Chow Town

Move over celebrity chefs, here come celebrity growers

Corporate tomato baskets filled with Kurlbaum Heirloom Tomatoes
Corporate tomato baskets filled with Kurlbaum Heirloom Tomatoes

Celebrity Chefs are everywhere: on the Food Network, on television reality shows and on morning TV in seemingly every city in the country.

The Celebrity Chef Movement started in Europe with Michelin-starred restaurants and names like Paul Bocuse and Jacques Pepin. It took off here in the U.S. with the debut of the Food Network and the seemingly never-ending appearances by the likes of Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Giada de Laurentiis, and others.

Kansas City has no shortage of well-known chefs whose names, faces, and cuisine are easily recognized by a large segment of the population. I’m proud to call some of those chefs my friends, and pleased to have experienced multiple meals at the hands of each and every one of them.

This summer, I’m started to see another trend in the food world here and elsewhere. Chefs, celebrity and otherwise, have started featuring the products of a new batch of producers. Let’s call them celebrity growers.

I’m going to talk about three such producers, two ranchers and one farmer. Let’s start on the farm, Kurlbaum’s Heirloom Tomato Farm in Kansas City, Kan. I still have yet to visit Kurlbaum’s, but I’m extremely familiar with their amazing tomatoes and have spoken to Liz and Sky Kurlbaum on numerous occasions.

Thanks to the quality, diversity, and deliciousness of their product, it seems the Kurlbaums are reaching rock star status in certain circles.

“I was having lunch at the Bristol with a friend of mind and the waitress was describing a new salad they had on the menu featuring our heirloom tomatoes. When I told her I was one of the growers, she couldn’t have been more excited,” Sky Kurlbaum said.

He was nearly as thrilled as the waitress knowing his sales would improve every time that waitress told customers the grower of those delicious tomatoes had just come in for lunch. Area chefs are tapping into the Kurlbaum celebrity, hosting dinners featuring Kurlbaum’s heirlooms at their restaurants and taking their show on the road in a series of Farm-to- Table Dinners at the Kurlbaum Farm.

Chefs like Michael Smith and Jasper Mirabile are willingly sharing the spotlight with Liz, Sky and 65 or so specialty tomatoes.

Next stop, Affare where Chef Martin Heuser is working with naturally raised, prairie grass-red Bison to create a menu of Bison-inspired dishes. The dishes, created by Heuser and local barbecue champion Russ Meuhlberger, are amazing.

Heuser said he and Muehlberger spent a weekend experimenting with the bison, smoking various cuts, creating a variety of barbecue sauces and apparently, drinking a fair amount of beer.

I am a particular fan of the Polynesian-Style Bison Satay served with a spicy peanut sauce and accompanied by cashew-mango coleslaw. And you can’t go wrong with Heuser’s Bison BBQ sample with bison burnt ends, brisket, smoked bacon-wrapped meat and cheese balls, pit beans and a green apple-cranberry slaw.

But, as much as I loved Heuser and Muehlbeger’s collaboration and creativity, I was blown away by the amazingly flavorful Bison raised by Ed and Susan Dillinger at Lazy Heart D Ranch.

I hope to venture to the Flint Hills in Kansas and witness the majesty of the Bison first-hand at some point. For now, I’ll have to satisfy myself with information from their website and, of course, Heuser’s Bison barbecue menu. I could do a lot worse.

The same can be said of my final stop on the Celebrity producer tour, Chaz at The Raphael. At Chaz, long one of my favorite not so hidden secrets, Chef Charles d’Ablaing is partnering with local rancher Tim Hartfield on a menu featuring Hartfield’s hormone and antibiotic-free, naturally raised Angus beef.

You’ll find strip steaks, rib eyes, tenderloins, short ribs, and flat iron steaks from Hatfield at Chaz. I devoured a strip with d’Ablaing and Hatfield the other night.

D’Ablaing cooked it to a perfect medium-rare, and served it up in a veal demi-glaze. The streak was topped with seagrass, chanterelle mushrooms, and accompanied by some super fresh asparagus. The preparation was perfect, and the flavors beyond delicious, but honestly, Hatfield’s meat could have been seasoned only with salt and pepper and served by itself and it still would have been outstanding.

Hatfield is the owner of High Summit Ranch in Nodaway County in Missouri. Hatfield is truly a specialty rancher. He raises a 100-head herd of Angus steers on High Summit Ranch, located south of Maryville.

The property has been in the Hatfield family since 1880. Hatfield raises his cattle with patience and care, grass-feeding the cattle during the growing season, then hand finishing them in winter with locally grown alfalfa and a “secret” formula of local grains.

The beef is aged an average of 21-days. D’Ablaing said he ages the cuts another 14-days after they arrive, so you’re getting a steak that’s been aged over a month by the time it shows up at your table. Believe me, it’s worth the wait.

So, there you have it, from tomatoes to bison to beef, a look at some incredible local products and the growing celebrity of the people behind them.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.