Colby and Megan Garrelts, who some would say reignited Kansas City's dining scene with Bluestem, are getting ready to follow up that restaurant with Rye. The husband-and-wife team sees the new business as an opportunity to achieve what they originally set out to do with Bluestem, before molecular, international tendencies got in the way: honoring and elevating the flavors of the Midwest. "I've spent my whole career cooking like I'm from the Upper East Side," says Colby, and now he and Megan want to treat the flavors they've grown up with, that are theirs, "perfectly" and at a restaurant level. In the following interview, the duo talks about Bluestem, misconceptions about the Midwest, and their goals with Rye.
Before we start talking about the new restaurant, tell me about how you met and how you went about opening Bluestem.
CG: We met probably twelve or so years ago, in 2000. I moved to Chicago to work at Charlie Trotter's but ended up working at Tru, which is where I met Megan. We started seeing each other, and from there we went to Vegas and worked for Charlie Palmer. We then moved out to Los Angeles for two years before coming back to Kansas City to open Bluestem.
Was your goal to reignite Kansas City's dining scene, as some say you did, or was it just about going home and opening a good place?
CG: Well, I'm from Kansas City originally, and moving all over the country I had noticed a bias about the Midwest and especially where I am from. It's a really old city that's got a lot of history to it, and I thought there was a story to be told. What's interesting is that looking back, I think we opened a restaurant that reflected where food was at the time. We were trying to do something upscale, but at the same time felt Midwestern. I was definitely into technically advanced food and presentation. I step back now and look back at that restaurant, and it's definitely a snapshot in time.
That's not to suggest that it's stuck back then, right?
CG: No, not at all. The food has evolved a lot. When we opened Bluestem, we wanted to do what we are going to do with Rye now, but it just wasn't the time. The molecular scene was really coming into play, and we hadn't really incubated the whole concept for Rye yet.
MG: One of the other things when we opened Bluestem was that we had an à la carte menu and a seven-course tasting menu. One of the items on the à la carte was a KC strip with a side of potatoes, which was intended as a staple local item, but no one was really ordering that. People were going for the more obscure or avant-garde items. We didn't want to totally emulate those chefs at Alinea or Tru, since we wanted to do something that reflected the local, but it shifted to what it is now: three, five, and ten-course tasting menus.
CG: I guess what my point was that we were emulating what we had seen, and now we've developed our own style. That's what's exciting about Rye, because it really will be a representation of how we see the Midwest.
Colby, can you explain what you mean by "bias"?
CG: I think that when we opened Bluestem, Kansas City was in a certain time and place. It's a really conservative part of the country, it's really hard for young chefs to raise money for concepts, and most people that invested in restaurants put money into things that were tried and true. That's why we had the chain restaurant landscape for so long. We were one of the first people to open something that was really small and on a really tight budget, and in the last nine years, there's been an explosion of people doing their own thing. I don't want to say that it was because of us, but we did help start the movement. It's wonderful to see people that have passed through this restaurant go on and open their own places.
MG: I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, so I'm from the Midwest, too. I wasn't from Kansas City, but I did know that there weren't that many chef-driven, small restaurants aside from 40 Sardines. I think the biggest change I've seen in Kansas City diners is that there's a new level of trust. They want to experience what we are going to give them. That's what has allowed us to continue at Bluestem and to open up a second restaurant. At the beginning, it was not easy. This is a big town, but it's also a small town in the sense that people will rally around you if they believe in what you are doing and you earn their trust. You see that with the new restaurants that pop up — people talk about them, spread the word. We don't have seven or twenty new places to choose from.
Now let's talk about Rye.
CG: Basically, when we were writing our book, I was hyper-concerned and worried that I would come off as this kid from Kansas City who wasn't cultured enough or hadn't traveled enough. What I realized is that that's exactly who I am, and that I needed to start embracing the culture that was there instead of always looking outside. No one is going to pay attention to us until we start acting like ourselves. I mean, this town is a food town. It's built on the back of barbecue, chicken, steaks, and the stockyards. I wanted to build a restaurant that would start to tell that story from our eyes and not from what everyone else thinks we are.
We had that idea at the beginning of Bluestem, but like I said, we hadn't fully incubated them. But in recent years, the ideas came rushing in and we realized that we needed to take these items, reinvent them, and put them in a better, more modern package, with better service. We need to do something that people here can be proud of.
The question is, does it need to be put in that better, more modern package?
CG: Well, we're going to give it its due respect. We aren't going to present it in an avant-garde package, though. I'm getting these handmade wooden bowls for the fried chicken, and no one here has eaten a piece of barbecue that's actually cooked with good root vegetables instead of just on a bone with a side of fries and slaw. The idea is to cook those items in a similar way, but just take a look at the flavor profiles and build some stuff around them. I'm going to treat them as they are, cook them perfectly, and maybe give them a little more respect.
How do you see it, Megan?
MG: I've always been a purist when it comes to desserts. I grew up eating cherry pie because we had a cherry tree in our backyard. I grew up eating truly American desserts and food. At Bluestem, for lack of a better term, I've deconstructed those flavors and dishes. At Rye, I just want to make really good pie. I want to do layer cakes, icebox cakes, and I want to look at sorghum and things that people used to use all the time. My pie crust is going to have lard in it, even though people are shy about that ingredient these days. We're going to revisit old recipes, church books, and do it on a restaurant level. We want to treat it perfectly, but simple. It's a humble sensibility, essentially.
CG: You asked if we needed to do this, but more importantly, I think this town needs it. What I've kind of witnessed over my career is chefs trying to give things to customers that people don't want and don't understand. It's been about "This is what they eat in New York, and this is what you want." I think Megan and I took a step back at some point and realized that we should look at what was around us, what people are used to, and try to do that at a professional level.
MG: When Colby and I travel and do different events, we see these regions that have developed their own cuisines. When you think of New Orleans, there's an automatic thought of what you are going to eat there. I think that when a lot of people think about the Midwest, they think about canned green beans, a lot of fried chicken and barbecue, and grits. With us, we want to take it to a different level. I mean, there are so many people that come here and actually ask if we have farmers here. We really want to showcase the best of the best and give it a voice in a restaurant setting.
I'd guess that guys like John Currence and Sean Brock are a big influence on you at the moment.
CG: Absolutely. That's been the biggest thing. Coincidentally, I've done a lot of events in the South this year. I've spent my whole career cooking like I'm from the Upper East Side in New York, which doesn't make all that much sense. There are so many similarities between here and the South, and I've been very surprised and pleased to see how much they respect where they are from. A lot of things people turn their noses up to here are embraced there.
When do you plan on opening?
CG: We're getting really close. We're hoping for the end of November, early December.