Mar 18, 2011

5 Questions With Megan and Colby Garrelts

Five Questions is back and better than ever! This time around, I've had the pleasure of conversing with the highly regarded chef/owner tandem of Bluestem, Colby and Megan Garrelts. Admittedly, my interest in the place was piqued recently with Chef Colby's nomination for a James Beard award, but anyone paying attention to the food scene in this town knows that Bluestem ranks right up there as one of, if not the most highly regarded restaurants we have. So I'm stepping up my game and checking in on what makes these chefs and their project so successful. Some hints: passion and pedigree.

You've been open since 2004. How has Bluestem changed since then? And are you surprised with what it's become?
Colby: From our lounge to our menu, our restaurant is very close to what I hoped it would become. It has changed quite a bit but I like to think that it became what we wanted it to be.

Megan: We are certainly larger and busier than ever. The restaurant’s identity, menu, and staff is more developed and very consistent as of now and it’s been fun to see our transition. We are not surprised, but more excited to see our dream evolve and become better each year as owners and for our guests.

Your space is lovely but maybe a little unassuming from the outside (easy to overlook). How has Westport worked out for you so far?
Colby: That’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted a place that you decide to go to - and once you arrive I wanted you to be surprised by what’s inside.

Megan: Westport is an ideal space for our restaurant. In the middle of Kansas City with easy access to downtown, the plaza, and even a quick jog over to State Line for our Kansas guests. Being in Westport also gives us a definite home town appeal (especially with Colby having worked just next door at the former Stolen Grill now Pot Pie) and also the quirkiness of Midtown and Westport in a sense give us the freedom to change often, break rules, and be creative on our plates.

Is there any desire to follow the trend of opening a second location in the south KC?
Colby: Yes. Hopefully we will be hearing more about this in the coming months.

Megan: A different concept in the works, as chefs and owners we are constantly dreaming of more to do and ways to expand in KC

Graham Elliot, also formerly of Tru in Chicago, has become quite the famous face. Have you had a "Grahamwich" yet? Is that a friendship that you've been able to maintain?
Colby: We have not eaten at Grahamwich. With Megan’s parents moving here we haven’t been able to go to Chicago as much…but we might try to visit this summer. As far as our friendship, absolutely we have stayed in touch. I talked to him last Saturday for about an hour…He’s doing great. We have really leaned on each other throughout the years…As a matter of fact he wrote the forward to our book.

Megan: Elliot is a good friend and knew Colby and me when we first met at Tru – long before we were all in our places now, he has been a constant source of support and also an amazing chef to lean on and explore ideas with. We see him when we are in my hometown Chicago. We have been to Graham Elliot many times, but not yet Grahamwich.

I skimmed the comments about Bluestem on from past customers looking for complaints and was, instead, overwhelmed by how many commenters say you have the best restaurant in all of Kansas City. Are you the best? And is that your goal?
Colby: As much as I would like to say we’re the best, I cannot. Is it my goal? Absolutely. But it’s unachievable. There is always work to make it better. Kansas City has become a vibrant, sophisticated restaurant city, so it keeps us striving to be our personal best!

Megan: We defiantly strive to be the best possible restaurant, it would be foolish not to try. We have come a long way from our beginnings, but we are always open to criticism even as hard as it can be. Listening not only to complaints, but compliments from our guests. We have learned what our guests need from us for the best experience through face to face feed back as well as online forums. Being open to change by the request of our guests is always a way to become better.

Chef Megan
As a pastry chef, you're a rare commodity in Kansas City. Are we missing the boat on baked goods and good desserts in this town?
I wish there were more places in KC that celebrate sugar! There are a handful of wonderful bakeries, bread shops, and restaurants that defiantly aid in great desserts in Kansas City – we even have one of the country’s best chocolate makers! The Midwest is always a challenge with for desserts mostly I see such large portions it can make dessert seem too indulgent and/or overwhelming after dinner. With our menu format we include dessert as a final course because it is important to the dining experience.

From Chicago to New York, stops in Vegas, LA and Santa Monica, then landing here. Are you both from KC or just Chef Colby? What ultimately brought you back here?
Colby is from here, I grew up in Naperville, IL a western suburb of Chicago. We both wanted to travel, but after we were married we decided Colby’s home town of KC would be the best place to land our future and restaurant location.

You must use lots of butter. Are you loyal to a specific kind or is butter butter?
Not really, we use Plurga at bluestem which is a great brand. My recipes are pretty straight forward for butter, if I did more baking with laminated dough or brioche I may be more sensitive to what type of butter I use. Sometimes I do enjoy checking out local butters for our tables, but cost can be an issue on that end as well as if the butter is pasteurized for health code reasons.

Sea salt, bacon... savory hints are showing up more and more in pastry. Is this a trend you like?
I do enjoy savory herbs in pastry like, thyme, basil, and tarragon. You may also see other seasonings like pink peppercorns and sea salt in my cookies. I do use carrots, cucumbers, corn, and tomatoes when ripe in some sorbets and other desserts as well. I am mostly a purest when it comes to sweet vs savory in dessert, I don’t go too far off the deep end, because ultimately I ask myself would I eat that? I defiantly don’t create desserts to be trendy or to see if it will work or if the guest will buy it. Dessert is the last impression and it should be enjoyable.

At what point did you decide that pastry was your calling as a chef?
In high school, I worked for several restaurants before heading to the CIA in NY after high school so it was always what I wanted to do.

Chef Colby
A lot Kansas Citians tend to be fans of large portions. Do your customers seem to know what they're going to get at Bluestem and leave happy or do you get complaints about being "fancy" over "filling"?
We actually get both. I stopped at a table on Saturday and had a couple complain about being “too full” but then you get others that say the opposite.

You're no stranger to accolades but how big of a deal is it to you to receive recognition from the James Beard Foundation?
It is a very prestigious award and of course I would be honored to receive it. But I also have to remember that our customer and business are our highest priority, above any awards. I never want to lose sight of that.

You're a KC native. Where, exactly, did you grow up?
Old Leawood…98th and Mission road to be exact. I’m what is called a Ranchmart Rat!

Best meal you've had in the past 6 months?
That’s a tough one…..I’m not sure if I look at food like that anymore. Every experience is different. I really liked Genesee Royal Bistro as well as the Reiger….But I also just discovered Bonito Michoaca in KCK and it blew me away…

What's the best part of owning your own place?
Being able to create our own food and ambience – to be able to develop exactly what we wanted. So being able to start and finish a project like ours has been a truly wonderful experience.


Erica said...

Bluestem is so fantastic--it was great to hear more from the Chefs perspectives! We did the five course when celebrating my birthday back in January and were pleasantly full upon leaving.

You should definitely try the happy hour sometime. The lounge food is just as great as what you get in the dining room!

kimberlyloc said...

Great interview, John! I love bluestem — I got to go for the first time for my birthday last November, and they treated me like a queen. I have been aching to go back!

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