Great things often are born from disasters. Case in point, Annie Gunn’s, which along with its sister operation, The Smokehouse Market, was devastated in the wake of the ’93 flood when the Monarch Levee broke and the Missouri River swallowed Chesterfield Valley. The event proved to be a dream opportunity for restaurateur Thom Sehnert and Chef Lou Rook III, who came together to relaunch Annie Gunn’s in 1994.
Named for Thom’s great grandmother, Annie Gunn, the restaurant originally opened in 1989. Ten years earlier, Thom and his wife, Jane, had purchased the adjacent Smokehouse Market from Jane’s parents, Frank and Claire Wiegand, who bought it in 1966. The Smokehouse, originally the Chesterfield Mercantile, has been a fixture of West St. Louis County since Andy Kroeger opened it in 1937. Back then it served up gasoline, libations and sundries.
Today, its shelves are stocked with culinary treats that aren’t easy to find elsewhere and which make great gifts for foodies. A full service meat counter offers many of the same cuts offered in the restaurant, a cheese-laden dairy counter and select prepared food round out the store’s provisions. Jane, a culinarian in her own right, continually searches for food finds to add to The Smokehouse’s specialties, but it’s the market’s counter service meals that have customers willing to wait in line for service.
“When Annie Gunn’s opened the concept was simple – reflect The Smokehouse’s mission to use the finest food, finest beverage and the finest quality service as a catalyst to make our community a better place in which to live. We’re still doing that,” Thom said. “When we bought The Smokehouse our goal was to build on its roots not to compete against Schnucks or Dierberg’s but to complement what they do. When we opened Annie Gunn’s, the restaurant was to complement what we had at the store. If you were over at the store and saw a great meat display but didn’t feel like cooking you could come to Annie Gunn’s. Conversely, if you were at Annie Gunn’s and loved the foie gras or smoked shrimp … you could go next door to the store.”
That simple recipe, and the addition of Lou, has made The Smokehouse Market and Annie Gunn’s a culinary jewel, earning it multiple national dining awards, including 17 consecutive Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards and recognition by the James Beard Foundation along with invitations to cook at the prestigious Beard House, twice.
“After the flood, I knew I would rebuild and I knew I had to include Lou. I told him, ‘I would love to have you join us,’” Thom said. “That was in October ’93 … 26 years later it’s still working out.”
Sehnert and Rook built on their roots.
“We didn’t talk about staying the same,” Lou said. “We talked about where we were going and how we were going to keep it fresh and innovative without forgetting our roots. That was important to me, because that’s what brought us to the dance. So in the beginning, we made minimal changes. As time went on, so did the evolution of the food and wine list but we still kept our identity.”
Lou, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, brought a wealth of experience to the Chesterfield restaurant. He credits Chef Bill Cardwell with strongly influencing his culinary philosophy.
“Bill Cardwell was the first one to buy local, farm to table,” Lou explained. “It seems a little passé now but back in ‘89, nobody else was doing it.”
Working with Cardwell, Lou learned how food innovation is fed by quality ingredients. It’s a philosophy of freshness that has yielded an innovated menu at Annie Gunn’s, one that Thom calls “a world of flavors.” A menu designed to satisfy a gourmet and a meat-and-potatoes guy.
“I can get as creative as I want,” Lou said, “but you don’t have to overthink it. What we do here is make food the best we can and present it in a sensible fashion.”
Sensible cuisine based on fresh and unique ingredients has made Annie Gunn’s a destination for the culinary curious and savvy foodies alike who appreciate Lou’s innovation and high-quality plates.
In some cases, plates built on products that have yet to be harvested. Case in point, seafood. Technology now allows for fishermen to discern what might be coming in on the next catch. They contact the restaurant at 9 a.m., forecasting what they think will be in the catch of the day.
“I can place an order by 10 a.m. and it’s here at our door by 10 a.m. the next day. It’s an incredible program. Last week, I was offered Ehu [Hawaiian deep water red snapper]. I had never heard of it but it was luscious, rich and had a nice flakiness.”
Ehu is exactly the kind of product Lou loves to work with – something different, something flavorful, something fun.
Having fun in the kitchen is a family trait. At age 9, Lou began working alongside his father – and favorite mentor – Lou Rook Jr.
It was at that time that “Papa Lou” left his job as a welder to open King Louie’s, a hamburger and root beer joint in Wood River, Illinois, before working his way up to executive chef at Sunset Hills Country Club in Edwardsville. Throughout his father’s culinary career, Lou watched and learned.
After reopening Annie Gunn’s in 1994, Thom and Lou hired then-retired Papa Lou as their day chef. It was a perfect fit.
“I’ve learned a lot from my dad, and it was great working side-by-side with him here at Annie Gunn’s,” Lou said. “Dad would come in early to get things going; then I would come in later and stay late.”
It was a simple but successful synergy, much like the food Lou serves.
“Day in and day out you want to come in, sit down and have a great meal,” he said.
Though his creations often are cutting edge, Lou has never been a big proponent of mixing too many flavors. His goal is to enhance and maximize the flavor potential of the dish, even with simple dishes such as hamburgers, sandwiches or meatloaf – all items that will never leave the menu.
“It’s unusual to have a menu like ours,” Thom explained. “Lou does five different daily specials, which sometimes have been known to change hourly, depending on accessible ingredients. But beyond all that, we still have sandwiches on the dinner menu. Most of our friendly competitors ask why we would do that – missing a chance to sell an entrée. But our whole concept at Annie Gunn’s is to have something on the menu at all price points, and that includes our wines.”
Annie Gunn’s was one of the first restaurants to offer and expand the “wine by the glass” concept, believing that, if you have a great steak, you should be able to order a great glass of wine without having to buy the bottle. Wine Director Glenn Bardgett made that happen. Under his direction, Annie Gunn’s has garnered two James Beard nominations for “best wine program.”
Bardgett oversees a catalog of nearly 800 wines, making Annie Gunn’s wine list one of the best reads in town. Among its pages are 43 wines currently listed by the glass.
“Thanks to Glenn, you can enjoy an incredible glass of wine, moderately priced, and you don’t have to second mortgage your house to enjoy a bottle,” Thom said. “We’re proud of that.”
For the Chesterfield couple, whose roots go deep into the community, and the award-winning chef, there’s just one goal. “We plan to continue to evolve,” Thom said.