The Food Issue

Moving beyond ‘farm-to-table’ as a restaurant ideal

Updated: 2014-01-07T19:04:42Z

By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA

The Kansas City Star

Jane Zieha has always proudly referred to the Blue Bird Bistro as a “farm-to-table” restaurant.

And it seemed a natural fit. The bohemian bistro at 1700 Summit St. on the West Side distinguished itself as one of the first Kansas City restaurants to base an entire menu on fresh, local and organic ingredients from small family farms in Kansas and Missouri.

But Zieha, a tax accountant-turned-restaurateur, began to rethink the familiar label after bumping into celebrity chef Rick Bayless at a cocktail party.

Zieha’s brief encounter with Bayless, owner of Chicago’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, occurred while she was attending a James Beard-sponsored sustainability conference. As they chatted, Bayless asked her to describe Blue Bird’s cuisine.

“I said, ‘Well, we’re a farm-to-table restaurant. We buy from 40 local farmers …’”

Bayless interrupted: “No, no. What’s your cuisine?”

“I said, ‘We’re dedicated to the local food movement’ and he said, ‘No, Jane. Name your cuisine.’”

At that moment, Zieha got it.

“We, the local food movement, are succeeding. We are becoming mainstream. We are becoming a choice,” she said. “So now, for the Blue Bird to flourish, we really do need to home in and define who we are beyond who we buy from.”

Over a cup of coffee, Zieha pulls out a single sheet of 8- by 11-inch paper. She has formally labeled her food “Mid-American Artisan Cuisine.” Her bullet points: local, organic food, made in small batches and presented with a contemporary sensibility.

Call it the Age of the Artisan. In the restaurant kitchen and, more recently, behind the bar, the best Kansas City chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders and artisan food producers are feverishly redefining Midwestern cuisine, ingredient by ingredient.

Whether it’s the slurry of flour and seasonings used to make the fried chicken at the newly opened Rye in Leawood (see recipe on Pages 18-19); the house-made smoked bitters in Ryan Maybee’s Kansas City Sling, a cocktail served at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and its basement speakeasy-style bar, Manifesto (Page 11); or the Old New Orleans Amber 3-Year-old Rum now flavoring Jude’s Rum Cake (Page 9), ingredients do matter.

But just as important as where those ingredients come from is what you do with them.

The new buzzwords “house-made,” “artisanal” and “craft” hint at something charming and old world, suggesting techniques handed down through the generations. But is it reaching for effect, just a little bit, when a doughnut is described on an artisan’s menu as “hand-forged”?

Like farm-to-table, artisanal runs the risk of becoming a marketing cliche. Or a juicy nugget for a “Portlandia” parody.

A popular “Portlandia” sketch, “Is the chicken local?” features star Fred Armisen in a diner. When he asks about the origin of the chicken, the server returns with pedigree papers to prove “Collin” was raised on a “woodland diet” of sheep’s milk, soy and, yes, local hazelnuts.

Four decades into the local food movement, the satiric sketch is funny because the main message (if not all the social, political and environmental nuances) has trickled down into popular culture. Most high-end restaurants and a growing number of fast-casual concepts, from the locally owned Sheridan’s Unforked to Chipotle, have come to rely to some degree on a network of local farmers.

In 1984 — a full decade before the Food Network was on the air — Steve Cole created Cafe Allegro (Page 6), a 39th Street pioneer that was ranked Kansas City’s No. 1 restaurant by the Zagat Survey. An ex-Marine with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Cole remains legendary for his unyielding attention to detail.

To get his hands on the freshest seasonal produce, Cole became a regular at the City Market. His go-to produce vendors: Mark Marino, who went on to become vice president at national organic superpower Earthbound Farms, and Thane Palmberg of Thane Palmberg Farms in De Soto in Johnson County, whose products remain a fixture on menus across the city.

Cole also helped kick off the careers of local food artisans, hiring a baker named Mark Friend to provide what would become one of the restaurant’s signature items, a soft dinner roll studded with caraway seeds. Friend went on to create Farm to Market Bread Co. And much of Danny O’Neill’s early success with the Roasterie came when Cole agreed to serve his coffee at the restaurant. Add Boulevard Brewing Co. and today Kansas City’s “Big 3” artisanal producers are nothing less than household names.

Between forkfuls of Room 39’s deconstructed chicken pot pie, Cole admits trying to hammer out a definition of Midwestern cuisine is tricky.

“I can tell you what it’s not,” says Cole, who recently became the chief operating officer of the Missouri Restaurant Association. “It’s not foam. I think many chefs are trying to be creative more than they’re trying to be solid in the fundamentals. Midwestern cuisine to me is familiar, re-imagined in the present and maybe changing in technique. But whether it’s French technique or a Chinese stir-fry, the ingredients are local.”

For instance, chicken pot pie can be served in an elegant Limoges bowl. It can take on an Italian accent with the addition of zucchini and porcini mushrooms. Or it can look like Room 39’s version, which features a palm-sized biscuit, split open and ladled with a gravy studded with fresh bits of roasted chicken and a brunoise of carrots and peas.

Ultimately, Midwestern cuisine draws on a melting pot of influences. Port Fonda — one of Kansas City’s most important new restaurants — is no less Midwestern simply because it is cooking up its own brand of Mexican. Chef Patrick Ryan (who shares his recipe for chilaquiles on Pages 26-27) relies on local farmers and artisan producers.

The fact that the jalapenos used in Blue Bird Bistro’s green curry vary in flavor and intensity based on the season and prevailing weather conditions means the cooking process has to be hands-on.

“In order to do local food, you have to cook in small batches,” Jane Zieha says. “It forces you to have that artisanal mindset.”

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