Jane Zieha has always proudly referred to the Blue Bird Bistro as a farm-to-table restaurant.
By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA
The Kansas City Star
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.
Ziehas brief encounter with Bayless, owner of Chicagos Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, occurred while she was attending a James Beard-sponsored sustainability conference. As they chatted, Bayless asked her to describe Blue Birds cuisine.
I said, Well, were a farm-to-table restaurant. We buy from 40 local farmers
Bayless interrupted: No, no. Whats your cuisine?
I said, Were 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 its 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 Maybees 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 Judes 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 artisans 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 sheeps 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 Sheridans 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 Citys 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 restaurants signature items, a soft dinner roll studded with caraway seeds. Friend went on to create Farm to Market Bread Co. And much of Danny ONeills early success with the Roasterie came when Cole agreed to serve his coffee at the restaurant. Add Boulevard Brewing Co. and today Kansas Citys Big 3 artisanal producers are nothing less than household names.
Between forkfuls of Room 39s deconstructed chicken pot pie, Cole admits trying to hammer out a definition of Midwestern cuisine is tricky.
I can tell you what its not, says Cole, who recently became the chief operating officer of the Missouri Restaurant Association. Its not foam. I think many chefs are trying to be creative more than theyre 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 its 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 39s 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 Citys 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 Bistros 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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