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STORY BY Kate Leibsle
With all the amazing restaurateurs, chefs and sommeliers that make the Kansas City food scene worth talking about, you can imagine how hard it is to funnel down the field to just three annual honorees. This year, we’re proud to honor the most brilliant culinary stars and say goodbye to one who shined the brightest.
Chef of the Year: John McClure, Starker’s Restaurant
Never is this more evident than in what John McClure has done at Starker’s Restaurant, I continued. When he purchased the place from Cliff Bath in 2006, he removed the servers’ white gloves and created an atmosphere where diners could feel comfortable in jeans. After several more minutes of this verbal lovefest, Leibsle said, “You obviously know John well. Do you want to tell him we’re naming him Chef of the Year?” I said, no. Let’s keep it a surprise.
This was on a Friday evening in October. The next Wednesday, John McClure was gone.
The how doesn’t matter, and we may never know why. But at least once a week a chef, sommelier, server or just someone who sat across the table at one of Starker’s heirloom dinners shares a story about McClure. The anecdotes may induce tears but often end with knee-slapping laughter. It’s a fitting response: McClure lived big. Big guy, big dreams, big heart.
Despite a schedule that included running a busy Plaza restaurant and plans to open Barrio, a taqueria in Westport, when colleagues in the culinary world asked McClure for help with writing a business plan, training kitchen staff or how to prepare foie gras, the answer always was an immediate yes.
Tributes to the guy with the crooked grin continue through articles, personal anecdotes and Facebook comments. Words like giver, charismatic, ringleader, driven and supportive are often repeated. “Love” shows up frequently.
“If I had to choose two words to describe John,” says Bob Brassard, Broadmoor Technical Center’s lead culinary instructor, “they would be educate and inspire. With a larger-than-life passion for food and cooking, he wanted to be the one who personally insured the future of Broadmoor’s most passionate students by giving them opportunities through his scholarship in Cliff Bath’s name. His legacy of passion for food and cooking lives on through the students he touched past, present and future.”
The menu McClure created for Starker’s––including the massive Tomahawk Chop and the best fried chicken on earth––lives on as the owners search for someone to fill those enormous shoes. In the meantime, the Cliff Bath Scholarship Fund has raised more than $100,000 in four years to assist students in the hospitality fields. On a more personal note, McClure’s friends and fellow chefs are holding a multi-course, multi-chef dinner at Boulevard Brewing Company on February 12 to raise money for a suicide prevention program in his name. For details, visit starkersrestaurant.com.
Sommelier of the Year: Timothy O’Neal, Avenues Bistro
It’s his knowledge and ease with patrons that has earned O’Neal, wine director for the Avenues Group, rave reviews and title of Sommelier of The Year.
O’Neal might laugh at the title, if only because of the irony––he kicked and screamed his way to becoming a sommelier in the first place.
“I thought it was something I would do when I was 85,” says the St. Louis native, who admits that it wasn’t until he made wine his specialty that he really felt comfortable talking to diners, even though he’d spent years as a server in a variety of restaurants. “I’m grateful to the pressure of my family and friends to do it,” he says. “It’s my college degree.”
O’Neal has put the degree to good use. In five years, he’s built the wine list at Avenues Bistro and the reputation of both restaurants by encouraging other staffers to become sommeliers. His Iron Sommelier events are wildly popular and always sell out; Avenues has hosted 51 in just five years. The opening of Avenues’ second location, at Mission Farms, has been a continuation of his own education in determining how to satisfy two different demographics of diners.
O’Neal put a lifelong interest in marketing to good use, as well. He’s chiefly responsible for Avenues increasing its use of social media, and he is a regular contributor to Sommelier Journal.
Wine enthusiasts around Kansas City can be thankful that, even with five years spent at Avenues and a burgeoning following nationally as a wine expert, O’Neal is far from ready to slow down or move on. “I feel like I’m in my element right now,” he says.
Person to Watch: Carter Holton, Le Fou Frog
But his desserts are what most often catch the eyes and palates of diners. Holton grew up in the kitchen, learned the art of piping from his caterer mother and gleaned his terrific crêpe technique from her mother. He still uses his paternal grandmother’s raisin pie recipe with AIIKC students.
Holton’s more formal culinary education includes graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. He was drawn back to Le Fou Frog, where he’d started working as a high-schooler, and also spent time in the kitchens of Pierpont’s, Room 39 and The River Club.
Despite uncanny, unconventional baking methods circulating through the culinary world, you won’t catch Holton with a blowtorch or vacuum chamber. “Molecular gastronomy has its place,” he says, but he’s a fan of old-fashioned, classic dessert-making––and an avid collector of vintage cookbooks.
Holton loves talking about cooking, so teaching is a natural. After just a little more than a year, he’s teaching classes in both introductory and advanced pastry-making, artisan breads, chocolate and show pieces. “Teaching really focuses you on the basics,” he says. “In teaching someone, you get to work on the simple things that you don’t get to do all the time. When you teach others, you teach yourself.”
Local diners and culinary students aren’t the only ones learning from and about Holton these days, either. As a recent winner of the “Food Network Challenge,” Holton is quickly gaining a national reputation. But, fear not, Kansas City chocoholics: Holton doesn’t have any plans to go anywhere. “I’m happy in the restaurant right now,” he says. “I love the social aspect of it. Bakeries are really hard.”
Howard Hanna, Executive Chef
“Being a chef and being a restaurant owner are different things,” he says. “It’s crazy seeing what it takes.”
But Hanna seems to have hit the mark with a menu mixing Italian and French cuisines using local produce and protein––a practice he thinks should be de rigeur for chefs. “Farm-to-table, local, sustainable—it just makes sense,” he says. “It makes for good food. It shouldn’t just be taken for granted.”
Carl Thorne-Thomsen, Chef/Owner
While Thorne-Thomsen was working on his master’s degree, his lifelong interest in food and his dream to own a restaurant supplanted his love for writing. After stints at 40 Sardines and Extra Virgin, he was ready to tell his own culinary Story. Since opening in mid-2011, Thorne-Thomsen’s goal for customers has been simple: leave feeling satisfied and happy. For himself? Simply live in the moment. “This experience has completely blown my daydreams away,” he says.
Rob Padilla, Executive Chef of Trezo Mare
Padilla’s started his efforts with a recycling project in the kitchen, and he now works with Ripple Glass to have a collection bin placed at the restaurant. Now, not only are Trezo Mare’s glass containers recycled, but other merchants at Briarcliff are using the bin and helping green the area. Padilla is clearly in it to win it. “I’m going to go big or fail trying.”