How YouTube helped St. Louis chef Brian Lagerstrom reclaim the kitchen
“Oh! Yeah! It’s me! Your No. 1 taco boy.”
Maybe this isn’t the way you’d expect a lauded chef to introduce an instructional video on how to produce the perfect barbacoa taco … but Brian Lagerstrom is no longer a typical chef. This scene comes from just one of dozens of videos posted on Weeds & Sardines, the rapidly growing YouTube channel he co-produces with his spouse Lauren Adermann. Weeds & Sardines has taken off faster than the couple could have anticipated; they passed the 1,000-subscriber mark just four months after posting their first video. Recently, Italian foods giant Barilla sent him a bunch of swag after he featured their pasta in an episode.
Recognized as a 2015 Sauce Magazine One to Watch, Lagerstrom was sous chef at Niche when its co-owner and chef Gerard Craft won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Midwest in the same year. Shortly thereafter, he left the restaurant (and fine dining altogether) to build something new with his friends, Ted Wilson and Sean Netzer, at Union Loafers Cafe and Bakery. “He’s a wildly intellectually curious person, and that’s the driver for him – that’s why he’s such a good cook,” said Matt McGuire, owner of Louie and Lagerstrom’s former colleague at Niche.
While Lagerstrom started making videos during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, his move into YouTube began long before we grew sick of the word “pivot.” When, like many Americans, Lagerstrom was furloughed in mid-March, he was already two years gone from the restaurant industry, having left Union Loafers in 2018.
When Lagerstrom left the restaurant he helped found to become a seafood specialist with food service distributor US Foods, the news spread like that of a sudden death. “Did you hear about Brian?” was how chefs greeted each other for weeks. What would possess Brian Lagerstrom to stop being a chef?
“I got a lot of texts out of the blue from other chefs and friends like, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Did something change for you?’ And a lot of support – people saying, ‘We’ll miss your food,’” Lagerstrom said.
It’s natural to want a reason when someone chooses a path opposed to your own – to want to know what’s wrong with yours, or what’s wrong with that person for straying. The funny thing is that Lagerstrom’s incentive for leaving (his new role at US Foods offered increased pay for less grueling hours) was well known; but still, it was considered an insufficient explanation. Lagerstrom was thought of as a true believer, and true believers don’t just walk away.
Craft said that to succeed in the high-pressure environment of 2015 Niche, you had to be a talented self-starter, and Lagerstrom was one of the best. He started a new bread program and taught himself how to make vinegar and cheese. “I think he ended up getting us raided by the health department,” Craft said, laughing. “But it was very much worth it.”
In the broccoli Caesar salad episode of Weeds & Sardines, Lagerstrom advises, “Don’t go too crazy on perfection, just pay attention,” while chopping vegetables. It’s advice he doesn’t always follow.
While at Niche, he watched endless hours of YouTube learning how to make Camembert – something he wasn’t told to do and didn’t get a bonus for. “Some of the best cheese I’ve ever had in my life,” said McGuire. “And he did that because he was interested in the process. If he was learning, he was good. If that was ever taken away from him or threatened, his interest level went way down.”
At Union Loafers, Lagerstrom was part of a team of equally obsessive perfectionists; together, they created a menu of classic sandwiches and salads quickly recognized as some of the best in town. In Wilson, Lagerstrom found an ideal partner – neither are ever satisfied with their work; both endlessly seek to improve. “I swear, a lot of the food that both those guys make are the best versions I’ve ever had,” McGuire said. “I can say that very easily.”
But after three years, Lagerstrom could not help but “pull the camera back,” as McGuire put it. While many professional chefs just put their heads down and focus on the tasks at hand while years pass by, according to McGuire, that was never Lagerstrom’s style; he was able to see himself in a bigger context. Lagerstrom’s mind turned toward the restaurant industry as a whole, considering his place in it.
Partly, this was because he had married Adermann, a woman who also wouldn’t leave a dirty dish in the sink to be dealt with tomorrow. When Lagerstrom and Adermann devoted their considerable energy to eliminating the mountain of student debt Lagerstrom had been ignoring while he built his career, they were able to get out from under it in two years. The accomplishment made them start thinking more seriously about the future. It was the first time he truly thought about doing something else.
“I was like, ‘Is it possible for me to look at myself as someone who is not a chef?’ Because I had spent 10 years, 11 years, cooking and trying to be who I was, right? And over time I was like, ‘I guess I could.’”
The difficult cost-benefit analysis that Lagerstrom underwent in his decision to leave Union Loafers is one that many restaurant owners and chefs are currently making. “COVID has exposed how fragile and dangerous our industry is to be in,” McGuire said. “Brian was ahead of it, which is not surprising – ahead of the curve on that greater question.”
Is the restaurant industry worth it? Does the good outweigh the bad? When do those scales tip? The systemic frailty – the slim margins and crippling debt that people accept as price of admission – has gotten a lot more attention thanks to the activism of restaurateurs emboldened by the threat of extinction that came with the pandemic. McGuire joked that in a competition for success in the restaurant business, the person who wins is the one willing to have the shittiest personal life.
Lagerstrom loved his co-workers and the work that they did together, but Union Loafers was still a restaurant, and working in a restaurant takes its toll. “I was a little worn out,” Lagerstrom said. “It’s tough for me to say that, knowing what Ted was going through too – like he’s the type of guy where I thought I was doing a lot and he was always doing 20% more than me. I was just frustrated.”
When Lagerstrom received US Foods’ offer, what he had told himself was totally hypothetical became real. The deal was too good to pass up. “At that point, all of the Sauce Magazine covers and Instagram followers and stuff, that doesn’t matter at all,” he said. “If my wife and I are not able to save money for retirement and be able to go on like one vacation a year, what’s the point?”
“When you care so much, it can eat you alive,” Craft said. “Something’s always messed up, something’s always going wrong. [Brian] took his work very seriously, and I know this feeling of how much you can put on yourself. There are times that I’ve wished I could leave this industry.”
In the Weeds & Sardines episode on chicken salad, Lagerstrom says, “As a restaurant chef, some of my favorite work was always to tackle a classic dish. I liked really breaking them down and trying to find out what was most craveable about them at a fundamental level.”
Once the cannon of Loafers’ menu was built, Lagerstrom was no longer able to enjoy that process. “I think coming from a place like Niche where we were literally changing stuff every day, and R&D-ing the next thing every day, to then having a set menu for years [would be] incredibly challenging,” Craft said.
“Matt’s thing is, he’s manning the post. He’s in the corner of the restaurant – he’s very romantic about that,” Lagerstrom said, referring to McGuire. “For him, it’s not low-quality work because of course, it changes every day, he’s talking to different people. Service – I miss doing that a lot. Having technical skills and putting them to use in live action is really, really rewarding. But the other 12 hours of the day are like – I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
McGuire said working in a restaurant is like living in the monotonous routine of a monastery. He takes joy in what he called the chopping wood aspect – the rhythm of the physical work and the service.
For Craft, the path to a sustainable life in the industry has been to let some parts of it go. “Fine dining – that drive, that push – it is not easy work. It’s physically demanding, and it’s emotionally demanding,” he said. At times, working at Niche was so intense that cooks would step away to cry in the hallway. It was a significant factor in his decision to close it the year after winning a James Beard Award. In an effort to develop a healthier and more rewarding company culture, Craft has focused on restaurants like Pastaria and Brasserie, where he said people go to eat rather than to experience a form of artistic entertainment.
Lagerstrom knew he was making the right decision, but he had been in that world for more than a decade. Choosing to say goodbye was like voluntary excommunication. “You’re separated from your closest group of friends – that extends to everyone who works there,” he said. Leaving Wilson was especially painful. “You work together in the same room all day and then you stand next to each other on a pizza station again for the whole night – every day for three straight years. You literally spend 10 to 15 hours a day next to somebody and now you don’t see them at all.”
Eventually, after an extended social media break, he downloaded the apps back onto his phone and reconnected with his former co-workers. He soon transitioned out of his role as seafood specialist to his current position, as US Foods’ regional chef for southern Illinois and Missouri. He basically works triage for places that don’t have experienced chefs by helping them develop dishes that are delicious but also efficient, requiring only rudimentary skills and a limited pantry.
He filled his free time – he had that now – with gardening, exercise and cooking really good food he could actually share with Adermann. They went on a vacation to Italy, complete with many Google Docs and assigned planning tasks. “We have very similar mindsets,” Lagerstrom said. They talked about projects they could take on as a team.
Lagerstrom doesn’t watch TV. Instead of scrolling through Netflix during his time off, he’s usually watching dry, instructional YouTube videos about gardening or something he wants to make. He had been interested in creating his own cooking videos for years, but that had been impossible while he was a restaurant chef.
Then came COVID-19 and Lagerstrom’s furlough from US Foods. Not the kind of people who waste available time, the couple immediately bought a Canon M50 digital camera especially suited for video production and started shooting full time, releasing two to three videos a week on the newly created Weeds & Sardines channel. It was the first time they worked together – technically. “I’m not trying to sound lovey-dovey here,” he caveated unnecessarily, “but we kind of approach our whole life as a project.” Since Lagerstrom returned to work at the end of June, they’ve maintained a steady production of about one video a week.
Lagerstrom said he’ll be happy if they hit 5,000 subscribers in 10 months, but given their current pace, it wouldn’t be surprising if they hit 10,000.
“Weeds & Sardines, I think, is fantastic because it allows him to engage all the things that he loves,” McGuire said. “Teaching is the best form of learning, and he is basically continuing to learn by finding a way to show us how to do this stuff.”
Lagerstrom’s current consulting position can be more demanding than his initial role at US Foods; sometimes he has to put in 10-plus hour days. He said he tries to take one full day off of both work and video every week to prevent burning out. Basically, he’s back to restaurant hours – but on his own terms. “He looks the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” Craft said.
Weeds & Sardines demands the same creative drive, the same dogged, unending pursuit of better that Lagerstrom had at Niche and Union Loafers. He misses Wilson, Netzer and everyone in the kitchens he’s loved, but now he gets to work in tandem with the equally meticulous and driven Adermann. And he never would’ve been able to do this without his experience at US Foods.
“At US Foods, a lot of what I do is communicate food to people who aren’t as skilled – trying to sell more fun, advanced techniques or sell them on the idea of putting in a little more work on the food,” he said. “It’s important to me that people use it – otherwise it’s just entertainment, that doesn’t feel as good.”
“My thought is, if there’s a recipe that seems kind of advanced, how can I edit out all of the barriers to entry?” he said. “The barbacoa, for example, if you wanted to really chef it out, you could have a 30-item puree instead of just dried spices. But where does it cross over from the point where it’s still as good as it could be but it’s the style that people would want to make at home? I’m not naive enough to think that people are going to go out and get dried guajilloes and ancho chilies. It’s not going to happen. So, can we make great barbacoa without that? And the answer is definitely yes.”
He says that a lot. “Is it possible for me to make a better version of this at home than something I can buy at the store? For English muffins, the answer is definitely yes,” he declares in one episode, “DEFF YEZ” flashing beside him in all caps.
Most Weeds & Sardines videos begin with a talking head introduction from Lagerstrom explaining why you should make the recipe. Dressed simply, in a standard white button-down shirt and black apron, he is funny and direct without the bombastic excitement of some food TV. “The question for me is, ‘Can we make an apple fritter at home that’s worth it?’ And I say, definitely yes,” he says confidently. “I’ve been working on this fritter all week and I’m really happy with the product I’ve gotten to.” While this would be under-enthusiastic encouragement from some, from Lagerstrom it is utterly convincing praise.
Adermann and Lagerstrom’s goal is to bring value to their audience, not just clickbait. “This is a conversation Lauren and I have a lot – is it entertainment or is it instruction? The best version is both.” Expert but conversational and a little goofy, Weeds & Sardines talks you through recipes with just the right amount of instruction, including helpful tips and jargon picked up in professional kitchens.
As restaurant owners and chefs scramble for solutions in the coronavirus era of dining, McGuire sees his former co-worker forging a new path forward. “I think he’s a really interesting figure, especially at this time,” McGuire said. “He’s on this path to make food work for him, which I admire greatly because it’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life.”
“I think the value I bring is that I was a chef for a long time,” Lagerstrom said. “I guess I still am a chef.”
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