I haven’t really tried to cultivate a personal brand. Maybe that’s to my detriment as an author. I don’t like the idea of pigeon-holing myself into a polished persona. Admittedly, I think about personal brands on occasion and wonder if I should put more work into being XYZ.
I’ve realized that it is more important to do what it is that you want to do. Focus on the work rather than who you want to be, or a personal brand known by others.
“Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.
“Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).”
I’m many things to different people as far as who I am, what I create, and what I try to accomplish and represent. I’m more than my roles, depending on my work or interests, as a whole person. I am not a soundbite or tagline or profile on social media or personal brand that needs to always be on stage, digitally or in life.
For instance, I’ve always disliked the term foodie. I’m more than a food writer or beer writer or journalist. I detest the idea of being called an influencer. I’m not trying to influence anyone. I think it is weird that people on social media aspire to do this unless you’re getting paid money. Then you’re a public relations person which is a useful and needed profession. Otherwise, you’re a shill for someone else’s product/service while aspiring to build a relevant personal brand built on social media currency.
I’m a writer at heart with a penchant for storytelling. I have done many things in life – edit, cook, photograph, manage people and projects. What I do and why I do it isn’t wholly who I am.
If anything, I am a well-rounded person leading a full life. I prefer to be capable of doing many things and sharing informed thoughts on a wide array of matters and topics vs. being a brand expert on XYZ.
Since the dawn of the internet and social media and platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, it seems paramount to have a brand and a following to amount to having value or currency. Of course, that’s not the case.
What we do to help others, how we support family, friends, and community, develop as an individual, and lead a decent life in society has value, too. Our life – who we are as a person rather than a personal brand – doesn’t need to be documented, posted, shared, liked, and commented on for validation.
I composed this brief ditty while driving along Seybold Road on a December morning, en route to work at Fence Stile Vineyards and Winery in Excelsior Springs. As my car reached the peak of a hill, I spotted a dog on the right as it stood in a ditch lined with brown and gold weeds and mud. The dog’s mouth was open, its pink tongue unfurled like a carpet. The dog stared as my car raced past.
I had never seen this dog before on my travels to and from the winery. Based on its size, shape, and long red-brown fur, the dog appeared to be a brown golden retriever. What struck me most about this dog was its sudden presence.
When driving on a familiar route, my mind goes on auto-pilot to navigate while thinking about tasks ahead, a memory, or other fleeting thought. It’s a common phenomenon, where we don’t actively have to think about each twist, turn, and stop on the drive from home to work and back. This auto-pilot mode enables the mind to wander. Senses register different details that break up the monotony of familiar sights.
That’s why the dog in a ditch stuck out. It was a new character in the middle of a book I had read and reread, where the outcome, scenery, and characters were engrained in a linear progression from point A to B. Suddenly, here’s a fresh presence that makes a cameo and interrupts the well-worn action scene. Will the dog appear again? I have not seen it since that first brief encounter. A crack in the facade of the usual opens, allowing the possibility of something or someone unexpected to enter the scene. For a time, my senses are alert to the possibility of spotting the dog again on subsequent drives. When the moment doesn’t manifest again, the mind reverts back to auto-pilot on a mundane drive.
Of course, from the dog’s perspective, it was preoccupied with ditch-related matters until I came along to disturb the peace on a sunny day. The dog decided to investigate the muddy, weedy confine of the ditch safe from passersby on a blacktop road. I was a curiosity, maybe, and that’s presupposing a lot, to the dog. An unusual, unfamiliar creature in a red Ford Focus sped by and missed the opportunity to see, smell, and experience a ditch, farm fields in winter repose, and other wonders of the countryside.
Perhaps that’s what struck me most after the initial surprise of spotting this ditch dog – its zen-like presence while grounded in the moment. Pale sunlight gave the dog’s red-brown coat a subtle glow in contrast to weeds and mud. As I glanced in the rear-view mirror, the dog’s head dipped and returned to its exploration.
We may never share the same space alongside road and ditch. In a sense, the ditch dog becomes a yeti or sasquatch, a creature spotted but not captured by any technological means to prove its existence other than my first-person account. While dogs, ditch-bound or not, are a common presence, I like to think that this dog was legendary. If it never sees me again, just maybe, the dog in a ditch might think the same of me.
A $6.95 Chinese buffet banner hangs above the front door. It is a tempting lure; however, that price applies to the lunch buffet. Later, the young woman behind the register said that a dinner buffet might be available in coming weeks. Meanwhile, I was hungry and curious to see what else Kim Son’s had to offer.
The menu offered both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. In need of updating and reprinting, the menu has a number of items that are crossed out. I opted for #14, a Vietnamese dish made with ong choy and pork belly served with rice.
Ong choy is also known as morning glory, water spinach, and many other names. If you haven’t had ong choy, then seize the opportunity to eat a dish that features it. Ong choy is an oft-eaten staple in Thai and Vietnamese households. Abundant and available at Asian markets, inexpensive, and delicious, ong choy is also nutritious as a leafy green.
I haven’t seen the vegetable as an option in Vietnamese restaurants around Kansas City. Maybe I just haven’t noticed it. Regardless, this dish had a home-style cooking feel to it that made it more appealing.
I failed to jot down the Vietnamese name of the ong choy dish I ordered at Kim Son’s. The proper name of the dish is similar to rau muong xao toi, or ong choy stir-fried with garlic. The menu has options for at least two other dishes featuring ong choy besides pork belly, but I cannot recall whether it was catfish, chicken, or other protein. Odds are you can order a vegetarian dish of it that would also taste great.
The plant has a thin, long, and hollow stem and a slender triangular-shaped leaf when uncooked. Whether stir-fried or steamed, ong choy has the light taste of fresh leafy greens with no bitterness and a tender texture. Thin watery sauce in this dish added subtle sweetness and hint of salt. A wedge of lime squeezed onto the dish provided a suitable amount of acidity for balance.
Thin pieces of pork belly were mostly lightly rendered fat that added layers of flavor – a faint sourness reminiscent of cured Chinese pork sausage, a hint of sweet fatty bacon, umami, and salt.
Cooked ong choy is easy enough to eat with chop sticks. Transfer a mouthful from the main dish onto the rice mounded on a separate plate. Scoop underneath and guide the mouthful to its destination. A fork and spoon may make the handiwork easier for those not adept with chop sticks. Be sure to spoon some of the sauce from the plate onto the rice so it soaks up the combined flavors. Don’t waste a drop of sauce or grain of rice.
An order of ong choy with pork belly was an ample portion for one, but easily shared between two people. While the amount of pork belly wasn’t substantial, its contribution to the overall flavor of the dish was evident. Pork belly played a supporting role while ong choy shined as the star of the show.
Kim Son’s menu has plenty of other familiar Vietnamese dishes, including spring rolls, pho, and banh mi, as well as classic Chinese fare. If inclined, try some of the less-familiar selections. The prices are super affordable. My initial unplanned visit was rewarding enough to merit return trips and sample other dishes.
Beyond the Buffet
A final note on appearances.
Don’t venture to Kim Son’s for the decor or ambiance. Indoors, it is a colorful mishmash of low-key design and startup decor – think Las Vegas palace meets Chinatown meets restaurant makeover candidate. There’s an over-sized fish tank of goldfish trolling around in yellowish water. Even so, don’t expend effort knocking the venue for its looks. After all, it takes a lot of $6.95 lunch buffets to cover overhead.
Here’s what I’m saying: Go for the food and simplicity of the experience.
There’s something delightful and understated about a suburban Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant in the sleepy nook known as Gladstone. The city’s modest civic revival hasn’t quite reached every shopping strip and parking lot filled with more pools of amber light than vehicles on a quiet weekday winter evening. With luck and time, joints like Kim Son’s and other Vietnamese restaurants and eateries in nearby Gladstone Plaza will find a growing audience for their food and drink. Kim Son’s has homestyle appeal with potential for growth. Hopefully, that sidesteps the formulaic offerings of a chain restaurant, an all-out dumbing down an “ethnic” eatery to accommodate timid diners, and hip takes on classic cuisine that render its spirit impotent.
On the other hand, if you want a large volume of assorted food at a cheap price point, Kim Son’s will gladly welcome you to its buffet, too.
These restaurants seem like the kind of modest venue that the late Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, might explore. Famous or not, the intent is not to be a foodie prima donna or a colonist, who “discovers” or denounces a “find” based on self-appointed criteria and standards. Instead, try savoring a single unfamiliar dish. See if it stands out from the usual array of greatest hits that normally constitute menus in Asian restaurants. Meet the food, culture, and experience on its own terms. Enjoy the detour.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. The scent of smoke from wild plum, oak, grapevine, and lavender clings to my skin, my hair, and my clothes. Smoke hangs on with persistence, a ghost that lingers, a presence that is intangible but most certainly there.
As the chef and brand/event manager at Fence Stile Vineyard and Winery, I spent the afternoon preparing ingredients for a farm and market-themed wine and small plates dinner taking place on November 18th in the Tasting Room. Near a pond with a slushy iced surface, I built a small fire to grill radishes and smoke leeks sourced from farmers Tom Ruggieri and Rebecca Graff at Fair Share Farm, based in Kearney, Missouri. I used wild plum wood obtained from farmer Linda Hezel at Prairie Birthday Farm, also based in Kearney, and oak and grapevine from the winery estate. A single piece of oak formed the foundation of the fire. Smaller pieces of wood tilted at angles on both sides of the oak like church rafters. Brisk November wind blew across the pond and fanned a flame. Kindling shriveled into glowing orange threads and ash. Soon the fire roared as wood crackled and hissed.
The upcoming wine and food dinner highlights ingredients and products from Fair Share Farm and Prairie Birthday Farm. Also, Dr. Janet Smith of Borgman’s Dairy Farm, based in Holden, Missouri, supplied milk, cheese, yogurt and other products made from goat milk.
Several varieties of French-American hybrid grapes grow along ten hilly acres that surround the tasting room at Fence Stile. Owner-winemaker Shriti Plimpton launched the winery and vineyards nearly ten years ago. The winery is known for its dry and semi-dry wines, but has a wide range for those with sweeter palates. The upcoming dinner is an opportunity to offer a showcase for how three wines produced onsite – Vignoles, Backpack Red, and Vidal Blanc – pair with seasonal farm ingredients prepared to their utmost flavor.
Vineyard manager Shawna Mull tends to the vines year-round. Sometimes, a section of vine runs its course. Cut into small segments, this particular dry, dead grapevine in the heart of the fire had no more life to give as a lifeline for grape clusters. Burning vine and wood produced smoke that enveloped the bulbs of radishes with leafy greens still attached and a cluster of leeks thick as metal pipes.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you.
The wind shifted and smoke blew past my face, prompting my eyes to water. The smoke sent a signal, a reminder. Smoke and fire heeds its own whims and acts as its own master. I attempted to coax the smoke to lend its scent to vegetables on the grill. I tried to tame orange licks of flame to do by bidding. I poked and prodded and fed the fire’s appetite. Flames subsided into coals and smoke wafted at a steady pace, dancing around the radishes and leeks.
Slowly, the bright magenta skin of the radishes dulled and charred with black flakes. Most of the greens had burned away. Removed from the grill, the radishes more closely resembled baby red potatoes cooked directly in a fire. Grilling the radishes mellows its sharp peppery bite and introduces a soft sweetness. The subtle taste and aroma of smoke will interplay with the sweetness, a tart dash of lemon juice, creamy butter, and a dash of salt to unite the flavors.
The leeks grilled until they softened and charred at the edges. Once the coals were ready, I added stalks of dried lavender from Fence Stile’s flower bed to further perfume the smoke dancing around the leeks. After sufficient smoking, I plucked the leeks from the grill, doused the coals, and headed to the kitchen.
The leeks and radishes are only some of the produce received from Fair Share Farm. They also provided pristine small salad turnips with ivory skin and lush plumes of green leaves. I trimmed the greens and set them aside. They will be sauteed in a pan with Chinese broccoli and served with spelt, a rustic grain similar to farro. Salted and buttered grilled radishes will accompany the greens and spelt. I roasted the trimmed turnips with garlic cloves in the oven until they were tender, sweet gems.
After paring the charred tough outer skin of the leeks, I cut them into long strips and then chopped them into smaller pieces. The scent and taste of smoke on the leeks seemed to aggressive. Not only would it compete with the other flavors in the dish, it would overwhelm the wine pairing with Backpack Red. This light-bodied, dry red blend of Chambourcin and Norton offered a hint of pepper and earthiness on the finish. Bold smoke would wrestle and dominate the wine, altering the balance of the sweet, salty, earthy and smoky flavors.
I tucked the chopped leek into a food processor and pureed the contents. A light cloud of steam and smoke arose. Perhaps the leeks could become a sauce for oven-roasted turnips? Ransacking the refrigerator, I selected a jar of creamy goat milk yogurt from Borgman’s Dairy. Slowly, I spooned dollops of yogurt and sprinkled a bit of salt into the leeks and whipped them further. The leeks transformed into a creamy, thick sauce that still bore a hint of smoke. The savory, smoky sauce will provide suitable balance for sweet, earthy turnips.
Slowly, the various components of this dish, one of three, were coming together.Once assembled, plated and served, this melange of smoked, roasted and sauteed vegetables and grain should work in harmony. The goal is to stimulate the senses, appease the appetite, and illustrate how Backpack Red tastes with a variety of flavors while holding its own.
Other small plate dishes for the Farm and Market meal include a sweet potato, ginger, and turmeric samosa with curry goat’s milk yogurt sauce (paired with Vignoles). Dessert will be honey and apple sweet grits topped with Fence Stile blackberry compote and goat’s milk caramel sauce (paired with Vidal Blanc).
Smoking is one technique used to impart flavor and aroma to food. Its scent and taste connect with the primal parts of our brain and ancient appetites that learned how smoke adds character to food and drink consumed. Even when curls of smoke have dissipated, the aroma of smoke is a remnant of wood and vine that grew over years, served its purpose, and continues on its journey in an intangible form. Smoke is ethereal yet real like the memory of a remarkable meal or bottle of wine that makes a lasting impression long after the last bit and sip.
You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. It sends a signal from past to present before continuing on for those ready to receive.
He washed the dishes slowly with determination before he evicted them from one sink to the next. Soapy bubbles coated raw red skin.
His hands were rough from rubbing them together while watching cable news with one eye trained on the front door. An anxious habit, he clutched his hands together and rubbed them over and over as if a spark might manifest. Cold dry winter air chapped his paws too, but he paid no mind.
Washing dishes gave him time to think. His brutish hands, knuckles as big as walnuts, worked with grace and soaked in the lukewarm grayish water. He handled each mismatched utensil and dish with care as if a baby were being baptized.
She had left him. The house was quiet. All rooms dark save for a sole light in the kitchen that cast an off-white glow over the sinks. Wind howled past naked oak branches and a tire swing just outside the kitchen window.
His mind wandered to the last time they spoke, even further to the final kiss. He didn’t know it at the moment that his lips would never touch hers again. If he had, he might have, no, certainly would have chosen different words. Like a dragon breathing fire, he unleashed accusations and deflected blame with fury and force until there was nothing left.
A Pyrrhic victory. His war of words resulted in loss, permanent and replayed each night. A deep dull ache weighed on his chest.
She sheared contact between them. Removed her belongings from the home. Never returned his calls. Gone. A mass of ice calved from the glacier of their relationship and swept to sea. He felt less than whole.
Hulking over the sink, he slowly rinsed the fork, the knife, the plate, and the glass. He set each one on the drying rack, shut off the light, and leaned into the darkness.
Green Dirt Farm hosted a KC Ale Trailbeer dinner on October 31st with Chef Craig Howard of Howard’s Grocery, Cafe and Catering, and myself as guest speaker. ReGina Cruse of Green Dirt Farm, Craig and I worked together to plan this end of harvest event and cross-promote the farm’s cheeses, my book, local breweries and beer, and Craig’s new cafe.
The evening turned out to be beautiful with a crisp chill in the air and clear skies. The barn was heated and cozy and the family-style dining table was set. Musical duo Victor and Penny arrived and set up to perform acoustic sets before and after the beer dinner. Their charming sound created a perfect relaxing backdrop for the event.
Craig Howard and Allison Muller.
Craig and his assistant Allison Muller busied themselves setting up an outdoor kitchen to finish preparation of the four-course meal. Once all of the guests arrived and visited a small flock of sheep grazing nearby, the group settled at the table. After introductions and a welcome by farm owner Sarah Hoffmann, I shared some back story on the making of KC Ale Trail, why I wrote the book, and the “grueling” beer research behind the effort.
Green Dirt Farm owner Sarah Hoffmann.
Soon, we launched into the first course. Servers brought out plates of flatbread topped with Ruby cheese, pea shoots, carrots, and sweet potato. Ruby is a new cheese from the farm made of 100-percent cow’s milk. The cheese is buttery, tangy and floral. According to ReGina, it has been washed for the first two weeks of its life and then grows a beautiful powdery bloom. The cow’s milk is sourced from Jerry Miller and his family who live in Stanberry, Mo.
I chose to pair this dish with Boulevard Brewing’s Tank 7, a Farmhouse Ale style with a floral and citrus-y hops nose. The flavor begins with a soft, sweet maltiness and a brief finish of hops bitterness and citrus-y grapefruit. I felt the floral aroma of the beer would match the aroma and tanginess of the cheese while the malt would complement the flatbread.
For the second course, Craig prepared a butternut squash soup that matched the spirit of the fall season. The soup was garnished with sauteed local greens, local bacon, pepitas, and fresh cheese from Green Dirt Farm. The cheese is soft, crumbly and mild-tasting. I decided on Free State Brewing’s Oktoberfest for this course, a seasonal beer with a solid balance of caramel notes from malts countered by a touch of hops bitterness on the finish. The pairing worked quite well, underscoring the seasonal nature of both food and drink that both farmers and brewers honor year-round.
Next, the main course of ground lamb burger on Farm to Market buns included Green Dirt Farm’s Prairie Tomme cheese, ale caramelized onions, eggplant bacon, pickles, and sides of marinated vegetables and crispy potato with preserved tomato. Craig Howard excels at using and preparing a variety of local and regional ingredients with different cooking techniques. This dish was an elevated play on pub fare – a burger with cheese and potatoes.
In that spirit, the light-bodied Pub Ale from Tallgrass Brewing made sense at a match-up. This lower-alcohol session beer was made for knocking back one or three with this type of food. Craig just turned up the creativity and flavors. This beer’s malt profile jumps out with caramel flavor. It was a popular pairing and course for guests that came from Dallas, Kansas City and outside of Lawrence and Blue Springs.
Gradually, our bellies were getting full. We did save room for the dessert course of devil’s food cake loaded with Tuffet cheese and candied pecans, plus a drizzle of red currant sauce. This rich chocolate-laden cake and the dense cream cheese-like texture of the Tuffet needed a bold beer to anchor the pairing. Rather than a chocolate milk stout, I opted for Mother’s Brewing Winter Grind, a coffee stout that distinctly tastes like a strong, robust cup of joe. I’m glad I chose a coffee-infused beer rather than one with chocolate. The latter might have been too much for the cake.
I enjoyed chatting with the diverse group of people with different backgrounds, ages, and familiarity with local craft beer. We wound down the night with more music from Victor and Penny. Some guests loaded up on Green Dirt Farm’s cheeses to take home. The Royals were competing in Game 4 of the World Series against the NY Mets and would later win the match 5–3. Most fans in attendance at the dinner made haste to head home or somewhere to catch the game.
Overall, the dinner was a smashing success – a perfect union of local food, drink, and music. I was pleased to partner with and cross-promote a local farmer, brewers, and music act all in one setting. I left with a full belly but wish I could have stayed longer near a campfire, sipping on a seasonal beer and letting the last hours of Halloween slip by as the night grew dark and cold.
If able, we might set up a similar event in the the first or second quarter of 2016. It would be interesting to see how we can pair seasonal spring craft beers with sheep’s milk cheeses. The cheeses will have subtly different tastes and aroma from the terroir and diet of the sheep. Until then, it was time to head back to Kansas City on the Ale Trail.