it’s been a year, and I would say for every couple of months I’ve completely re-done the entire stock of what I had — just to keep things interesting. Especially with my first year, I’m still kind of experimenting with what people like and what people want, so it’s kind of nice to re-evaluate everything I’ve done, instead of just keeping things constant forever.
How would you describe your style of cuisine?
It’s a French style. It’s a little more indulgent than anything you would find in a grocery store; it’s a little more upscale. They’re hand-painted, molded chocolates.
If you only had one night left on Earth, what would you eat for your last meal?
Probably a really big, juicy hamburger. I have a weakness for hamburgers. There’s this place in St. Louis. It’s called (Mac's Local Eats). They have crazy incredible smashed burgers. I would have one of their burgers. Any of them, really. I’ve jumped around the menu, and I don't think I’ve had a single one that was bad.
What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
Besides chocolate, I guess I really like working with fruit purees, and I like interesting ones. I like the more exotic fruits, rather than sticking with the traditional strawberry or raspberry. I like fruits like passionfruit, yuzu and rhubarb. Things like that.
What's an unpopular opinion you have about food?
I honestly don’t eat a lot of chocolate. For my top five desserts, chocolate’s probably not up there. I didn’t go into (making chocolate) because I liked eating it; I went into it because I enjoyed the hand-painted aspect and artistry of it. It's a really cool meld of science and pastry. It’s very temperature specific; it’s the crystallization process that basically makes or breaks what works. ... I do eat chocolate. I like it, obviously, but I would eat ice cream first.
What does Columbia Grown mean to you? Why is the farm-to-table movement important to you?
I’m a local business, and I’m a very big supporter of other local businesses, so I think it’s really important to a community to recognize where their food comes from and to keep it local. ... I think this is a cool way to showcase everything that’s offered around the area that people probably don’t even realize — that it’s so close by. ... And it’s kind of cool to see how it brings everyone together. It sort of shows everyone how easy it can be to shop locally.
What are you looking forward to at this year's Columbia Grown event?
I’m really looking forward to working with the other chefs. Melissa and I have known each other since my junior year of college. She was the first person I ever worked with who showed me the ropes with pastry, and we’ve been living in different cities for a long time, so I’m really excited to get back in and meet with these new chefs as well as get back together with Melissa. Plus she always comes up with interesting and fun ideas.