One of the first things that people ask me is: Why Kansas City?
No offense to the hard-working and wonderful chefs here – a few of whom I’ve befriended – it ain’t for the restaurant scene. That’s for sure.
I was born and raised here. My family is here. I enjoy the easy living.
But why aren’t restaurants in the Midwest better?
Overrun by chain restaurants and corporate outfits, in many ways, the Midwest deserves its pejorative label, “Fly-Over Country.” (Yes, Cleveland, this includes you, too.) Other than a certain style of barbecue, there’s not much here that you can’t find abundantly, and done better, elsewhere.
There are a few exceptions, of course.
Chicago is a growing restaurant empire, soon to be home to Michelin-starred restaurants. It has been our region’s beacon of culture and hope.
And Minneapolis has quite a bumpin’ food culture too. Theirs may not be the sexiest restaurant scene, but it’s solid, healthy, and vibrant.
The rest of the Midwest, however, is sparsely dotted with a small handful of nationally noteworthy restaurants, few, if any of which would be considered a “destination restaurant.”
I can probably count them on two hands. Okay, maybe one.
Before all of you Midwesterners abandon me totally, know that I’m on your side. I live here. I eat here. I want nothing more than the best for my home and my people. So bear with me.
Over the past few years, I’ve received an increasing number of emails from readers (some chefs, some not) asking me why I think the restaurant scene in the Midwest isn’t more exciting.
It’s really not rocket science.
Here’s the problem: parochialism (not in the ecumenical sense).
Midwesterners are terribly narrow-minded. While it’s part of our charm, it’s also our downfall.
The Bottom Line
For more than a century, the Midwest has been dominated by the agricultural industry. The farming community – comprised of simple folk of humble means with simple taste – stuck to what was available: livestock, bread, and root vegetables.
Given the limitations back then, that sort of culinary myopia was understandable. But given our resources and opportunities today, it is, in my opinion, no longer excusable.
The bottom line will always be the bottom line. But the bottom line in the Midwest has steadily risen over the past couple of decades. As corporate America and entrepreneurs have taken root here over the years, an injection of capital has, and I hope, will foster the growth of the regional food movement. Wealthy investors have begun to identify and support the local culinary talent and businesses in the Midwest. This sort of local, financial vote of confidence is the only way to grow an industry whose viability depends on community support.
A Captive Audience
But given all the money in the world, you still need a captive audience in order to make a restaurant culture viable.
Currently, most of the Midwest is captivated by chain and corporate-run restaurants. That market is viable and thriving.
Because chain restaurants have identified the lowest common denominators and mass-marketed accordingly. They offer colorful, eye-catching menus, fun “themes,” uniformed servers, gentle prices, generous (if not shocking) portion sizes, and predictably tasty foods calibrated to to the full-fat, full-flavor diet. They’re also pitched for the fast-paced modern family, a convenient in-and-out detour between soccer practice and the 10 o’clock news.
But, for the most part, this isn’t thoughtful or educated eating. It’s not terribly healthful either. It’s convenient eating.
And this is where the Midwest lags behind other regions.
The average eater here isn’t likely to be as concerned as the average eater in other regions of the U.S. about where their food comes from or how it is produced. Midwesterners are primarily concerned with whether their food (a) is identifiable and familiar, (b) tastes good, and (c) is perceived to be a value. Chain and corporate-run restaurants have succeeded on delivering all three of those points.
Locally owned, chef- and ingredient-driven restaurants that are more concerned with sustainability, seasonality, and creativity, struggle with meeting two of these three critical criteria for satisfying locals.
While these independent chefs are capable of cooking delicious food, convincing their customers to order unfamiliar foods can be difficult. And next to the volume-selling outfits, the locally owned restaurants can’t compete on pricing, especially if they choose to use sustainably sourced ingredients instead of commodity meats and produce.
So, what is the small guy to do? Clip their creativity and compromise their product in order to earn a living? Or take the martyred path of the culinary conscientious objector?
Despite the recently increased affluence in the Midwest and explosion of the national food movement, the Midwestern palate has remained largely – and sadly – retarded. Unfounded fears and a general apathy for adventure plagues our palates.
The Midwest is landlocked. So seafood has always been suspect here – perhaps rightfully so. What is troubling, however, is that despite the advent of overnight delivery, the fear of seafood remains a culinary form of xenophobia from which we have yet to recover.
If it has legs or wings, overly cautious Midwesterners tend to cook (or smoke) the meat until it is unquestionably dead. Someone needs to make a public service announcement: We are not on the Oregon Trail anymore. Sadly, many chefs, tired of having dishes sent back for more cooking, purposely cook meats more well-done. Unless I know the chef’s cooking, I always specify – often stress – to the server how I would like my meat cooked.
Another problem is that Midwesterners equate quantity, not quality with value. Encouraged by corporate and chain restaurants, Midwesterners prescribe to a “more is more” belief. So, instead of buying better steaks and potatoes, Midwestern expense accounts are investing in bigger steaks and potatoes. This is an utterly defeatist use of the rising bottom line. It poses a challenge to both the waistline and our world’s sustainability.
Fine dining establishments in the Midwest also have the added challenge of overcoming the indigenous fear of “fancy.”
“Fancy” is for the coasters, not for the God-fearing, ascetic Midwesterner. Here, where the bread basket overlaps the Bible belt, humility is next to holiness. While this disciplined mentality is admirable, some are so blinded by this homey, humble attitude that all sense of value flies out the window. I know many (many) people who would rather – in fact, happily – spend $60 eating at a mediocre, national chain restaurant than spend the exact same amount for a much higher-caliber dinner made from high-quality, local produce at a locally owned restaurant. Even though the prices are practically the same, they perceive and/or assume the one with tablecloths and chinaware is stuffy, unapproachable, and more expensive.
To be fair, Midwesterners are slowly changing their dining habits.
People from the Midwest are traveling more than ever before, and they’re becoming exposed to food outside this region. They’re coming back with higher expectations and more well-informed demands. This is a good thing.
The rash of food and chef celebrity over the past few years has also boosted interest in food and the restaurant industry among Midwesterners. While it has legitimately increased awareness of important issues, such as sustainability, it has also cultivated a growing and enthusiastic but poorly informed army of self-proclaimed “foodies” and chef groupies. In my experience, the vast majority of these nouveau-gourmands are less discriminate and thoughtful and more Pavlovian in their approach to their new-found hobby, programmed to yelp at anything offalized, trufflized, or ethnicized, regardless of whether the food is actually any good. This is more harmful than helpful, as it only feeds a false-sense of confidence among local chefs, who, encouraged by the attention, begin producing more, but not higher-quality food. The quantity over quality mill continues to churn.
Brave New World
Diners aren’t the only ones who are narrow-minded. Chefs here are equally complicit in retarding the Midwestern palate.
I don’t own a restaurant. And I can only imagine the demands that it makes of hard-working chefs and entrepreneurs. But I firmly believe that Shoeless Joe was right when he said, “If you build it, he will come.”
I’m not asking for an overnight revolution. I don’t expect the next French Laundry to land in Dubuque, Iowa. But chefs in the Midwest need to push the culinary envelope farther and faster. With the exception of one or two restaurants in Kansas City, the food is largely the same: unimaginative and mediocre, if not sloppy.
This might be understandable if chefs here were incompetent. But they’re not. There are some very talented chefs in the Midwest who, sadly, choose to do just enough to stay slightly ahead of the curve.
Over-pricing can also be a problem in the Midwest. Some of it is to compensate for the low-turn over rate, and some of it is just highway robbery. (A common example is wet-aged steaks, which are sold as “aged steaks” at near-dry-aged prices.) I could name at least a dozen poor-to-mediocre restaurants in Kansas City that are charging comparable prices to excellent restaurants in bigger cities elsewhere.
Our chefs can do better. I know they can. And for the prices that some of them are charging, they need to do better.
Ignorance Is Not Charming
Unexciting but well-executed food is forgivable. Poor service is not.
Even in our best restaurants, servers in the Midwest seem to rely more on whatever the-person-next-door charm they can muster instead of professionalism and knowledge to get them through service.
This is unacceptable.
Unlike innovative cooking, providing good service and hospitality doesn’t require much creativity. I’m not expecting the (literally) choreographed staffs of restaurants like Charlie Trotters or Eleven Madison Park (though that would be awesome). Let’s just start with basics.
Service in the Midwest is perfunctory at best. Good service is more than simply taking orders, shuttling food and plates, and dropping the bill. Good service includes being observant and listening and responding to guests.
Far too many servers don’t know what or how to pronounce what they’re serving. This is one area where chain restaurants excel – servers in corporate-run restaurants are tested rigorously and often about the menu.
Ignorant and inattentive service undermines the legitimacy of the chef and the restaurant. Local chefs and restaurateurs need to train their servers better.
* * * * *
This post may make me sound elitist.
I know I’m tremendously blessed to have traveled the world and to have eaten as well and widely as I have. Most Midwesterners don’t have these same opportunities.
I don’t take it for granted.
But I also don’t settle for less than the best either. And neither should diners in the Midwest, who are paying good money to eat out. That is why I’m so honest – often brutally, to a fault – on this blog.
Far be it from me to be an apologist on the matter. You won’t find me sitting on a corner and complaining.
There’s a lot that we can do to advance our region’s culinary clout.
Ultimately, the bottom line is the bottom line: vote with your pocket book. Support your local chefs, especially those who cook quality food and support local farmers and food producers. I do, almost to the exclusion of chain restaurants. I don’t think that chain restaurants are evil. They fill a very important role in society. But given how much support they already get, they’re not missing my money. I’d rather give my hard-earned dollars to those who are exploring and exposing the exciting side to the culinary world in the Midwest. I encourage you to do the same.
Also, give honest, constructive feedback. The worst thing you can do is walk away from a meal disappointed and silent. Encourage chefs and restaurateurs when they do things right and let them know when they don’t. Restaurants that listen to and intelligently sift through their clients’ feedback succeed. Those that don’t, shutter.
Remember, you are the paying customer. You can make your world a better place to eat.
If you want to know where I like to eat in Kansas City, CLICK HERE.