As Joe West calmly preps for his five-course dinner at Bluestem, he’s grateful to be back in familiar territory — yet itching to move out of the shadow of his mentor.
West, 29, spent three years as chef de cuisine for James Beard award-winning chef Colby Garrelts, Bluestem’s owner. On this day, the restaurant is the venue for a pop-up dinner designed by West to attract investors for Kusshi, his own fine dining restaurant concept.
Kusshi, or “precious” in Japanese, is an upscale, countertop diner offering an array of polished and highly refined small bites with an Asian-fusion flair. As a preview, West put together a rather showy $125 per person menu of foie gras, mushroom, corn, aged ham and stone fruit — each course comprising three small riffs on each of the featured ingredients.
“When I was chef de cuisine I wanted to emulate these dishes I saw in the media so I could be like those chefs in the spotlight,” West says. “I have my own style now, with this idea of doing multiple dishes. A lot of it is very simple dishes, but complementary.
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“There are a ton of farm-to-table restaurants out there that all do the same ingredients, techniques and dishes. And they all put microgreens on it. I don’t want to do that.”
Dining Kusshi-style is more lighthearted than pretentious. The menu descriptions are mostly free of such conventions as punctuation and capitalization, yet serious in the use of ingredients and techniques: “fried rice with missouri jasmine rice, chicken eggs, attic-aged smokehouse ham, cooked like my mom’s recipe; ham broth with salmon roe and elderflower picked in the sun like a cliche, that’s sipped like tea, yeah it’s meat tea; barely warmed shaved heritage pork, raw peaches in its natural juices, burgers’ bacon lardons, pork fat with sage.”
“He has a true point of view that’s young and fresh,” says Megan Garrelts, Bluestem’s co-owner and pastry chef.
Colby and Megan are seated for the dinner to cheer on West, but just over a decade ago the Garreltses were standing in his shoes, looking for a way to fund their own dream. Without a successful track record of running a business or tangible assets for collateral, applying for a bank loan isn’t in the cards for most would-be restaurateurs.
“Just don’t be afraid to sell yourself,” Megan clucks like a mother hen as the guests are ushered in. “You have to love your brand. No one is going to sell it better than you.”
Meanwhile, the next generation of chef/owners is reaping the benefits of new tools: Pop-up events happen thanks in large part to social media, while crowdfunding sites have been launching pads for a handful of Kansas City culinary projects.
In recent months, Magnolia’s Contemporary Southern Bistro, Howard’s Grocery, Cafe & Catering, the Campground, Homesteader Cafe and Columbus Park Ramen Shop have all tried to earn funding from Kickstarter.
Kickstarter reports that 94 campaigns in the Food category have been launched in Kansas City since 2009, the year the crowdfunding site began. A total of $385,160 was pledged, and 26 projects have been fully funded. So far in 2015, there have been 15 campaigns launched and $73,893 pledged.
Kusshi launched its own campaign in late June with a goal of $66,000 but canceled the project near the deadline after raising less than $5,000. Undeterred, West is fleshing out his idea for a more casual restaurant concept that he thinks might get off the drawing board before Kusshi.
“I don’t just like high-end cuisine,” West says. “I have a love of all kinds of food. I want to explore all styles of restaurants. … I can be stubborn at times, but I’ve learned it’s OK to serve a club sandwich, as long as it’s the best club sandwich.”
Most chefs who have a passion for fine dining settle on lower-priced sister concepts, one funding the other. Think Rye and Bluestem, Extra Virgin and Michael Smith or Belfry and Julian.
West’s sister concept is Mine 18, a reference to his grandfather’s coal mining days in Kentucky, and it takes its inspiration from Japanese yakitori shops. West plans to showcase not only skewers of chicken breast and thigh meat, but also the heart, liver, oyster and skin — with a price point of 50 cents to $5 per dish. The countertop bar would be “gritty and low lit” in “some alley,” and West dreams of collaborating on a Japanese-style beer with Boulevard Brewery.
West is pleased with the bump in publicity that came from Kickstarter — the pop-ups are selling out faster now, and the accompanying video has received more than 1,000 views. Plus, West and Joe Shirley, owner of Kansas City pop-up Uberdine, now have plans to collaborate on a 14-course Uberdine in mid-October.
“I don’t know him,” Shirley says. “We’ve only met once for me to give him a check for food, but I’m familiar with his background from social media, and I’ve seen shots of his food and know it’s solid.”
West grew up watching back-to-back episodes of Julia Child’s and Lidia Bastianich’s shows on PBS and at age 12, he tasted his first lobster bisque at Paul Bocuse’s Paris Bistro at Epcot in Florida. His Japanese mother and his American father also gave him cross-cultural food references.
At 16, West entered culinary classes at Shawnee Mission’s Broadmoor Technical Center and began working as a prep cook at 40 Sardines for James Beard award winners Michael Smith and Debbie Gold.
“He’s always had the inner drive to be creative,” says culinary educator Bob Brassard. “He was the first student I had to really demonstrate thinking outside the box.”
The precocious young chef entered cooking competitions and won a full-tuition scholarship to Johnson & Wales University in Denver. While he was in Denver, he worked full time for Bryan Moscatello at Adega, a 2003 Food & Wine best chef of the year who recently took over Calistoga Ranch in Napa Valley, Calif.
“I had dinner at the place Joe was working then and I was totally amazed,” Brassard recalls. “If you’re around exceptional chefs, you have nowhere to go but up. Like I always tell my students, ‘Be humble. Be hungry.’ Joe was hungry for knowledge and extremely creative.”
By age 23, West was the executive chef at the former Delaware Cafe, where he received a 31/2-star review from The Star. The review noted the “playfulness to West’s food,” including sprinkling Pop Rocks candy “atop a strawberry champagne granita piled atop a vanilla bean panna cotta. Each bite sounded like the Fourth of July.”
“There were really no rules,” West recalls of his time at the Delaware Cafe. “It may not have been the best idea, but we would just do it, and I think the customers felt it.”
Despite a string of early successes, the humble side of West recognized he had more to learn. He kept coming back to Bluestem for stints as a line cook, assistant pastry chef and finally chef de cuisine, or head of the kitchen.
In between he spent a year at Alex at the Wynn, a lavish French restaurant in Las Vegas with two Michelin two-star ratings, and, most recently, a year at the landmark Cincinnatian Hotel in Ohio, where he ran food and beverage operations, including bar, banquet, catering and room service.
Shortly after West returned to Kansas City he decided the time was right to focus on his own restaurant plans. Hungry for advice, he knocked on Patrick Ryan’s door. Ryan started Port Fonda in an Airstream trailer, a springboard for his popular location in Westport. He is in the process of opening a second Port Fonda in Lawrence.
“He told me he doesn’t have a blueprint. That I’d have to figure it out on my own. Everyone has their own story and their own way to do it,” West says.
Earlier this summer, West also sat down for a beer with Broadmoor’s Brassard.
“To be successful today, it’s not just the food,” Brassard says. “It’s about business, marketing, public relations — a huge gamut. We’re always marketing (at the Broadmoor Bistro). We even have our own T-shirts and hoodies. Joe missed that (business side of the curriculum). I told him he needs a Kusshi hoodie. Make it cheap for them to buy. That’s your advertising.”
Meanwhile, West continues to work part time at Gram & Dun and organize Kusshi dinners to keep himself afloat until his big break comes along.
“Yeah, I have that baby face and I’m naturally reserved, and that makes some people think I’m inexperienced,” he says, “but once they see me cook, or eat the food, or work in a kitchen with me, they see there’s 13 years of experience inside.”
Upcoming Kusshi events
Chef Joe West is hosting pop-up dinners to build his brand. The goal is to open a restaurant he’s calling Kusshi (KusshiKC.com). He has already hosted pop-up events at the Rieger, Bluestem and the Sundry.
▪ Kusshi at Broadway Butcher Shop, Sept. 19, five courses for $90
▪ Kusshi at Powell Gardens, Oct. 5, five courses for $125 with complimentary wine pairings
▪ Kusshi/Uberdine collaboration, Oct. 17 at a location to be announced, 14 courses for $100 plus tax and gratuity, UberDineKC.com
▪ Also, watch for information about Broadmoor Bistro’s Homecoming dinner featuring West on Oct. 20 at BroadmoorBistro.SMSD.org.
Joe West’s ‘Next Day’ Fried Rice
This recipe is a home version of a fried rice dish that Joe West served at his recent Kusshi pop-up dinner at Bluestem.
Makes 4 servings
1/2 cup grapeseed or olive oil (not extra virgin)
1/8 cup sesame oil
1/2 yellow onion, small dice
1 cup diced ham or other leftover meats such as bacon, chicken, shrimp or pork
1 cup vegetables, small dice (anything that you may have from leftovers such as carrots, summer squash, celery, peas)
3 cups cooked jasmine rice (best when it’s a day old because it will fry better)
Salt and black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or togarashi Japanese chili)
2 tablespoons butter
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 scallion, chopped
Place a large pan over medium-high heat. Add both oils and when they become slightly smoky, add the onion. Saute onion until golden.
While the pan is still hot, add your meat and vegetables. Stir-fry for about 1 minute. Add rice; stir and mix the rice with the other ingredients over medium-high heat. (You should achieve some crispiness but the rice mixture should not be completely dry.)
Drizzle fish sauce, soy sauce, crushed red pepper (or togarashi), salt and pepper while stirring. Turn the heat down to medium. Spread the fried rice to the sides to create a well in the pan. Add butter in the well and when melted, add eggs and stir, like when scrambling eggs. Once half of the eggs are scrambled, incorporate the rice at the sides of the pan. Taste and adjust seasoning, garnish with scallions and serve immediately.
Per serving: 691 calories (63 percent from fat), 49 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 195 milligrams cholesterol, 48 grams carbohydrates,16 grams protein, 1,085 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.