Taste of Kansas City’s Golden Fork chefs talk trends and tailgating

A box of surprise ingredients, the KC Live stage on a spring evening, six of Kansas City’s finest chefs — these are the essential elements involved in putting on The Pitch’s Golden Fork. It’s the culinary contest at the center of our Taste of Kansas City event each May, and this year I have an unusually close view of the 60-minute, chef-versus-chef action. I’m one of the judges (along with longtime Pitch food writer Charles Ferruzza and Succotash owner Beth Barden).

Because I’m a first-timer on the dais, I figured I’d ask each chef ahead of time about his or her philosophy. I suppose I could have fallen fanny over salad fork for one of these competitors just by talking to all of them, but everybody was pretty equally sensible, so it’s just up to the food now. Who among these cooks can please a majority of our picky panel? I won’t know until well into Thursday evening.

By the time I hold my sides and cast my vote, those of you attending will be plenty sated as well. The 13th annual event — starting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 19 — features 15 vendors ready to share samples, including Ophelia’s, Jerusalem Café, Sir Speedy, the Aladdin, Blue Bird Bistro, Tallgrass Brewing Co., Tom’s Town, the Melting Pot, Brancato’s Catering, the Flying Saucer, Grace’s Best, Simple Science Juices, the J Bar, and Noodles & Company. (Drinks, too? Plenty.)

Renee Kelly, Renee Kelly’s Harvest

How would you describe your restaurant to someone who’s never been there?

It’s an uber-local, seasonal, farm-to-table restaurant. It’s upscale, casual cuisine – yet approachable – all wrapped up in a castle.

What is your signature dish or something you really enjoy preparing?

I do a rabbit loin. Almost all of my dishes have some kind of cheeky connection – you know The Velveteen Rabbit? I pair it with a lot of velvety, rich textures.

What would you bring to a Royals tailgate party?

I have not been to a Royals game yet this year, but I would love to go. I would bring sarsaparilla-braised beef short ribs, and I’d also bring a buffalo-blue-cheese burger.

How do you feel about food trends?

I walk my own way. I don’t necessarily jump onboard with any trend, but I may take a couple of pieces. A couple of years ago, Asian was hot, so I started using a little more orange juice, lime juice and lemongrass – I started using them as accents. Trends irritate me, because people lose themselves and their cooking ability in trends.

What’s one thing you always look for at the farmers market?

New stuff, the fresher the better. Several years ago I asked one of my farmers to grow ginger, and when they have local ginger, it is absolutely amazing. I will buy the whole bucket. You can slice it real thin and almost eat it like candy.

What are you looking forward to at Taste of KC?

I’m extremely competitive in a lot of different areas. Watch out for the sassy redhead.

Shaun Brady, Ambassador Hotel

How would you describe your restaurant to someone who’s never been there?

We are casual dining in a boutique hotel.

What is your signature dish or something you really enjoy preparing?

We do a really good slow-braised short rib — it’s a locally raised, grass-fed short rib that we braise for six to seven hours. We have mussels in a bread bowl with a creamy Guinness-and-mushroom sauce, which is probably one of those dishes nobody else has. A lot of people come in just for those. It’s Farm to Market sourdough bread.

What would you bring to a Royals tailgate party?

I’d bring a 12-pack of Boulevard beer — anything from the Smokestack Series.

How do you feel about food trends?

My style of cooking is honest food for an honest price. I like using nontraditional cuts of meat, like pork bellies and livers, and bringing the best out of products. To me, anybody can cook a filet of beef, but not everybody can cook a short rib.

What’s one thing you always look for at the farmers market?

Anything unusual that’s just coming into season. I love trying out new things, and I’m always looking for something I’ve never done before. It’s like when I go out to eat — I don’t think I’ve eaten in the same restaurant twice in the three years I’ve been in Kansas. I recently went to Blind Box BBQ in Shawnee, and their beef brisket was excellent.

What are you looking forward to at Taste of KC?

The unexpected. In the restaurant business, it’s all about being organized and being one step ahead. These competitions where you have no idea what the ingredients are going to be take you out of your comfort zone as a chef.

Bobby Stearns, Ophelia’s

How would you describe your restaurant to someone who’s never been there?

It’s kind of off the beaten path. It’s American food — like steaks and seafood — with a modern twist. We have an eclectic menu — like, I’ve been frying green tomatoes all day. We make little BLTs with them.

What’s one thing you always look for at the farmers market?

There’s not one thing I’m zoned in on. Coming up it will be heirloom tomatoes in the summer. Right now asparagus is really good – the springtime-harvest stuff.

What is your signature dish or something you really enjoy preparing?

Anything I’m working on for our new spring menu. We’re doing a complete overhaul and putting out a lot of new dishes. What gets me excited is when I get really good products from our farmers — he’ll come in and say, “I have some turnips right now that are so good I’ve been eating them like apples.” I get excited about that and start thinking how I can make these into specials.

What would you bring to a Royals tailgate party?

My friends don’t come right out and say they want me to grill, but they usually buy everything for me. If they specifically asked me to bring something, I’d bring something different — or just myself and some booze.

How do you feel about food trends?

By the time something is trending, it’s already played out to me — like kale. When people have something on their menu that’s not in season, it pisses me off. I hate when I go somewhere and there’s a tomato dish in the wintertime and the tomato is horrible. It’s hard to get good tomatoes here — so take them off your menu and do something different.

What are you looking forward to at Taste of KC?

The whole goal for me is that I want to win the trophy. I’m also looking forward to seeing my friends and family and other people in the industry out there and having fun. I’m trying not to take it too seriously.

Frank Lalumia, 12 Baltimore (2015 champion)

How would you describe your restaurant to someone who’s never been there?

Our restaurant is casual American, with many different flairs. It’s kind of challenging when you’re a hotel restaurant, because you have to appeal to your business travelers.

What is your signature dish or something you really enjoy preparing?

I like doing fresh pasta. On our menu, I like the vodka-shrimp pasta. I like utilizing beers and spirits in the sauce.

What would you bring to a Royals tailgate party?

I really enjoy grilling, but there have been a few times where I took my turkey fryer out and boiled seafood instead, along with some corn and potatoes. I really like fresh shrimp and crawfish. I just went to Houston, and it’s crawfish season. In two days, I ate at three places serving fresh, local crawfish.

How do you feel about food trends?

Using local items is one of the biggest trends in food. Everybody is wanting to eat local. I definitely try to utilize Boulevard beers and 360 Vodka in a lot of our sauces and dishes.

What’s one thing you always look for at the farmers market?

I like the variety of spices. At the farmers market, you get a better selection, and the pricing is actually a lot better, too.

What are you looking forward to at Taste of KC?

The camaraderie. Obviously it’s a competition, so there’s that edge — all the chefs want to win. But getting all the chefs together is actually a good networking thing for us.

Charles d’Ablaing, Hotel Sorella

How would you describe your restaurant to someone who’s never been there?

It’s a fusion of Mediterranean with a little northern French.

What is your signature dish or something you really enjoy preparing?

The sardines. They’re salt-roasted with preserved lemon-butter sauce and caramelized endive.

What would you bring to a Royals tailgate party?

I’d take a big old tub of prime strip steaks.

How do you feel about food trends?

I still love a really good hot dog. I know that trend is fading. If I want one, I find the best hot dog I can find, and then I do it myself. I really like burnt ends chopped up with barbecue sauce on top.

What’s one thing you always look for at the farmers market?

Tomatoes are around the corner, and strawberries are popping up — but I look for everything. I like to peruse and see what’s there — if something popped early with the weird spring we’re having. Strawberries seem early this year, so we’ve had a lot of local strawberries.

What are you looking forward to at Taste of KC?

Getting up on stage and having some fun. There’s usually a bunch of friends of mine out there, and we have a really good time.

Hope Dillon, the Drop

How would you describe your restaurant to someone who’s never been there?

We’re a bruschetta bar and bistro. We have seasonal menus all the time and a great martini bar.

What is your signature dish or something you really enjoy preparing?

Right now I’m crazy about my garlic-rubbed pork shoulder with spring vegetables. We also do kimchi meatballs, and we offer 13 bruschettas every day. I love the egg salad with radish right now.

What would you bring to a Royals tailgate party?

I’d bring some kind of fun salad so people could eat a little healthier — like a hummus or couscous salad.

How do you feel about food trends?

I hate when something new comes on the market and everyone gravitates toward it, and it becomes such a trend that it becomes harder to get. Then in six months, they’ll forget all about it. Quinoa and kale were huge two years ago, and now you can’t really even find it at the grocery store. It’s back in its own hidden spot.

What’s one thing you always look for at the farmers market?

I look for really unique vegetables — something really fresh or in season that you don’t see all the time. I found a really fun mushroom mix last time I was down there. It had oyster mushrooms and some other different ones. The morels are still out and about — I haven’t found any of those yet.

What are you looking forward to at Taste of KC?

I’m looking forward to the challenge. We don’t know what we’re cooking with or what to bring. When we get our box and we open it up, we’ll have that last-minute “Oh, my god, what am I going to make,” and then try to create something really fun and tasty.

Categories: Food & Drink