Room 39’s Ted Habiger on gourmet tacos, late-night snacks and running multiple restaurants

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Chef Ted Habiger’s all about teaching.

Wednesdays are chef-restaurateur Ted Habiger’s official day off, but shortly after dropping his 3-year-old son Kincaid at preschool, he drives over to Gordon Parks Elementary School at 3715 Wyoming to teach a culinary class. Today’s lesson? A harvest salad.

Habiger, 40, is the co-owner — with chef Andy Sloan — of the two Room 39 restaurants. Before he began cooking full time, Habiger was a high school teacher in Niagara Falls, New York. “I was 22 years old and teaching kids who were nearly my own age,” he says.

Your wife, Jackie, has recently gotten involved in education in an unexpected way. Is she teaching?

No, she wanted to teach, but when she applied for a position at Notre Dame de Sion, she learned that they were really looking for a person to prepare school lunches for the students. Jackie helped me open Room 39, so she has a culinary background, too. She’s been making lunches two days a week and really loves it. She also has a start-up baby food company called Bebe Appetit. And we have two youngsters, so we’re both really busy.

You both found culinary careers almost accidentally?

Well, I started working in restaurants as a teenager. I was a dishwasher at the Village Green restaurant in Prairie Village at 16. Later I was cooking on the line there. Years later, when I moved back to Kansas City, I met my business partner, Andy Sloan, when we were both in the kitchen at the 75th Street Brewery.

Did you go to culinary school?

No, I graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in history. If I had gone to culinary school when I was younger, it would have been helpful to my early career, but by the time I opened a restaurant, I had already been working in the restaurant business for years.

What’s the biggest challenge of running two restaurants?

Keeping both concepts fresh in the customers’ minds is one challenge. There’s a lot of juggling that goes on, of course. The original Room 39 is six years old, and the Leawood location opened three years ago, and then we experienced the worst of the economic downturn with two years of difficult times. But things have improved quite a bit. Still, we had bumpy times developing the two unique personalities of the restaurants. And even though they have the same names and the same owners, they are different.

The Leawood restaurant has its own chef?

Andy Sloan is there often, but yes, the chef at the Leawood location is Brandon Winn, who works tirelessly to create new dishes and concepts there. He created a “learning kitchen” there with student chefs from the hospitality program at Johnson County Community College. They’re always working on improving things.

Would you still like to open another restaurant?

Definitely. I’ve toyed with the idea of a gourmet taco place. Very simple, with only five or six menu items. I hope I can do one before that trend gets saturated. I’d also like to do a Northern Italian pasta restaurant somewhere in midtown. And a grill serving home-style comfort food.

Do you have a late-night guilty pleasure when it comes to food?

Yes — cookies. I’m really not much of a dessert person, but I can eat a dozen cookies with a cold glass of milk. At one in the morning, usually.

Home-baked cookies?

I would prefer home-baked cookies, but I confess I do love the crunchy Chips Ahoy brand, too. 

Categories: Dining, Food & Drink