Chow Town

Kansas City Chef Michael Foust wears his ink well

Michael Foust
Michael Foust

Wrapping up a business meeting one recent Saturday afternoon with Chef Michael Foust at his River Market sensation, The Farmhouse, my attention is diverted from finishing the remains of a divine polenta Napoleon.

Some compelling art, within a short stone’s throw from my seat, catches my eye.

In fact, I can literally reach out and touch it, but decorum prevents my fingers from tracing over the art.

The art isn’t hanging on the walls of The Farmhouse, but is displayed on the 42-year-old chef’s right arm.

Sipping my French-press coffee, I casually inquire.

“Has anyone ever written a story about that,” I nodded toward Foust’s right arm resting on the table.

Foust appears bewildered for a moment and then follows my stare.

“This?” he smiled. “No, never.”

But the way Foust lingers over the tattoo is revealing.

There’s much to tell.

Ten days later Foust and I sit in The Farmhouse’s Chef’s Room, an intimate private space in the restaurant’s rustic environment.

Another French press sits in front of me. Foust sips steaming coffee from a white mug.

A cow’s skull, covered in shiny, crystal tiles that refract light from the overhead drum fixture and a grouping of mirrors hanging on a wall behind Foust, commands the center of the table, surrounded by candles and seasonal pumpkins.

“Interesting centerpiece,” I point to the skull.

Foust fondly pats the glittering object.

“Yeah, Sunny, my floor manager did this,” he said. “Isn’t it cool?”

Foust’s hair is acceptably disheveled, as if he just removed a helmet following one of his extreme snowboarding escapades down an Aspen mountainside.

His bleach-stained T-shirt — with the image of a splayed and plump pink pig diagramed for butchering — is emblazoned with a slogan declaring “tip-to-tail” that captures The Farmhouse’s farm-to-table, nose-to-tail philosophy.

Peeking from underneath the shirt’s sleeve is the genesis of the interview’s subject — a beautifully rendered series of tattoos so realistic that the strutting chicken and smirking pig appear as if they might spring to life at any moment.

Most chefs worth their salt have engaging stories about how they started out cooking or who inspired them or where in the world they picked up their culinary point-of-view.

But not all chefs wear their food heritage on their arm in such detail like Foust.

“Ben Alvarez of Done Rite Tattoos above Grinders, on 18th Street, did my work,” said Foust, pushing up the shirt’s sleeve so I can appreciate the full perspective of the cascading images.

“I asked around and people I respect said Ben’s the best. He’s a true craftsman of his trade.”

Done Right Tattoos is by appointment only — not one of those 24-hour parlors where it’s easy to stumble into after a few too many pints and request something that, in the morning light, might be regrettable.

“I had to commit to this,” continued Foust. “There’s a lot of meaning here.”

Headlining the tattoo is the name of his restaurant, The Farmhouse — a place fueled by the artisan ingredients farmers and producers bring to the backdoor — that has become Foust’s celebrated laboratory for Midwest comfort food injected with French and Asian twists and turns.

That ink flows into the portion of the design which Foust refers to as a “memorial tattoo to my dad.”

“This is the first farmer’s market I ever visited,” he said, his fingers gently touching fruits, vegetables and the image of a farmer merchandising his wares.

Foust was 8 years old, on a 1979 family vacation in Seattle with his parents and older brother, far away from their comfortable home on picturesque Lake Quivira.

“I was young enough where it was still okay to hang out with Mom and Dad,” said Foust. “But I was old enough to remember the trips, what I saw and learned.”

The quartet had wandered into Pike Place Market, Seattle’s original farmer’s market and the bustling, noisy epicenter of the cuisine-centric city’s locally sourced, artisan and specialty foods.

The sights, smells and sounds of that summer’s day experience made an indelible mark on Foust, who claims he can close his eyes and time-travel to the moment when he strolled Pike Place, receiving an education from his mom and dad on the spices he encountered such as saffron and cinnamon, along with the seemingly endless supply of gleaming vegetables, fruits and exotic fish.

“That trip is burnt into memory,” said Foust, his eyes fluttering for a brief second as if to conjure up the childhood tapes.

Foust purchased a souvenir during that visit to the boisterous market, a vibrant watercolor depicting a typical Pike Place scene — stalls of produce, a farmer standing below a chalkboard with prices of apples, pears, pineapples and tomatoes, weighing scales dangling from an invisible ceiling.

“My brother and I always scored a meaningful memento from each trip,” recalled Foust, “even if it was a rock from a beach. It all depended on how much money the family had at the time.”

Throughout the years, after Foust left Kansas City to explore the likes of Aspen, Lyon, France, Portland, New York, Denver and Hawaii, the Pike Place souvenir found its way to his parents’ home.

But it wasn’t until Foust’s dad, Bob, passed away of cancer in 2009 and Foust was sifting through his personal effects months later with his mom that the sweet memory of Pike Place came floating back.

“Mom and I opened a box and there was the painting,” said Foust. “I smiled and remembered that day, the smells, the fishmongers throwing fish, all the excitement.”

In an instant Foust decided on a tattoo of honor for his dad.

Foust eventually took the reclaimed painting to Alvarez, who recreated the market scene, inserting artistic embellishments such as chickens, a reclining rabbit and Rachel, the 550-pound bronze pig that wasn’t at Pike Place when Foust visited, but was added in 1986 and is now the market’s unofficial mascot.

“Ben suggested that,” said Foust, brushing his fingers over Rachel’s fat tatted image.

Foust grew up in a family that encouraged adventure and exploration — but wasn’t high on culinary accomplishments.

“Mom made the best tacos, though,” said Foust. “Kids would come from all around to eat those.”

What Foust’s mom and dad lacked in culinary prowess, they made up for in taking Foust and his brother to good restaurants to mark life’s special occasions — or celebrate when Bob, who owned Bob’s Ornamental Iron Studio on Southwest Boulevard, was flush.

“We’d go to the Savoy Grill and sit in the Truman booth and I was allowed to go into the kitchen and pick out my own lobster when I was 5 or 6,” laughed Foust. “I got special entry because of Dad. And I remember everything about that place — the nooks, crannies, aproned servers, all the different rooms.”

It was during a stint in Aspen, fresh from Kansas City, that Foust discovered, quite by accident and through a basic need to provide food and shelter for himself beyond the meager income earned by a fledgling snowboard instructor, how much the rhythm, creativity and adrenaline of a restaurant kitchen resonated with his personality.

“I had been washing dishes at The Little Nell for about two weeks,” said Foust, “when one night the grill guy didn’t show up. The chef shuffled me behind the grill. I did 170 covers that first night.”

Foust fell into a zone, admittedly not knowing the finer points, but performing his new task instinctively at one of Aspen’s most revered fine dining establishments.

“There were a couple of mishaps, but I recovered and just kept going,” said Foust.

Foust continued to work at The Little Nell at night, searing steaks and chops, and hugging the mountains during the day on his beloved snowboard.

For Foust, though, time seemed to stand still in the kitchen, where the burgeoning culinarian danced with the cooks and chefs without uttering a word.

“Everyone was focused,” said Foust.

Following a devastating personal breakup, Foust stuffed his belongings in a trash bag, threw his snowboard into his truck and hit the highway, destination unknown.

“I just needed a change of scenery,” admitted Foust, who made a split-second choice when he reached Utah.

“I was at a fork in the road — could’ve gone to San Francisco or Portland. I’d never been to Portland, so that’s where I headed.”

Foust arrived in Portland and made one of the most significant phone calls of his life after his truck broke down.

“’Dad,’ I said, ‘I’m going to cooking school,’” Foust told his father during a long-distance conversation. “’My truck is about a block from the Western Culinary Institute.’”

Foust’s dad was thrilled with his son’s spur-of-the-moment decision.

“He was happy,” said Foust. “To me, it just seemed like a sign.”

In the ensuing years, Foust cooked with some of the culinary world’s rock stars and in kitchens both foreign and domestic. According to Foust, it wasn’t always easy and often painful, but he grew in both his understanding and love of cooking and life.

“I wanted to learn a base of knowledge from some of the best, and that’s what I did,” said Foust. “French sauces and techniques from Nicholas Adams in Portland at L’Auberge and in his Normandy, France restaurant. I attended Le Cordon Bleu in France and continued to work in a kitchen.

“By now I knew I could live off pennies. It was firsthand education I was seeking to fulfill my end dream: What do you want to do with your life? Open a restaurant.”

During a stint in Lyon, France, Foust worked in a kitchen where the French chefs berated him and at times made his existence at the end of the line a living hell.

Foust’s daily job was cutting 30 to 40 pounds of carrots into precise, perfect squares.

“The whole time I lived in France, my hands were bright orange.”

But the whole time he was cutting mountains of carrots into one-centimeter dice, Foust kept a surreptitious eye on what the French cooks were doing.

“Often I learned in secret,” he said. “I wrote notes on my arms and then covered them up with the sleeves of my chef’s coat.

Foust continued to jettison around the globe, surfing, snowboarding, cooking, soaking up culinary wisdom, picking up the art of the five French mother sauces, and the proper way to cut a fish from renowned sushi chef-turned-mentor Ken Kenichi.

“He showed me, among other things, how to use one ingredient well in a dish,” said Foust.

Foust landed back in Kansas City following his father’s cancer diagnosis in 2008.

The young Foust, who had experienced 9/11 while working near the World Trade Center and suffered from anxiety following that, was prepared to spend time in the family fold.

“It was always home, but I fell back in love with Kansas City,” said Foust. “What was going on here with food and chefs. It is a smorgasbord of the best.”

With $27,000 and a well-defined vision, Foust decided to open The Farmhouse in the River Market in July 2009 during one of the worst economies in recent history. Within months, Bob Foust died, and his son grieved, in part, by running his restaurant.

“I didn’t miss a day of work,” said Foust. “Thank God I had the restaurant, it was a saving grace. My dad would’ve wanted me there, taking care of business.”

It was in KC that Foust was introduced to his deathly carrot allergy.

“One day I was dicing carrots for a mirepoix and a rash developed on my arm, and then my throat constricted, I couldn’t breathe and my face puffed up,” he said. “Coworkers got me to the emergency room and it turns out I’m allergic to beta carotene.”

While Foust can’t taste the carrots that are an essential ingredient to the French sauces he’s mastered over the decades, he still chops them with a gloved hand.

“After all those years in France, up to my elbows in carrots, and it didn’t happen,” chuckled Foust.

Which brings us to the skull-and-crossbones style, evil-grinning carrots Alvarez inked on Foust’s right arm.

“These,” said Foust, playfully jabbing a finger into the fierce carrot’s mouth, “are for fun.”

Two hours later and I’m down to the cold dregs of my French press. Foust anxiously checks the time. A wedding party will celebrate at The Farmhouse tonight, along with other reservations and walk-ins, and the chef needs to get back to his station.

Foust ambles away, in the direction of The Farmhouse’s kitchen, taking with him a tender story, exposed like a lifeline, on his right arm.

And casting aside all the clichés — art imitating life and wearing one’s heart on the sleeve and every picture tells a story — Foust’s tattooed art definitely represents a life, well lived, learned and remembered.

Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.