After graduating from culinary school in Springfield, Missouri, Mark Dandurand got an opportunity many young chefs dream of: a stage at Grant Achatz's Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago. "I was really interested in molecular gastronomy and all that stuff," he recalls. "[But] I realized the food at Alinea was stuff I liked to eat and experience and enjoy and have fun with, but not necessarily the food that I wanted to cook."
Instead, he did perhaps the opposite: headed to Wyoming to cook at a resort-style dude ranch. After three years of cooking three meals a day for 150 people with a limited staff, Dandurand moved to Kansas City. After a year at Local Pig, he went on tour with a Kansas City catering company that travels with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
"That was another one of those high-stress, limited availability situations: This is what you have to cook with, you need to feed 300 people today. You guys gotta put something together," he says. He returned for a stint at Ça Va, and accepted another tour position for a Rob Zombie tour, but found himself jobless when they canceled the catering component at the last minute.
Luckily, an old friend from Local Pig called and said he was opening a cocktail bar in the Crossroads, and brought Dandurand into what became SoT in 2016. "That was not the smallest kitchen I've worked in, but pretty close to it," Dandurand says. "We had a convection oven, two induction burners and a sandwich press, so that was another [situation where] we gotta find some creativity and techniques that work for this space."
After about a year, Dandurand met with Bread & Butter concepts, which operated Gram & Dun and The Oliver, among others. The restaurant group was looking for a sous chef for its new high-end steak house, Stock Hill.
"It was kinda nuts going from a cocktail bar that seats 48 to a full-service steakhouse that seats about 300," he laughs. "I started in the fall into the holiday season [last year] and got to see the madness that was a high-end steakhouse during the holidays. Then we went straight into Restaurant Week, which was insane – we were doing 650 covers a day for 10 days straight."
Dandurand took a break from his duties at Stock Hill to chat about Chef Boyardee, tasting menus and the importance of collaboration.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? Honestly, I kinda got into doing a little bit of organ meats when I was out in Wyoming. In the fall, it’s hunting season out there, and we had some hunters that would come out and get a nice big elk, bring out a heart and said, "Hey, we wanna try elk heart, can you cook it?" I was like, "Uhh, I don’t know, I’ve never cooked elk heart before!" Also, elk hearts are about the size of a football, so that was kind of a crazy thing for them to just say we wanna have this for dinner tonight. And at Local Pig there was always smoked beef tongue or chicken livers available, pork cheeks, beef cheeks – that kind of stuff. So I kinda started getting into that and finding out that you don’t necessarily have to buy the expensive cuts to do great food with them. We were doing corned beef tongue and smoking it and turning it into breakfast burritos. So honestly, just finding ingredients that I wasn’t really familiar with and turning it into something delicious. We did a lot of tongues, hearts, cheeks. Snails are one of my favorite things to cook with right now because it’s a fun, exciting thing that I don’t think a lot of people in Kansas City are super familiar with, but they’ve been branching out over the past few years to try out some of these dishes. That’s probably my favorite stuff – some of the off-the-beaten-path ingredients and finding ways to introduce them to people in fun, flavorful applications.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? The closest thing I have to anything like that is talking to friends and other chefs who are in the industry and saying, "What have you done with this? What about this?" And bouncing ideas off people. I have a handful of people from culinary school down in Springfield and restaurants that I've worked with out here, and I'll reach out and send a text and say, "What was the last thing you did with beef tongue or heart or cheek?" And take those techniques and create dishes with that. The collaboration part of cooking is one of my favorite things, because there's always somebody who says, "I had this here" or "We tried this" or "It was really good this way." Probably just collaboration with other chefs and friends of mine is, I guess, my secret weapon.
What's your perfect day of eating in Kansas City? I've been to Rye on the Plaza for brunch recently. Rye is always great – I'd never been out to the original location but when they put one down on the Plaza, it's right around the corner from me. I can swing in and have brunch before work. I had a really great brunch at Voltaire the other day as well. Breakfast-wise, I cook a lot of breakfast at home – pretty much anything in a tortilla. As far as the whole day of bouncing around, I prefer to eat at multiple places and do small plates of one to two courses at each one. So if it’s a new restaurant that I haven’t been to, or a more established restaurant that I just haven’t been to, I like to go in and try what other people are doing and see what else is out there. The Rieger is really good for that; the pastas are absolutely incredible. Novel is another one of my favorites. There's a rabbit pie dish down there – I think it's rabbit sausage and snails, stuffed in a pie dough and baked off. It's just this really crispy, hearty, flavorful but still simple dish that’s really great. Very rarely do I order an entrée from somebody – breakfast or brunch, maybe a pizza place, but I like to order sides and a la carte items and small plates and appetizers.
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? Over the past year, it’s just exploded all around Kansas City. I got back about five years ago and kinda saw restaurants increasing and different concepts and styles. Over the past year, [there have] been so many things opening with different styles and flavors and techniques. It's cool to see there's a variety in Kansas City. It’s a big city, but it's not New York, Chicago, LA, but there's plenty of opportunity to try different food. So just getting to see the variety that’s opening up. It’s a very tight-knit community as far as restaurants go; it's kinda cool to see how everybody pitches in and works together on things.
Who are some Kansas City chefs you admire at the moment? From my time working at Ça Va and spending time at The Rieger, it's cool to see what Howard Hanna does, especially with supplying his restaurants with products from local purveyors and seeing what he can source. Seeing Kansas City shrimp or local tofu on a menu, and seeing his classic approach and classic techniques to maybe more modern flavors is cool. What Ryan Brazeal’s doing over at Novel – its honestly one of my favorite places to go eat, because you go in and order three or four or five courses and every time the menu changes. Getting to see people who are doing high-quality but simple processes with food is fun. I feel like Howard and Ryan are probably doing the best of that in town at this point.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Kansas City? I feel like as of recently there's a lot of everything going on, which is cool because it's almost like it’s a testing ground for concepts and ideas in the Midwest. I really like the idea of the smaller menus and coursed-out tasting menu type of things, but not to the point where it's at the scale The American was. The American obviously did great things and I had a great meal there; I’d like to see somebody take that concept and bring it down to a smaller scale. There are some people doing that to a point right now, but I haven’t seen anybody doing a strict, this is your seven courses for the night. That's just based on the way I like to eat, small pieces and snacks, bites. Just a chef making food they want to make – we’re not looking for beef tenderloin or pork chops or anything like that, somebody getting more into that smaller plate concept all around.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off, or do you even cook at home? Being in the position I'm at at Stock Hill, it's more a management position with the structure of a kitchen, so I do miss being on the line and working a station and that kind of thing. At the same time, it's kinda nice to not be on the line every night [laughs]. So on my days off I usually do breakfast for myself and dinner at least one of the two days I'm off. Last night I did pork Bolognese because I was really craving pasta and red sauce. I was like, I could go somewhere and eat it, or I could just hang out at home, drink a glass of wine and cook something for myself. Bolognese is one of my favorites for sure. I really like making pork chile verde; it's just something I picked up along the way, I don’t really know when or where. Just the tanginess and the tartness and the richess of those flavors has always been something I've really enjoyed.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Probably pasta of any sort, all the way around. From being a little kid and eating Chef Boyardee ravioli straight out of the can to chef-made pastas and doughs in Kansas City and traveling, there's something about pasta that’s always had a spot in my heart. I definitely enjoy cooking pasta and eating pasta, but every once in a while I'll get myself in a pinch where I'll do a private event or dinner and I'll think, oh I’ll do ravioli. Making 10 raviolis for myself is one thing....when you have to do it for a huge event, I always get myself in a little over my head on it! But at the same time, it’s the stuff I love to eat and it’s the stuff I love to cook. Pasta is probably my favorite all around.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? I would say just cook. Try different stuff, read books, watch videos online. Teach yourself – you don’t necessarily need a culinary school education. Growing up, my mom cooked and my grandma taught her, and they just cooked because they needed to make dinner for the family. Over the past couple years, my brother has really gotten into cooking and cooking at home – getting off work, finding some ingredients. So I’ll go over and cook dinner with him every once in a while. He’ll send me texts, give me a call: "Hey man, what do I do with this?" I’ll say, "What do you got in your cabinet? Try this, try that." It’s that experience of cooking things and trying things would be the best advice I have. Keep it simple. Use quality ingredients. If you feel like you're in over your head, then tone it down a little bit.
What is your first food memory? When I was [still] small enough to not reach the countertops, I'd watch my mom make breakfast. She’d pull up a stool or something and I’d open up the spice cabinet and dump whatever spices into scrambled eggs. I know they were not ever good, because I was just throwing things in and I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was that hands-on experience of cooking. I was getting to cook, and I get to try this! It didn’t turn out great, I was probably 4 or 5 years old, but just the opportunity to get to cook. When I go home and spend some time with my parents and my nephews, usually one of them will jump up and want to get their hands in some meatballs, or peel some carrots or see what's going on. Just that of idea of participating in cooking, I guess.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? We just did a new menu rollout about a month ago or so. I got a chance to put a few dishes on the menu and we’ve got a tuna crudo that I think is really good. It's Asian-inspired with some Mexican influence. We’ve got Waygu meatballs with a Brazilian-style hot sauce with a ponzu mayo and coriander pesto, so it's kind of a mix of a couple different flavors or techniques, which I think is a lot of fun to be able to do. We do a Library Dinner Series every spring, where it’s Sunday nights, once a month we do five to seven courses and wine pairings and book it for 28 people. It sells out pretty quickly. And that’s kind of the time where I get to do the most fun stuff. I did a snail dish with housemade brioche and chicken livers and crispy onions on one, I did a beet-cured salmon terrine with horseradish butter. So the most fun dishes are probably the ones where we don’t have any constraints or limitations on things. I did a variation of that snail dish at a Test Kitchen dinner I did with [Feast contributor] Jenny Vergara about a month ago. It was great that I could put chicken liver mousse and snail cooked in mushroom demi on a plate and say, "You know what, I like chicken livers and snails and mushrooms things that taste like dirt, here it is. Try it out." I was definitely nervous when I put that dish out there, but I feel like that was kind of the redeeming factor of it when a couple of people came up after the dinner and said, "chicken liver mousse and escargot, that was great!" I like things that taste like dirt. I like to feed people the fun stuff that they wouldn’t find at a grocery store or cook for themselves.
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? I like to see what I can find that’s a little bit different and out of my comfort zone, and honestly test it and try it and make mistakes and figure it out from there. But again, when I'm doing those recipes I have a game plan and talk to my friends or coworkers – it's that communication with friends of mine in the industry where it's an idea that I start with, and it evolves through conversation and menu testing and trial and error.
What are your future plans? I don’t have a solid plan at this point – the way that my career’s been going, from the beginning it's always been one opportunity opens up to you and what's available next? When I started at the first restaurant I was washing dishes, and within the year I was running the sauté station. I tried to get out of the industry a few times, but it always brought me back. Really, I don’t have a set plan in mind. It would be great at some point to have my own restaurant or location, but at the same time I'm not pushing [that] too hard right now because anytime something pops up, it’s another learning experience. I’m enjoying what I’m doing now, but you never know who’s looking for you or what the next opportunity could be.
Stock Hill, 4800 Main St., South Plaza, Kansas City, Missouri, 816.895.8400, stockhillkc.com