The Host and The Guest

When I learned about a death in the family, I immediately agreed to cook dinner for them that night.

The family wasn’t mine or Pam’s, but someone she knew. Cooking a meal was something I could do to help in a time of need.

“Anything that doesn’t use pork or alcohol,” Pam said.

She suggested a meat dish and a vegetarian dish. I decided on Indian-style chicken curry and vegetable curry. That made more sense to me than lasagna or chicken enchiladas or some casserole, standard comfort food offered at unimaginable times like this.

The Muslim family was Syrian. An aunt in Syria had died. The result of a bombing, I believe. I didn’t know, and didn’t ask for, many details.

The ongoing civil war between Syrian government forces and opposition rebels has resulted in approximately 90,000 fatalities, likely more, depending on what news source and numbers seem credible. That’s the population of Chilliwack, British Columbia, or slightly more than one out of five people living in greater Kansas City.

I spent the afternoon gathering ingredients at the grocery store, returned home and began preparing food that I would deliver by 6 p.m. The family we knew would receive extended family in their home that evening.

After skinning potatoes, I diced them along with carrots and onions. I heated curry powder and vegetable oil in an iron skillet to open up the flavor of the aromatic spices before lightly sauteing the vegetables. Next, I added a bay leaf, coconut milk and more seasoning.

Instead of chicken curry, I opted to prepare chicken tikki masala and used a store-bought brand. I wanted to offer different flavors rather than serving two curry dishes. Plus, I am not skilled in Indian cuisine to make tikki masala sauce from scratch when time was running short. I diced several pounds of chicken breast, minced onion and garlic and sauteed everything before adding the sauce to simmer.

I steamed two batches of rice – one with saffron, the other with cardamom seeds.

I was supposed to bring enough food to feed ten people. Even though the food I made should have been ample, it didn’t feel like enough. I prepared mango chutney, something with sweetness, tartness and spice to complement the combined flavors of mango, raisin, chili and onion. For good measure, I made a batch of fudge brownies. Something for the kids. I had no idea if anyone would like the food I prepared. I didn’t know the family or their tastes.

I packaged the food, loaded the car and headed to the family’s home in south Kansas City.

The husband greeted me at the door. He welcomed me inside. I brought in the first load of food, explained that I had a second load and headed back to retrieve it. My plan was to drop off the food before 6 PM and leave before the guests arrived. When I returned to the door, the husband graciously insisted I come inside and visit. I agreed out of politeness.

His wife, the woman Pam knew, stepped out of the kitchen to greet me. I was introduced to their youngest of six children, a handsome boy who wore eyeglasses and hovered by his father’s side.

I sat in the main room with the husband. We would have coffee, he suggested. We sat and began that semi-formal exchange between two people that had not met before yet still had a mutual connection. With a few words, I had been accepted into this family’s home not as a neighbor or family friend delivering food, but as a guest.

He spoke of his work at Sprint and the house he had purchased in foreclosure and improved with major investment. He gave me a tour of his home and expansive back yard. I saw how he had worked to provide a home for his family. We sat again in the main room, where the youngest son asked about the possibility of going to karate that night. The father patiently explained that guests were coming tonight and that the boy must stay here, despite his eager son’s suggestions on how he could arrange a ride.

The urgency of youth, the will of the father, the generosity of a host, the place of a guest. I watched, listened and waited as this everyday moment between father and son played out against the backdrop of tonight’s agenda.

Guests began to arrive singly and in pairs. Brothers, uncles, cousins, men that uttered words of greeting in low voices I didn’t understand. They glanced my way to acknowledge my presence, not quite understanding who I was or why I was there. I tried to take this moment to depart so that the family could spend time together.

My host insisted I stay longer. I sat once again within a circle of chairs that had been gathered in the room. More men arrived, the host’s father and an uncle. And finally, coffee was served according to Syrian custom. A large, polished pot and a tray of petite cups were placed on a low table along with a tray of dates and a plate of sesame pistachio cookies. A young man poured coffee for me.

Somehow I found myself eating dates and cookies, unable to refuse the generosity bestowed to me. I had come to feed the family and was in turn fed. I sipped the strong, bitter coffee brewed with cardamom. My host explained that it was arabica coffee. It was unlike any roasted, brewed coffee I had ever tasted.

They taught me how to offer up my cup or wave off offers for more coffee. They offered me more dates. As I sat, sipped and nibbled on snacks, I learned that this group of extended Syrian family and friends lived nearby mere minutes from my home. I watched these men – the host’s wife and all children were in another room – as they discussed politics and other topics in a language I didn’t understand. I could only pick out a few words of English mixed in with their native language.

The moment felt familiar. I had grown up listening to my mother speak Thai to friends visiting over a meal or on the phone. I was never taught enough Thai to become fluent, so I learned to glean what I could from words, phrases, tone of voice and expression.

I watched the men and how comfortable they were together. The younger men listening as two elders debated events and circumstances much like my grandfather and uncles once did. I studied their eyes, their skin, their clothes and mannerisms, feeling out of place and privileged at the same time to be present as a guest.

Glancing around this group of men, knowing there were kids in the back room and more people expected to arrive, I wished that I had prepared and brought more food. The next day, I would learn that the kids loved the food and some needed to be held back for the other guests.

I cannot imagine the complex feelings that my hosts dealt with as they absorbed national news and grappled with its human impact on their bloodline.

I thought of my family in Thailand, the conflicts taking place in Bangkok between political parties, the tension between soldiers, police and protesters. I thought of my grandmother, my only remaining living grandparent, who is terribly old and in poor health, and worried that I might never see her again while she was still alive. Even though I am able to connect through short phrases, photos and likes via Facebook with members of my family that live twelve timezones away, I feel so far away and out of touch.

It seemed like I could have stayed in this warm home for the rest of the night. After a few attempts, I finally managed to depart so that this group could spend time together, discuss and grieve, or whatever their custom, in the wake of tragedy taking place on the other side of the world.

Saying goodbye, I thanked my host and left. I had received far more than I had given.

Sometimes life opens a door, a window into the world of others.

Not Syrian or American, just human. We were not so different from each other, I thought, as I drove home to my family.

What is Kansas City’s Status as a Foodie City?

What is Kansas City’s Status as a Foodie City?

Food writer Jonathan Bender, who recently launched Recommended Daily, posted the following question on his food-based site:  Is Kansas City an Up-and-Coming Foodie City?

The question and post was prompted by Chef Graham Elliot’s statement in Forbes that Kansas City is becoming a foodie destination. Read Bender’s post to learn why Elliot thinks so.

Is Kansas City an up-and-coming foodie city or has it arrived already?

First of all, what makes a city a foodie destination? The answer to that query is subjective, but here are a few factors to consider.

• Does Kansas City have a wide range of quality local food producers and wholesale/retail suppliers – bread, cheese, chocolate, produce, meat, dairy, etc?

• Does Kansas City have a notable range and depth in its culinary offerings – fine dining, ethnic, street food, vegetarian and other dietary needs?

• Does Kansas City have a strong base of culinary talent that helps distinguish the city’s cuisine from others?

• Does the city have an active and widespread audience of consumers to support local restaurants, producers and vendors?

So, let’s address this admittedly unscientific and opinionated criteria one at a time.

Fervere bread.

Fervere bread.

Range of quality local food producers and suppliers – Yes, Kansas City is home to bakeries such as Fervere, Farm to Market, Le Monde; pastry purveyor Natasha’s Mulberry & Mott, coffee roasters ranging from The Roasterie to Parisi to Oddly Correct; specialty dairy such as beloved Shatto Milk Company and Green Dirt Farm’s sublime, award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses, chocolate from experts Andre’s, Christopher Elbow, and Patric Chocolate out of Columbia, Mo. But there’s always room for more.

The short list above doesn’t begin to address the many area farms that supply restaurants like The Farmhouse, Succotash and Renee Kelly’s Harvest among others; butchers like Broadway Butcher Shop, Local Pig and Paradise Locker Meats; specialty food retailers like Pryde’s, The Better Cheddar and Olive Tree, and indie producers like Zim’s Sauces, Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts, Jude’s Rum Cake, and award-winning Firebug Grill’n sauces by Shannon Kimball.

The list goes on – ethnic shops carrying ingredients for Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, African and Latin American cuisines, etc.

What’s missing? Kansas City could use better sources for fresh seafood.

What do you think is needed in Kansas City? Tell me in the comments below.

Depth and range of culinary offerings – KC’s ethnic food scene is far more diverse than it gets credit for locally or nationally. There’s excellent ethnic food to be savored in town, if you’re willing to seek out Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Malaysian, Chinese, Latin American food at El Porton and El Salvadoreno, Mexican street tacos through Kansas City, Kan., sushi at Kaiyo, etc.

What’s missing? Tell me below.

Kansas City could still use a decent, authentic Thai restaurant (Hot Basil is my favorite, for the record) and greater depth of restaurant selection in every ethnic cuisine. Of course, we’ll never compete with cities like Chicago and New York with larger, more diverse populations but who wants to? There’s plenty to discover and eat where we live.

We have more vegetarian options than ever. Restaurants like Waldo Pizza and Cafe Gratitude are paying attention to the dietary needs of gluten-free diners. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s no shortage of barbecue and burger joints around town.

The food truck trend has formed a solid community and garnered a loyal audience. The main factor working against these vendors is Kansas City’s cold weather in winter. Hey, we can’t all live in L.A. and San Diego.

Culinary Talent – The city has a deep roster of talented chefs in their prime with young talent breaking out as well. Kansas City is home to four veteran chefs – Celina Tio (Julian, Collection, The Belfry), Debbie Gold (Red Door Grill), Michael Smith (Extra Virgin, Michael Smith), and Colby Garrelts (bluestem, Rye) – that earned a James Beard Award for Best Chef – Midwest. That’s pretty impressive for a metropolitan area the size of Kansas City.

Chef Jennifer Maloney, Cafe Sebastienne

Chef Jennifer Maloney, Cafe Sebastienne

Awards and media attention aside, these other chefs scattered throughout the metro also bolster the city’s credentials as a destination for fine dining – Megan Garrelts (bluestem, Rye), Jonathan Justus at Justus Drugstore, Jennifer Maloney at Cafe Sebastienne, Howard Hanna at The Rieger, Carl Thorne-Thomsen at Story, Ted Habiger and Andy Sloan at Room 39, and Michael Corvino at The American (read my piece on Corvino).

There’s more to life than fine dining. You’ll also find distinctive dishes, rustic fare and traditional, comfort food by Patrick Ryan at Port Fonda, Michael Foust at The Farmhouse, Jasper Mirabile at Jasper’s, Quillan Glynn at Pizzabella, Josh Eans at Happy Gillis, Beth Barden at Succotash, John Williams at Potpie, and so forth. The list of chefs producing good food at locally owned venues is endless.

Also, resources like JCCC’s culinary program and the work of Chefs Bob Brassard and Justin Hoffman at Broadmoor Bistro help replenish the supply of local culinary talent. These programs train future generations of chefs and hospitality industry professionals that often find their first industry jobs here. Folks like Chef Joe West.

Audience – Naturally, the hospitality industry depends on attracting and retaining a loyal customer base. But that’s true anywhere. What’s vital to touting Kansas City as a foodie (a word I detest, by the way) destination is growing its critical mass of people that support local restaurants, farms and retailers. Without that support, it’s hard for food-based business owners and employees to earn a livelihood, much less produce consistent quality in food and service that will attract people from around the globe.

That said, Kansas City has a dedicated but small core audience of diners and foodies celebrating local food and drink culture. It would be nice to see more than the same faces at food-, beer- and wine-oriented events. It’s helpful to have more people broadcasting positive support for eating and drinking local on social media, blogs and local television appearances. After all, local dollars spent at locally-owned and operated businesses has a positive ripple effect on the area economy.

Better local press coverage would be a boon as well. Since the loss of Lauren Chapin, The Star’s restaurant critic for eight years, the coverage of local food has suffered over the past five years. Local writing about food and drink has increased in some respects because there’s more to write about and it has been trendy to do so; however, the quality of that writing is inconsistent or missing.

We’re fortunate to have a few veteran writers in media plugging away including Jill Silva, food editor at The Kansas City Star, freelancer Anne Brockhoff covering the local wine, beer and spirits scene at the city’s paper of record, Jonathan Bender’s writing at Recommended Daily and Charles Feruzza’s story-driven reviews for The Pitch. Still, most food coverage in our local media lacks insight, well-researched food journalism or originality. The quality and variety of good food has certainly increased over recent years, whether it is fine dining or street-style grub. What hasn’t kept pace is the quality of the food writing. Like getting butts in seats at local venues, we can always use more.

Why is better coverage of our food scene important to a local audience and to the city’s food reputation as a whole? Residents need to be better informed on a consistent basis so they are more willing to visit locally-owned businesses, spend money and spread the word (positive, negative or somewhere in the middle) about their experience. Accurate, timely, entertaining and informative writing helps create demand and fosters decision-making. We can’t and shouldn’t rely on buzz from national magazines, blogs and television and cable shows to alert us to what’s hot and noteworthy in our own city.

Food Destination or Not?

Back to my original question, is Kansas City’s food scene up-and-coming or has it already arrived? Kansas City has been a foodie city for a long time. Beyond our historic reputation for steaks and barbecue, we’ve been blessed with a steadily improving food scene. There’s plenty of good eating out there, but there’s also room for growth and improvement.

On a side note, I have avoided mentioning the rise and strength of Kansas City’s beverage culture, be it coffee, wine, beer or spirits. Local entrepreneurs have made strides to introduce and improve what we drink. Cheers to that development!

The rise of KC’s beverage community and culture works in tandem with the elevation of our food scene. Brewers, roasters, distillers and other producers are collaborating with chefs, food producers and farmers to pair food with beer, coffee and wine. Further, look at what Port Fonda has been doing with Little Freshie’s juices. Or Little Freshie’s cross-promotion with Fervere’s bread offerings. The Roasterie has expanded its offerings to balsamic vinegar, Dizzy 3 vodka, chocolate, ketchup, barbecue sauce and more.

Locals, it’s time to step out and show up. And the rest of the world, drop on by and see what you’re missing.

Chef Michael Corvino’s Exciting Changes at The American Restaurant

Chef Michael Corvino’s Exciting Changes at The American Restaurant

Executive Chef Michael Corvino brought a starter of cauliflower-infused panna cotta accompanied by a spoonful of osetra caviar, carefully arranged into a tiny cluster of black pearls, to my table at The American Restaurant. Moments earlier, I watched him assemble this dish in the kitchen.

Corvino invited me for a visit after he had settled in at the restaurant. His July arrival marked a time of transition at The American. Corvino’s initial focus was to update the line-up of dishes with summer well under way while looking ahead to fall, the first full season when he could implement his ideas and create a cohesive menu. Gradually, summer tomatoes and delicate greens yielded to autumnal dishes such as Duroc pork served with persimmon mustard, Szechuan peppercorn, savoy cabbage and black garlic.

Cauliflower-infused panna cotta with osetra caviar.

Cauliflower-infused panna cotta with osetra caviar.

As a whole, Corvino’s fine dining dishes were refined but accessible. His culinary approach reflected a keen emphasis on the interplay of ingredients as he juxtaposed texture, flavor, shape and color. The final dish maintained a sense of harmony, enticing me to explore without the need to pause and figure it out. He transformed the traditional presentation of a dish without veering into molecular wizardry.

For example, this caviar dish shunned the culinary canon of arranging portions of minced onion, egg and capers around spoonfuls of roe. Instead, the panna cotta and caviar appeared as an edible landscape. Golden dots of egg yolk, gently cooked at a precise temperature of 65 degrees, added richness and color. Pale amber shards of dashi – a kombu and bonito broth that forms the foundation of miso soup – fortified with gelatin here, added pleasing umami to the dish. Dark crumbs of pumpernickel bread, a nod to the traditional use of toasted bread served with caviar, contributed crunch as a counterpoint to delicate, silky textures. Slim stalks of chives and traces of pickled shallot invited a sharp bite of acidity. Creme fraiche, another standby served with caviar, was tempered with citrusy yuzu to offset the overall creaminess. Finally, slivers of cauliflower florets reinforced the earthy notes of the panna cotta and tied the dish together.

Only the taste of each spoonful surpassed the visual presentation. Corvino execution of the dish demonstrated forethought and mastery. By re-working a classic combination of ingredients, he challenged expectations of what a dish was supposed to be.

Chef Michael Corvino in The American Restaurant kitchen.

Chef Michael Corvino in The American Restaurant kitchen.

Originally from Walla Walla, Washington, Corvino worked at several restaurants before he landed a position at the Marcus Whitman Hotel in his hometown. Over his career spanning more than a decade, he graduated to successive stints in kitchens at the Peninsula Hotel, the Ritz Carlton Resorts and The Nines. Later, he was appointed Executive Sous Chef of the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas prior to his present tenure at The American Restaurant.

While cooking at Urban Farmer, a steakhouse in Portland, Corvino gained a keen appreciation for distinct ingredients and their point of origin. He said, “They served beef sourced from seven different ranches specifically for prime, grass-fed and wagyu. Portland is one of the few places in the country where local, sustainable ingredients are pulled right there from the source.”

The chef cited the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast as two of the best areas in the U.S. for sourcing regional ingredients year-round; however, local origin wasn’t – and still isn’t – his primary criteria. He said, “Quality comes first. Then I try to get fun ingredients and work from there.”

For example, he recently ordered hidden rose apples from Dragonberry Produce in Clackamas, Oregon. At The American, he prepared the aromatic apples with sour apple sauce, shaved white truffle and a touch of olive oil and fleur de sel.

Corvino said, “I enjoy pulling ingredients from the Northwest. It speaks to my heart.”

He also shipped in sturgeon from Idaho and introduced it on the menu. “It is a meatier fish. Sturgeon is where our caviar comes from,” said Corvino, comparing the fish to salmon. The added explanation helps to increase the comfort level of diners and build trust.

“I don’t want the menu to be unapproachable for diners,” Corvino said. “A lot of it is in the delivery, describing food on the menu and providing server knowledge.”

Corvino is no fan of the term “farm to table,” especially as it applies to The American. He pointed out that a certain level of fine dining, it is a given that food is sourced from local farms, butchers and vendors when available. Again, quality still matters most.

Hidden rose apples, matsutake, or pine mushroom, and Australian perigord black truffles are examples of specialty foods found in his pantry that he carefully sources to obtain the best quality. He just received blocks of katsuobushi blocks and a shaver that he ordered from Japan eight weeks ago. Katsuobushi is dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna, or bonito in some cases, used with kombu, or dried kelp, to make dashi – the flavor-filled pieces found in Corvino’s caviar and panna cotta dish.

truffles

Carrot truffle grits 2
Corvino’s cuisine doesn’t depend on exotic fare. Homespun ingredients prepared with a twist also make appearances. Shaved wafers of the subtly earthy-smelling black truffle were paired with a soft-cooked egg, carrot marmalade, truffle salt and creamy grits. Carrot blossoms, dried carrot tops and raw shaved carrot evoked the anchor ingredient with a panoply of shapes, textures and concentrated aroma. The first forkful became an introduction to a carrot’s quintessential essence as it greeted the senses. The grits communicated a sense of being taken care of; it was comfort food with a pedigree.

Corvino delivered a third dish that underscored his practice of incorporating Asian flavors into dishes. A strip loin of Japanese Akaushi Kobe beef, ordered from Arrowhead Specialty Meats in North Kansas City, was seasoned with salt and pepper and seared. Served with a confit of potatoes and herbs, tomato jus and fermented Korean chili paste, each bite impressed with its depth of flavor. Smoked garlic Bearnaise, a reduction of white balsamic, sweet garlic blossoms, bits of dried okra slices and fried Swiss chard added complexity to the dish.

The meat entree didn’t pack a heavyweight punch to the gut. It delivered big, bold flavor, easily paired with a red wine or robust beer, without inducing a subsequent food coma.

Beef
When asked about what fed his inspiration for dishes, Corvino identified two main sources. “I may have an ingredient that’s interesting. Then I ask myself, ‘What am I going to do with it?’ Or, an idea spins off of a technique that I want to use.”

For instance, Corvino mentioned Piedmontese chuck flap that appears on the current menu as a fun spin on beef and broccoli, a Chinese-American classic dish. Corvino braised the beef and prepared a version of oyster sauce that incorporated three types of soy sauce, citrus, ginger, lemongrass and other ingredients. He also whipped up XO sauce from dried shrimp, dried scallop, Chinese sausage, garlic, shallot, ginger, and, well, you get the idea. This goodness is served with salt water-poached Chinese broccoli, plus pickled shallot and crispy jasmine rice.

Chef Corvino’s knowledge of ingredients, coupled with his mastery of technique and creative instincts, results in an idiosyncratic style of food.

When we spoke over the phone this week, Corvino expressed this line of thought more directly. “I’m completely replaceable as a chef, but no chef can do exactly what I do,” he said. Other chefs can perform the same function and use the same technique, but there’s a human element to the craft as well. “The dish you do, no one else will come up with the same flavor and presentation.”

Fine dining at The American Restaurant isn’t merely the product of using the most expensive ingredients. Corvino excels at taking the best quality ingredients available and preparing a dish that elevates flavor and presentation above the mundane and expected. It’s making ho-hum beef and broccoli into a lively, interesting meal that appeals the senses and sidesteps perfunctory versions another restaurant might deliver.

With the first six months under his belt at The American, Corvino is preparing to introduce some exciting changes to the menu next year. He hints at development of a new menu format that, let’s say, will change how dishes are presented to guests.

Corvino said, “It’s still in development, but should be in place by the end of January. Combining ingredients into a dish is easy for chefs. Changing the menu format is the part that needs to be the most thought through. Considering the entire dining experience is the hard part.”

Next year promises to be an interesting adventure at The American, where Chef Michael Corvino produces bold, elevated food that reassures and rewards at the same time.