Saturday, September 16, 2017

Artist's Profile: Chef Michael Smith

When thinking about the "Arts" in our communities, our thoughts of course turn to music, dance, theater, and the artwork you find in museums. But we should not forget about the "Culinary Arts." Great food and drink also help define a city's status and prestige. My Kansas City friends might remember many years ago when the KC Chiefs quarterback, Steve Bono, made a comment that "the worst restaurant in San Francisco was better than the best restaurant in Kansas City." Ouch! That rubbed a lot of people here the wrong way and it showed how even our culinary reputation is important to the fabric of our community. Cooking is an art. And one of the great artists in the culinary world is Chef Michael Smith. (He won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest 1999) Mr. Smith's restaurant at the corner of 19th and Main in Kansas City is called...Michael Smith. He also owns Extra Virgin, which is next door to Michael Smith. I recently paid Mr. Smith a visit at his restaurant to talk to him about cooking, music and Kansas City...and much more.

TH)    I believe my Mom interviewed you many years ago when she worked at the Sun Newspapers.

MS)   I don’t know if I remember her, but I remember being interviewed for that publication, so it was her!

TH)   Tell me about your exposure to classical music. Did you hear it growing up?

MS)   Never. I grew up on Patsy Cline and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. We lived in Amarillo, Texas, Lubbock, Texas, and Plainview, Texas.

TH)   Were you born in Texas?

MS)   I was born in South Dakota. And we moved eleven times to get through twelve years of school. My mother was in the restaurant business. It’s not like I didn’t know it existed, but I was a rock n’ roller for a long time, and I still like rock ‘n roll. I just don’t understand….I don’t have the depth of knowledge about opera or classical music to really get it. So I don’t get it. But I listen to it because if I’m driving home from work and it’s playing, I can finish my day and think about whatever and it’s mellow and enjoyable. And working for the Kauffman Foundation…we feed the symphony after the performances so we get Joshua Bell in here, and Yo Yo Ma.

TH)   Wow!

MS)   Yo-Yo Ma came in a few years ago and he hugs me like he’s my friend and I’m thinking “You don’t know me!”  And that’s cool because there aren’t very many “God like” professionals like that…some can be very standoffish, …very awesome and cool.  Emmanuel Ax was here not too long ago and we fed him and he remembered a previous meal after the Kauffman had just opened…he was one of the opening performers that weekend. We went to one of his performances and then he was having dinner up here and he asked me (very sheepishly) “Can I ask you a stupid question about braising some meat?” And I go “It’s not a stupid question.” So this last time he said “I remember I asked you this really bad question!” (Laughing)  And I said “Never stupid…are you kidding me?”  But I listen to it (classical music) and I cook with Michael Stern and I understand…the similarities between our businesses…all the moving parts. I’m like an orchestra leader moving people around.

TH)   Like the conductor….

MS)   Yes. I am conducting. So our business is similar...a lot of businesses are similar when you really get down to the nuts and bolts and skeletons. I respect the talent.

TH)   Most of the time the conductor is directing from the podium, but sometimes he/she conducts while playing an instrument as the soloist. Are you a conductor from the podium in your kitchen or are you working a station and conducting from there?

MS)   Sometimes I’m doing both. Sometimes if it’s a pretty smooth night I’m conducting from the podium. And then when I have to step in to play the music I go and play an instrument…get on the stove and cook. I do both and I love both and I think my cooks want to see me do both. They want to be next to me cooking.

TH)   Is there a certain composer or classical piece you like?

MS)   I can’t really say which is which, but I love it when I hear certain violin parts or such. I got a Psych degree in Colorado and I had a professor who was a classical pianist and he was very good. But he was so critical of his own work…he just gave it up. The trials and tribulations of getting to the top of your profession…we look at these guys and we think they are amazing and yet they’re not good enough to be the elite. Or I’ll go to the American Royal to watch the barbecue competition and some of my chef friends from around the country come to town to compete every year and their stuff is incredible and they’ll get 102nd place! (laughing). I’m like ...WHOA…Or athletes who are not elite…but are still incredible.

TH)   Is it hard to be elite in Kansas City?

MS)   Certain cities force you into mediocrity. If you’re in Chicago, you have every resource to be great. If you are in LA or San Francisco….if you are by the incredible food sources, then you have every single opportunity. Here, you’re not quite connected to every food source or talent source so there’s slim pickens and you’ve really got to work harder or really maneuver to get to the elite level because it’s just not as easy and it’s easier to say “Oh, Kansas City’s not sophisticated enough so I’m OK with being mediocre.” You would never say that about yourself, but you might be OK just “settling” here. You can still make money here and you don’t have to be great to do so. But if you want to be great…you have to work to be great.

TH)   Baseball is the same way...not everyone is going to be Hosmer or Moustakas. There are plenty of guys who find their niche and carve out a decent career even though they never make it to the big leagues.

MS)   Yeah, you need those other players. Sometimes you think about the guys who played 17-18 years and had kind of a so-so career, but he still played 18 years! And he was doing what he loved.

TH)   Back to your youth. Who were your favorite bands or artists outside of the classical world other than Patsy Cline or Herb Albert?

MS)   We went to Coldplay last night. I don’t love them but they were really good professional musicians. I used to listen to Al DiMeola a lot as a teenager because a friend of mine would listen to him. Jean Luc Ponty and some jazz stuff. I like Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple…Canned Heat and some of those old bands like Grand Funk Railroad.
I have this young kid who works for us and he makes all of our pastas downstairs. He started as a dishwasher. He didn’t know anything when he started…practically homeless. He’s just this good kid and we’ve kinda moved him. He played in this heavy death metal band, but now he doesn’t play that much. I 
would hear a song by Traffic or Grand Funk and would tell him “Google these guys…check them out. Or “Check this song by Montrose out.” Everyone knows Sammy Hagar because he was either on his own or in Van Halen, but he was in a band before all of that. So this kid is 23 and he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I’ve got cooks who don’t know who Jim Morrison is (laughing). Are you kidding me????

TH)   The older we get, there are so many people or things that several generations after us have never heard of.

MS)   But that’s what our parents dealt with too…..

TH)   I saw your picture with Mick Jagger on Facebook.

MS)   Yeah we were just talking about that last night coming back from the concert. He was sitting right over there (points to a table in the corner).

TH)   Was he friendly?

MS)   Yeah he was cool. He was with four other people…kinda like his handlers…his personal assistant, his dresser, and a really tall dude who played the sax on stage. But Mick was very cool, very nice. We didn’t bother him too much. He had two handlers protecting him the whole time. I let him eat and only towards the end did I go talk to him.

TH)   How did he know to come here to eat?

MS)   His assistant called and said “Hey we’re bringing somebody in but we need to come scope out the place. They came a couple hours early and looked at things and said this is OK. But we’ll have to close off the bathrooms. They wanted everything really controlled.

TH)    Sounds like the Secret Service coming in.

MS)   Yeah. He said “We’re looking at the American (Restaurant) and at you.” They came here.

TH)   Speaking of music, do you allow music to be played in the kitchen during production or service?

MS)   During production, yeah. Not during service.

TH)   Who gets to pick the music?

MS)   Everyone gets to pick. I just tell them no Bee Gees.

TH)   Country?

MS)   There are not a lot of people who listen to country. I do like some country. I like the writing more than the music. They are the freest writers…they just say whatever they want. I used to say (about country) … “that music sucks. That’s terrible music.” But after a while, I would say…”No, it’s not terrible music…I just don’t like it. It’s good music…it’s just not my style.”

TH)   How do you get your music? Digital, CD, Spotify, Vinyl etc…..?

MS)   I used to have a ton of vinyl. But I moved to Europe in the ‘80s and worked in France for close to five years. So I sold…and bought...everything twice. Had I kept them, some of them would be worth tons of money. But I do use Spotify and Pandora.

TH)   Let’s talk about the renaissance going on in Kansas City. You’re right here at 19thand Main so you’ve had a front row seat to all of the changes.

MS)   It’s almost like that movie…was it Get Shorty?  It had Harvey Keitel who owned that little convenience story in New York….

TH)   Smoke (1995).

MS)   Right…and he took a picture everyday outside of his store from the same spot at the exact same time.

TH)   That’s a great movie. I actually wrote a piece about that movie for this blog. There is a wonderful scene when Harvey Keitel shares his photo albums with William Hurt and he (Hurt) eventually sees that his wife, who recently passed away, was in some of the pictures. A very touching scene that used some beautiful music by Shostakovich.

MS)   Sometimes I think I should have done that! This is my corner.

TH)   How long have you been in this space?

MS)   Ten years.

TH)   What was here before you?

MS)   Zin. Alex Pryor opened it. We used to see each other at the gym.  I was opening 40 Sardines out South. Alex was the pioneer. He was here from ’99 through ’07. And it was tough for him. Three things can happen when you open any business. Two are good and one is bad. You can be successful immediately...that’s great. You can fail immediately…that’s great. Or you can fail slowly and it sucks everything out of you. Your energy, your money, your sucks everything... and that’s the worst. And that’s what it did to Alex.  I had a good following when we opened those first couple of years…it was great. But little by little it just wears down because whatever was happening down here, maybe it was construction…it was just not enough. Now there’s enough. It’s still not enough, but it’s really good and it’s going to get better.

TH)   Sustainable?

MS)   Yeah it’s been sustainable because of our model and you either run your business or you don’t.

TH)   You’re here every day?

MS)   Oh yeah. I don’t have a choice and I love it. I went on vacation a few weeks ago to the beach with my kids and after a few days I was ready to go back to work!

TH)   I heard an interview on NPR awhile back with Anthony Bourdain. He was talking about his new documentary about Jeremiah Tower (Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent)…whom I had not heard of, but apparently was quite famous in the culinary world back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Anthony asked him if the same opportunity presented itself to him today…these many years later…would he do another restaurant? And he said fuck no!

MS)  I just watched that movie last week. He was a different kind of chef. I knew Jeremiah Tower. He disappeared off the face of planet for years. Even some of his best friends didn’t know where the hell he was. In our second year here, in ’09, we go to New York for the Beard Awards (James Beard Foundation Award) I took my chef at the time and we are on our way to the airport and we stop off at Marea which is this great Italian seafood restaurant in Columbus Circle and we’re sitting at the bar and he’s right there. He’s sitting right at the end of the bar, like three seats away. Nancy said “Isn’t that guy a famous chef?”  She didn’t know who he really was but she kind of recognized him because I talk about everybody and everything. I said “That’s Jeremiah Tower!” She said something to him and he said “I know Michael.” When his book came out, that was the food that Charlie (Trotter) wanted to do. Jeramiah Tower was the guy you’d love to interview. He’s the one that’s more like a symphony. He IS the symphony. He’s hearing the symphony in his head. He’s the composer. He got burned at Chez Panisse and he became very jaded and bitter.
But he was never the guy who was going to do all the physical work. He was going to be there and do work but he became the guy who was just all over it and everything he did, you just learned this other sensory sort of idea of cooking. It was passionate. We have recipes on the other side (Extra Virgin) because that’s a bigger animal and I’ve got younger people that train and they need to know certain things…certain recipes. But here we don’t have recipes. I want them to feel it. “I need two tablespoons of this” etc…that’s not how you cook. You have to get it…feel it….it comes from the gut and your passion and the heart. He (Tower) did that more than me even…

TH)   I saw Bradley Cooper’s movie recently (Burnt 2015) and I wondered how accurate or realistic it was in its depiction of what it’s like to be a great chef.

MS)   It was good….you never get your stars right away. Nobody comes in the next day…its months. It could be six months before they come. Some of the restaurants were a little too antiseptic. The Italian restaurant that had nothing in it???  No, that doesn’t exist. But generally, the passion and pressure is the same. You perform every night. I’m UP every night.

TH)   How do you have children and a family life in the restaurant world?

MS)   I’ve been married three times (laughs). From the time I was 12 years old...I started in a restaurant with my mom and sister…so 45 years now…I’ve been going home a woman who is somehow connected to me. There are no men in my life. My first wife and her daughter... I adopted her when she was one…she worked for me at 40 Sardines. Both worked for me. My second wife was Debbie Gold, and our two girls are both working for me... and my current wife is the GM here. I need that.  If you are in our business, you have to be with someone who understands the business. If I’m married to a doctor, we’re probably divorced a hundred times!

TH)   The contact with customers…do you still enjoy that part of the job?

MS)   I visit almost every table all the time. You’ve got to have thick skin because just like musicians or artists, you throw your stuff out there. And there’s usually that one table that you know (wincing)…As a chef, I’m probably the preeminent guy who visits tables. Nobody visits tables like I do. There are just not very many that do it, and it’s hard. And as I go around the world and eat, there are so many chefs that have so many restaurants they CAN’T do it anymore. Mario Batali can’t. Kansas City needs nurturing. Sure, I get the “How do I cook the swordfish Michael?” (laughs) But I’m trying to build relationships. I care. I’m not faking it. I actually CARE. I welcome them and show them hospitality. I’m GIVING…hopefully. (Smiles)

TH)   I feel like KC has taken a huge leap here musically. Just up the street we have a world class symphony orchestra, playing in a world-class hall. The Royals and Chiefs are relevant and competitive. The arts community is thriving. Downtown KC, and the Crossroads District are thriving.

MS)   You only need that ONE space to be unparalleled in the world. I tell people that all the young cooks and staff… there is NOTHING better in the world than the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. There might be the same, but there’s nothing better because they built the top of the top.
We don’t need eight restaurants doing what we do here in town, we need forty. And we can’t really even have forty because we would never make it. But the number of restaurants you need to make your city THAT kind of city for food. ….there’s a threshold and I don’t really know what that number is. It may not be a number…there are two Cheesecake Factory’s in town and they both do $13 million dollars a year.  If you were to just distribute $26 million dollars to twenty (originals)….(shakes head).

TH)   Do you ever go to corporate chain restaurants?

MS)  We went to Eddie V’s when it opened because it’s Eddie V’s. We go because we know the GM or the chef or people there. I have to be very aware when new restaurants or bars open. And I need to be seen there. I need to go because of my standing in the chef community. I should visit there and eat so they can say that I came in. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back.  I’m very humble about what we do in the industry and what my stature is. I have to accept the fact that I am the “guy in town”.  Whether we execute or not, whether we’re good or not, you can’t get a bigger name in this town than me…there are a couple of others too…we I have to be conscious of that. I saw some people at the concert last night who said “Hey! We ate at your restaurant last night”…then I’m nervous…”Was it good?” (laughs) So I’m not a superstar but I’m always just a little “on” because people might watch me shop at Costco and say “What are you getting?”  I’m not saying it’s a burden and they don’t need me to be successful, but they want to know I came in to sample their product. And so I do that.

TH)   I will admit that I do eat at some chains…I like Chipotle for example….

MS)   Yeah. My kids like Chipotle so we’ll go there. I go to Starbucks in other towns, but I can drink espresso in my own restaurant. Oh, do you want some coffee?

TH)   Sure! (Michael gets up to go get me a cup of coffee…and it is delicious)

MS)   Nancy likes to go to Capital Grille…they execute well. We’ll try some different things but for the most part we don’t eat at chains.

TH)   What kind of coffee is this?

MS)   The Roasterie. We design our own blend. I work with Danny and he’ll set us up with a tasting and then we’ll pick four or five coffees we like and they’ll do the blend.

TH)   What’s your favorite sport?

MS)   Probably football. I’m a Broncos fan. I finished growing up in Colorado so I was there when they drafted John Elway. Carl Peterson was always telling me “Michael, you’ve got to become a Chiefs fan. What’s your problem?” He was always mad about that (laughs). And remember, it’s not like it’s rosy (being a Broncos fan) We’ve lost more Super Bowls than we‘ve won.

TH)   Are you a baseball fan?

MS)   Yeah. We grew up with baseball in Denver although at the time they didn’t have the Rockies, but the Denver Bears were there…the Triple A team. And they were connected with the Montreal Expos, so Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter…Warren Cromartie...some legends in the fricking baseball world came through Denver.

TH)   Do any of the Chiefs or Royals come in to eat?

MS)   Occasionally. Danny Duff and Moustakas have been in a few times. Alcides Escobar will come in…he’ll reserve late...maybe 10 pm on a Wednesday night or something…and be here with his family, friends, and agent. Trent Green used to eat here. Alex Smith will occasionally come in. Tony Gonzales did a couple of parties downstairs on New Year’s Eve.

TH)   Tell me about Guido.

MS)   We were eating in this restaurant called Guido, named after their’s a very famous restaurant in Piedmont (Italy). Tony Bommarito from St. Louis…his family has a wine distributorship and one part of the family has a restaurant called Tony’s…a wonderful restaurant that’s been there forever.

TH)   Let me interrupt you for a second. I got to eat at Tony’s about 25 years ago. My dad’s college roommate knew someone in the family and arranged for us to take a tour of the kitchen. There’s no speaking in the kitchen and the waiter has to stand at a podium to address the cooking staff to tell them what the order is. It was very interesting.

MS)   I’ve never seen that anywhere else. That kitchen is the cleanest kitchen I’ve ever seen in my life. He took us into the walk-in freezer…every drain is stainless steel…scrubbed…Wow.
So his son is part of the wine business and he comes here occasionally and he was just back from Italy and he brought this book for his mom. And he’s standing here and we’re talking about it and we’re getting ready to go to Italy and I didn’t have a reservation for a restaurant but we’re getting ready to go to Piedmont and we’re talking and he calls his Mom in St. Louis and asks “Mom, can I give your book to Michael Smith?” And she’s like” Yeah!” so boom…he gives me the book. I didn’t really connect that to the restaurant yet and I don’t know why. So then about a year later we’re going to Piedmont, and I’m not one of those guys that respects books enough...I use them so they get kind of (shows me a book that’s all wrinkled, creased, mangled etc). People will say “My God, you’ve desecrated the book!” Anyway, a couple of nights before we leave, I’m finalizing restaurants for the last night there and I need to pick one restaurant and I’ve narrowed it down to two. Doug Frost, the big wine dude here in town…he’s a Master Sommelier…master of wine...there’s only three in the world and he’s one of them and he’s sacrificed his entire career in terms of making big money to stay in Kansas City and raise his kids and be normal. Anyway, he’s awesome...a world renowned expert and I said “Hey Doug, we’re going to Italy in a couple of days and we’re thinking about going to either this place (I can’t remember now which one it was ) and Guido and he said “Oh my God, you have to go to Guido. That’s my most favorite restaurant in the world. It’s unbelievable.” So boom, we go to Guido. But as were arriving at this restaurant, it is on the campus of the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, outside of Alba. It’s surrounded by these frickin’ gates, and so we finally find this place, pull up to the gate and we park. And each gate has an intercom to connect you to the host and they are buzzing you in and we’re like playing this game where we can’t quite connect and were not syncing up and we can’t get in the gates and it’s drizzling… We finally get inside and sit down and the server comes over and says, “Mr. Smith, you’re parked in the wrong place. You can’t park there. So my buddy and I go back out, and we can’t get out, just like we couldn’t get in…and we park two blocks away and it’s still raining and we’re doing the same thing again with the gates and finally they send a hostess out to guide us in. And we get back in and we sit down again and all of a sudden there’s three glasses of champagne and three bottles of scotch for him…so from then on everything else was great and we had an incredible time. And I had been trending towards this moment of this restaurant for a long time, but it’s not easy to turn this big boat and all of a sudden go “We’re not Michael Smith anymore! We’re an Italian restaurant.”  What’s the name of that Italian restaurant and why are we trashing the name Michael Smith and just getting rid of it because you want to change course? All of this is happening. The friends we were hanging out with were asking...Michael Smith ______ what? Michael Smith’s Italian Restaurant? Then one of them said “Guido…Finding Guido.” We rolled it all around. It wasn’t “Finding Guido” right away. It was “Who’s Guido?” “Searching for Guido” or “Looking for Guido.” Then back to “Finding Guido” …   what do they call that three dot thing? (Ellipsis) meaning continuation of a thought … Michael Smith, continuation of the journey. Guido is a book, a wine. Guido can be a lot of things. It can be derogatory. We’ve gotten a few Facebook hits about that.
“Finding Guido” lets me turn the ship. I’m 57. I’ve got maybe 13 to 15 years left. That puts me at 70. What do I want to cook? What do I want to do? I want to cook what I want to cook! It’s my restaurant. So Italian is it. Most of our food has been Mediterranean anyway so we’ve kind of just made it more Italian in terms of the appetizers. But really it was an excuse to put eight or nine pastas on the menu. We hand make all of that. We hand make the gnocchi. We have an extruder downstairs and a table top miller so we can mill specialty flours to mix with. You have to mix the flour with other stuff that already exists. We’re adding our own flavors to the pasta and were extruding some, rolling some. Making ravioli…making gnocchi.

TH)   I think it’s brilliant.

MS)   I tell my cooks, “You need to cook this dish long enough so that you are inside it. You are inside that dish. That dish is becoming you. That piece, that thing, that steak, that tomato.” That’s becoming a chef, but you have to do that with a lot of ingredients and a lot of techniques. It’s a long road. That’s my job in this town. My job isn’t to run this restaurant. My job is to mentor these young cooks.

Here is a link to Michael Smith:

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