Chow Town

Local James Beard Awards semifinalist hopes third time is charm

Updated: 2014-02-26T20:33:10Z


Three Kansas City chefs have been named semifinalists for the coveted James Beard Awards, considered the Oscar of the food world.

I introduced you to Nick Wesemann, the pastry chef at The American Restaurant on Tuesday. He’s a semifinalist in the Outstanding Pastry Chef Category.

The other two nominees, both tabbed in the Best Chef: Midwest category, are Howard Hanna from The Riegel Hotel Grill & Exchange and Ted Habiger of Room 39. The two chefs are good friends, having worked together three times over their careers, each time with Habiger serving as Hanna’s mentor and boss.

I spoke with Habiger recently about that, and about the fact that he’s a little like the Susan Lucci of the James Beard Awards as this is his third nomination.

“I feel vindicated,” Habiger said. “Maybe that’s not the right word, but it’s such an honor. I really just want to make it to New York. It looks like there will be at least a couple of spots open, so you never know.”

As far as sharing the spotlight with his buddy, Habiger says he loves Hanna and he’s rooting for him, but he sure doesn’t want to lose to him.

Still, he’s thrilled at Hanna’s success.

“Howard worked for me when I was at Union Square Café in New York City; and after I left to move back home, I told him to call me when he was ready to leave New York,” Habiger said. “He called when I was working with Debbie Gold and Michael Smith at 40 Sardines. I wasn’t quite ready to open my place yet, so we hired him at 40 Sardines. He worked up to chef de cuisine, then helped me open Room 39, but I knew he’d strike out on his own.”

As for his journey, Habiger cut his teeth at 75th Street Brewery and later worked for Steve Cole at his groundbreaking restaurant, Café Allegro.

From there, it was off to the Big Apple where he hooked on at Danny Meyer’s renowned Union Square Café. In 2003, Habiger moved back to Kansas City, and in 2004, with partner Andy Sloan, he opened Room 39.

“We wanted something casual, but with really good food,” Habiger said. “We served breakfast, lunch, and later added dinner, so we were always growing and evolving.”

Although opened it in 2004, Habiger says Room 39 was re-invented and saved around 2008.

“We didn’t know it, but the recession was right around the corner,” he said. “Our breakfast at the time was pretty lame, and I really wanted to take a shot at doing something different and better. So, we really went for it, and built breakfast into one of the more important elements of the restaurant. Because of the breakfast business, all during the recession, we didn’t lose money. That allowed us to ride out the recession.”

Habiger was nominated for the first time in that same year, then again in 2012. Now comes a third James Beard nomination — more recognition of just how consistently good Room 39 is, night in and night out.

“I just think we’ve done a good job of creating a casual space with great American food at fair prices, and not to brag, but I think we have one of the best wine lists in town,” Habiger said.

Now, if he can just get to New York as a finalist. Perhaps then the third time really will be the charm.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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