A Chef’s Way to Explore a New City
By Justin Khanna
Spending my childhood in Wisconsin, it’s easy for me to write-off many of the stops between Manhattan and San Francisco as simply more of what I grew up with. My first impressions of the “Heart of America” served as an incredibly tasty and friendly reminder of how much of this world still begs for exploration.
During my recent cross-country road trip, after driving 1,367 miles of open middle-America road, the skyline of Kansas City was a welcome sight. It actually took a circumnavigation of the Missouri-side downtown area before I’d find myself extending that first leg stretch to look up at the sign of Joe’s Kansas City BBQ.
As a chef, visits to a new city typically start with a meal and I try to find a local specialty to start the trip to immerse myself and get acclimated. I always start an itinerary by mapping out meals I’ve been dying to try and then fit in activities around these locations and times. This was true for my visit to Kansas City, since I knew I wanted to see my old colleagues, heed their suggestions, as well as explore within the short stay.
Underneath that BBQ sign was a line of eager and hungry smoked-meat lovers (local and otherwise) waiting the typical 35-55 minutes to place their order. I was promptly joined by my long-time friend who I haven’t cooked with in years, Colby Garrelts of Rye and Bluestem to help direct me through the menu. Getting a tour from a local is always smart, but finding a chef to show you around truly changes the game.
Between a “Z-Man” sandwich stacked with beef brisket, crispy fried onions and melted provolone (an order I never would’ve made without Colby), plus a tray of their famous burnt ends, some tangy and tender ribs, a slew of sides and their brand-new apple crisp dessert, the city had already won me over before dinner.
Next up, just downtown, I lit up the 4th floor button in the elevator in the Crown Center to walk into the incredibly opulent and grand dining room of The American.
Serving as an inviting, James Beard recognized venue for chefs from all over the world (chefs cooking that night hailed from Denmark, California, France, Louisiana & DC), more than 100 guests would enjoy a multi-course experience that night.
Funny enough, Colby would attend that dinner afterwards with his wife. It served as a striking example of Kansas City natives engaging with and supporting their local community while also embracing ideas and inspirations from around the world. It’s a win for the visiting talent too, being able to showcase their skills to a savvy, engaged and inspired audience to support the foundation’s continued efforts.
I was wildly eager to see the space in-person, but after a quick catch-up with the chefs and curators of The American, a quick glance at my watch revealed there were just 40 minutes before a newly opened coffee shop on my must-see list would close.
Placing my order for a cortado with minutes to spare at Messenger Coffee also came with a nutty & sweet gianduja tart and a butter croissant with layers that shattered under my fingers from Ibis Bakery. Both concepts share a light-filled, multi-tiered space with bright and minimal details, and the only thing I regret was not showing up earlier to settle in on my laptop for the afternoon!
I’m fascinated by trendy coffee shop culture and how frequently a pilgrimage often puts you comfortably caffeinated in a fun neighborhood. The exploration usually continues nearby from there, although due to my limited time in Kansas City, I had to get back across town for a reservation at Garrett’s restaurant, Rye.
Blue crab hushpuppies with spicy aioli to start next to a basket of sweet rolls and cultured butter. A bowl of heirloom grits with pulled pork shoulder and tender shrimp came next. After that, their signature fried chicken that sparked inspiration in me the last time I cooked with Megan & Colby 3 years ago, surrounded by rich and deliciously seasoned sides. There was a dessert order of their famous pies, and after a few bites to fill any possibly remaining spots of hunger, I requested they be packaged for my inevitable snack craving that would hit while somewhere in Colorado, over 800 miles away.
Leaving Kansas City was hard. I wanted to continue to learn about the genuine mix of people, geography and culture that shapes and evolves the city into a self-sustaining beacon of the Midwest. Every step of my visit included the hospitality that brings me nostalgia from my upbringing, and I can only hope to frequently stop-by to remind myself of that. Next time though, I’ll plan to make it longer than an 18-hour pit stop.
As a Capital One Purpose Project Partner, Justin Khanna will be sharing his purposeful travel experiences as he ventures across the country with his best friend. Follow along and share your stories with #MeaningfulMoments.
Find more tips on how to travel with purpose on the Capital One Purpose Project Hub, in collaboration with The Points Guy.
About Justin Khanna