Chow Town

Here’s what three rising Kansas City chefs really cook at home

Pastry chef Kelly Conwell is known for desserts that are works of art.

At Stock Hill, a stylish new steakhouse at 4800 Main St., Conwell crafts crave-worthy confections such as Meyer lemon tarts adorned with hibiscus jam and pine nuts, and black tea-infused banana bread topped with smoked walnuts and torched meringue.

But Conwell’s late-night, post-work indulgences are decidedly down-to-earth. She likes Maruchen ramen noodle soup, frozen mini Snickers bars and Miller High Life.

“After you’ve done 450 covers (that’s meals in restaurant lingo), there’s just something about cracking an ice-cold beer,” she says.

That’s the thing about most chefs: Fine dining is a job, not necessarily a way of life.

“We eat just like everybody else does,” Conwell says.

Well, sort of. Conwell’s idea of an easy one-pot meal is potato soup made from scratch with parsnips, celery, onions, shallots and chicken broth from Stock Hill’s kitchen. Other home cooks might just reach for a can of Campbell’s.

Jakob Polaco, executive chef and owner at Aep, a Thai restaurant that opened last month at 1815 W. 39th St., likes to make doughnuts from scratch with his 6-year-old daughter, Ava. But Polaco is not above taking a shortcut with canned biscuit dough.

Trail mix and Clif bars keep sous chef Andrew Heimburger energized when he’s working at 3-month-old tapas restaurant the Antler Room, 2506 Holmes Road. On days off, you might find him smoking pork shoulder in his backyard or chowing down on pot stickers and spicy beef tendon at ABC Cafe, a family-owned Chinese restaurant at 10001 W. 87th St. in Overland Park.

The three rising Kansas City chefs say that good food doesn’t have to be expensive, complicated or time-consuming. It just has to satisfy a craving in the moment. Even if that craving is for Flamin’ Hot Funyuns.

Here’s a taste of what the pros crave — and cook — when they’re off the clock.

Kelly Conwell

The galley kitchen in Conwell’s shotgun-style midtown apartment is small but functional.

The pastry chef makes the most of her limited counter and cabinet space by stashing spice jars filled with smoked paprika, vanilla powder and the like on the wall above the gas stove and keeping cookbooks on a refurbished vintage cabinet in the dining room.

Her fridge is covered with family photos, but close to empty inside. The Tuesday before Christmas, it chilled leftover Thai food, Coors Light cans, shredded cheese and a few bottles of store-bought salad dressing.

When Conwell goes grocery shopping, she skips the cart and picks up a basket.

“Otherwise it’ll all go bad,” she explains, because her job at Stock Hill keeps her away from home most of the time.

On days off, Conwell whips up a big batch of soup (potato is a favorite) using leftover ingredients from the restaurant. She freezes leftovers in plastic tubs so she’ll have easy meals at the ready for the rest of the week.

Sometimes she and her boyfriend, Jeff Dietzler, a sous chef at Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, will get ambitious with a made-from-scratch late-night meal. Because they both work late, the cooking doesn’t begin until around 9 p.m.

“We both love Mexican food,” Conwell says. “The other night he made chicken-stuffed masa pancakes with rice and beans. It was so good — he’s a fantastic chef.”

When the couple go out for meals, they make a whole day of it by stopping at five or six restaurants in a row. Seriously.

“We sit at the bar and order a snack or a cocktail,” Conwell says. “It’s a great way to explore neighborhoods.”

A recent outing started with lunch at Vietnam Cafe in Columbus Park. After that, the couple ventured to Union Station for cocktails at Pierpont’s, then checked out Eddie V’s, a new seafood restaurant near the Plaza that they were curious about.

“I like to get fancy sometimes,” Conwell says. Other times, it’s all about the $1.75 fried tacos at Cancun Fiesta Fresh.

Jakob Polaco

Polaco doesn’t have to do without a sous chef at home. His 6-year-old daughter, Ava, knows how to slice fruit, brew tea and cut dough into rings to make doughnuts.

Ava, who says she wants to work in her dad’s restaurant when she grows up, is also an expert food critic who can tell you where to find delicious Indian coconut soup (Moti Mahal II at 4113 Pennsylvania Ave. in Westport) or whether a dish needs salt to “give it more of a pop.”

On a recent Tuesday morning, Ava assisted her dad as he made jook, a Thai-style rice porridge, in the kitchen of his century-old West Plaza bungalow. A record player in the adjoining dining room spun with the kaleidoscopic sounds of Cambodian pop.

“That’s good, stop!” Ava instructed as Jakob seasoned the porridge with salt. “Sometimes you get cray with the salt.”

Jakob, 27, started his cooking career as a teenager working at Kinnaree Thai Cuisine in Joplin. After culinary school in Portland, Ore., he moved back to Kansas City and worked at the American Restaurant, Port Fonda and the Rieger. He also spent time in Vietnam and Thailand immersing himself in Southeast Asian cuisine.

At Aep, the chef serves his own twists on dishes such as Lahphet Thoke, a vegan salad made of pickled tea leaves, and Jin Room Neua, tender braised beef served with a soft-poached egg and sticky rice.

Off-duty, he likes fried rice as much as Subway sandwiches, Town Topic burgers and malted waffles from Dagwood’s Cafe, 1117 Southwest Blvd. Polaco says he considers hot dogs “an essential food group” and regularly stops for candy bars on the way home from work. Reese’s Fast Breaks and family-sized Kit Kats are his go-tos.

Polaco doesn’t keep cereal in the pantry, so he and Ava almost always make breakfast from scratch. Homemade doughnuts are a tradition, partly because Jakob used to make them with his mom.

“There’s something really heartwarming about getting your counter all messy,” the chef says. “It’s controlled chaos, and there are a lot of lessons to learn in a fun way.”

Andrew Heimburger

When they were dating, Andrew Heimburger wooed his wife Janelle with homemade guacamole and pot stickers.

“I’d never met a guy who cooked,” Janelle says, so Andrew’s kitchen skills were extra impressive.

Andrew often works evenings and weekends at the Antler Room, and Janelle keeps busy with her job as a designer at HOK Architects, so the couple can’t have dinner together as often as they’d like. But on his days off, usually Sundays and Tuesdays, Andrew often spends hours in the kitchen of their Prairie Village ranch prepping food for the rest of the week.

Smoked pork shoulder and roast chicken are his specialties. To make the latter, he buys two whole, local Campo Lindo chickens and smears them with butter, garlic and fresh-chopped herbs. Then he roasts the birds in three phases until the skin is golden and crispy and the butter forms a flavorful sauce in the bottom of the pan.

Andrew saves one chicken to use in tacos, sandwiches and salads. He cuts the other one into pieces and serves it in the roasting pan in a flavor-packed moat of butter and juices.

“There’s no graceful way to eat this,” Janelle admitted before diving into a roast chicken on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

“I don’t like to eat gracefully,” Andrew said before tearing into a crispy wing.

Andrew, who has also worked at the Local Pig, the Rieger and Happy Gillis Cafe & Hangout, is all over the place when it comes to cravings. He raves about the panko-breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches at Kitty’s Cafe, 810 E. 31st. St., the tacos at Carcineria y Tortilleria San Antonio, 830 Kansas Ave. in Kansas City, Kan., and bun at Vietnam Cafe in Columbus Park.

The chef makes his own version of bun, a cold noodle dish, at home with leftover roast chicken, soba noodles, carrots, cucumbers, jalapeno and cilantro. He makes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-style sauce by mixing soy sauce, sambal hot sauce, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, lime juice, sugar, ginger and garlic. Then, for good measure, he tops the dish with crispy croutons he makes by frying dehydrated shrimp.

Delicious dishes like those make it hard for Janelle to complain about Andrew’s ever-growing roster of kitchen appliances, including a mortar and pestle, Vitamix blender, KitchenAid Pro Series stand mixer, dehydrator, juicer and a SodaStream.

The busy chef says he has a soft spot for his pressure cooker, which helps him executive time-consuming recipes fast: “Last week I made a bolognese in 30 minutes with that thing.”

Kaffir Jook

Chef Jakob Polaco of Aep uses leftover jasmine rice, chicken stock and coconut milk to make a Thai-style breakfast porridge called jook. Kaffir lime leaves, which are sold in the spice section of many grocery and specialty stores, impart a subtle fruity flavor.

Serves 4

1 cup chicken stock

1 cup day-old jasmine rice

2 cups coconut milk (Polaco prefers boxed coconut milk to canned)

1 cup coconut cream

6 kaffir lime leaves, julienned

Salt, to taste

Bring chicken stock to a simmer in a medium-sized pot over medium heat. Stir in rice, coconut milk and coconut cream. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes. Add kaffir lime leaves and simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and serve.

Per serving: 542 calories (78 percent from fat), 50 grams total fat (44 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 25 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 558 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Source: Jakob Polaco

Herb Roast Chicken

Andrew Heimburger, sous chef at the Antler Room, has memorized this three-phase recipe for roasted chicken. He uses leftover shredded chicken in salads, sandwiches and Vietnamese-style noodle bowls.

Serves 4 to 5

1 small but plump roasting chicken, weighing about 3 to 4 pounds

7 tablespoons soft butter

Generous handfuls of fresh herbs, roughly chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

1/2 glass of white wine

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Take off any string or elastic trussing from the chicken, place the bird in a roasting pan, and spread out its legs from the body. Enlarge the opening of the cavity with your fingers, so hot air can circulate inside the bird. It will cook quicker like that.

Put the butter in a bowl, throw in the roughly chopped herbs and the garlic, and season well with salt and pepper. Mix together with your fingers, then smear all over the chicken, outside and in.

Place in the center of a hot oven (400 degrees) and leave for 20 minutes (phase 1). Then baste the chicken, turn the oven down to 350 degrees, pour the wine into the pan (not over the bird), and roast the bird for another 30 to 40 minutes (phase 2), depending on its size. Open the oven door, turn the oven off, and leave the bird for 15 to 20 minutes (phase 3). This is usually enough time to roast a small chicken through without burning the skin.

For a bigger bird, you will have to make the necessary adjustments, adding a few minutes for each phase. You may also wish to protect the bird’s skin with buttered foil for, say, the first 20 minutes of phase 2. A good test for doneness is to pierce that part of the bird where the thigh joins the breast; the juices released should run clear.

Forget about gravy. Carve the bird in the pan, as coarsely and crudely as you like (no wafer-thin breast slices, please), letting the pieces fall into the buttery pan juices and letting the fresh juices from carving mingle with the rest.

Per serving, based on 4: 431 calories (66 percent from fat), 30 grams total fat (15 grams saturated), 157 milligrams cholesterol, trace carbohydrates, 35 grams protein, 335 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Source: The River Cottage Meat Book (Ten Speed Press 2007)

Perfect Potato Soup

Kelly Conwell, executive pastry chef at Stock Hill, often makes big batches of soup on her days off so she’ll have easy meals ready after long shifts. This potato soup recipe from pioneerwoman.com is a go-to; Conwell often adds a few diced parsnips when she has them on hand.

Makes 12 servings

6 slices thin bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 medium onion, diced

3 carrots, scrubbed clean and diced

3 stalks celery, diced

6 small Russet potatoes, peeled and diced

8 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon Cajun spice mix

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Black pepper, to taste

1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley

1 cup grated cheese, for serving

Add bacon pieces to a soup pot over medium heat and cook bacon until crisp and fat is rendered. Remove the bacon from the pot and set it aside. Pour off most of the grease, but do not clean the pot.

Return the pot to medium-high heat and add the onions, carrots and celery. Stir and cook for 2 minutes or so, then add the diced potatoes. Cook for 5 minutes, seasoning with salt, pepper and Cajun spice.

Pour in the broth and bring it to a gentle boil. Cook for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are starting to get tender. Whisk together the flour and the milk, then pour into the soup and allow the soup to cook for another 5 minutes.

Remove half to  2/3 of the soup and blend in batches in a blender/food process until completely smooth. (Use caution when blending hot soup; if possible, allow the soup to cool before blending). Pour it back into the soup pot and stir to combine. Let it heat back up as you taste for seasonings, adding more of what it needs. Stir in cream, then stir in parsley, reserving a little for garnish.

Serve in bowls garnished with parsley, grated cheese and crisp bacon pieces.

Per serving: 163 calories (45 percent from fat), 10 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 26 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams protein, 246 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Source: pioneerwoman.com

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