Apronomics: Jimmy Voss
For more than two decades, St. Louisan Jimmy Voss has been cooking for The Grateful Dead. He balanced his time with the band with his role as executive chef at the much loved Duff’s in the Central West End until it closed in 2013. Now, he’s back in his old neighborhood and has teamed up with another Duff’s alum: William Roth of West End Grill and Pub, where Voss has taken the helm in the kitchen.
Voss was born and raised in the Central West End. Growing up, he was not interested in the culinary arts, but in high school, a friend of his got a job working at Duff’s. Voss was offered a dishwashing position while visiting him at the restaurant one day. “A couple weeks after I started, I met Karen Duffy, and she asked who I was,” he recalls. “I told her I was the Saturday night dishwasher, and she introduced herself as my boss. That was really funny. Everyone always was having a good time at Duff’s, and a lot of great people came through. When I first walked in, it was like listening to KDNA radio but a live restaurant. It was a magic moment in time.”
While Voss started as dishwasher, he found his place in the kitchen within a year, and not long after, the head chef was training him to take over. “I learned through trial by fire,” he notes. Along with assistance from his co-workers at Duff’s, Voss relied on the St. Louis Public Library to develop his cooking skills. The nearby branch was open late on Mondays, which happened to be the evening the restaurant would close. “I would go and check out cookbooks and mess around with the recipes,” he says. “One time, I found the entire Time-Life Foods of the World collection in Left Bank Books’ basement. I couldn’t afford it all, but Barry Leibman saved it for me and let me buy one volume every payday.”
Among the many people who frequented Duff’s was John McIntire, one of the early managers for The Grateful Dead. Originally from Belleville, Illinois, he was friends with Karen Duffy, who introduced him to Voss. “I cooked for him, and we became friends,” Voss says. “Saying I was a Deadhead would be the understatement of the year. I used every vacation I had to follow the band.” In 1986, he received the call of a lifetime. The group’s chef had suddenly quit while they were on tour in Wisconsin, and they wanted Voss to step in as the replacement. “I got permission from Karen, and I’m not kidding when I say that the next day I was cooking for Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and the band,” he recalls.
Voss toured with The Grateful Dead until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995 and has continued cooking for different iterations of the group to this day. All the while, he maintained his position as executive chef at Duff’s. He would spend three months on the road and the rest of the year in St. Louis. “It was a whirlwind of song and dance and food,” he says. “It could be a little hectic, coming back, catching up with everything and then turning back around to tour again. The band was a huge creative influence on me. I would come up with menu items for Duff’s on the road and create recipes for the band based on what I was doing at the restaurant. It was a crazy affair, and it’s not over yet.”
Voss has endless memorable stories from his time feeding The Grateful Dead. In New York City, the group wanted to try classic chocolate egg creams, and the experience ended in an impromptu water fight with the seltzer bottles. While touring in Florida, they enjoyed stone crab, and Mickey Hart used the discarded legs to play his drums. “I quickly realized what they wanted most was down-home cooking that made them feel like their grandmothers were making dinner for them,” Voss says. “I guess you could call me grandma.”
He recently brought some of the bands’ favorite dishes to West End Grill and Pub through a special menu and plans to keep some of them in rotation. While the pandemic has presented challenges, it has offered him freedom to experiment with new offerings by keeping the restaurant’s menu small but constantly changing. “In a backward way, it’s giving me a chance to do what I want,” he says. “I don’t have to wait for the next season to switch things up. I may be getting older, but I want to see how much I can do before I retire.”
french onion soup
1 c yellow onion, diced
2 tbsp butter
¼ c dry sherry
4 c beef stock
8 oz. Swiss cheese, sliced or shredded
- Caramelize yellow onion in butter on low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes.
- Add dry sherry and simmer on low another 15 minutes.
- Add beef stock, bring to a boil and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Preheat the broiler in oven.
- Divide soup into four serving crocks, and place just enough of your favorite croutons in each to keep cheese from sinking. Top each with about 2 oz. of Swiss cheese and sprinkle with Parmesan.
- Place in oven until the cheese is charred well but not burned.
Photos: Bill Barrett