What's your favorite ingredient? Maybe butter. I think my record for how much butter I used in a night at 40 Sardines was 11 pounds. But it's not my fault; it was all butter sauces. If the sauce calls for butter, I've got to put butter in it. [Laughs.] Still, I can't eat butter like I'm 20 years old any more. I use it to level out flavors
What are your culinary inspirations? As to professional inspiration, Thomas Keller is a big influence. His cookbook, the French Laundry Cookbook, had just come out when I was starting to cook. It was that attention to detail and care for the beauty of food. He demanded that things be done a certain way, the right way. Julia Child was another influence. The idea that pot roast and beef stew are the same thing and there's a path to follow.
As far as personal inspiration, my grandmother had orange trees and Meyer lemon trees and avocado trees in her yard. She would grow raspberries and tomatoes and literally pick the stuff in the afternoon and serve it for dinner. It was just me and her husband. There would be platters of food, and she would always tell us to eat more because she didn't want leftovers.
I reach for traditional flavors and combinations that I can represent in a nontraditional way. I might do a crab cake like a fritter, rather than the traditional mayonnaise crab cake. It's all in how you present and shape it. But it still has to taste good. Food to me is about pleasure. I want to eat things that are enjoyable.
What's your best recent food find? Lucero olive oil from California. It's got very round, fruity flavors. It doesn't have the peppery bite of a Tuscan olive oil. I'll use it on ceviche.
What's your favorite local ingredient? I remember going shopping in Wichita at the farmers market for tomatoes in sandwiches. And at 40 Sardines, they put me in charge of the lunch menu, and I brought back Missouri peaches from the Overland Park farmers market for a peach salad. People are very aware of local morels. And sometimes we get chanterelles that are unbelievable. Morels have a special flavor. They taste like the forrest with a nuttiness to them as well. You just saute them in garlic and butter.
What's one food you hate? I don't really have one -- maybe fast food. I don't do fast food. I'm not particularly enamored of saffron, and I'm allergic to scallops. I like the flavor; they just make me sick. Saffron is such a unique flavor. It's very strong for me, and it's got a funk to it.
What's one food you love? Foie gras. I love a seared foie gras torchon. I love the richness, unique flavor. You can grind it up, emulsify it into sauces. It goes great with fruit and sweet acidic things. It works with mushrooms and earthy, nutty things as well.
What's your guilty pleasure? Potato chips, Kettle chips. The plain one in the brown wrapper, but that's because I love salt and butter.
What's never in your kitchen? I don't do much canned stuff. And there's never store-bought bread. We're going to make our own bread at Story. That's one of those things where freshness is paramount. Wonder Bread doesn't even taste like bread to me.
When I started at 40 Sardines, I was kind of intimidated. This was my first real kitchen job. The kitchen was busy. I had a dish on the pantry station. It was a goat-cheese flan with a cracker on it. I made the cracker out of this pizza dough. And as soon as I started making it, I felt like I could do this. It was very reassuring. For me, it's a touchstone.
Bread is total alchemy. You add flour, water, yeast and salt, and then you get this loaf of bread. People talk about molecular gastronomy. But bread is amazing. You create this thing. It's awesome. It's magic.
What's always in your kitchen? Good olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I've got to have eggs. When it's seasonal, I'll work with what's at the farmers market. I go looking for corn, but if you have cucumbers, that's what I'll buy.
What would you like to see more of in Kansas City from a culinary standpoint? I'd love to see more local restaurants. R Bar, Extra Virgin are doing a great job and the right thing. I love places that have real standards and making something, rather than just opening boxes and throwing something in the fryer. Cooking's about real ingredients and an honest product.
What would you like to see less of in Kansas City from a culinary standpoint? The exact opposite -- corporate restaurants with a generic quality, where the food is very familiar.
Where do you like to eat out? Room 39. I had a lamb breast -- you don't see that often. It's good to take chances. If you're at a famous restaurant, whether it's in New York or San Francisco, you know it's going to be good. I went to the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange. I had the chicken under a brick. It was spicy and delicious with broccoli rabe. I liked the fried chicken on a biscuit with eggs and gravy at Genessee Royale. It was traditional and well-done. [Chef] Blaire [Cobbett] is a great cook.
What's the key to a new restaurant's success? I don't know. Good food and good service is what I'm hoping to provide. I try to stay organized and keep track of where my money is going. I keep track of who I'm hiring. We need to execute the food and have servers that know how to treat a guest.
What are the rules of your kitchen? People would probably tell you I have a ton of rules. No whistling in the kitchen. No singing. I like things done the way I like things done.
What's been your best moment in the kitchen? It's hard to single out one food-related moment. I have a sentimental one: I met my wife in the kitchen. I try and woo everyone with food. Chefs want to please you on every level. We want you to like it. We like seeing those plates come back clean because that means the portion size was just right, the seasoning was just right.
For some cooks, food becomes less than what it actually is. Food becomes a product. You could be stacking boxes. But I remember at With a Twist, our best-seller was a turkey sandwich. And I had to roast turkey every day. I made it so much, I forgot that it actually tastes good. But then I would have a slice and I would remember, oh yeah, that's why people like this so much.
What was the worst? I don't have one. There's little things, like when you send out a piece of veal that still has a string on it or an overcooked piece of steak. Those always suck. But I like that deadline that food always needs to go out.
If you could steal one recipe in town from any menu, what would it be? No, I don't have a favorite dish that I would steal, although there are a lot of classic dishes around town. I do like the al pastor at El Camino Real.
Who's got the best barbecue in town, and what are you ordering? Woodyard Bar-B-Que. It's a crazy-ass place that is pretty close to where I live. They've got good baby back ribs and a pretty tangy sauce. It's not as sweet. I like the beans there. It feels like what a barbecue place should be.
A chef is only as good as ... his cooks. He's as good as his staff. It's a group thing. As a chef, you have to conceptualize a dish, and if your staff can't do it, then you suck. It's not them. It's your responsibility.