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Secrets of KC’s Great Chefs

The (Not-So-Secret) Secrets of 11 Great Chefs


“I’ve Got a Secret” was an old TV series, even before my time almost (1952-67) but then it was revived a couple of times in various formats which I never saw.  The schtick was that a panel tried to guess a contestant’s “secret.” The definition of secret was pretty broad but it was supposed to be amazing, unusual, humorous, or embarrassing.  The contestant could be a famous person or someone more like you or me.  I remember there was a lot of back and forth banter and that my parents liked the show a whole more than I did.

Maybe that’s because the secrets never seemed all that fascinating to me, or that’s how I remember it anyway.  A secret should be really that – deep, mysterious, intriguing.  The whole problem with that concept today is that there seem to be few secrets – everybody knows everything about everybody.  Thank you, internet.

Well, that’s not really totally true.  What if, I thought, what if I could ask some folks with a great talent anything I wanted.  Would they answer me?  And truthfully?

The answer to that burning question is yes.  It’s yes if you’re a great Kansas City chef.  I found that everyone I approached was willing to give me some answers to some scorching questions that I think all of us would like to know.  And though I can’t tell everything about every chef I talked to, I can tell you that in this very hard business, some of the men and women drawn to it who’ve persevered and succeeded in it, have some similarities and some differences. Quelle surprise as the French say.
So if you want to know what I’ve discovered, read on.  It may change how you view your next meal in any one of their fine restaurants and at the least, I bet there’s something in here you didn’t know.

Adverse or Modest?

I started out with the negative, or at least the humble, bit.  I asked, what aren’t you good at?  Yes, a sentence ending with a preposition.  Chef and owner Carl Thorne-Thomsen of Story answered simply, “Patience.”  Chef Leonice Ludwig of Porto do Sul was really upfront when she said she wasn’t good at dealing with unreasonable customers, because sometimes “they are not right.”  Chef Alejandro Diaz of the President’s (Hilton) Providence Restaurant said without hesitation he’s not great in public relations.  He definitely thinks it’s not about him, it’s about the food, which he’s happier to talk about.

Some turned to food to answer this.  Chef/owner Colby Garrelts of Rye and Bluestem says he’s “terrible at pasta.  It’s a very simple food style which I overthink.” Chef Tony Gordon of Westside Local responded with the rather surprising answer of “Veggies.”  He admitted to being a picky eater as a kid and vegetables were not his favorite.  But he’s recovered – working with so many local farmers has made him appreciate the taste and quality of good vegetables and now he’s much more comfortable with pairing them with his entrees.  His mother would be proud.

But the big winner here for these experienced chefs was dessert.  Maybe not a surprise. Taylor Fluevog, Executive Chef at Sullivan’s Steakhouse, said that she’s lucky to have a talented sous-chef who has great finesse in constructing wonderful desserts.  Chef Brandon Winn at Webster House somewhat echoed that – his pastry chef does much that he’d rather not. Mano Rafael, co-owner and chef of Le Fou Frog, agrees with this, “. . . because you have to be a scientist and measure everything.  I also hate to work with sugar – it’s sticky and messy.”  Richard Ng of Bo Lings isn’t crazy about desserts either, saying he is not able to spend enough time on them.  And Bobby Stearns of Ophelia’s and Café Verona laughed as he remarked he still could use more practice on desserts, even though he makes them all the time.

Some (Possibly Not Secret) Big Dislikes

Armed with this info, I kept to my negative trend and asked them what is the most irritating thing about their customers – or kitchen . . . giving them an out because hardly anyone will tell about that most hated thing about their customers – at least sober they won’t.  A couple had no complaints, so I’ll skip them.  But there were a couple of instructive answers from the other side of the wall.  Story’s chef bemoaned his small kitchen.  Alejandro Diaz said he’d rather be in an open kitchen because, “There’s great motivation and gratification when you see people enjoying your food.”

Two chefs are annoyed by people changing their food – putting their own restrictions on the chef’s dish.  Mano Rafael says, “I understand dietary and allergy restrictions but when it’s just that they prefer potatoes to couscous, it irritates me because I put a lot of thought into all the components of my dish.  Get a side of mashed potatoes but try the dish the way it was intended!”  Tony Gordon says the same thing, “When customers completely customize their own dish.”  Brandon Winn points out the necessity of, if you have a true food allergy, telling your staff person immediately, but he’s irritated by “100% dietary restrictions that are really preferences.  It’s when preferences are put in front of you as allergies . . Cross contamination in kitchens is inevitable.” 

Only a slight step away from that is when, according to Chef Leonice Ludwig, customers come in and tell her, “How I should be cooking Brazilian food that we have been cooking for years with recipes handed down for generations.”  People, people, let the chef create and cook the food!

Still on that other side, Colby Garrelts notes, “I love our customers but I hate when they complain about noise at both of our Rye restaurants. I want high energy in those restaurants! I want noise and I want people to have fun!”  So noted.  Bobby Stearns mentions Yelp, stupid reviews, so called “foodies,” and ordering breakfast items at dinner.  Richard Ng hates to waste good food and ingredients, but didn’t indicate if that’s on his customers or in his kitchen.  Probably both I’d guess – waste is waste.

At What We’re Great

What do they think their restaurant does an extra-special good job in?  Predictably, Taylor Fluevog at Sullivan’s says bone-in steaks.  Yep.  Despite his fish reputation, Carl Thorne Thomsen says Story excellently does craft cocktail creation.  Jeff Dietzler says Jax is especially good at sustainability, totally important for seafood.  Brandon Winn is proud of how well Webster House does with special events and being adaptable as they have become more contemporary using more fresh ingredients.  Tony Gordon believes Westside Local does an especially good job in using local ingredients and working with local farmers.  He specifies he likes to help support local businesses in the city himself.

Alejandro Diaz is really happy with the way Providence represents new American food.  On the other side of the ocean, Mano Rafael points to the fact Le Fou Frog has been demystifying French food for so many years.  Leonice Ludwig claims an outstanding specialty in something the others wouldn’t: picanha, the most prized of Brazilian meats we call a sirloin cap (but Brazilians keep the fat on until the steak has been cooked).

Home Sweet Home

Are chefs just like you and me, only better cooks?  I’d guess there’s much more to it – like years of education and training, arduous experiences, comprehensive knowledge in a bunch of different areas.  But they do (sometimes) cook at home, just like me.  It’s a question of time.  Chefs’ go-tos home on the range sound a whole lot better than mine, though.

Jeff Dietzler doesn’t have a chance to cook at home very often but he likes to cook for family and friends and loved ones about twice a month.  His fav?  Lasagna. Alejandro Diaz cooks for “my wife and me a couple times a week, we usually do pork tacos or quesadillas. When we have more time, I make gluten free sweet potato gnocchi Parisienne with creamy Bolognese sauce.”  So much for simple.  “When I am at home I cook for my parents, daughter, and my sister.  I try to make sure that I cook on average four times a week when my mother doesn't beat me to the punch,” reveals Taylor Fluevog.
Brandon Winn says he cooks for himself and it all depends on how much he’s worked.  During Restaurant Week, he said he went home, had a beer or two, and went to bed.  Otherwise, though, he uses his “smoker a lot. . . I can walk away from it for an hour or two.  I like simple.  I tend to nibble on menu items a lot.  Home is plant-based hashes and I don’t eat a lot a protein at home.  It’s eggs or lentils if I do. Or curries.”  Colby Garrelts says, “I cook at home every chance I get. My kids love brick chicken and risotto. That gets served a lot at our house.”  Leonice Ludwig cooks risotto at home, too – “it’s so easy and good.”

“Honestly, before I became the chef at the Local, I used to cook a lot at home,” says Chef Gordon. “Nowadays I rarely do. But if I do decide to, I'll make southern dishes like fried fish, jambalaya, or maybe fire up the smoker and barbecue.”  Both Richard Ng and Bobby Stearns say they just don’t cook at home much.  Mano Rafael says, “At home I take turns cooking for my family of four.  Sometimes it’s every night; sometimes my wife does it.  They like what I cook but don't like how many dishes I use and they say I make too much.  Our most common go-to meal is some sort of pasta.”

Chef Fluevog admits, “When I am at home we like to cook rustic-style, good old home cooking.  We make Italian lasagna as well as BBQ meatballs and cheesy potatoes.”   Carl Thorne-Thomsen is most comprehensive as he thinks about this fiery question.  “I cook breakfast every morning for my wife, Susan, and our three children. I cook family dinner on Monday nights. I also cook lunch for my wife on Mondays and Tuesdays. Family dinner is always steak, chicken, Caesar salad, a vegetable, rice and pasta. Something for everyone.”  Whew.  Opening a can of soup, it’s not.

Try This Once at Least

If you’ve not had the following dishes, you should, according to our experts.  Check them out (and off your list).

“I love foie gras. At Providence we pan sear it and baste it with herbs and grill some Boston brown bread and garnish it with local fig jam. It’s indulgently buttery, sweet, salty and nutty,” opines Alejandro Diaz.  Our kale and artichoke crab dip. (Jeff Dietzler at Jax).  “Menudo.  Tripe.  Sweetbreads.  They are delicious by any standard.  Such flavor” . . . (Brandon Winn). Octopus (Carl Thorne-Thomsen).  Steak tartare (Taylor Fluevog).

Chef Rafael says, “Steak au poivre for people who think French food is too fancy. Escargot and foie gras.” Whole flounder, pork belly (Richard Ng). Chef Garrelts takes it up, or down, a notch: “Any kind of offal, liver, sweetbreads, etc. I love the texture and the unique flavors.”  Chef Gordon said he’d “have to go with ceviche. I was always skeptical about raw seafood being cooked in fresh squeezed lime juice. But this stuff is amazing.”  Brandon Winn summed it up: “We should all try new things, whatever is new to us.”  Bobby Stearns adds, “Something you have been scared to try.  Try it.”

Your Last Meal, Ever

It’s only appropriate to end this article with the last meal on earth question.  I didn’t even put them in prison awaiting execution, just that last meal, assuming you still have your teeth and taste buds. There were some simple, but perfect, sounding choices.  Chef Ludwig says she’d want picanha, cooked by her husband. Chef Tony Gordon exclaims, “It'll have to be pizza.  I love classic New York style pizza from Johnny Jo's Pizzeria. I love that place.”  Chef Ng says he wants egg fried rice cooked by his wife.

Chef Thorne-Thomsen would have a cheeseburger his wife cooked along with at least one glass of 2014 Realm Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet (which, by the way, garnered a 99 in the Wine Advocate). Jeff Dietzler envisions a large last plate: “Full of bone marrow, pâtés, and charcuterie.  It would be prepared by all of the chefs who have mentored me and showed me their ways.” Nice. 

Chef Rafael is explicit.  “My last meal would be a ribeye encrusted in garlic and fresh herbs cooked by my Chef Fatmir with a side of pasta cooked by my wife. Brandon could add a little surf to my turf and sauté some perfect scallops and then if pastry chef Carter threw in a goat cheese cheesecake, I'd be fat and happy.”
Chef Diaz is clear.  “It would start with some cheese, wine and baguette, follow by braised short ribs and mashed potatoes, tacos al pastor (yes,TACOS), and I would finish with a vanilla bean crème brûlée.  It would be cooked by my cooks and sous-chef.”

Chef Winn told me a short story before his final choice.  “For my 30th birthday, we went to Eleven Madison Park – for 25 courses. It was life changing.  Last year I went to Rieger and ordered ten meals I wanted and then Howard Hanna carefully and thoughtfully re-engineered them all into one dinner.  In other words, I would like Howard Hanna to just go for it. That’s the meal I want.” 

 A Few Last Words

While I’m pretty sure that these 11 chefs may have secrets that are deep, mysterious, and spine-tingling intriguing, I think I’ll have to dig deeper to get those.  I’m happy to settle for the idea that these people are nicely unusual, amazing in their craft, and willing to reveal at least a little bit about their lives.  Frankly, I came away impressed.  You can easily sample their skills and ultimate creations in their restaurants and should have a better understanding of the man or woman beneath that chef’s coat.  Whether or not you get a chance to talk to them too, I bet you’ll also be impressed.
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