Last Summer, Michael Corvino took over the kitchen at The American Restaurant just months before the storied institution celebrated its 40th anniversary. Corvino had most recently served as executive sous chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, and the move to Kansas City marked both his first executive chef gig as well as his transition back into independent restaurants after a career built in the world of luxury hotel restaurants. And The American is as good a place as any for that, having churned out a number of successful chefs over the years, such as Bradley Ogden, Celina Tio, and, most recently, Debbie Gold.
Now that he's nine months into the job, Corvino talks to Eater about what it's like following in those footsteps, and how the freedom to change the restaurant's menu has helped him explore his own cooking style. Corvino also shares a little bit about what it's like coming into Kansas City as an outsider and learning how to reach diners in a city with a food culture that "is changing and growing." Here's the interview:
I read that you had only spent one day in Kansas City before you accepted this job. What was it that reeled you in?
I was just looking for that next opportunity for me to really cook my food and develop who I am as a chef. The American Restaurant turned out to be a great opportunity. I'm very open-minded to moving around, so it's not a freakish thing for me to take an opportunity in a city that I don't know well.
Can you tell me a little bit about some of the moving around that you did?
I grew up in Walla Walla, and I worked in a couple small restaurants [when I was] about 16 to 19. I landed in a hotel in Walla Walla. The owner at the time pumped in a huge amount of money, bought staff in from the East Coast just to put something in Walla Walla to grow the wine industry. I got in there, worked with some chefs and kind of stuck with luxury hotels from there.
I came here to get back to my roots and lose that distraction [of hotels].
It was great for me. It allowed me to move around the country and work in a lot of different areas, rather than the small, little window; breakfast, lunch and dinner and large parties and fine dining. Especially working in management, they pay for you to move around the country, too. Then I came here to get back to my roots and lose that distraction. Even at the highest level [in hotels], it's always dictated what you're cooking.
What do you mean by the distraction?
Just the distraction of having to have a Caesar salad with shrimp on your menu. In this environment, I get to develop my food and my style and who I am as a chef. That can get very lost in the luxury hotel world.
Yeah, I was talking to David Chang last year for a piece about culinary school, and he was saying he was kind of worried about the trap of falling into the hotel route, which doesn't allow you that sort of creativity.
Yeah, there's areas of this industry that don't. I mean when you're at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago — I was there for three years after it opened — that was unique at that time to do a very modern and very quality-driven [restaurant]. So [I] got to cook that food and wasn't distracted by what people think. Coming here, was really inspiring to get back to my roots and in a sense what I really love to do. I definitely could have fallen into a track of never leaving hotels and following the corporate ladder. That is really not why I do this.
The American Restaurant, Kansas City, MO. [Photo: Facebook]
You said that you wanted to develop your own style at the restaurant. How is that going?
It's going really well. Obviously I changed the menu immediately upon taking this job as far the concept of the food. It really took me five or six months to come up with something I really wanted to do as far as the layout of the menu, the way the guests look at it and order our food. That took a lot longer.
How do you develop something like that?
In a city like Kansas City... you really have to attract everybody.
Talking with your staff and the guests and the chefs in the city, really getting to understand Kansas City and what's going to work. In a city like Kansas City, you have to be very conscious of how many people are out there. It's not New York City, right? You really have to attract everybody.
When I came in here, the menu mimicked the a-la-carte style. You could choose three courses, five courses, eight courses, [and] nine courses, which is logistically challenging, adjusting all your portion sizes. I really wanted that focus on tasting menus, especially with our wine program. What I came to is a number of five-course tasting menus and kind of a classic seafood and vegetable tasting from the old Charlie Trotter days. I've [also] got a chef's tasting, 10 courses, and we call it the experience.
The important thing that I really came to is I'm offering a huge chunk of that menu a-la-carte. In Kansa City, if I just did large format tastings, I'd be shooting myself in the foot. I was really opening the door to having that true pre-planned tasting style menu, especially with our wine program, but you can come into the lounge and you can sit down and order an appetizer and a steak and really do whatever want.
How was it getting to understand Kansas City like that? How did you get a sense of what's right? What's a good fit for the city?
I think Kansas City is in a great spot and has got a lot of momentum. I think if I had come three or four years earlier, it would not have been at the state it's at. It's got a lot of new self-driven independent restaurants and the food culture is changing and growing, but it's definitely got a long way to go.
Having chefs on the outside coming in is looked at as good for the city.
I think the real thing about Kansas City was just the chef community here. They really embraced me into their community. Having chefs on the outside coming in is looked at as good for the city, helping the city grow. I was really able to use the other chefs in town as resources about what works and what doesn't work, and what's worked and hasn't worked at the American.
Is there anything that has worked that has surprised you, or that hasn't worked that's surprised you?
When I made this last large menu change, it went in a much more modern direction as far as the aesthetics of the menu. The layout is more fun. That in combination of having five course tastings, surprisingly it's gone over really well. I'm serving more five and 10 course tastings; that's the majority of what I'm selling, and then I have that a-la-carte option and I'm pushing my lounge. But [the tasting format] was really well accepted and I wasn't a 100% sure about that. Well, and our original concept, there were so many choices you could really you could do three, four, six, eight, nine courses and choose everything; it's just too many choices. That much is overwhelming. Right?
The American Restaurant, Kansas City, MO. [Photo: Facebook]
Yeah. I actually kind of hate making choices.
I'm the same way. I love food and there's nothing I won't try and I'll just put myself in other people's hands, but you worry that the majority of your customers aren't going to feel that way. It seems that's gone over really well here.
So they're trusting you.
Absolutely. It's different from just cooking what I want and not keeping in mind what the diners want to eat. [I'm] definitely pushing very modern and fun food with interesting ingredients, but I always have a sense of approachability with it. If I walked in there and just cooked what I wanted and it was just this foreign something on a plate, it would have blown up in my face.
Right. I was really struck by a post that Bonjwing Lee wrote earlier this year about Kansas City, the young chefs coming into the city, and how he thinks there is a really need for experts there to help propel it to the next level. Do you agree?
I really agree with him. I think that's what a young, growing, restaurant industry always is going to need. The industry here wants them. Just me coming in here, they readily accepted me into the community and looked at it as good and going to broaden the dining options here. I saw that.
The more people coming in, bringing different perspectives, is really what a city like this needs.
I opened a couple restaurants in Portland about five or six years ago. I felt like, at that point, Portland had this aspect [in which] a lot of chefs [were] only from Portland and they all worked at the usual suspects and everybody was doing the same thing. It's changed astronomically since I left Portland. Kansas City is very much at that point. The more people coming in, bringing different perspectives that they mastered in a certain area, is really what a city like this needs.
Okay. What does that mean for you, for your career, to be able to come in to an area that's still developing, and sort of play around and figure out your style that way?
I think that whole big fish in a small pond is good for me as far as I'm able to influence the city with what I do. I'm especially very much quality first and foremost in what I do. I've gotten to train with a lot of different chefs in a lot of different places and just kind of built my career.
You've never worked in New York, right?
I haven't. I was with the Mansion on Turtle Creek [in Dallas] prior to here for two years with Bruno Davaillon, which was amazing. I couldn't imagine a better step for spending my last few years before doing my own thing. Rosewood is a luxury hotel, and when I joined, the company [was] going to do more smaller resorts with that restaurant focus, like the Mansion. Thinking that could really be an opportunity, I pushed them and they were trying to place me somewhere. They lost their chef at the Carlyle in New York and they sent me in his absence for a month. I actually stopped in Kansas City on the way back and cooked at the American to get this job. That's the one time I was in Kansas City.
What I took out of that [time in New York] was that the last place I would end up in New York would be in a luxury hotel environment that is very constricting. I know a lot of chefs in New York and ate everywhere and that gave me some perspective. I would definitely go back, but the only way to go back would be in that restaurant world.
Michael Corvino, bluestem chef Colby Garrelts, and pastry chef Nick Wesemann joining forces for The American's 40th anniversary. [Photo: Facebook]
It's sort of a rite of passage, but do you think it's a necessity still to work in these culinary capitals?
I think so, because you're just surrounded by so many chefs doing things really well. Just in my experience [the difference working] in Chicago compared to a smaller second tier city was the availability of products. It's amazing. Then that competition as far as for the amount of people pushing things, it makes everybody push harder.
In Portland, five or even 10 years ago, everybody lacked so much perspective.
I definitely don't think you have to start in a city like that, necessarily. That's the tricky one. That's what I spoke to in Portland. In Portland, five or even 10 years ago, everybody was born and bred from Portland, and they lacked so much perspective. If you grow up in that environment or if grow up in an environment entirely like Chicago or New York or San Francisco, where there is so much perspective and there is so much more product availability, it's definitely going to influence the rest of your career as a chef.
That's great. Now that you are nine months in at the American Restaurant, what's ahead for you?
I've been working with my general manager and the senior leadership as far as change to the American, and it's a lot of change that's needed. The thing I've learned about the American, it's an old institution and there's a beauty to that, but it's needed to catch up and to attract a younger clientele. And it has. There's a lot of people in this town, and it's not the old institution that they want to die and forget about and go to the new places.
We've got a lot of momentum right now, so we're looking at a lot of fun things. We're changing our entire bar program. We've got an excellent Kansas City bartender coming in shortly. We've started live music with a young jazz singer who brings in other musicians. Kansas City was a jazz city, so it just makes sense. Yeah, I'm really going to push that lounge to get people in here more often and able to come in and out more quickly.
Just in a more casual way?
Absolutely. It's so necessary in this level of dining to have that option because how often can you attract people for a four-hour meal?
I know that the restaurant just celebrated its 40th anniversary. With such a history like that, has it been intimidating at all in terms of making your mark here?
Not at all. It's been really exciting for me to come into a restaurant with such history and the chefs that have come in and out of this restaurant. Bradley Ogden's first Executive Chef position was at the American. I think it's pretty fantastic to have my first executive chef position after him.
To celebrate the 40th, what I've been doing is inviting previous chefs to cook with me. I did a dinner with Debbie Gold two months ago and last month a dinner with Colby Garrelts, who cooked here for a year way back in his career. I'm actually trying to lock down Bradley Ogden; he's excited to come do a dinner. I'm going to be doing one with Celina Tio and Michael Smith, I've got a dinner in two months with four chefs who were sous chefs here and now are doing different things in the city and beyond.
So it's a lot of fun. Really rather than be intimidated by all the chefs that have worked here and the age of this restaurant, I just took that as opportunity.