Chef Andrea Sposini

Chef Andrea Sposini
looks authoritative in a pristine white chef’s jacket that drapes comfortably over his slim build. His head is closely shaved. He waves hello with one hand. A long rolling pin waves back and forth like a conductor’s baton in his other hand. He grasps both ends of the rolling pin and flattens chocolate-colored dough that will transform into cacao tagliolini. His powerful forearms drive the pin across the counter in quick, forceful movements. He flashes a brief smile as guests enter the home of Maria and Andrew Arnone in suburban Lawrence, Kansas. Tonight, the four-course meal he will prepare for a dozen guests concludes the series of culinary events scheduled during his Kansas City area debut.

Originally from Perugia in central Italy, Sposini is better known stateside among a select clientele in New York and San Francisco. Currently, he teaches private classes and cooks for clients on both coasts. He travels within Italy and abroad to promote authentic Italian cuisine and culture as an ambassador and food industry consultant.

While in Kansas City, Sposini prepared a five-course dinner at Mike Garozzo and Charlie Gitto’s Italian restaurant in Harrah’s Casino. He taught cooking classes at The Bay Leaf in Lawrence that covered antipasti, primo, secondo and dolce courses. For the dozen guests standing in the Arnone’s kitchen, tonight’s gathering blends history, cuisine, and geography through words, food, and wine. Coordinated by local food public relations diva Amanda Frederickson and the Arnones, this personalized dinner and informal cooking class beats watching The Food Channel.

Maria, fluent in Italian, translates as Sposini answers questions. Her husband Andrew assists the chef with preparations. Maria’s friend Paola, a tall Venice native now living in the States, adds her perspective and enhances the international flair of the evening. Sposini is affable, patient, and tactful as he parries questions with answers that touch on the roots of Italian cooking. He has taught Europeans, Americans, and even Indians the precepts of authentic dishes. His most recent project involved opening Cibo, the largest luxury Italian restaurant in Dehli, India.

India, Meet Italy
Bringing the purity of Italian cuisine to India presented a unique challenge for Sposini. Before he developed the menu, he prepared a clear brief of his client’s needs. Simply put, the client wanted authentic Italian cooking that observed the proprieties of the local custom and diet. For example, eel is sacred in India. No eel livornese or anguilla alla matalotta. Not fried, sauteed, or grilled. Observing Muslim custom, no pork was allowed on the menu either. No salami, prosciutto, or porchetta.

Sposini researched hundreds of traditional Italian recipes and found options where vegetables served as a side could become the main dish while maintaining the integrity of its Italian heritage. As a result, fifty percent of Cibo’s dishes are vegetarian. Further, he spent six months finding classic recipes without eggs to appeal to vegans. He studied, researched, and, in the end, taught the Indian cooks why the recipes worked as Italian cuisine.

“People think that chefs are creative,” says Sposini. He comes from a class of culinary professionals that believes in upholding tradition. “I want to be a perfect repeater of the cultural concept that already exists. In order for the cuisine to continue, people need to be able to prepare classic Italian cuisine.”

He expresses concern that younger generations of chefs and people at home are not learning methods of traditional cooking. He advocates the need for chefs that are “teachers and repeaters” of the classic style. “Italian cuisine is not a recipe. It is a technique, a lifestyle.”

Green Heart of Italy
Sposini finishes rolling the cacao tagliolini. He lays the sheet on a towel and folds it over a rail to air dry for a moment. He begins rolling another ball of dough for a batch of plain tagliolini. The two variations of pasta will be served in the first course. A guest inquires about semolina flour. The question initiates an impromptu lesson on the use of different flours to make pasta. Each pass of the rolling pin punctuates his translated remarks.

The chef describes his native country as long and narrow. Southern Italy uses semolina, a hard flour, commonly used in pizza dough. Influenced by northern Africa, the south of Italy also uses cous cous for some dishes. In the mountainous northern region near Switzerland, buckwheat is commonly used. And in central Italian regions such as Emilia-Romagna, soft flour is the foundation of its fresh pasta. He detours to Umbria for a word about spelt flour.

This ancient grain’s roots extend beyond medieval times to the Bronze Age. Centuries ago, the Etruscan tribe invaded Umbria and occupied the territory of its chief rivals the Umbri. Spelt, a sacred grain to the Etruscans, was used in funerals and later found in tombs. Its usage extended to the tribe’s diet.

Nutty and slightly sweet in flavor, spelt has been traditionally prepared by modern Umbrians as a whole grain and milled into flour. Eventually, wheat overtook the popularity of spelt throughout Italy because it is easier to process. However, Sposini still touts the merits of spelt, which has excellent digestive properties and nutritional characteristics, as a traditional food source.

His hometown Perugia is the capital city of the Umbria, a central region 800 meters above sea level that Sposini describes as the “green heart” of Italy. Growing up in this hilly, verdant region, Sposini was influenced by the taste of its ingredients, by the purity of local specialties bound by tradition that transcend the dining table. Moderate in climate, the region is known for growing unique produce, particularly Umbrian olives and extra virgin olive oil. “Its low acidity gives the oil a sophisticated flavor,” says Sposini. “In Perugia, olive oil is considered a food and not just an oil.”

Considered the garden of the Vatican, Umbria is also known for its black truffles, Baci chocolate, and cured meats. Norcia, a town in the province of Perugia in southeastern Umbria, is known for sausage and ham made from local wild boar and pigs. These famed cured meats, or norcineria, are sold by a norcino, one who sells the delicacies in a local shop.

According to Sposini, the culinary history of norcineria traces back to the Middle Ages and another honored profession. During this time, Perugia was home to surgical schools. Then, dottore, or doctors, practiced making incisions on the carcasses of pigs to refine their technique. These skills carried over to the art of butchering pigs and wild boars, curing the meat, and eventually selling prosciutto, salami, and other fine norcineria.

Sposini and his assistants serve small plates of cipolla al forno and slices of crostino di fegato e di asparagi al limone. The antipasto of baked onion has been marinated first in white wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar over two days to break down its texture. Baked and served with a drizzle of olive oil, the onion is tender with a mellow flavor.

Creamy chicken liver paté seasoned with capers covers the first piece of crostini. The liver tastes mild with herbal undertones enhanced by the golden olive oil. Each bite is followed by a coo of delight. The other crostini, awash in a brilliant green puree of asparagus brightened with lemon juice, nimbly counters the earthier paté with coy promises of spring.

Bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Grigio tip, glasses fill, empty, and fill again. Guests around the table exchange introductions, then stories, and finally laughter that bubbles like seltzer water.

Sposini’s philosophy establishes that the first work of a chef is to do more than make food. His elegantly accented words ring out in a steady rhythm. He unleashes his idea like a linguistic arrow that will find its target no matter the language. The chef must give, must make food that pleases body and soul. If he can make people happy with the dining experience, then he has succeeded. He suggests a word to describe this dining experience – conviviality.

Surely, Sposini is pleased by the smiles and joy in the dining room as he bustles in the kitchen and prepares the next course.

Cuisine as Lifestyle
After graduating from Cordon Bleu in Rome at the beginning of his career, a mentor suggested that Sposini was well suited to teach others. He began as a low-level teacher at Cordon Bleu and later became a chef in a small town. As Sposini refined his knowledge and mastery of Italian cooking techniques, he decided to launch his own cooking school Alta Società.

“It was not a contrived decision or strategy,” he says. Teaching others the fundamentals of classic Italian food matters greatly to him. Reflecting on his training at Cordon Bleu, he decided not to focus on French cuisine until he dug into the deeper knowledge of Italy’s culinary tradition. He states, “Italian cuisine is not comprised of recipes. It is a lifestyle. It is a sensation experienced when a person tastes the food.”

Alta Società is one means to impart his philosophy, to introduce Italian cuisine, culture, and lifestyle in one fell swoop. A determined teacher, he heeded the call of clients beyond the borders of Italy that also wanted to learn in the United States, London, India, and other corners of the globe.

Ultimately, Sposini teaches chefs how to please their client with the dish prepared. He wants a diner to sit and eat over a span of two hours but not realize the time has passed. He wants the plates to come back empty. He wants the food to taste so good, to leave such an impression, that they will come back and still appreciate the memory of that dish three years later.

The sheets of pasta dough are retrieved and laid onto a butcher block. Sposini folds and cuts the dough into slender strands. He gently seizes a handful and allows the pasta to dangle from his fingers. Light pierces through the curtain of dough. It is imperfectly cut. The texture, the shape, the amount of moisture mark the dough as handmade. Mixing it in a machine would result in a sticky glob.

He prepares tagliolini two ways. The chocolate-colored pasta is made with cocoa comprised of 70% cacao solids. The cocoa imparts a bitter taste, but it is a subtle perception of bitter tempered by the flour, the sweetness of shrimp, the hint of brandy.

The use of cocoa is a “modern take on a classic technique,” explains Sposini. History wanders into the moment. He points out that tomato is not used on tonight’s menu. Classic Italian cooking employs native foods available in the Old World before the New World introduced the now ubiquitous tomato. “Tomatoes were not used until America was discovered.”

Sposini reminds his audience that Italy is a young country. “On the 18th of March, Italy celebrated its 150th anniversary,” he says. Before that, the land was divided into kingdoms in Sicily, Vienna, and so forth. “Only the wealthy houses used better ingredients.”

To prepare the cacao tagliolini con gamberi al brandy, he boils the pasta in salted water for a few moments, it is drained and tossed in a sauce pan with olive oil and shrimp. Once a splash of bourbon is added, he shakes the pan and orange flames erupt dramatically before subsiding. The alcohol is cooked away, but the flavor remains. He narrates as he cooks: The sauce merges with the pasta to unite as one. The flour in the pasta absorbs the liquid. This characteristic is important so that the dish presents one flavor. Cooking the pasta in sauce too long is a mistake.

Tagliolini con crema di funghi, or tagliolini with mushroom cream, follows. Plated, the dual portions of pasta form a symbolic yin and yang. The small serving is sufficient to appeal to the senses and appease the buildup of hunger. Unlike the monstrous servings at chain restaurants attempting to deliver value while sacrificing quality, Sposini’s modest portions pose little danger of fattening the guests or diluting its essence. Moderation is the key, especially since two courses remain. The pleasing taste of fresh pasta lasts far longer than the time it took to prepare.

Politely, the guests quell mild signs of trepidation and anticipate the chef’s most daring course – lingua in salsa verde or beef tongue in green sauce. This lingua is different from the lengua served in taquerias around the city. Sposini spotted the beef tongue at the market and decided to offer it on the menu. Never mind the anatomical origin of this typically inexpensive meat. With Sposini’s version, the texture is tender; the color lighter than the heavily seasoned meat used to fill street-style tacos.

Chef Sposini slices petite, slightly fatty portions of lingua and serves them with salad greens lightly dressed with citrus vinaigrette and paper-thin orange slices. Smiles tighten, eyes flicker back and forth across the table and down to the plate. Some portions are passed onto a neighbor, others attempt a bite or two. With a few forkfuls, mine disappears. The lingua is reminiscent of a mild roast beef. It is divine.

Dessert arrives as a crowning achievement. Torta di nocciole con crema di cioccolato al rum sounds like the password to heaven. When the hazelnut torte arrives on a cloud of white chocolate cream and splash of rum, only a choir of angels would complete the moment. Sighs of appreciation drift across the table.

Sposini closes the meal with an unexpected treat. For the first time tonight, he takes a seat as all eyes turn to him. Individual slices of strawberry are laid in flat wide spoons on a tray. He gestures to a small bottle of aged balsamic vinegar. He weaves a history lesson that involves dowries, women that made this precious vinegar while men divined wine from grapes; how the vinegar is aged in barrels of different sizes and woods to impart and concentrate its flavor; how balsamic vinegar is a traditional digestive and a delicacy to be treated like gold.

As he speaks, he pulls the handle from the bottle and extracts a tiny amount of vinegar in a dropper. A few dark droplets glide onto the strawberry and the serving spoon is passed around the table. The guests sample this combination of flavor and sensation – sweet, tart, fruity, acidic. Our senses are heightened ever so slightly; our knowledge of food and its place in history reinforced with each bite. We are attuned to a moment that inevitably must pass as the evening draws to a close.

Cooking to Please
Cuisine is a powerful, portable and sensory cultural force. Food speaks a language better received around the world than politics, religion, or a fanatical combination of the two. Around the dinner table, strangers are now convivial acquaintances that reluctantly say farewell.

An anecdote that Sposini earlier shared comes to mind. He was hired to cook for a private party at the client’s beautiful home in California. “Make what you want,” he was instructed. No boundaries.

Sposini chose to make risotto with quail. As the meal commenced, he set the dish on the middle of the table in a big presentation for the guests. He soon learned that quail was the official state bird of California. To make matters more complicated, three sons in the family were active members in an anti-hunting group. They left the table. Sposini extracted a valuable lesson from the experience – always understand your objective.

Even a master chef has lessons to learn from the past and present. “Everything is a consequence of time,” he says. “History tells the life of a whole culture. That history can be told through cuisine.”

Tonight’s objective has been reached. In a day or two, Sposini will depart for the West Coast. For now, the teacher can relax while his students of history, culture, and cuisine depart with buoyant spirits into the shroud of night.

Alex Greenwood’s Mystery Thriller Pilate’s Cross


Kansas City-based author Alex Greenwood discusses his e-book mystery thriller Pilate’s Cross. Learn more about Greenwood’s debut novel, read an excerpt, and watch a trailer for the book created by produced by T2 + Back Alley Films.

About the Book
‘The X-Files’ meets ‘The Prisoner’ when John Pilate, his sarcastic imaginary pal Simon, and lovely instructor friend Kate investigate the mystery of a murdered college president––a mystery with loose ends more than 40 years later. In too deep to wash his hands of the mystery, he risks death to get to the truth of what really happened in 1963 and why it’s just as deadly 40 years later.


Pete Dulin: What motivated you to write this novel?

Alex Greenwood: In 2003, I was at a crossroads in my life and career. I really wanted to get out of my home state of Oklahoma and start over. I had just lost an election and been through the wringer with some health and personal issues. So when I was offered a job at a college in southeast Nebraska, I took it.

Peru, Nebraska really made an impression on me. Great people, beautiful area. The novelty and laid-back nature of being in a town with fewer people than my high school was definitely what I needed.

As pubilc relations director of the college, I had to be knowledgeable about certain bits of school lore, and one day I found a fat manila envelope on my desk with a sticky note from my boss, the president. It said “Alex you might find this interesting.” He was right. Everything that seemed so very “Norman Rockwell” went out the window when I read about a double-murder-suicide at Peru State College in 1950.

It was crammed with crime scene photos, reports, affidavits, and news stories. I couldn’t believe that something so grotesque had occurred right there in the middle of Mayberry. I read the file and put it away, but thought about it often because every day outside my office I’d see a plaque honoring the murdered men.

Nobody really talked about it, but for me the murder was always there, just under the surface. I’d especially think about it when the fierce, snowy, isolating winter storms would hit.

A couple of years later, I knew it was time to go. I moved to Kansas City to be closer to my then-fiancé and take a job at KCPT. Still, I felt as if I had unfinished business in Peru. Unpacking I found a copy I had made of the file the president had given me. I decided that horrible event would be the basis for a novel about the cathartic experience I had in tiny, snowy Peru. I started writing the next day. Of course, it had to be a mystery.

“Everything that seemed so very ‘Norman Rockwell’ went out the window when I read about a double-murder-suicide at Peru State College in 1950.”

––Alex Greenwood,

Dulin: Tell us about the research involved to get at the facts behind the true-life murders that inspired your novel.

Greenwood: That file had just about all the information I could find about the actual 1950 murders––try to Google it and you’ll see what I mean. But it was enough to provide a foundation for a story based in part on those tragic events. I borrowed some scenes from the actual witness affidavits––I reworked some testimony from two typewriter salesmen, for example. I wanted to be careful not to use too much––out of respect for what happened––but there are certainly fingerprints of the real crime on the book.

The actual murders occurred at Peru State College in 1950. Pilate’s Cross starts with the murder of the “Cross College” president in 1963 within days of JFK’s assassination. It then shifts ahead more than forty years to our hero John Pilate stumbling into a job at Cross College in tiny Cross Township. He’s distrusted by most of the people there and becomes a pawn in a game he doesn’t understand. How long did it take to write the book?

Greenwood: I wrote the first draft in three months – six days a week, three to four hours a day. Yes, I will cop to the cliché’: I wrote that first draft on a laptop in the Starbucks at Country Club Plaza.

The finished book people are reading today on their iPads and Kindles took about eighteen months and six drafts. I did about four “polishes” on top of that. Why did you choose to include an imaginary character in this book?

Greenwood: John Pilate, the hero of this book, has an imaginary (?) friend called Simon who doesn’t have a high opinion of him. Simon is a personification of Pilate’s lack of self-confidence and also illustrates some issues he has with depression. I think everyone has some form of ‘Simon’ in his or her subconscious.

Some readers believe Simon is absolutely real – corporeal – and out to kill Pilate. Others say they believe Pilate is schizophrenic and Simon is a voice Pilate hears. It’s a tricky thing to do in a book – I’ll say that. One agent told me she hated Simon and that if I’d take him out the book it would stand a better chance of publication. I couldn’t do it. Pilate needs Simon. How did the idea for a book trailer come about?

Greenwood: Readers have told me they thought they could easily see Pilate’s Cross as a movie. That’s why I’m so excited I got the chance to work with the talented crew at T2 + Back Alley Films of Kansas City.

This never would have happened without the vision of T2 + Back Alley Films CEO Teri Rogers. She’s a courageous innovator, always looking ahead to that next undiscovered country. When I told her about my book, she immediately suggested a trailer. Not many firms of T2’s stature are doing trailers. I had given a trailer some thought, but never dreamed a nationally recognized digital media agency like T2 would work with me.

The trailer really transports you right into the world of Cross Township – like a movie. I wrote a treatment and a script, and then T2’s team created a concept that I think just blows away most book trailers. Their concept and screen execution was teamed with Wheeler Audio of Kansas City to record actors and mix sound for the trailer. I voiced two of the characters – guess which ones? Can you hint at details for the follow-up novel?

Greenwood: The book is tentatively titled Pilate’s Key. I can tell you that our hero is in Key West, Florida––and he isn’t just working on his tan. To say much more might make Pilate’s Cross less fun to read, so I’ll leave it at that. I hoped to have it done by Christmas, but as John Lennon said, “life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” So, hopefully it will be done by next summer. How can people buy the e-book?

Greenwood: The book is available in all ereader formats. You can find it in all formats (and download a 50% sample free) on Smashwords: You can also buy it on iBooks,, Kobo, Diesel and a few others. Links for Pilate’s Cross at those retailers are on the book’s website, Anything else you’d like to share?

Greenwood: One thing that the e-book format doesn’t do justice is the brilliant, absolutely Hitchcockian book cover design by Kansas City artist David Terrill. He totally nailed the themes of danger, isolation and fun. We had such a great time working together that we’re now collaborating on a novel based on a series of paintings he created called What the Gardener Saw. He’s such an incredible talent; I’m humbled to be collaborating with him.

I hope e-book fans will give my book a shot. I promise you a fun read––great for the plane, at the beach or in front of the fire this winter. If e-book sales do well, I may also consider a limited paperback run.

Watch the Trailer: Pilate’s Cross

Interview originally published in Present Magazine.

Pilates CrossEXCERPT: Pilate’s Cross by J. Alexander Greenwood. © 2009.

He answered the phone. It was Sheriff Scovill.

“Mr. Pilate, we need you to move your car,” he said. “We’re finishing some demolition of a structure next door to your apartment. The trucks need your space for the day if you don’t mind.”

“No, not at all,” he said. “Sheriff, if you don’t mind me asking, what are they tearing down?”

Scovill paused. Pilate imagined Scovill taking a toothpick from his mouth like a guard out of Cool Hand Luke.

“It’s the old Bernard house. Been vacant a long time. The College bought it last month and President Lindstrom wants it gone,” he said.


Pilate moved his car from the path of trucks and equipment as they demolished the white two-story home next door to his faculty apartment.

He loitered a moment to observe the heavy equipment as it pulled down the wooden skin and frame of the shabby residence.

“Sad in a way,” said a man who had, in the noise of demolition, sauntered up to Pilate unobserved.

“Huh?” Pilate said, startled. He turned and saw a disheveled tie, sweater, baggy pants and moth-eaten overcoat wearing a gangly man with prematurely grey hair.

“Sad? How so?”

“Well, the house had to go, I guess, but there is so much history tied up in there,” he said.

“Oh really?” Pilate said.

The man extended a hand. “Yes. I’m Derek Krall, school librarian and amateur town historian.”

“Oh, nice to meet you, I’m-”

“John Pilate, our smokin’ new instructor,” Krall said, smiling.

Pilate rolled his eyes. “Crap. Has everyone heard that story?”

“You’ll soon find you can’t fart around here without someone smelling it across town,” he said with a wry chuckle. “How the hell did you end up out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“Oh, you know, the usual series of missteps,” Pilate said, smiling. “Man plans, God laughs.”

“I hear ya,” Krall said.

“So what big history is tied to that?” Pilate jerked a thumb at the crumbling walls.

“The Bernard place? Where do I start?” Krall’s eyes widened. He clearly loved this stuff, whatever it was. “That is—alas was—the scene of the most famous suicide in the history of this town.”

“Oh,” Pilate said. Pilate frankly couldn’t see much argument against suicide in the desolate winters of this burg. “Someone name Bernard offed himself?”

“Yup. Bullet to the brain,” he put his finger to his temple and made a “bang” sound. “He was a professor here.”

“That’s encouraging,” Pilate said, shrugging in his overcoat against a cold gust.

A monotonous beep issued from one of the heavy loaders as it backed up with a full load of debris.

Krall looked down at his feet for a moment, then at Pilate. “Yes, well, it’s pretty extraordinary, considering.”

“What? Did he get psycho from the lonely winters here? Mentally ill?” Pilate realized the cold gust he felt was not a breeze at all, but his old friend Simon. He saw Simon over Krall’s shoulder, glaring at Pilate from the window of his apartment.

“Well, probably. He sucked a bullet out of the barrel of a gun after he murdered his boss and the college president,” Krall said.

“Oh, I see,” Pilate said, his gaze torn away from the window back to Krall’s face. “Tell me more.”

Pilate followed Krall back to his cramped and, Pilate thought, laughably stereotypically messy office. Stacks of papers, dozens of school annuals and what had to be at least fifty Post-it notes littered the large oak desk that ate up most of the room.

“Sorry for the mess,” Krall said, bursting into a humorless staccato laugh. He bent over a file cabinet and pulled out a large brown envelope, the kind you might use to mail a manuscript or magazines. “Assassination File November 1963” was scrawled haphazardly in black marker.

Krall offered it to Pilate.

“Uh, thanks, but I went through my JFK conspiracy phase after the movie,” Pilate said, a polite smile. “The Cross College incident, remember?”

Krall looked pained. “That’s what this is,” he said—the word moron left unsaid.

“Oh, sorry. November 1963, huh? “

“It happened just a few days after President Kennedy was assassinated. Cross College lost its president and coincidentally a man named Kennedy to an assassin, too.”

Pilate thought that fact was almost as weird as all those Lincoln-Kennedy assassination coincidences that fascinated him as a child. Lincoln had an assistant named Kennedy who warned him not to go to the theatre. Kennedy had an assistant named Lincoln who warned him not to go to Dallas. Pilate had a figment of his imagination who warned him not to go to Cross.

Pilate opened the envelope. Inside were at least one hundred pages of documents, photocopies, newspaper clippings and graphic crime scene photos of the double murder-homicide. Aesthetically, the photos’ saving grace was that they weren’t in color.

One showed an almost comically surprised looking President Keillor, his right eye a ghastly black hole, sprawled in his chair. Another showed Kennedy, his puppet strings cut, a third eye bored in his forehead.

Pilate flipped through a dozen or so other photos with different angles of the same horrors. He came to one of a portly man lying on a hooked rug, his arms extended like a tweedy Christ, a gun loosely spilling from one hand.

He held it up to Krall, who had watched Pilate take in the gory photos wordlessly. “This Bernard?”

Krall nodded.

Another photo showed a close-up of Bernard’s face, a crease where his glasses pinched his nose still apparent, his mouth a trickle of blood. A garish mosaic of dark inky blood and brains spilled from behind his head.

“God this is awful,” Pilate finally said, going back through the photos.

“Yes, it was.”

“Hmph. Why?” Pilate said, looking up a moment at Krall, who had his feet on his desk.

“Well, he left a note,” he dropped his feet to the floor, leaned over and pointed to the photo. A typed letter and fountain pen was beside the body. “See?”

Pilate nodded.

“He left instructions for his burial, and a postscript,” Krall smiled, sat back down and raised his eyebrows mischievously, clearly relishing the opportunity to tell the tale to a new listener.

“And?” Pilate said.

Krall gestured toward the envelope. “Gimme.”

Pilate handed him back the packet. Krall fished through the papers until he found a copy of the letter, handing it to Pilate. “Here’s what the police transcribed from the original letter. Not sure where the actual letter is—probably lost in a box or hole somewhere.”

Pilate took the paper.

“Who is Dr. Benton?”

“Hmm? Oh, the guy he asked to look after his affairs? He was a prof here. One of the few who could stand the guy.”

“I see, so Bernard was…” Pilate was going to say “misfit” or “loner” until he read the postscript:

P.S. Wally tried to fire the wrong person.


“Dr. Walker Keillor. Nobody but his missus called him Wally to his face. I think Bernard meant it disparagingly. He told Bernard a few days earlier that Dean Kennedy agreed it was time for Bernard to move on,” Krall said, putting his feet back up and laying the file on his desk.

“Oh. So they fired him?”

“Yes, as you do in academia. They just declined to re-up his contract. After twenty-four years,” Krall whistled, making the sound of a bomb dropping, his hands behind his head and leaning back. “Real bummer.”

“Yeah, apparently so,” Pilate chewed on his fingernail. “Sounds like the most interesting thing that ever happened here.”

“Could be,” Krall said. “Though I hear the flood of forty-three was pretty big news.”

Jeff Somers, Author of The Eternal Prison

Jeffrey SomersAuthor Jeff Somers discusses The Eternal Prison, the third book in the action-filled Avery Cates science fiction series that combines a noir detective style with a worse-for-the-wear high-tech aesthetic in a dystopian future. Also, read a review of The Eternal Prison.

Pete Dulin:  Did you conceive of the idea for the plot of the series (The Electric Church, The Digital Plague, and The Eternal Prison) or the main character Avery Cates first? When did the idea first form?

Somers:  Strangely enough, the first version of The Electric Church involved a band of stray kittens struggling to survive in the backwoods of Texas Hill Country, scavenging for food and hiding from demonic, rabid squirrels. For some time I failed to interest anyone in that version of the story, for some reason, despite having created over 500 hand-drawn illustrations. In fact, I believe I somehow inspired the LOL Cat craze, twenty years ago. I plan to sue, as soon as I can figure out who actually own LOL Cats. Ted Turner? Steve Jobs?

Anyway, one day while editing the 3,000-page manuscript I realized the cats had no religion. So I asked myself what kind of religion stray kittens would develop, and clearly it involved cyborgs, eternal life, mind control, and dystopia. So I set about revising.

The Electric Church
was originally a standalone story, but I always had a sense of what was going to happen on a macro-scale in the universe. My editor at Orbit suggested there was more to tell about Avery, and after a little thought I agreed—the opportunity to tell a story against the backdrop of a declining universe was too good to pass up. I had the original concept  first and the character was an organic extension of the universe, I thought, filtered through old noir detective novels.


Dulin:  How did you develop the character of Avery Cates? Where there role models or a specific persona that you wanted to project?

Somers:  Naturally, I used myself circa ten years old, known in Hudson County, New Jersey as my “bully” years, when I terrorized the neighborhood kids into giving me their allowances. Ah, good times.

Then I turned to old detective novels—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett—and altered as necessary for the world Avery lived in. I wanted that dry, black humor, and I wanted that sense of a man who had no real special abilities, but was physically effective simply because he wasn’t afraid to get hurt and knew how to hurt people in turn. I’ve always thought that’s more powerful than superpowers.


Dulin:  Avery Cates is an anti-hero who kills for a living and exists with a perpetual target on his back, but he still operates by a self-imposed code of honor. In the decayed state of the world he lives in with pervasive global governance, a police state, and the general bleakness of the surrounding people and places he encounters, is there a moral relativity to the jobs that he performs that involve violence?

Somers:  Absolutely not, and he knows it, on some level. This is why we beat Avery up as often as possible: He’s a bad man. He deserves to be beaten up. And he punishes himself for being a bad man, too. He knows he doesn’t deserve better.

It’s fun, you know, having a character you can mercilessly torture.


Dulin:  Many heroes have a weakness that makes them more accessible and human, not so omnipotent and capable. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes. Superman’s weakness is kryptonite. Cates has a bum leg that impedes him as a physical weakness in a life that’s physically demanding. Does he have a psychological weakness?

Somers:  Cates’ leg isn’t conceived as a pat “weakness” – in fact, he’s physically fine when the first book begins. I don’t like stories where the universe/protagonist remain unchanged forever, and sometimes the “weakness” is an example of that—Indy Jones will be afraid of snakes forever, but will never have a limp despite his death-defying antics.

I barely break a sweat in my real life and I’m aching all over, so I figured a guy like Cates, who’s malnourished, has no health care, and spends his days dodging knives and bullets and jumping out of crashing hovers is gonna get a little dented in the process. I try to keep track of his wear and tear a little—which includes his advancing age in a world where thirty is considered old—and at least give a nod to it from time to time.


Dulin:  Can you share some thoughts on how you render the setting for these stories? It is set in the future, but doesn’t feel inconceivable that these places exist.

Somers:  It’s sort of a “two weeks in the future” idea—obviously there’s some distance between now and then, but I definitely conceived of it as part of our timeline. The technology is advanced but I tried to extrapolate from existing concepts, and other aspects of the world have declined rather than advanced. I also like playing with subversions—the concept of Unification came from the idea of World Peace, or One World—everyone assumes world peace is a good thing. What if it isn’t? What if world peace was The System?

So, The System always starts in this world, and then I hit the fast forward button. Do things just disappear? Usually not. Buildings stand for centuries, cities remain largely unchanged for decades. Some systems get replaced, and some systems just get worse and worse. I just have fun with it. My guiding principles are: One, if it chiefly benefits the poor or middle class, it’s in ruins, if it chiefly benefits the rich, it’s pristine and modern; and Two, the older and more essential it is, the less likely anyone’s remembers how to maintain it properly.

Dulin:  What do you have against female characters? There have been a number of interesting women in the stories – Cates’ protégé Gleason in The Digital Plague, Marlena in The Eternal Prison. None of them fair too well. Is Cates destined to not have romantic aspirations while he’s dodging bullets and System pigs?

Somers:  Everyone wants Cates married. Well, my wife, editor, agent and various others at my publisher—all women—want him married, or at least in love. I fear I’m losing half my potential audience. Maybe I should at least introduce a puppy that Cates can carry around.

I don’t have anything against female characters. People near Cates—at least people who aren’t also competent killers—tend to die at a startling rate. Hell, in The Digital Plague just about anyone who comes within a few feet of him dies. So it’s really just the fact that Cates is attracted to interesting women that causes their sad demise.

As for romance, I’ve never been convinced that Cates lives in a world conducive to romance. He’s always murdering and fighting for survival. If I’m running from cops and strangling people with my bare hands, I’m pretty sure relationships would be far from my mind. That’s why the relationships Cates does form—Gleason and Marlena—occur when he’s got “down time,” when he’s not racing around dodging bullets.

Dulin:  Each book in the Avery Cates series is action-packed, full of unexpected twists and developments, and an equally intriguing cast of supporting characters. Can you elaborate on how you move the plot forward from chapter to chapter by working in cliffhangers of different scale?

Somers:  Thanks for the compliments! It’s a rhythm. Every chapter ends on a “beat”. Sometimes this is just a witty line of dialog (at least a line I think is witty), sometimes it’s a “da-da-dum” kind of moment. This stems from the long-ago origins of the book, which was originally going to be a serial on a web page, with new chapters posted each week. So it was natural to go with an old-school serial kind of format, a sort of “Tune in Next Week” vibe.

It works incredibly well. Every story, after all, can be divided up into a series of small stories. All I do is wait for the natural beat in each vignette and hit a hard return.

Dulin:  What surprises you most about the character and this series now that you’ve written three books with a fourth, The Terminal State, on the way?

Somers:  One, how easy it is to imagine the world ending in slow motion around Cates—The System is going to hell, and nothing’s going to stop that now. It’s exhilarating to plan how it’s going to fall apart, and what that means for Cates.

I’ve been a little surprised at how much people like Cates. He’s charming, sure, but he’s also a bad person. Despite his code of honor, he abandons people, kills people, and no matter what horrors he’s performed he manages to still like himself enough to stay alive. It just seems to me that if you met Avery in real life you’d stay as far away from him as possible, yet he’s popular.

Dulin:  If I recall correctly, the first two books are told in a straightforward sequential manner. The Eternal Prison bounces between different timelines and plot points. Why switch it up?

Somers:  The question is, why not? Once I decided on the central plot element in The Eternal Prison, I knew I wanted to mimic some of the disorientation that Cates feels for the reader. I wanted to generate a sense of disjointedness and I wanted the reader to share in that moment of sick realization when everything comes together.

Dulin:  F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack series is up to seventeen or more books in that series. Do you envision a final installment in this series with a logical conclusion? Or will the adventures of Cates continue as long as there’s demand and the money keeps trickling in?

Somers:  Right now I have through book five planned (book four is actually written!) and no plans beyond that. Book five will wrap up things that have been brewing over all of the books, and provide a logical cadence for the overall story.

It’s not just interest/money—you do need to have inspiration. I think Avery’s got lots of stories left in him, but I’m trying to adhere to some sense of time passing and realistic wear and tear; Avery’s going to be older and beat up when book five concludes, and the universe he exists in will be changed in many important ways. Will it make sense that he continues having this sort of life, or does Avery retire and drink himself to death peacefully?

It boils down to, if I had a great idea I’d probably write it, heck, I’d probably write it even if no one wanted to publish it. If I have an idea I’m excited about, I pursue it, period.

Dulin:  How did you begin the publishing relationship with Orbit?

Somers:  Originally, The Electric Church was sold to a web publisher called Another Chapter, which, as I said, planned to publish it as a serial. They didn’t last long. The editor I’d been assigned was Lili Saintcrow, author of the Jill Kismet series among many others. Lili kicked my ass up and down on that book, editing the hell out of it, and when AC went under she sent the book to her editor at Warner Books.

Her editor loved it and bought it, and then jumped from Warner to Orbit, and took me (and Lili) with her. So now her editor is my editor too.

Dulin: Is there an Avery Cates film in the works?

Somers:  We’ve sold an option. I don’t know if it will turn into an actual movie. Strangely, despite my complete lack of film-making experience and insistence that I would be a great lead actor, no one seems to want my direct involvement in the film. It’s insulting, really. I have some fantastic ideas about getting the kittens back into the story.

Terminal StateDulin:  What else should people know about you and your work?

Somers:  About me:  I like Scotch and accept free drinks gratefully, and if you live too far away to take me to a bar they make airline-sized bottles of booze and I’ve had success with people mailing them to me by way of buying me a drink. I encourage this.

About my work: I don’t just write Sci Fi; my first novel, Lifers, was a mainstream thriller/mystery, and my short story Ringing the Changes was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2006. I’ll also have a short story in the Mystery Writers of America’s 2010 anthology, edited by Charlaine Harris. Plus, I publish a zine, The Inner Swine which is a collection of poorly researched and largely unedited essays about whatever’s on my mind. I’ve been publishing it since 1995, in fact, and we’re closing in on 60 issues.

Note: The fourth book in the Avery Cates series, Terminal State, is available now and the fifth installment, The Final Evolution is forthcoming in June 2011.


Eternal PrisonReview by Pete Dulin – The Eternal Prison

Avery Cates is not meant to be a likeable character, according to author Jeff Somers. Who roots for a hired killer, the most famous gunner in a dystopian future? Compared to a corrupt global government, brutal System Security Force, and devious power mongers, Cates has a rough-and-tumble charm. After bringing about the downfall of an organized religion that turns its followers into zombies in The Electric Church and surviving a bioengineered disaster known as The Digital Plague, hard-drinking, curse-uttering, weapon-wielding Cates finds himself an incarcerated man at Chengara Penitentiary in The Eternal Prison. Maybe it’s his instinct for survival or his code of honor or the fact that he has lived to the age of 30––a life span considered old by most standards in the broken shambles of this near future world––but Cates is a compelling anti-hero (read: not admirable) that is captivating to follow on his techno-noir adventures.

Jeff Somers’ page-turning series invokes the dark elements and atmosphere of noir detective novels and worse-for-the-wear science fiction where the high tech future isn’t necessarily better. Technology is a labor saving device, mostly in service of the baser aspects of human nature and behavior to kill, subjugate, imprison, hoard valuable information, and exert power over others. Rather than a gleaming, promising world of tomorrow, Somers concocts a place where things break down, communication devices are squirrelly, people aren’t to be trusted, and transportation isn’t reliable. Kind of like life now on a really bad day with little hope for improvement. Finding food is difficult, consuming booze is a sketchy endeavor, scratching out a living means not getting beat down by System pigs.

Cates looks out for his interests – health, sanity, cash flow – while facing a cascade of challenges and tight spots in The Eternal Prison without the aid of superpowers, overwhelming firepower, or saves-the-day technological solutions. Rather, he gets by on fists and wits. He’s conniving and savvy but doesn’t have all the answers; he’s physically aggresive but doesn’t dodge every blow; he’s diehard persistent but gets the raw end of the deal more often than he cares to remember.

Somers writes with an economical style full of grit, grime, and gruffness that reflect the environs of Cates. Who knew such a battered main character and dire world could be evoked with brawny eloquence? The fast-paced action and violence (killing others before getting killed) is not gratuitious; these elements serve a purpose in a postmodern Darwinian struggle. Going it alone when able, keeping shifty allies close at hand, and knocking off threats is Cates’ best bet to keep breathing in a post-Unification world where nothing works for the benefit of the people.

Whether trodding on foot or zooming on a creaky hover, Cates traverses Las Vegas, New York, Moscow, and desolate wastelands that are more of a semblance of place than a scenic backdrop. Cates is more concerned with exit strategies and escape routes, especially in Chengara prison where he’s stuck with a motley crew to plot and execute plans for freedom and revenge in a place with a survival rate of zero.

Unlike the previous two books in the series, Somers strays from a fairly sequential storytelling style to shift between multiple timelines and plot points. When the action and key revelations converge, the story shifts into high gear. The Eternal Prison is a bit disorienting at first and readers need to keep alert about some basic conventions – who’s who, where, when, and what’s happening. This disorientation is by design, echoing Cates’ senses and state of mind.

Somers populates the book with an equally vivid cast of supporting characters in prison and on the outside vying for power. Characters from the previous books figure into major and minor plot points here along with fresh faces to keep things lively.

The Eternal Prison is a thrilling read that continues to entertain and extends the series without falling into a formulaic pattern. Avery Cates is one of the most exciting and original characters to appear in a long time. Complex, focused, and driven, Cates faces choices, applies his code, and behaves suitably in a grim world where morals are relative to survival.


Originally printed in Present Magazine, April 2011.

Zim’s Hot Sauce Combines KC and Buffalo Influences

zims hot sauce
Kansas City-based rock photographer (and frequent contributor) Todd Zimmer is the man behind Zim’s Hot Sauce. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Zimmer grew up with Buffalo wings.

A slow burn builds from the first taste. The mild heat blooms, dances across my tongue, tingles the edges of my lips. Sweetness arrives initially, like the anticipation of a first kiss, and then spice follows, builds in intensity, and sparks a memory that lingers. The heat migrates upward where perspiration beads on the scalp. Zim’s Hot Sauce works its voodoo gradually, seduces with its sizzle but encourages you to admire its substance as well.

Kansas City-based rock photographer (and frequent contributor) Todd Zimmer is the man behind Zim’s Hot Sauce. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Zimmer grew up with Buffalo wings that, according to legend, originated in 1968 at the Anchor Bar. Over his lifetime, Zimmer has eaten plenty of the deep-fried chicken wings and drums doused in the traditional combination of Frank’s Hot Sauce and butter.

Zimmer began regularly cooking wings himself in the mid-80s at home and later at a local Buffalo restaurant. After college, Zimmer and his friends hosted sauce-making parties to develop variations on the classic Frank’s. He says, “A medium to hot sauce in Kansas City would be considered mild in Buffalo.”

Skip forward to 1997 and leap halfway across the continental United States. Zimmer relocated to Kansas City because of a job transfer, but he didn’t leave his love of hot sauce behind. He began to concoct a version that respected the roots of hot wings and Frank’s Hot Sauce (both veritable institutions in Buffalo) and also paid homage to the barbecue heritage of the Kansas City area. For the past six years, Zimmer has tinkered with refining a distinctive hot sauce recipe and working with his wife Janet to bring it to market in Kansas City.

Bite your tongue, hot sauce purists. Zimmer never intended to duplicate an iconic sauce, but rather create something wholly original. “It has the essence of Frank’s, but it is not the same,” says Zimmer. He lets on that Zim’s has a hot sauce base blended with Italian dressing and barbecue sauce (an ode to Kansas) plus a few extras. “I added basil, garlic, nutmeg, and other fresh ingredients. There are no preservatives or high fructose corn syrup. It’s all natural and pure.”

Zim’s Hot Sauce has sweet, fruity notes at first before hitting minor keys of saltiness. Tangy vinegar and the mild bite of cayenne pepper picks up the melody and forms a piquant flavor structure. The aroma is unlike the smoky tones of chipotle pepper or the sharpness of jalapenos steeped in vinegar. It reveals a hint of the tropics, reminiscent of a Jamaican jerk sauce blended with the rich molasses base of barbecue sauce. A complex blend of spices and herbs takes this hot sauce in a fresh direction. Notably, the sauce contains sesame seeds, bits of onion, and herbs that add body and distinguish Zim’s from other pure liquid sauces on the market.

The process of developing a commercial brand of hot sauce began in Zimmer’s kitchen with experimental batches to develop the desired flavor combination. Next, he sought assistance from Original Juan, a Kansas City company on Southwest Boulevard that specializes in developing multiple lines of specialty foods under its own brand names and for entrepreneurs like Zimmer. Scan the supermarket shelves in the sauce section and familiar names might pop up – Mama Capri Marinara Sauce, Fiesta Artichoke Spinach Dip, Cowtown Steak Rub, Pain is Good Batch #114 Sweet Caribbean Jerk Screamin’ Wing Sauce, and Zarda’s BBQ Sauce. In order to manufacture and bottle a brand of hot sauce with consistent quality and sustain production, Original Juan was a logical place for Zimmer to start testing and refining.

“We tested a small half batch to adapt the hot sauce from my kitchen version and to confirm the conversion of ingredients,” says Zimmer.

From there, Original Juan will ramp up to a full batch of 136 gallons and begin bottling the sauce by July. Zimmer will handle distribution and sales of Zim’s Hot Sauce. Local artist Tyson Schroeder created the illustrated artwork – a hybrid chicken with a buffalo skull – for the label with typography and overall design by Zimmer.

The hot sauce is set to debut at two local music clubs, The Brick and recordBar, where Zimmer has spent plenty of time photographing music shows. The Brick will serve hot wings with Zim’s Hot Sauce on Tuesday, 6/29 and recordBar will serve wings on their trivia nights after July 7. The plan is for Zim’s Hot Sauce to appear regularly as a menu option with wings when the product is ready for re-sale by mid-July. “I want the hot sauce to be available at select locations and to let word spread through a grassroots approach,” he says. “The 10-ounce bottles will make 30-40 wings.”

Zimmer made his hot sauce with hot wings in mind, but he already knows that it marries well with a variety of foods. “I’ve taken samples of my hot sauce to work,” he says. “Co-workers have told me it tastes great on everything from pulled pork to eggs.”

I put Zim’s Hot Sauce to the test at home. After marinating a pound of chicken tenders for a few minutes in Zim’s Hot Sauce with some vegetable oil, a dash of salt, and fresh ground black pepper, I grilled the tenders until slightly charred. The thin consistency of the hot sauce didn’t adhere to the meat. I tasted the grilled chicken without adding additional sauce. The marinade didn’t impart any spiciness. Perhaps if the chicken were marinated longer, even over night, then it would have more pronounced flavor. However, Zim’s was made to be a sauce for cooked food more than a marinade. With that in mind, I conducted the crucial taste test.

In one dish, I poured a straight dose of Zim’s and filled another dish with a blend of melted butter and Zim’s to simulate a traditional hot wing sauce. The unadulterated sauce added zing to the chicken, hitting the sweet spots of my taste buds followed by the zip of vinegar. The bouquet of spices and herbs complimented the smokiness of grilled chicken. Gradually, the heat built until I radiated a low-grade glow. A piece of fresh-sliced mango dabbed in the sauce brought out tropical fruit flavors, playing off the mango’s sweetness. This experiment encouraged me to try the hot sauce in myriad food combinations when I could buy a bottle or two of Zim’s.

When blended with melted butter, Zim’s Hot Sauce transforms into a more mellow condiment that perfectly suited the grilled chicken. The sauce still has heat and a few sassy moves like an elder aunt at a wedding reception that still knows how to shake it. The butter emulsified in the sauce not only softens the heat, but also imparts a silky mouth feel. I can’t wait to try this sauce, with and without melted butter, on a properly prepared batch or three of hot wings.

Zim’s Hot Sauce, it zips and it zings. Surprisingly versatile, the sauce lends itself to adaptation as a condiment. Perhaps blending it with lime, honey, and tequila before brushing it on grilled shrimp or flank steak. Or basting grilled salmon with Zim’s and serving it with slices of grilled pineapple. Maybe spooning some Zim’s on rice and chicken and black bean quesadillas. Or doing a classic dunk of hot wings in this lively sauce.

In a city that debates the merits of barbecue sauces with gusto, that dashes Tabasco and Sriracha sauce and salsa on just about any food, there are thousands of people in Kansas City that will taking a liking to Zim’s Hot Sauce if they seek it out. Count me as a convert.

Originally published in Present Magazine, June 2010.

Justus Drugstore: Heritage and Purpose

(Left) Author David Wondrich with Chef Jonathan Justus.
(Left) Author David Wondrich with Chef Jonathan Justus.

Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, located in Smithville, Missouri, has a lot riding on its name.

With over one year of operation and plenty of sweat equity under their belt, executive chef Jonathan Justus and his wife Camille Eklof, general manager of the restaurant, have built the first cutting edge fine dining restaurant in this conservative town and plenty of people have taken notice.

Welcome to the Show
It’s funny how life turns out. Some people let go of the string to helium-filled dreams and watch that balloon rise and disappear. Others seek out their dreams, willing to jump into a hot-air balloon of uncertainty, take a risky flight, search for the time and place to drift back to earth, and transform wishes into reality. Before they even began working in a restaurant, Eklof and Justus had dreams of opening a bed-and-breakfast. That bed-and-breakfast never came to be, but the couple set off on a path that led to another dream.

Today, Justus and Eklof live in a tiny 100-year-old house on a half-acre property in Paradise near Smithville Lake. After years of traveling and working in restaurants in the United States and France, the couple settled down and spent two-and-a-half-years fixing up their corner of paradise from top to bottom. The unassuming house––a sanctuary from the restaurant––is located on a quiet road and is surrounded by old trees, bushes, and flowers planted around the sloping hills. Inside, the cozy home has a guest room, a kitchen the size of a broom closet, and a porch that beckons guests to sit a spell. The interior is filled with art, books, and memorabilia; the sort of belongings that serve as a prompt for stories about heritage, purpose, origin, and discovery.

Conviviality and hospitality is part of the rich adventure that Eklof and Justus share as wife and husband, entrepreneurs, and lovers of a good life fashioned from hard work. Both at work and at home, Justus is fond of telling tales and anecdotes about common objects and arcane artifacts. He is short and stocky with a stout belly earned––like many career chefs––from cooking and tasting in the kitchen and dining at the table. His brain is an encyclopedia of collective knowledge one might find from a historian, European tour guide, forest ranger, farmer, cyclist, chef, and the culinary bible LaRousse Gastronomique. Give him a glass of wine and enough time to get a lungful of air and he will entertain you with lively conversation to pass the time. This knowledge and years of experience in the culinary industry inform his lively patois of cooking terminology and innate love for fine food, drink, and people with a similar affinity.

Equally experienced in the restaurant industry, Eklof is slim as a willow tree and quick with a smile. She is savvy about cuisine and full of industriousness that is evident as she bustles around the restaurant. As co-owner and general manager, she wears many hats such as overseeing the front of the house staff of servers and bartenders. She trains the serving staff, helps to bus tables, and manages the wine inventory. Eklof greets regular customers and welcomes newcomers to the smartly designed space. A television screen mounted near the doorway to the patio shows images of the do-it-yourself construction and remodeling the duo undertook before opening over a year ago. She spent a “day off” in late May 2008 to plant herbs and flowers in flowerbeds positioned around a new patio next to the restaurant. Between scoops of fertilizer, she dusted off dirt from work gloves and worn jeans to field phone calls for reservations and questions from her husband.

Eklof and Justus are the epitome of entrepreneurs dedicated to taking on any task from sun up to sun down. As any husband-and-wife team who run a small business, especially a restaurant (i.e. Mano and Barb Rafael at Le Fou Frog, Megan and Colby Garrelts at bluestem), can tell you, the hope of success and beating the odds in this industry requires a willingness to work long hours. The cycle repeats day in, day out, six days a week plus more time during the “off” day to run errands and deal with paperwork, weekends and holidays, month after month, year after year in a bid to break even and someday make a profit. What takes place behind-the-scenes matters little to most guests. They come for fine food, drink, service, and an idiosyncratic ambiance which restaurants with a true sense of place offer. And modern day foodies, amateur and professional critics, and bloggers in the chattering class notice every detail. So, the pressure to be on is always there.

Despite garnering a top-notch reputation as a culinary destination among gourmands in the Kansas City metro and Midwest, and in national food publications such as Food and Wine and Bon Appetit, the memorable restaurant name “Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant” has lead to some legal woes for the couple.

The name refers to the former family business that Justus’ grandfather, a pharmacist, operated from 1914-1955 on property that has been in the family since 1854. After the grandfather passed away, Jonathan’s mother, also a pharmacist, ran the drugstore and soda fountain for another forty years at 106 West Main. Justus worked as a soda jerk behind the fountain since he was old enough to see over the counter. After graduating from Smithville High School in 1983, he moved to Los Angeles to study art. Six years later, he moved to San Francisco where he met Eklof.

After several years of working in restaurants, eating, living, and traveling in Kansas City, San Francisco, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, France, the couple returned to Smithville, brought their culinary experience to the table, and opened for business in the old storefront. Naming the business “Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant” was partly a nod to the former family business and an acknowledgement of a brand name that folks living in Smithville over the past few decades would recognize and appreciate. Everyone, that is, except the Missouri Board of Pharmacy.

An investigator for the Board appeared at the restaurant just before Memorial Day 2008 and announced that she was there to file a report on the pharmacy. In disbelief, Justus laughed and stated the obvious to anyone that has stepped inside the doorway or noticed the signage, business cards, and menus in plain English––Justus Drugstore is a restaurant. According to Justus, the inspector stated that someone could come in and “think that what you are telling them is the advice of a medical professional.” The dining tables, working kitchen, and plates of food might have been a clue to the contrary.

Changing the name of the business would cost Justus and Eklof unexpected expenses and an invaluable brand name tied to the family’s heritage. Nonetheless, the inspector completed her investigation and filed a report with the Board. On June 10, Justus and Eklof received a letter from executive director Debra Ringgenberg on Board of Pharmacy stationary ordering them to CEASE AND DESIST the unlawful use of the word “drugstore” and change the business name within thirty days. The letter cited a Missouri statute specifying that the use of the designation “pharmacy” and “drugstore” is only legally allowable in a place of business supervised by a licensed pharmacist.

Concerned, the couple took up the issue with Missouri Senator LuAnn Ridgeway, who spoke with Governor Matt Blunt about the matter. Since then, the legal battle has escalated. William Raney, a Kansas City attorney specializing in First Amendment law and president of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas & Western Missouri, has taken up the cause. Raney sent a letter back to the board challenging the order as an unconstitutional infringement of the free speech rights of the restaurant’s owners. Further, the letter challenges the board to provide evidence that anyone has been confused by the restaurant’s name.

Currently, the board has plans to discuss the matter in September. The story of legal concerns over the restaurant name has garnered press in the KC Star and other print publications. Justus and Eklof, backed by legal representation, are seeking a reasonable settlement that does not involve a name change for the business.

Sense of Place
Long before fuss over the name arose, the restaurant’s reputation has been highly touted by local foodies and critics. Justus cites regulars who claim, “It’s the best meal I’ve ever had.”

Self-generated hype? Judging from the packed house of enthusiastic diners on two weekday visits, it’s doubtful. Entering the renovated space located off Main Street, the restaurant is modern and charming with nods to its heritage. A clip of film, enlarged and framed, displays the name of the pharmacy from yesteryear. Also, the soda fountain now functions as a bar replete with stools that still bear graffiti from years past underneath the seats.

Glancing at the contemporary art on the walls, sleek furnishings, or the open design of the kitchen framed by orange panels, it’s plain to see that Eklof and Justus put their creative stamp on the surroundings rather than rely on kitsch or nostalgia. The outdoor patio with wooden planters bearing herbs and flowers is most inviting during cooler months. This stylish Smithville restaurant would fit right in with chic bistros and boutiques filling Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District, but is worth the excursion as a retreat from the demands of the day.


Cooking is not about convenience and it’s not about shortcuts… Our hunger for the twenty-minute gourmet meal, for a one-pot ease and prewashed, precut vegetables has severed our lifeline to the satisfactions of cooking. Take your time. Take a long time. Move slowly and deliberately and with great attention. ––Thomas Keller, Chef Owner, The French Laundry

The above quote attributed to renowned chef Thomas Keller is printed on the menu at Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, and is also posted on the front door of the Smithville establishment. Justus believes in respecting local farmers and growers, treating food and land as a sustainable resource, and honoring the time-tested traditions of cooking. He believes in the tenets of Slow Food––the social nature of dining slowly and deliberately, the importance of a food’s origins and genetic integrity, and the respectful preparation of ingredients to yield inspired results.

Before assuming the mantle of executive chef, Justus apprenticed in a number of cooking roles during his career to learn lessons, refine ideas and skills, and develop his own assertions about cooking. In sum, he has worked stints at Zin (since closed; Michael Smith’s occupies the space now), Macaluso’s (also gone), Le Fou Frog (author’s note: I cooked with Justus in the kitchen years ago; Eklof also served there), as a food stylist for cookbook writers, and at a company where he learned to butcher and process meat. He also cooked as a chef (along with Eklof as a server) sans working papers in a small southern French village known for legendary gipsy guitarist Manitas de Plata, who played at the restaurant on occasion.

Now with a kitchen of his own, Justus balances inventive instincts with a reverent sense of tradition and understanding of food’s relationship to geography, history, and seasonality. His menu regularly features original dishes prepared with uncommon ingredients or familiar food in innovative combinations. As a chef and advocate for local, sustainable food sources, Justus does back flips to obtain ingredients and deliver dishes that maximize the sensory impact of the food with minimal impact on the environment. “We try to inform the palate of our guests. We doing it on our terms,” he says.

Dating back to the ’70s, Alice Waters, celebrated chef and owner of Chez Panisse, advocated the use of fresh foods from local, sustainable sources and revitalized California cuisine with her ideas and practices. Today, terms like fresh, local, organic, seasonal, and sustainable are bandied about regularly in the culinary lexicon of what’s desirable. Anyone who’s anyone, that is, chefs like Thomas Keller (The French Laundry-CA), Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter’s-Chicago), Nancy Oakes (Boulevard-San Francisco), or Mark Ladner (Del Posto-NY) would hardly disagree with using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. Nor would hometown proponents like The Garrelts (bluestem), Beth Barden (Succotash), or the staff at blue bird bistro.

Justus also lives out this philosophy, dubbing his approach as country referential. “I’m not trying to capitalize on the trend. I’m doing what makes sense,” says Justus. “I’ve been doing this since the Nineties.”

Today, he taps into a regional network of Missouri farms and purveyors including heritage Berkshire pork from Newman Farm in Myrtle that is processed at Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Arrowhead Game in Holt, Shatto Milk Company in Osborn, Norton Farm located in Plattsburg, Hammons Walnuts in Stockton, and Cunningham’s Berry Farm in Smithville. The list goes on. Justus isn’t above gathering wild seasonal edibles near his home in Paradise when foraging on a rare day off or buying from individual sources.

Adventure in Flavor
What can you do with produce, milk, eggs, and meats delivered from regional farms located less than a hundred miles from its source rather than trucked cross-country? Each week, Justus, his chef de cuisine Jeffrey Scot, and team of cooks apply technique and imagination to transform fresh ingredients as far as they can go.

Showing his craft, Justus takes an appetizer such as brandade––traditionally, a thick dip of whipped salt cod and potatoes that originated in Provence, France ––and substitutes smoked walleye instead for a touch of local flair. Justus draws on an affinity for French cuisine filtered through his Midwest sensibilities. For example, he creates a foie gras terrine with homey flavors of vanilla maple pecan, fig, ginger pear port syrup, fresh pear, and cinnamon brioche French toast. Ceviche, a dish usually associated with coastal Mexican or Mediterranean cuisine, is composed from fresh water striper bass, chives, chervil, sunflower sprouts, and other ingredients dressed in sesame citrus vinaigrette.

Local flavors come into play with Maytag blue cheese salad balancing the hearty taste of roasted beets against Missouri black walnut praline and apple gelée over mixed greens. Justus doesn’t hesitate to use fancy touches like truffle oil, smoke trout roe, and lardon made from heritage Berkshire bacon to dress up a curly endive salad.

Main entrees range from vegetable risotto to savory Campo Lindo chicken, fork tender Berkshire pork shank to hearty Akaushi beef brisket. Justus composes ingredients into a multilayered sensory experience, but sometimes the results are a bit fussy and over-extended. For instance, the brisket involves a house-made root beer braise, honey sassafras mustard vinaigrette, watercress, sorrel, wild arugula, celery root puree, and smoked vanilla butter glazed carrots. It feels like a buffet of flavor crammed on a plate. In contrast, the pork shank is a simpler assembly of down-to-earth components featuring wild arugula pesto, hominy, Berkshire bacon, creamy polenta, wild arugula salad, and fresh apple vinaigrette.

Specials featured off the menu allow Justus and his team to introduce more options for adventurous diners. During a meal in June, the kitchen offered a charcuterie plate featuring locally raised and processed pork. The sausage, headcheese, pate, house-made condiments, and bread were an ideal marriage of spicy, savory, and sweet flavors, rustic presentation, and sublime texture.

Justus is a chef hitting a strong stride in his professional career with only self-imposed restrictions to challenge his instincts. Sometimes, he is tempted to use too many of the colors available in his palette when a select few might deliver a more distinct and powerful impression. That’s not to say that these dishes aren’t tasty; indeed, as a hungry diner, every plate of multiple courses over a couple of visits left the table with barely a morsel left. The takeaway culinary observation is this: A little restraint can go a long way both in the use of complicated flavor profiles and in presentation.

While marveling over the last bites of food and sips of wine and cocktails before the final course, another subtle sensory element to the restaurant experience registers. Below the burbling conversation of chatting guests, a pleasing soundtrack of music washes through the room. Tunes by Camera Obscura, Bobby Bare, Jack Johnson, Johnny Cash, X, and other select artists only add to the distinctive ambiance of the place. Both Justus and Eklof are as avid about music as they are about food, drink, design, art, and hospitality. After a respite, when the time is right, dessert menus float into place.

The array of desserts is an all-star lineup of sweet and savory delights. Sweet corn crepes filled with lingonberry, blackberry compote, and lemon custard ice cream is tempting. Apricot beignets served with cinnamon honey ice cream and honey roasted pistachios were divine. Chocolate lovers can rejoice in the dark chocolate ale cake dished up with a side of caramel black walnut ice cream and delicate chocolate lace. The flights of homemade ice cream are dreamy scoops of lusciousness, ranging from exotic chai to fresh fruit, herb, and spice combinations.

Drink Up
Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, is not just a dining destination. They whip up spectacular drinks that are worth spending the gas alone to drive up and wet your whistle. The Silver Elder Fizz requires fancy preparation that involves gin, house-infused vanilla vodka, local elderflower, fresh-squeezed lemon, limejuice, and egg white. Pull up a stool at the soda fountain/bar and watch it come together. It’s fizzy, floral, and fantastic. Tea Mist is a sophisticated concoction of Bacardi Silver, Skyy Vodka, ice tea, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and house-made mint syrup. It’s a proven defense against dreadful summer heat and humidity. Other notable beverages include a fancifully named Sazerac d’Oise, Martini Provencal, or the deceptive, innocent-sounding Strawberry Limeade.

Justus, Eklof, and the bartenders put effort into their selection of infused spirits, fresh juices, and specialty ingredients. What goes into the glass is equally as important as what appears on the plate. Making the selection process simple for guests, each item on the menu’s list of starters, salads, and main dishes has a suggested wine pairing to complement flavors. The selection of red, white, sparkling, rose, and dessert wines offer more opportunity to uncover refined liquid refreshment in a range of prices. The Jibe Sauvignon Blanc ’06 presented passion fruit flavors followed by a grassy character. Chapoutier Belleruch Blanc ’06 is a crisp white with a profile of apple, lemon, mineral, and white pepper. If unsure of making choices or simply unwilling, then Eklof and the servers will gladly make recommendations that pay off.

It’s a peculiar trait of humans to name the world around us. We name lands, lakes, streams, woodlands, and natural spaces. Once these places are razed and developed into commercial property, we invent fanciful names to evoke the place changed by money and machines. We apply names to tiny components of matter invisible to our eyes and distant heavenly bodies that we may never reach in person. We name our babies and pets and that name matters beyond calculation over a lifetime. It is more than a signifier for a person, place, or thing. In time, a name becomes intertwined with an identity that gathers weight and presence and legend unto itself.

Jonathan Justus and Camille Eklof have made a reputation for themselves by building on a trusted family name. They reinvented a piece of property once respected in the community as a pharmacy and constructed a dream into reality as a highly regarded restaurant. Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant is something significant. It is more concrete than culinary ideals and esoteric philosophies, more relevant than Missouri statues and codes in law books. It is far more than heady reviews with flowery words written and spoken by fawning fans and self-important critics. It is a living expression of food and season, craft and hospitality that cannot simply be classified by name like a variety of potato.

The Justus name on the signage, menus, and business cards reflects something greater––identity, family heritage, a sense of purpose, and discovery of what can be. It is something not easily defined, not a quality so quickly named, not an experience so easily checked off a must-see, must-do list. This land, these people, this community of farmers and growers and diners and neighbors, and this intentional gathering over food and drink inspires respect for what takes place from farm to kitchen to table. Whatever we might call it, once experienced firsthand we wish to participate in its broader purpose and be present as if it were our own corner of paradise.

Originally published in Present Magazine, August 2008. Photography by Pam Taylor.

Six Impressions of David Basse

David Basse

Vignettes past and present with esteemed Kansas City jazz drummer and vocalist David Basse.

Part 1 – The Rieger

I am sitting at the bar of 1924 Main in early April 2008 and nursing a glass of Malbec. The bar is situated towards the front of the restaurant near the entrance, leading to the main room where dinner service is in full swing. During the early Nineties, this space used to swing in quite different ways as the Dixie Belle Saloon. For a brief stint under other ownership, this location was also the home of a restaurant and club called The Rieger where I first saw David Basse and his combo perform live.

Unlike 1924 Main’s spacious setting, The Rieger had a long and narrow layout with a shotgun view. The bar was stationed farther into the room as a focal point for a mixed crowd of jazzheads, seedy city dwellers, musicians, well-to-do fans of Basse, and adventurous 20-somethings willing to venture off the beaten path from The Plaza and Westport. Mind you, the Power and Light district didn’t exist nearly twenty years ago. The Crossroads Arts District was a blossoming bohemian stronghold that hadn’t yet been overrun by developers or suburbanites. The Rieger was a rough around the edges nightspot replete with beer, booze, and live music, drawing blacks and whites from up and down the economic spectrum.

In the midst of this urban grit, Basse manned the drum kit and laid down a groove with his combo. He crooned with his smooth voice and caroused with snappy patter. Musically, the band dipped into the blues and scattered jazz throughout the room. Basse made a name for himself with City Light Orchestra during the ’80s and still attracted a following. For some people at The Rieger, the music was a backdrop to the social friction and fusion happening between drinks. For me, it was a sample of live music that veered sharply away from a steady college diet of ’80s New Wave music and roots rock revivalism.

Of course, every native of Kansas City eventually learns a distant fact or two about the city’s jazz history and famous sons like Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Basse was a young gun in this sleepy jazz town trying to invigorate contemporary jazz in KC and make a name for himself. He steeped himself in the tradition, refined his chops, and belted out songs before contemporary audiences. Basse breathed life into our jazz-blues heritage for music lovers like myself.

Over time, we remember moments to savor. I don’t miss The Rieger, but do appreciate its place as a portal to a vibrant experience that the suburbs couldn’t duplicate. Nearly two decades later, a glass of wine at 1924’s bar wets my whistle, but there’s something missing that I long for. It’s the buzz of conversation over a back beat, a sense of being in an ephemeral moment, a patron absorbing the energy that emanates from musicians like Basse who make a scene and are not content to become a social soundtrack for mating rituals.

Part 2 – Looking Back

Later in April 2008, I stroll into Jardine’s and meet Basse for an interview. The jazz club and restaurant is still setting up for the evening, so we walk to the Classic Cup and secure a patio table. We order gin and tonics, settle into our seats as the sun shares its radiant benevolence, and take stock of Basse’s still-evolving career.

David Basse was born in San Jose, California, raised in Nebraska, came to Kansas City when he was 19 years old, and joined Musician’s Union local 41-627. In 1982, he was invited to perform at the City Light Restaurant for a one-night gig that would turn into a seven-year engagement. He led the swingin’ City Light Orchestra, formed with a roster of luminaries such as saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen and pianist Tim Whitmer. The group released Raised Spirits in 1984, an album that still holds up as a terrific jazz recording. “City Light catapulted us into the spotlight,” says Basse.

In those days, Basse lived on The Plaza in the William Morrow building on Ward Parkway. He sported a pencil-thin mustache, white shirt, tie, and, of course, his signature fedora. The musician did not own a car for seven years and took the bus to get around town. “People began to recognize me and offered me rides across town,” he says.

The drummer-vocalist also kept busy playing gigs at Hotel Phillips with pianist Joe Cartwright as well as dates at Café Lulu, The Rieger, The Point, River City Café, and The Phoenix. At one point, he played nine gigs a week. “We started to come into our own during our late 20s,” says Basse. “We found our voice. It was gigging in the highest sense.”

After recording four albums with City Light during the ’80s, Basse headed to Los Angeles in 1992 where he started collaborating with legendary studio musician Mike Melvoin. Melvoin was awarded a Grammy Nomination in 2004 for his City Light Entertainment release, It’s Always You. Working steady club gigs in L.A. was a challenge because of the abundance of talent. “I played two places regularly, one night a month, for five years,” Basse says.

Eventually, Basse returned to Kansas City to be near family as his parents grew older. Armed with a well-established reputation, Basse immersed himself in the local music scene once again. “I have always been able to come back to Kansas City and work,” he says.

Part 3 – Recordings

“Kansas City is the place where jazz meets the blues,” says Basse about the city’s music scene. Basse backs up this statement with a string of albums that traverse both sides of the blues-and-jazz railroad tracks, exploring these American music forms in traditional and original songs. Kansas City Live, the hipster-meets-sentimental fool of Like Jazz, and the guttural bluesy swagger of Strike While the Iron is Hot represent the broad range of this artist.

He has been fortunate to record with some of the finest local talent around town––Joe Cartwright, Pat Morrissey, Gerald Dunn, Phil Woods, and many others. Old Friends New Point is a prime example of Basse mixing it up with accomplished vocalist Angela Hagenbach, the supreme Bobby Watson on saxophone; drummer Sam Johnson, Jr. (a cofounder of Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz Inc.), Greg Richter on keys, and bassist Matt Pittman. Old Friends New Point was recorded live on a Sunday afternoon on September 9, 2001 at the New Point Grille. The recorded sound is crisp and warm, sizzling and swinging and serenading as the moment dictated during this intimate recording session. Two days later, the world would change on a bright blue-sky morning. Old Friends New Point nailed an enthusiasm and optimism that enlivens the dozen tracks and still sounds refreshing post 9/11. “Moanin” is a showcase for Basse’s bluesy charm, Watson’s feisty sax, and a truly swingin’ rhythm section.

Part 4 -Touchstones

Basse has seen the livelihood of jazz rise and fall like a tide during his time in Kansas City. “A change is coming. You can see the cycle happening,” he says. “The Power and Light District brings a different crowd of folks that weren’t there two years ago. I have met people staying here from Cleveland, St. Louis, and Illinois who have said there’s so much going on.”

The influx of tourists and locals flocking into urban venues is desirable, no doubt, but it is difficult to attract and retain audiences for the satisfying pleasures of live jazz and blues. Modern technology and abundant entertainment options tug on the attention span of younger generations. Hundreds of jazz clubs that thrived in Kansas City’s yesteryear have dwindled to a few dozen like the Blue Room and Jardine’s or other non-traditional venues like Unity Temple. “Needs and lifestyles have changed. Ten to fifteen years ago, we didn’t have Direct TV, Sirius Radio, and iPods to listen to all day,” says Basse. “It’s a fragmented crowd. The musicians have to be crafty.”

Basse leans back in his chair at Classic Cup, stirs his gin and tonic, and does not seem to fret. The shifting terrain for local music will always be subject to availability at clubs, the fickleness of audiences, and an upcoming crop of young musicians that hustle for gigs. Jazz and blues will reach the ears of those who seek it out. “Musicians are going to play and make music,” he says.

Live performance is the preferred showcase for David Basse and so many other working musicians and vocalists––Luqman Hamza, Mark Lowrey, Carol Comer, Brandon Draper, Shay Estes, Mark Southerland’s Snuff Jazz, Angela Hagenbach, Bram Wijnands, John Brewer, Ida McBeth, Megan Birdsall, and others––to excel at entertaining.

For the veteran musician, Basse now focuses less on playing numerous gigs and concentrates instead on performing at events that highlight his talents before particular audiences. At the 2008 Forks and Corks fundraiser for Harvesters, Basse’s warm voice and the sounds of the esteemed City Light Orchestra floated across the Grand Ballroom of Bartle Hall to reach thousands of people noodling for a bite to eat and a sip of wine. When that audience crosses paths with Basse at a smaller venue, then perhaps his distinctive voice and style will register and command full attention.

In one of his many roles in the music business, David presents an oral history of Kansas City music to Elderhostel groups from the University of Texas. An older group of tourists blended with local jazz fans and musicians on an April afternoon upstairs at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Basse knocked out a set and dazzled this crowd with Joe Straws humbly laying down a foundation on bass and Joe Cartwright killing on piano. The combo wisecracked and shared tidbits of local jazz lore with the audience. Different audiences, different motives.

“You find your touchstone. What can I grab and work with?” Basse proposes. “What shows who I am? There are more choices for audiences, so you have to be more focused. State what you do quicker. It’s an interesting challenge for artists. Style is important for an artist.”

Part 5 – 21st Century Music

Basse has expanded his role from a jazz performer to jazz ambassador through the award-winning radio program, “The Jazz Scene,” that airs on Kansas Public Radio on Saturdays, 1-4 PM. On air, Basse reaches 20-30,000 listeners over three hours or, as he puts it, “his closest friends. Radio is a personal medium. This program took away the need to be in a bar every night.”

The program features classic jazz, new releases, information on area performances, and interviews with marquee names in jazz music like Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. “I never play jazz that I don’t like,” says Basse. “I’m not a scholar, but an observer, drummer, and singer. I try to bring jazz music into the 21st century.”

He pairs songs and albums that have a correlation and explains the connection to listeners. For example, he recently matched Miles Davis’ 1960 album Sketches of Spain with the 1986 release Tutu and showed the evolutionary ties. “Miles Davis is someone who stuck with it to the nth degree,” says Basse. “As a musician, he evolves.”

Part 6 – Paying Dues

As a skilled practitioner of jazz blended with the blues, Basse’s style and sound is part of a greater pulse, a magnificent collective heartbeat that thrummed in the chest of men like Charlie Parker and Jay McShann. The old guard of musicians, both famed and forgotten, crafted a Kansas City sound that resonates today. “That strong blues base can be heard in the music of Kevin Mahogany and Bobby Watson,” says Basse. At the same time, he emphasizes that performing jazz and blues goes beyond upholding tradition. “Music has to breathe, flow, and change.”

When Basse takes the stage with longtime peers and friends like Joe Cartwright and Alaadeen, these veterans have no desire to grind familiar tunes into a deeper rut. “We don’t want to play the same old stuff. You don’t want to paint the same painting,” says Basse. “I think about what I want to do and make it better.”

When asked about advice for young musicians, Basse offers a stream of suggestions. “Follow your heart, especially jazz musicians. Pay attention to what is going on. Play your music,” he says. “Why get a job at the telephone company? Once you do, you sell yourself short. Lots of musicians in this town have paid their dues. The Elders, The Rainmakers, BR549, Iris Dement, Connie Dover. If you got talent, then go for it.”

Originally published in Present Magazine, May 2008.

Jazz Artist Tia Fuller

Tia Fuller
Tia Fuller
shares insight into her career as an accomplished jazz saxophonist, composer, and educator.

Tia Fuller, who also toured with Beyoncé as a member of the R&B superstar’s backing band, offered insight into her career as a female working in the music industry at an artist talk in KC in March 2008. While in town, Fuller and her all-female touring band––pianist Shamie Royston, bassist Miriam Sullivan and drummer Kim Thompson––performed at the Blue Room.

Raised in a musical household, Fuller began learning classical piano and flute from the age of three through age 13. Her father played bass and her mother sang. “From my earliest age, I remember hearing them rehearse in the basement of our house. I grew up hearing John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, and Charlie Parker. I didn’t understand it and didn’t really like it until I started playing saxophone and experiencing the music for myself,” she says.

She continued her jazz studies in high school, where she switched to saxophone, and into college, where Fuller earned a Masters Degree (M.M.) in Jazz Pedagogy and Performance from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Fuller moved to Jersey City, incidentally just two days before the September 11 terrorists’ attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “I thought it was an omen that I shouldn’t move out here,” she recalls. “Actually, the event forced me to hustle, because the word on the streets, in the jazz community, was that there was very little work. My first gig was playing in a big band at a fish fry in South Jersey.”

Fuller did hustle and began to rise in the New York jazz community. She met musicians such as saxophonist Brad Leali, who at that time played in the Count Basie Orchestra. He circulated Fuller’s name as a skillful saxophonist capable of doubling on the flute in the jazz community, Since then, Fuller has progressed as a musician and released two albums, the impressive debut Pillar of Strength (listen to a sample) and her sophomore release Healing Space.

As a composer, Fuller is well-versed in bop, R&B, hip-hop, gospel, and Latin influences. She is also a dedicated educator. Fuller continues to be involved with music education by currently serving as the director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem’s “Harmony Ensemble.” She also conducts clinics, residencies, lectures and master classes.

In this interview, Fuller shares advice about developing as a musician.

Present: Kansas City is blessed with a rich legacy and active community of jazz musicians including talented jazz vocalists, but there are few women jazz artists. What advice would you give to young women studying music in school or considering music education?

Tia Fuller: The advice I would give to women is to focus on being a great musician. Don’t allow negative experiences and the outside world dictate your purpose. Utilize all opportunities and experiences as stepping stones, toward your musicianship and character.

Present: You grew up in a musical family, studied jazz in high school and college, and learned from performing gigs in the New York scene. How did these various experiences reinforce your interest and improve your skill level as a maturing artist?

Fuller: These experiences have reinforced my interest and improved my skill level by constantly being in an environment of inspiration. In order to inspire you have to be inspired. My experiences have also taught me that music…life is full of infinite possibilities. You just have to have to move forward in faith and not fear.

Present: What are some common challenges for young jazz students in terms of technique, knowledge, or other areas?

Fuller: The most common challenge that I see in younger musicians is not having a clear concept of “sound,” and the “language” of the instrument. Listen to the greats and immerse yourself in the music, to the point that you can hear the sound you are trying to create in your head…before producing it through your instrument.

Present: Outside of learning how to play an instrument well, what other skills does a working musician need to learn and achieve in the music business?

Fuller: Other skills that students must achieve as a working musician is being a businessman or woman. Sending press kits, CDs, follow through with calls, networking and building healthy working relationships that create a win-win situation. Also, being a band leader, you have to communicate effectively and facilitate the things that you want done or put people in place to do those things. Ultimately, have a clear vision of where you want to go and aggressively pursue how you are going to get there, while maintaining a pleasant, yet business savvy attitude.

Present: Who were/are your role models in music or other fields? Why?

Fuller: Maya Angelou, Denzel Washington, Branford Marsalis, Serena Williams. All of these individuals push the envelope and walk in a clear and decisive vision path in their life. They are constantly in a state of evolution…no matter how old, no matter how hard, they turn their trials and visions into a tangible reality.

Present: Why is your latest album called “Healing Space?”

Fuller: In the midst of of brokenness and life’s challenges, “Healing Space” is a place that is created within oneself…a place that is your ultimate peace, restoration, enlightenment, and renewal.

Present: You began learning to play the piano at the age of three, and have studied and performed throughout your life. What excites you about music today? What experiences in life inspire you to create music?

Fuller: The ability to give back positive and uplifting energy and the ability to seek and discover through your instrument daily! The infinite possibilities that life brings continue to inspire me.

Originally published in Present Magazine, April 2008.

Reach Brings a New Voice to KC Hip Hop

Reach is a self-described “blue collar rapper” in Kansas City who unleashes a more personable, reality-based brand of hip-hop.

Rather than rely on stereotypical and derogatory subject matter such as bling, bullets, and booty, Reach (aka Stacy Smith) puts forth a positive message backed by distinct Euro-lounge rhythms and melody with elements of soul, jazz, and R&B from Copenhagen beat maven Twelve Beats.

Reach discusses hip-hop, his origins, and his latest release, Corner Speech.

Present: What do you consider the Golden Age of hip-hop? What artists represent that era?

Reach: The Golden Age for me would be between 1986-1996. That 10-year period represented such growth and diversity. The spectrum was wider then. Rap was edgy during those years.

Present: What do you bring to the form today as a blue-collar rapper?

Reach: I think I bring honesty to the table. Something that everyday people can easily identify with. Tragedy, triumph, love, life…

I speak to the human experience…I’m a “meat and potatoes” kind of artist.

Present: “Walk the Line” is a song that addresses a dedicated “daily grind” work ethic balanced by an “I’m on the way” ambition. Is this reflective of your life as a person and an artist rising from the Kansas City hip hop scene to new vistas?

Reach: They say that art imitates life. I think my personal life informs my music. And I think many of my characteristics as an artist seep into how I live my life everyday.

Present: How did you connect with Twelve Beats, a producer and beatmaker out of Copenhagen, Denmark?

Reach: I was a regular at a which was a website for Rap producers. Twelve was one of the beatmakers on the site I stumbled upon. I contacted him initially to get a few tracks for a future project. We had a couple conversations, but were never able to agree upon a reasonable price for beats. Talks broke off for a while… Months later, after he’d had the chance to digest my music, he suggested we work with one another and see where we could take it. Twelve songs later we were at the end of an album.

Present: Twelve brings a refreshing sound to the album, Corner Speech. It’s chill with a lounge vibe, but enough beat and digital spice to support your vocal delivery. What sound were the two of you going for on this record?

Reach: We wanted an album that was reflective of our collective musical tastes. Jazz, R&B, soul, rap. We hoped we could mix all of that up and come away with something soulful, funky, and melodic. It’s a really cohesive record as a result.

Present: How would you describe your vocal style?

I’m an “in pocket” emcee. I try to lend something to the track rather than stand over it. A lot of artists call it “riding the beat.” I want to find my place in the melody and live there. I see my voice as just another instrument that has to mesh with the other sounds in the track.

Present: You’ve opened for national acts including The Roots, Big Daddy Kane, Trek Life, Abyss (HBO Def Jam Poet), Sound Tribe Sector 9, Pharcyde, Blackalicious, and Soulive. What have you learned from other artists in the industry that you want to emulate or avoid in your career?

Reach: The artists I’ve worked with all say the same things. And it’s mostly related to staying on top of your business. Seizing control of business matters and being involved in business that affects you. They taught me never to accept short change. Oddisee, an emcee/producer, gave me lots of advice. He gave me new angles on how significant touring can be to an artist’s career. Overall, they gave me a foundation and solid principles to build with.

Present: Tell us about “Dance in the Rain.”

Reach: I wish I could say something poetic about the song. Basically, it’s just a song that speaks to the experiences of black women in my life. From the hardship associated with single motherhood, to difficulty fitting inside of Euro-centric standards of beauty, to the bumps and bruises of dating and romance. I guess the song was born out of the many nights I spent listening to women who were struggling with those issues. The concept of the song is applicable for women of all ethnicities, but I had the black woman in mind when I wrote it. I was raised by women so they’re dear to my heart and I wanted to do something that dealt with what they often go through.

Present: Let’s dig into your background more. Tell us about Stacy Smith as a person. How would you describe yourself as a person? Are there any life experiences that definitively helped to shape who you are?

Reach: I’m a regular guy I suppose. A bit on the nerdy side, but cool. Ha ha. Spiritual, fair, compassionate, kind, loving, free-spirited. I think my exposure to music in the early stages of my life made me who I am today. I’m driven by it. Inspired by it. Made of it. If I ever went deaf, death would be right around the corner for me.

Present: As the father of a son, how does that role in life shape the messages you want to deliver as an artist?

Reach: I think I write everything with my son in mind. I screen a lot of what he listens to. As a responsible parent, I think that’s my job. So when I’m writing, I try to deliver messages that’ll aid him along the way. I also make sure to keep it clean. Sometimes the words we choose weed out certain people. I’m not in a position to criticize the language other artists use. That’s not my place. I just don’t want someone to be in the dark about my music because of the language I chose.

Present: The video for “Comin’ For You” is slick. Stylistically, it reminds me visually of Missy Eliott videos, innovative and untypical of the hip hop genre. Who directed it? How did the concept develop?

Reach: The director for the video, Asif Mian, hails from Brooklyn, New York. It was really his vision. He pitched a couple of different ideas, but the end result was the one he thought would garner the most attention. Missy was one of the artists he named in the treatment stages of the video. He wanted to do something retro. He wanted it to have an 80’s feel. So that’s what we went for in everything from the wardrobing aspects to the set. The song had a throwback feel to it so he tried to match the visuals to the audio.

Present: Want to give a shout-out to contributors on Corner Speech and what they brought to the table?

Reach: I really just want to thank everyone who I interact with on a daily basis. They inspired Corner Speech more than they realize. Let me also take time out to thank my producer and partner on the project, Twelve Beats. Without him this would be a completely different album.

Present: What else do you want people to know about you and your music?

Reach: More or less, I just want people to listen. Just listen and make your decisions later. My music is for the people. As a practice, I pray before each live performance that my music makes positive change in someone’s life. That’s paramount. But then again, so is entertainment. Can’t just be a message. It’s gotta be good music. I could’ve been a preacher if all I wanted to do was deliver a message. The dress code isn’t as flexible though. So, I dropped the “P” from my name and the rest, they say, is history.

Originally published in Present Magazine, December 2007.