Jenny Vergara recalls the day she stopped apologizing for Kansas City’s restaurant scene.
By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA
The Kansas City Star
The Lenexa blogger, who dishes about the local food scene at www.makingafoodie.com, was sipping cocktails with Marshall Roth on the patio of Le Fou Frog, the funky French bistro just east of the River Market.
Roth, the 33-year-old bleached-blond rock star of a chef, asked for her favorite places to eat. Vergara launched into her list of faves, but she kept adding the phrase, “Pretty good, for Kansas City.”
“Stop!” Roth said. “The bar is what you make it.”
Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Roth worked at top restaurants on both coasts before moving to Kansas City two years ago from Aspen, Colo. His latest assignment as executive chef for the McClain Restaurant Group is to turn Ophelia’s and Café Verona, both on the historic Independence Square, into dining destinations.
“It was a real moment of clarity. It seared my soul,” Vergara recalls. “He’s right. I had my own rose-colored glasses on. It started awakening me to the Kansas City food scene right under my nose.”
These days Vergara is not the only one hip to Kansas City’s culinary charms.
Chef Jonathan Justus of Justus Drugstore in Smithville was featured in Food & Wine magazine several times last year but scored the ultimate media coup earlier this month with a feature story in The New York Times Magazine.
“This already has generated more phone calls from other media,” said Justus, who has heard from Saveur and Bon Appétit.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Food & Wine gave a big nod to confectioner Christopher Elbow, naming his new dark chocolate bar as No. 1 in a recent top 10 survey of the country’s best chocolates.
Chef Colby Garrelts of Blue-stem put Kansas City on Food & Wine’s radar back in 2005 when he was tapped as one of the best new rising chefs, an honor that recognizes young talent.
So when the magazine’s editors fanned out across the country to report their 2008 Restaurant Go List, they wound up focusing on Kansas City. Artisan bakery Fervere, fast-casual lunch spots Souperman and Po’s Dumpling Bar and a mix of contemporary casual restaurants, including 1924 Main, Room 39, JP Wine Bar and Coffee House and Michael Smith, made the grade.
Kate Krader, Food & Wine’s senior editor, returned to dine at Justus Drugstore and named a soup made from a dozen seasonal mushrooms floating in a pork broth as one of the magazine’s Best Restaurant Dishes of 2008.
“We love your city! We’re basically going to set up an office there,” Krader said.
Farm to table
Considered the “first lady of modern Italian cuisine,” Lidia Bastianich has spent the last decade commuting from the Big Apple to oversee Lidia’s Kansas City, a far-flung outpost in her New York City-based restaurant empire.
She’s a James Beard award-winning chef with a PBS show, four best-selling cookbooks and a signature brand of spaghetti sauce available in supermarkets.
The annual James Beard Awards are the culinary industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards and honor the finest chefs, restaurants, journalists, cookbook authors, restaurant designers and electronic media professionals in the country.
“I think Kansas City is positioned in a very special place,” Bastianich says. Her decision to renovate a dilapidated freight house into the space for her first restaurant outside of New York ushered the rebirth of the art galleries and performance spaces that now dot the chic Crossroads Arts District.
“What I noticed way back was the culture, the art and the music. That told me these are people who are sensitive to eating well, living well,” she said of her pioneering efforts.
Yet Bastianich doesn’t want credit for the city’s culinary transformation. Instead, she applauds the local farmers who provide fresh food, from heirloom tomatoes to Berkshire pork.
“A chef develops and grows when they have the right product,” she said.
The chefs at Lidia’s Kansas City have been instrumental in tapping into the local farming community. Some of the farmers her restaurants work with are becoming stars in their own right.
Last year chefs Nate Appleman from white-hot A-16 in San Francisco and Mark Ladner of super-posh Del Posto in New York traveled to Trimble, Mo., just north of Kansas City, to watch a hog slaughter at Paradise Lockers. Both chefs order their pork from Heritage Foods USA, a New York-based specialty foods company that works closely with Mark Newman of Newman Farm in the Ozarks.
“You are America,” Bastianich said. “New York is not going to redefine America. Don’t get me wrong, I love New York. But American food is what is cooked in Topeka and Wichita and Kansas City.”
In local food circles, anticipation is building after last month’s news that early front-runners for James Beard chef and restaurant nominations include Michael Smith of Michael Smith and Extra Virgin (for outstanding chef), the American Restaurant (for best service) and Colby Garrelts (for best chef of the Midwest).
If Garrelts gets nominated Monday, it will be his third time. If he wins, he’ll be the fourth Kansas City chef to win the culinary Oscar.
Yet at a recent culinary fundraiser, Garrelts estimates nearly a third of the people attending did not know about Bluestem. “Out-of-town people are blown away (by our food), but a lot of people in Kansas City don’t seem to know that we’re here,” Garrelts said.
Will Gregory represents a number of the city’s top chefs. He thinks he knows why Blue-stem isn’t locally well-known.
“To our own detriment, we are sometimes our own best-kept secret,” said Gregory, owner of Will Gregory Public Relations. “The problem with Colby and Megan (pastry chef/wife) is they are so humble they would never tell their own story.”
While at the American Restaurant, chef Celina Tio bypassed PR channels and told her own story, frequently picking up the phone to pitch ideas to trade journals and national consumer publications.
“Nobody sells you better than you,” said Tio, who won a James Beard award in 2007. She said that when she calls someone, “they can feel and hear the passion of what I’m doing. The PR person doesn’t have that same passion.”
No one could accuse Justus of a lack of passion in the kitchen, but his story is — as Food & Wine’s Krader notes — better than an ambitious publicist or a Hollywood screenwriter could have dreamed up.
After stints as a bike messenger, butcher and cook in the south of France, the hometown boy returned to Smithville and opened a “locavore” restaurant in the family drugstore. Locavore refers to the practice of trying to use food grown within 100 miles of the restaurant.
But when the drugstore name became the subject of a legal tussle with the Missouri Board of Pharmacy, the press Justus received was alternately aggravating and attention-getting.
“I’d be a fool to pretend that’s not the case,” he said. “We’ve had an immense amount of luck.”
As competition heats up, Justus and Garrelts admit to Googling their reservations list every chance they get, especially if the call is coming from New York’s 212 area code.
Everyone wants to put their best food forward.
“It’s a juggling match, and all the chefs are trying to be the one in the spotlight,” Garrelts said.
Despite Kansas City’s growing culinary sophistication, most national food writers can’t resist slipping in a line about our barbecue and steak. Most local chefs find that condescending, as if somehow they haven’t spent time rubbing elbows with the top tier of chefs across the country.
“We’re doing the same cutting-edge things the coasts are doing,” said Tio, who was recently invited to cook at the Four Seasons in Bangkok. “You don’t have to live in San Francisco or Manhattan to have good food.”
That’s why even after receiving an offer to start a restaurant in Charlotte, N.C., Tio decided to stay and work on her own restaurant project in Kansas City. She is checking out real estate between the River Market and Brookside neighborhoods.
Similarly, when Roth said he was moving from Aspen, Colo., to Kansas City, some of his chef friends ribbed him mercilessly.
“But some of the stuff I put out — it was the same stuff I made in New York City,” said Roth, who worked there with top chefs David Burke and Charlie Palmer. “I think this town is a very cool town.”
“I’m already so impressed with Kansas City, and I feel inspired. I think more fun and unique places are going to continue to open up.”
And if Gregory has any control over his image, Roth is poised to become Kansas City’s next media darling.
“If he doesn’t eventually make it onto (Bravo’s) ‘Top Chef’ or get his own Food Network show, I will have failed,” Gregory said.
Number in parentheses refers to picture above, not to any ranking.
Colby Garrelts (1), chef/owner of Bluestem
Local Burger in Lawrence (2), owned and created by Hilary Brown
Room 39 (3), chef/owners Ted Habiger and Andy Sloan
Michael Smith and Extra Virgin (4), chef/owner Michael Smith
Krause Dining in Lawrence (5), chef/owner Robert Krause
Debbie Gold (6), executive chef, The American Restaurant
Christopher Elbow (7), chocolate maker
Celina Tio (8), chef, working on a new casual restaurant project
Lidia Bastianich (9), chef/ owner of Lidia’s Kansas City
Justus Drugstore in Smithville (10), chef/owner Jonathan Justus
Notable moments for local chefs who have made it onto the national culinary stage:
•1998: PBS Italian cooking personality Lidia Bastianich expands her New York City-based restaurant empire to Kansas City. She commutes regularly from the Big Apple but taps local chefs Dan Swinney and Cody Hogan.
•1999: Debbie Gold and Michael Smith, then married and working together at the American Restaurant, win a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Midwest — a first for Kansas City.
•2001:Smith and Gold pose naked (each with a strategically placed Vita-Prep) in the “Famous Chefs Naked With Their Blender” national ad campaign.
•2003: With the opening of 40 Sardines in Leawood, Smith and Gold are nominated for another James Beard Award, this time for Best New Restaurant.
•2004:Christopher Elbow is dubbed the “American Idol” of chocolate in the Next Generation Chocolatiers Competition in New York City, shortly after opening his own shop.
•2005: Colby Garrelts of Bluestem is tapped by Food & Wine magazine as one of the country’s best new “superstar” chefs.
•2007:Celina Tio of the American Restaurant wins the city’s second James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Midwest. Garrelts also receives a nomination — the first time two Kansas City chefs appear together in the category. Garrelts is also featured in a New York Times article (with wife/pastry chef Megan Garrelts) about chefs who live far from the bright lights and love it.
•2007: Hilary Brown’s Lawrence-based Local Burger appears in an eco-documentary on the Sundance Channel. Her push back against fast food continues to land the burger joint in publications including Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Body + Soul and Outside.
•2008: Garrelts receives his second James Beard nomination for Best Chef of the Midwest.
•2008: Robert Krause of Krause Dining gets a nod from F&W when Krause Dining is featured on the 100 Best Tastes list.
•2008: Jonathan Justus of Justus Drugstore serves up a mushroom soup that wows F&W senior editor Kate Krader and lands him on the magazine’s 10 Best Restaurant Dishes list.
•2008: The F&W restaurant 2008 “Go List” features several KC restaurants, including Ted Habiger and Andy Sloan at Room 39, sure to give “some serious competition” to more established local restaurants.
•2009: Elbow is featured in the February issue of F&W.
•2009: Justus is featured in the March 1 issue of The New York Times Magazine.
•2009:Garrelts of Bluestem, Smith of Michael Smith and Extra Virgin, and the American Restaurant, back under Debbie Gold’s command, are all James Beard semifinalists. Nominees will be announced on March 23 at www.jamesbeard.org.