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As Kansas City restaurants compete for James Beard Awards, 'we're all cheering for each other'

Affäre co-owners Katrin Heuser, left, and Martin Heuser were recognized as 2024 James Beard semifinalists in the Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program category.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Affäre co-owners Katrin Heuser, left, and Martin Heuser were recognized as 2024 James Beard semifinalists in the Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program category.

The pressure is mounting on six Kansas City area restaurants, bars and chefs recognized as 2024 James Beard semifinalists. The foundation behind the Oscars of the culinary world will announce this year’s finalists April 3.

Updated: April 3, 2024 at 10:55 AM CDT
The James Beard Award finalists announced on April 3 did not include any restaurants from the Kansas City area.

A bar, a restaurant, and a chef from Kansas City were all named semifinalists for the 2024 national James Beard Awards. Three more Kansas City chefs made the regional Best Chef category. The awards, known as the Oscars of the food world, are among the nation’s most prestigious culinary honors.

For two of the local hopefuls, this year’s contest is the second nomination. Chef Johnny Leach of The Town Company is up for regional Best Chef category, and Drastic Measures, a cocktail bar in Shawnee that made it into last year’s finals, is back in the Outstanding Bar category.

“That recognition was a huge, huge gift to us last year,” Drastic Measures owner Jay Sanders said. “We didn't expect to have it happen again.”

“When we got nominated last year, none of us knew it was coming, but when it happened this year everybody stayed up all night to wait for the announcements,” he said.

Other nominees include a modern French bistro and a Taiwanese street-food joint in Westport, a German-style farm-to-table restaurant with a taste for wine in the Crossroads, and an eatery serving comforting dishes to compliment cocktails in the West Bottoms.

Nominees for the annual James Beard Awards, which honor chefs, restaurants, writers, and other professionals in the world of American food, were announced in January. Finalists will be named April 3, and winners will be announced June 10 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Affäre, Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program

Chef Martin Heuser and sommelier Katrin Heuser, co-owners of Affäre, opened their contemporary German restaurant in the Crossroads Arts District in 2012. Their drinks go hand in hand with Affäre’s constantly changing menu.

Chef Heuser organizes his menu into three parts: a traditional German section, a seafood selection and a game meat selection.

“I have a certain style of cooking,” he said. “I use salt, acidity, fat and sweetness to bring the best out of my food.”

“Being married to Katrin for over 30 years, she knows what kind of food I'm cooking and she always has the right touch to find the perfect wine to match,” Martin Heuser said.

Bar manager Chase Ihde is among staff at Affäre, which was nominated for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program in the 2024 James Beard Awards.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Bar manager Chase Ihde is among staff at Affäre, which was nominated for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program in the 2024 James Beard Awards.

Affäre also offers unique beers and craft cocktails.

Chef Heuser’s rack of lamb — with a dijon, herb crust, eggplant, roasted fingerling carrots, and socca de Nice — is paired with a Le Prieuré d’Arras, Syrah Saint-Joseph or Ayinger Altbayrisch Dunkel.

“We have a really good following with Martin and his four- course tasting menu,” Katrin Heuser said. “We do wine and beer pairings with it, and that just pushes people out of their boundaries. We want people to explore different wines, unique wines they've never had before.”

Each month Affäre offers a featured wine flight and Katrin Heuser always choses 25 to 30 wines by the glass or bottle.

“Everything we do is with the purpose of creating an adventure,” she said. “We want them to remember when they think of Affäre: ‘Yeah, we've had a good time here.’”

Chase Ihde, who has been in charge of the bar since 2017, said the whole approach is to make things elegant and simple.

“I make what I like to think are very original, creative cocktails that you can't find elsewhere,” Ihde said.

Ihde imbues his drinks with a slight sense of whimsy, too. His “winter’s end” drinks include the Dearhart Cocktail with plum rakija, empress gin, white tea fino sherry and pamplemousse.

“It's just about having a depth of flavors to pull from and we've always had that in spades here,” Ihde said.

In keeping with Affäre’s sustainability goals, Ihde creates his own syrups and uses paper straws.

“Chase is a perfectionist behind the bar,” Katrin Heuser said. “Every garnish is always perfect and I think the cocktails look beautiful when they come to the table.”

Ihde said the success of his creations all comes down to the ingredients, and he benefits from the many relationships Katrin Heuser has forged with smaller distributors and importers around the globe.

“It's nice to be able to just kind of take a little tour of the world, to pull things from all over and bring them into balance with one another,” Ihde said, “and that I think just dovetails really nicely with sort of the energy of the restaurant.”

Drastic Measures, Outstanding Bar

Owner Jay Sanders at Drastic Measures nominated for Outstanding Bar again this year.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Owner Jay Sanders' Drastic Measures got its second nomination for Outstanding Bar this year.

Drastic Measures is a bar with a speakeasy vibe just off Johnson Drive. The 1,100-square-foot stone building in downtown Shawnee dates back to the 1850s.

The menu features cocktails exclusively — no wine or beer — and all the drinks are priced at $14. Their current offerings include original drinks like the Ringleader, with spice route gin, macadamia nut, falernum, spiced pear, and lime, served in a quirky elephant glass.

Last year, Drastic Measures was named one of five finalists for Outstanding Bar in the U.S., and owner Jay Sanders took the entire staff to the awards ceremony in Chicago.

“We all walked the red carpet,” he said. “We're all dressed up, we're in suits, and it was so hot out, but the ceremony was beautiful and fun.”

Before the ceremony, the Drastic Measures team was invited to an advocacy panel for the James Beard Foundation. Sanders left inspired.

“Because running these businesses are super hard and they're super hard to turn a profit at,” Sanders said. “But if you can turn a profit and you can also make an impact in your neighborhood and your city and your immediate culture, I want to learn from those people.”

People often ask Sanders why he chose the quiet bedroom community to launch a cocktail bar. The answer, he said, is simple.

“It was the cheapest space available,” Sanders said. “I was a bartender before we opened the bar and we didn't have a lot of money, neither did our partners.”

“I grew up just up the street, so we wanted to make this neighborhood cool and the city really helped us with that,” he said.

Since Drastic Measures opened in 2020, the neighborhood has changed a lot.

“I remember driving through here when I was in high school because it was the closest 7-Eleven, and there (was) no other reason to drive through,” Sanders said. “Now there are three breweries, two craft cocktail bars, and soon to be three new restaurants opening up. I can't even keep up with it.”

Drastic Measures has been so successful that Sanders opened a second place next door. Wild Child, an airy place packed with houseplants, features a more diverse array of drinks, including nonalcoholic cocktails.

“We're happy to come out here and give an interesting experience to people without (them) having to drive all the way downtown, worry about finding a place to park, and then drive back home,” Sanders said.

“Anything that would allow me to throw parties for people is probably what I would have gravitated towards, because that's what we do every day,” he said. “We just set up shop and throw a party every night, and we clean up and we do it the next day. Hopefully other people see it that way.”

Jeff Workman, Best Emerging Chef

Chef Jeff Workman at The Campground was nominated in the Emerging Chef category for the national 2024 James Beard Awards.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Chef Jeff Workman at The Campground was nominated in the Emerging Chef category for the national 2024 James Beard Awards.

Executive Chef Jeff Workman joined the West Bottoms craft cocktail bar The Campground last year, after several years as executive sous chef at Corvino Supper Club and Tasting Room.

Workman said he likes to create simple, comforting dishes that speak for themselves and complement the cocktails. Currently on Workman’s menu is smoked trout with onion vinaigrette, trout row, and malt chips, and a cauliflower starter with hazelnut, scallion, date and chili crunch.

"I try to keep it simple, nothing too crazy,” Workman said. “I think my plating style shows that. I try not to complicate it too much and let the ingredients speak for themselves."

Workman is familiar with the Beard Awards process thanks to his time under chef Michael Corvino, but this is the first time in the spotlight himself.

"It's really surreal to see my name on the list this year," he said. "It's a whole new experience."

Sourcing local foods and making the best use of the ingredients he has on hand is essential for Workman.

"A huge part of the (research and development) process for me is taking an account of any waste,”Workman said. “Whether that's breaking down vegetables or bones from ducks and trying to think of how am I going to use this?"

The Campground opened in 2018. Inside the former gas station, black walls are set off by a copper bar and green, leafy ferns. Workman’s kitchen team is small, with just two full-time cooks on staff.

"It's very hands-on,” he said. “If it's being made, I'm here overlooking it, which is different from a lot of places with prep teams or 10 cooks on staff.”

Getting to the semifinals stage of the Beard Awards validates much of Workman’s approach.

“Putting in as much effort as we have over the last year, it's like being recognized,” he said. “Regardless of whether we make the list or not, I'm proud of what we've accomplished."

For Workman, the pressure of being a semifinalist comes in waves, but he still wants anyone who walks through the doors to enjoy an authentic Campground experience.

"We got here for a reason, so we're going to keep doing what we're doing,” he said.

Romain Monnoyeur, Best Chef: Midwest

Chef Romain Monnoyeur at Westport Cafe is up for Best Chef: Midwest.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Chef Romain Monnoyeur at Westport Cafe is up for the 2024 Best Chef award in the Midwest region.

For the past eight years, Chef Romain Monnoyeur has been bringing contemporary French food to diners at Westport Cafe, in the heart of Midtown’s entertainment district.

“Bistronomy is a mix between bistro and fine dining, in a casual setting,” Monnoyeur said. “We brought the concept of bistronomy from Paris to here.”

The latest menu offers Gallic fare with a modern twist, like cold oysters with kiwi, shallot, ginger, mint, and arugula oil, or a Burgundy escargot tart with herbed butter, shallot, garlic and mushrooms. The chef's special is a slow-cooked pork belly, ratatouille stuffed cannelloni, green zucchini, baba ganoush, chicken and olive jus.

Monnoyer is known for changing his menu with the seasons, and he works with local farmers to serve the freshest ingredients.

“What people love when they come to Westport Cafe is to experience our creativity, but also to get a classic dish like a steak frites béarnaise,” he said.

“We have great French restaurants in Kansas City, but what I felt was missing is a modern twist,” he said. “I wanted to bring something more fun and affordable, and where people kind of can just come for a drink and a few bites or come late at night and have a very good dinner.”

Given his French upbringing, Monnoyer said he was not familiar with James Beard when he moved here, and the attention that came with his nomination was a surprise. He quickly learned how big they are in the industry.

“I feel honored and I feel very happy for the team and for the restaurant,” Monnoyer said. “There's been a lot of people supporting this restaurant through the years. I'm very happy that all the work is finally paying off.”

Johnny Leach, Best Chef: Midwest

The husband and wife team of executive chef Johnny Leach and executive pastry chef Helen Jo Leach, at The Town Company. Helen Jo grows fresh herbs like lemon balm to use as garnishes.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
The husband-and-wife team of Executive Chef Johnny Leach, left, and Executive Pastry Chef Helen Jo Leach, at The Town Company. Helen Jo Leach shows off the fresh herbs she grows to use as garnish.

This is the James Beard Foundation's second nod to Johnny Leach and the rustic-but-refined The Town Company, tucked into the Kansas City Hotel downtown.

Executive Chef Johnny Leach and his wife, Executive Pastry Chef Helen Jo Leach, create seasonal menus together featuring elevated versions of popular Midwestern dishes. On the menu currently is a chile-smoked pork chop with hominy and corn bread, and a skewer with chicken liver, foie gras and turnip.

The Leaches moved to Kansas City from Portland, Oregon, in March 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We went through one week of freedom and just hit a complete lockdown,” Johnny Leach said. “So we had a lot of time to make connections, but it all had to be done via phone or email. And I think in a lot of ways they kind of helped us.”

Helen Jo Leach said it gave them a chance to explore the region and connect with the farmers who would become their core suppliers.

“That was one of the first things we did,” she said. “We just went to a bunch of farms and saw the land and saw what people were doing, and that was a special, fun memory.”

That approach has become a key part of how The Town Company operates.

“When we start working with new people, we always make it a point to go visit and see what's going on,” Johnny Leach said. “We have visited every farm that we work with.”

The Leaches have had a few learning curves along the way.

Given Portland’s proximity to a constant stream of fresh produce from California, canning and pickling was not a big part of their process. In Kansas City, that had to change.

“The first summer to fall and winter that we were here, we were realizing that we should have preserved, you know, going into the winter time,” Johnny Leach said. “And so that was one ‘note to self’ for next time.”

Now they build in a lot more time for fermenting and pickling, taking advantage of the end-of-season abundance of produce. Helen Jo Leach also sprouts herbs like lemon balm to use as garnishes.

Beyond the culinary, the Leaches have created an atmosphere designed to make people feel welcome. The dining room’s dark teal walls and warm-toned wooden chairs accompany a crackling fireplace in the open-hearth kitchen.

“We put a lot of emphasis on our hospitality here,” Johnny Leach said. “We put a lot of emphasis on our food, which we keep very simple but packed with flavor. And it's all cooked over a wood-burning hearth.”

“We want people to feel taken care of and like they've had a great escape for an hour and a half, two hours, however long that they're with us,” he said.

Katie Liu-Sung, Best Chef: Midwest

Chewology’s owner and chef, Katie Liu-Sung, brings Taiwanese street food to her corner of Westport.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Chewology’s owner and chef, Katie Liu-Sung, brings Taiwanese street food to her corner of Westport.

Chef Katie Liu-Sung’s phone blew up when she was nominated back in January.

“I woke up in the morning and saw a text message,” she remembered. “It says, ‘You did it! Congrats!’ And I was like, did what?”

“I got a screenshot and I was just screaming from upstairs, running downstairs, so it was a little dramatic. But it was a crazy day,” Liu-Sung said.

Soon her competitors for Best Chef: Midwest were at her door bearing gifts.

“Johnny Leach and Helen Jo, they're incredible,” Liu-Sung said. “They showed up the day of announcement and brought over a bunch of goodies and congratulations.”

The Chewology chef is also friends with chef Monnoyeur at Westport Cafe, just a few blocks away.

“Westport Cafe is actually like our Saturday night spot because not many kitchens (are) still open after we get off work,” she said.

Liu-Sung said that easy camaraderie is what makes the metro’s restaurant scene so warm and welcoming.

“We're all cheering for each other,” Liu-Sung said. “We're in the same category but we're still friends, and it just brings so much goodness to Kansas City.”

At Chewology, Taiwan-born Liu-Sung chose to focus on handcrafted gyoza, a special dumpling from her childhood. The menu includes Xiao Long Bao, or pork soup dumplings, and the vegan Taro and Shitake dumplings, with bok choy, carrot, bean curd and ginger.

Cooking has been a constant in Liu-Sung’s life. After she grew up in Los Angeles, California, Liu-Sung moved back to Taiwan when she was 10. Throughout college and grad school she worked in the restaurant industry.

“I started cooking very young and then I realized good food really brings back a lot of memories,” Liu-Sung said. “It's the big part that draws me back to cooking.”

Liu-Sung said, growing up, people would often confuse Taiwan with Thailand, and any conversation about where she was born required a lot of explanation.

“I tried to, like, really focus on telling people I'm Taiwanese or I'm from Taiwan because it just creates confusion, and it's not really cool,” she said.

As she’s gotten older, Liu-Sung has grown more comfortable sharing her heritage.

“I feel like it's really cool to actually show people where you're from,” she said. “I'm glad to see a lot more Taiwanese chefs are popping up and telling our stories in several different ways.”

Liu-Sung insists everything that happens at the restaurant is a group effort and, the first couple weeks after the James Beard nomination, business quadrupled.

“That first two weeks, it was very, very hard on everyone — working extra hours … and then doubling all of our production,” she said. “So I'm glad we're back to the normal balance that we know what we're doing.”

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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