Tucked up on a hill in Kansas City's historic Westside neighborhood, Novel looks more like a house than a restaurant. But, very few of the dishes on the menu will remind you of mama’s home cooking — at least at first glance.
Chef and owner Ryan Brazeal serves a lot of offal, which, despite it's pronunciation, is not a judgment on his cooking.
“The term offal is such a broad spectrum of things, things that I don’t even consider that strange," says Brazeal, whose definition of the word "strange" might differ from the average person's.
"Chicken skin is considered offal, and we crisp that up like little bacon bits and sprinkle it over the top of our roasted chicken like a textural element."
Offal generally refers to the parts of an animal that we don't usually eat: tongue, intestines, feet, and heads. While these cuts are more daunting than flank steak or a chicken breast, Brazeal thinks they’re just as important.
“I think it’s just respect for the whole animal," says Brazeal. "A lot of these commodity producers will just cut the heads off the hog and throw them in the garbage because people don't want them. It’s about utilizing the entire animal and respect for something that died so we could eat it.”
In fact, those pig heads are the essential ingredient in his famous pig-head pie.
“Slow cook them overnight at about 275 degrees until the head meat is falling off the skeleton," advises Brazeal. "Then we'll just ... pick it off. We'll take the jowls, the cheeks, the back of the neck, the pigs ears, any little muscles underneath the jaw bones. There are some muscles behind the eyeballs. We don’t use the eyeballs.”
Right, because that would be gross. Brazeal says offal has another appeal: it’s cheap.
“I call my farmers all the time and just say what do you got that's affordable, lamb's tongue, tripe, neck, or a trotter, or something like that, that nobody else wants. They’ll sell it to me,” he says.
Brazeal spent eight years in New York before returning home to Kansas City. Working in traditional French restaurants and under David Chang of Momofuku, he learned to cook with the whole animal —a trend that’s more popular abroad.
“I worked with a large swath of different cultures in New York City," says Brazeal. "Some of the Southeast Asians would just fight over gristle and cartilage and things that even I’m not prone to eating.”
Brazeal has tried most everything, from sauteed veal brains to pig heart. Most of the offal dishes at Novel aren’t quite so adventurous. And he says they’re all so delicious, you might not even realize what you’re eating.
“The crispy egg has tripe on it and tripe is literally a cow's stomach," says Brazeal. "We put our crispy egg on top of it. People see crispy egg, a lot of times they'll eat it and then ask what was underneath it. And sometimes they’re a little surprised to find out what it is but no one has ever been upset about it.”
Even if pig parts and cow stomachs make you feel a little squeamish, Brazeal says everyone should try offal at least once — you might be surprised by the familiar flavors, or find a new favorite. But is there anything the offal-expert won’t eat?
“Oh yeah! Something that I would never eat that is too gross? It would be vulgar to say it on the air. ”
We’ll leave that to your imagination.