Former Food & Wine Best New Chef Colby Garrelts and his wife Megan's Kansas City restaurant Bluestem explores the ingredients and techniques of the Midwest from a somewhat unique point of view: that of a fine dining restaurant. Their new cookbook, Bluestem: The Cookbook shares recipes from the restaurant for one tasting menu per season, accompanied by photography from the recently unanonymous blogger behind Ulterior Epicure/fellow Kansas Citian Bonjwing Lee. Below, Lee talks about the guilt one feels having too much fun doing one's job, how those damn Midwestern winters get in the way of seasonal/local eating, and what projects he's working on next. Bluestem: The Cookbook is out now from Andrews McMeel (buy on Amazon).
On the Difference Between Blogging and Working on a Cookbook
Writing and photographing a cookbook was much more demanding than writing and photographing for my blog. There were deadlines that actually matter. There were dollars and reputations other than mine on the line. And, ultimately, the cookbook was not my story. It's Colby and Megan Garrelts's story, which I was entrusted to tell, through photos and words. So, for me, there was more pressure to make it look pretty.
But I have to say, as a first-time cookbook writer, I don't think the process could have gone more smoothly. Our editor at Andrews McMeel, Jean Lucas, was great. And, [as] old friends, Colby, Megan, and I were incredibly relaxed - perhaps a bit too relaxed at times - about the whole process. They and their staff took me in like family at the restaurant, giving me full access to every part of the operation, which was crucial to my understanding of the restaurant and, ultimately my ability to tell its story. I logged countless hours there. But, the time I spent researching, writing, and working on the cookbook rarely felt like work. At times, I felt guilty having so much fun testing recipes, writing, and photographing for it.
The most challenging part of the project was coordinating our schedules. At the time, I was a full-time, practicing attorney, and Colby and Megan were not only small business owners with a stacked schedule, but parents of a two-year old as well. We would work on Sunday and Monday nights, when the restaurant was closed, and Saturday mornings before the kitchen crew arrived to prep for dinner service. And then I'd write and edit recipes during weeknights. While I can't say I ever lost sleep over it, I did have to move my life around to accommodate the cookbook at times. And that's not something I ever do with my blog. Although I try to be disciplined about it, my blog happens when it happens. I'm trying to change that.
On What Bluestem Means For Kansas City
Bluestem was a game-changer in Kansas City. Admittedly a bit cavalier, I've always believed that if you build it, they will come. And that's exactly what Colby and Megan Garrelts did, when no one else in our city would. They brought a level of fine dining to Midwestern food and to Kansas City that hadn't existed here before. As I wrote in the Preface of the cookbook, "In the seven years so far that the restaurant has been open, Colby and Megan have inspired other chefs in our area to work harder and diners to demand better."
They and their restaurant have brought national attention to our city (Colby was a Food & Wine Best New Chef and he's received multiple James Beard Award nominations), which has, in turn, increased the interest and awareness among Kansas Citians of what's going on in kitchens in general, both within and outside of our region. And that's an invaluable effect. When I grew up in Kansas City twenty-some years ago, we were a city of chain restaurants. But thanks to chefs like the Garreltses, now, we have a growing independent restaurant scene that I find promising, and more importantly, a growing audience, willing and enthusiastic to venture beyond their comfort zones.
On the Hurdles Midwestern Cuisine Needs to Overcome
Midwestern food hasn't really defined itself the way cuisines in other parts of our country have. I was just down in South Carolina at the fifth annual Music To Your Mouth food and wine festival, and I was inspired by the proud, culinary heritage they have in the South, one that is well-defined and thriving. Chefs like Sean Brock, Tory McPhail, Chris Hastings, Robert Stehling, and Ashley Christensen, for example, not only cook region-specific food, but they know its history, and proudly revive it. Other than barbecue - which really is only specific to Kansas City and St. Louis - the Midwest hasn't developed a lore or tradition with its cuisine in the same way.
One genuine problem with the Midwest is that it's landlocked with extreme seasons - so in the winter, not much grows. That makes it hard for chefs here to develop a convincing through-line amidst the current fascination with seasonal and local eating. But I like what Paul Virant (Vie and Perennial Virant in the Chicago area) is doing with pickling and preserving - I don't understand why more Midwestern chefs aren't doing it, given that it's a natural method for ensuring there's local food in the larder and on the plate during the cold months. And, given how much hog and beef we supply to the rest of the country, I don't know why more Midwestern chefs aren't curing meats and focusing on quality meat products.
On the Good Things Happening in Midwestern Cuisine
It's happening, in patches, but I think there could be a really compelling identity for the Midwest there as well. Instead, chefs and diners here seemed to be fascinated by chasing trends from abroad (like tapas, tacos, and cupcakes) instead of establishing their own voice. But overall, I'm encouraged by the number of nationally notable chefs the Midwest is gathering: the Garreltses (bluestem), Gerard Craft (niche), Tim McKee (La Belle Vie), Alex Roberts (Restaurant Alma), Debbie Gold (The American Restaurant), Isaac Becker (112 Eatery), and Kevin Nashan (Sidney Street Cafe), just to name a few (there are countless others in Chicago and beyond).
The biggest obstacles to Midwestern cuisine, sadly, remain Midwesterners. Although their attitude is changing, it's still a relatively myopic dining public we have here. They love their chains. And they remain intimidated by china and table cloth. They'll complain that x restaurant is too expensive, but spend just as much at a corporate chain on commodity food. I can't figure it out.
On Upcoming Projects
In the past few months, I've been approached by a few chefs to write cookbooks with them. Nothing has been signed at this point, so I can't name any names. Otherwise, I'm a free agent. I have a few photography gigs in the works. And, of course, the blog continues.
· All Bonjwing Lee Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Cookbook Coverage on Eater [-E-]