Actors dream of Tonys, Emmys and Oscars. Baseball players have Cooperstown.
Scientists: the Nobel Prize.
Retired Kansas City executive chef Jess Barbosa, now age 84 — and who remembers thinking as a poor Mexican kid on Kansas City’s West Side that “I want to be somebody” — has achieved his own dream.
“I feel this is it,” Barbosa said Thursday with jubilation. “No matter what happens to me after I get inducted, I don’t care anymore. If the good Lord takes me, he takes me. But I got up the mountain where I wanted to be.”
That achievement is induction into the American Academy of Chefs’ Culinary Hall of Fame in a ceremony July 11 in Orlando, Fla. The academy is the honor society of the American Culinary Federation, which represents some 17,500 members nationwide.
Chefs need to have reached at least age 62 and have spent no fewer than 30 years in the business. Since 1988, when the Hall of Fame was established, just more than 100 chefs have been inducted. Three Hall of Famers were chosen this year.
Barbosa, who retired in 2014, had a 58-year career. If not for pain in his legs after decades of standing on tile floors, he said, “I’d probably still be working.”
To fine-dining Kansas Citians, accustomed to sumptuous banquets with towering floral arrangements and ornate ice sculptures, Barbosa’s name is inextricably linked to the historic Muehlebach Hotel, where he became executive chef, and later the Alameda Plaza Hotel and the Marriott Allis Plaza Hotel, now the Kansas City Marriott Downtown.
He spoke of seeing John F. Kennedy and, of course, Harry S. Truman at the Muehlebach.
“And what do you call them, the celebrities who came over from England?” the chef tried to recall. “What do you call those guys? The Beatles! The Beatles.”
He recalled them being spirited from an alley through the Muehlebach kitchen to escape fans.
“And I saw Wilt Chamberlain right in front of my face,” he said, as he did many of the greatest New York Yankees, including future Hall of Fame players Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra when they were in their prime.
At the Alameda, comedian Bob Hope was a favorite. “He was a gentleman,” Barbosa recalled.
And when Michael Jackson stayed, he brought his own personal chef, working in Barbosa’s kitchen.
“We had some good times,” Barbosa said of a career that had its roots in his childhood in what was then the largely Mexican immigrant neighborhoods along Southwest Boulevard.
The youngest of eight children raised by his mother and father, a railroad worker, young Barbosa used to work in a neighborhood store. He stocked goods and used a child’s wagon to deliver groceries to homes for nickel tips.
“In the meantime, we had a meat shop,” Barbosa said. He remembers the floor being scattered with sawdust to catch drippings. “I kind of watched and observed and thought, ‘It would be nice to get back there.’ I kept my eye on the butcher.”
Barbosa recalled the butcher asking him, “What do you want from me?”
Barbosa answered, “I want to be like you.”
Over time, the butcher, seemingly unable to shake Barbosa’s interest, let the boy observe. Barbosa would practice cutting meats on his own time.
Later, as a young adult enlisted in the Navy as a deckhand during the Korean War, his butcher skills got him transferred to the galley, preparing meals three times a day for 1,500 sailors.
Discharged in 1956, he struggled to find work back in Kansas City.
“I knocked around the city. The big hotels, they didn’t want to take me on,” Barbosa said.
An introduction to Phil Pistilli, the late and legendary manager of the Muehlebach and later the Alameda Plaza and Raphael hotels, changed Barbosa’s life.
“He gave me a chance,” Barbosa said. When he speaks of Pistilli, who died in 2003 at age 76, it is with reverence, respect and gratitude.
“When he gave me that chance, I said, ‘If you take me on, I will show you in due time. Not today. Not tomorrow, but in due time.’”
Barbosa worked for Pistilli and the hotels he managed for the rest of his career: 16 years at the Muehlebach, 16 at the Alameda Plaza, which is now the InterContinental Kansas City at the Plaza, and 26 at the Downtown Marriott.
He began at the bottom washing dishes and became a vegetable cook in a kitchen ruled by European-trained chefs. Swiss, French and German chefs became his mentors. Within 13 years, in 1969, Barbosa was named executive chef.
“They had a great relationship. They had a terrific relationship,” Kevin Pistilli, 58, said of his father and Barbosa. He is the current president of the Raphael Hotel Group. “Jess, I assume, would credit my dad for getting him introduced to the hotel side of cooking.
“I’ve spent nearly 40 years in this business and been around Jess my entire life. I know how hard he’s worked. He’s achieved many accolades. It is from his talent.”
Even a partial list of his achievements is long: Scroll recipient for International Wine & Food Society dinners multiple times in the 1970s; Greater Kansas City Chefs Association Chef of the Year in 1976 and 1983; Missouri inductee into Les Amis d’Escoffier Society of Chicago; inductee into Honorable Order of the Golden Toque in 1987; American Culinary Federation 2004 Good Taste Award; and the federation’s Central Region 2014 President’s Medallion.
He was a founding member who helped establish the American Culinary Federation of Greater Kansas City and was instrumental in the 1970s for establishing and expanding the culinary apprentice program at Johnson County Community College.
Each month, he continues to have lunch with old friends from the West Side, informally known as the “West Side Boys,” who put together Christmas dinners every season for 70 to 80 indigent Kansas City families.
In September, Barbosa and his wife, Virginia, will celebrate 60 years of marriage. “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to tell you something good,” he said. “I’m still in love.”
The Barbosas have three children, two daughters and a son. His eldest daughter, Renee Barbosa Schultz, died from cancer in 2015 at age 56. His daughter Vicki Barbosa is a local executive chef, as is a nephew. His son, Charles Barbosa, is a Kansas City police officer.
Longtime chefs still at the Muehlebach, like banquet chef Ramiro Ruiz, who worked with Barbosa for 37 years, will tell you their boss was not always easy to please.
“He was hard,” said banquet cook Gerardo Zamudio, 51, who worked for him for 33 years
“Hard in a good way,” Ruiz said. “Best way to make you learn.”
Barbosa stands by his methods.
“You’ve got to be tough,” Barbosa said. “But you’ve got to be fair about it. Do it the right way.”
Although in retirement, he said he has put his golden toque aside.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “If I buy something, I buy enough to last me two or three days. I don’t want to cook. I did enough of that, OK?”