Metro-East Living

‘Surrounded by food’: Chef Lee cooks up a family business

Food is family among the Conways, who together run Conway’s Catering & Deli in Maryville.

Chef Lee Conway grinned and shook his head as he listened to his wife, Colleen, and two of his three children, Devon and Chanel, talk about how his career inevitably led them to making food their business.

Son Devon, 26, recalled whipping up an omelet for show and tell in third grade.

“I wore a chef’s jacket and I think I wore a toque, too,” he said of the tall white hat.

Lee, 56, worked for Hyatt Hotels, and the family moved wherever he was needed. He and Colleen grew up together in Dettford, N.J. They arrived in St. Louis in 1989 when Lee took a position as a senior regional executive chef, then settled in Lebanon in 1994. He opened the catering business a decade ago.

“I should have opened the deli then, too,” he said of the branch of the family business that opened in late February.

In 2000, he earned one of the highest honors among culinary professionals, the Honorable Order of the Golden Toque. He was chosen by his peers as one of the top 100 executive chefs in the country.

Since 2001, he also has been an instructor in Southwestern Illinois College’s Hospitality & Food Service Management Program. He sat out this school year because of the plans to open the deli, which offers an array of classic and creative hot and cold sandwiches, soup, dessert and side dishes.

Lee also sells a line of four spice blends at the deli under the label The Camouflage Chef. An expert on cooking game, he has conducted workshops and has written about the subject.

Colleen, 55, is right there with him in the building they own on Illinois 159 in town. Previously, she worked for Sudexo, a food company, at McKendree University, where she was the cafe supervisor and helped with baking.

“I’ve been surrounded by food,” she said, looking around at her family.

Devon, who lives in Mascoutah, said he and his sister and other brother, Tommy, 38, who lives in Florida, quickly developed a refined palate from eating his dad’s cooking.

“We didn’t eat out much. We would go to the Hyatt and order a rack of lamb and escargot.”

His sister sighed at the fond recollection. Once a month, the family would spend a night at the hotel and order room service so Lee could critique the work. Each of the Conway children was allowed to bring one friend.

“My friends would say, ‘Can I come over?’” said Chanel Baer, 29. “We’d order Eggs Benedict and steak for breakfast.”

Today, Devon is a quality control manager for Christ Bros. Asphalt, but also is back in the kitchen, cooking alongside his dad.

Chanel is the event coordinator for Conway’s Catering and runs the front of the house for the deli.

She said her parents always cooked at home on special occasions, such as birthdays or holidays. The impact of that culinary influence is everywhere, even with her own family, Chanel said. Take son Abryn, for example.

“He’s not even 2 years old and he’s eating prime rib!”

And when she makes an especially good dinner?

“We take a picture and send it to Mom and Dad.”

On a cold Friday morning, the Conways dodged and wove around one another as they moved from the kitchen to the counter out front, taking and preparing lunch orders.

While catering a wedding for hundreds can involve creating such dishes as risotto in a barn, running the deli is a bit more light-hearted. It allows Devon and Lee to mingle their talents and Colleen to create her pies and giant brownies.

“We have never done the standards for catering,” Lee began.

“We don’t do fried chicken and mostaccioli,” finished Colleen.

So, the deli menu had to be out of the ordinary: The day’s special, for Lent, was chunks of ahi tuna topped with a spicy aioli, cilantro and guacamole and stuffed in soft tortillas. The Shrimp Bisque with a toasted crostini is a big seller, as are the homemade potato chips, $1.10. Thursday’s soup was Winter Kale and Sweet Potato with housemade kielbasa. All soups are $4.49 and a soup and half sandwich or wrap is $7.99.

All the food is made to order. Lee uses his chef’s finesse. For instance, he likes to slow-roast tomatoes to bring out the flavor before using them in a sandwich. He uses a variety of local vendors for food, from Marcoot cheeses out of Greenville to pecans and Excel soda from Breese.

There are three big salads, four cold and six hot sandwiches on the daily menu blackboard, all priced between $6.49 and $7.99.

“You’ll need a napkin. They’re drippy,” Devon said of the sandwiches.

Each family member has a namesake sandwich. Chanel’s is called SSSChanel’s Hot Roast Beef because her dad added the “S’s” to her name when she was little to get her to quiet down.

Lee’s sandwich is the El Hefe’s Cubano, made with smoked ham and adobo roast pork, topped with Swiss cheese, homemade pickles and mustard.

On a sideboard near the front door, SWIC culinary intern Jana Thompson, 23, had cut Pennsylvania Dutch Apple and Southern Pecan pies into pieces and set them out as samples in tiny white fluted cups. A slice is $3.99, while the specialty brownie is $2.39.

Lee said he hopes to expand his takeout offerings to dinner-size containers of sauce and other items.

While decades of experience have brought him plenty of catering jobs, he delights in the idea of making a great sandwich or bowl of soup. A bonus is working with family.

“My family is around me. Mostly, I work and keep my mouth shut! Wouldn’t have it any other way.”