Tonight, for this one-night-only tasting experience, Kansas City Chef Craig Howard is cooking in a much smaller kitchen than you’d find in any restaurant. It’s in the Westside neighborhood apartment he shares with his girlfriend, artist Cory Imig, and the stove, a simple electric model, has just four burners. But he still has a crowd gathered around, ready to eat.
Howard has invited friends and family to sample some of the dishes he has been developing for his new café in the Crossroads area, Howard’s Café and Rooftop Garden. It’s a long time coming – the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign. He passes around floor plans, and shows off his new logo and colors. He is still tinkering with the name.
The crowd watches as Howard maneuvers around the tiny kitchen. Waiting for the food, they proceed to pour wine into every available jelly jar and wait, forks in hand, for the tasting to begin.
Howard is a rare breed -- half chef, half urban farmer and wholly successful entrepreneur. After culinary school, he worked in several restaurants around KC, but he wanted to accomplish more than a life on the line. In 2012, he walked away from restaurants to open his own 24/7 organic grocery store/CSA: Howard’s Organic Fare and Vegetable Patch, in the City Ice Arts building in downtown Kansas City.
Business was good from the start. But earlier this year, Howard’s landlord dropped a bombshell. He had decided to raze the building and sell the land. Howard was back to square one.
That’s when Howard connected with local artist Julia Cole, who had just purchased a couple of old buildings in the Crossroads area and was looking to rehab them into a live/work/studio space for herself. Cole also had a vision for a couple of rental spaces opposite her studio, with a common courtyard between them.
When Cole spoke to Howard about the possibility of him reopening his organic market in one of the spaces, the idea led to talks about using the long, flat roofs of the building for solar panels, rainwater collection systems and a large urban garden. It was the perfect project for Howard to bring his passions – cooking and gardening — together again. An agreement was reached, and now Howard just needed to raise the money to build out his kitchen, market and rooftop garden.
Howard launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter. When the campaign ended Nov. 23, he had met his goal, raising $35,000 for his new kitchen.
The café will have only about 20 seats, as Howard expects much of his food and business to be “grab and go.” The dining room will share space with the organic market/CSA, and the new café will be open for breakfast and lunch only. He is also excited about the opportunity to accept catering opportunities in the evenings.
At his packed apartment, Howard steps out of the kitchen and places what looks like a giant pasta salad, stacked tall, on the table. A hush comes over the crowd as Howard, clears his throat and says, “This will be one of my vegetarian options. It’s a salad made from zucchini that has been cut to look like pasta, and I’ve let them sit in vinegar and ice water. I tossed the zucchini with spinach, fresh cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, green beans and a fresh herb vinaigrette dressing and baby beet microgreens on top. Dig in.”
Hungry family and friends descend on the salad, jabbing in their forks and asking about portion size and price. Everyone agrees that the salad is a creative approach to what can be perceived as boring option for a vegetarian, a salad.
The next two courses make their presence known with wonderful aromas before they even hit the table. The first is a crispy, pan-griddled, golden-brown grilled cheese sandwich that most everyone agrees is crying out for tomato soup on the side. Howard was thinking of just a smear of tomato jam on the bread, but the old-school grilled cheese lovers insist that tomato soup would be more satisfying. Howard decides to consider it further.
The tiny kitchen fills with smoke, as Howard begins searing burgers made from 100 percent grass-fed Kansas beef. He shouts over the sound of the wheezing exhaust fan in the hood of his little electric stove, “Sorry for the smoke, I have this stove turned up as high as it will go to get a good sear on these burgers.”
Once served, the cheeseburgers look and smell fantastic, with cheese slowly oozing down the side of the juicy burger topped with fresh pea shoots and a little secret sauce. The bun for the tasting is a Farm to Market brioche bun, but at the café, Howard plans to make his own buns from scratch using organic flour.
The cheeseburger is juicy, but it’s the fresh pea shoots on the burger that make a huge difference, as almost everyone in the room remarks after tasting it.
“It is just the fresh shoots of the plants that I harvested,” Howard explains. “Normally, you would just pull them off and toss them, but they have a nice clean spring pea flavor, so I saved them.”
That’s when someone asks about the cheese on the burger. The cheese tastes like white Cheddar, the guest says, but looks like American cheese.
Howard’s face lights up. He says, “Exactly! I was wanting a cheese that had the melting properties of American cheese and the flavor of rich Cheddar cheese, so I made this cheese myself to embody the best of both cheeses.” From scratch – incredible.
With that, it’s the end of the tasting, and as Howard’s guests move out into the street, they congratulate the chef on his new venture.
Located at 1708 Oak St., it's slated to open along with his new market on February 2015.
Howard’s Café and Rooftop Garden, 1708 Oak St., Crossroads Arts District, Kansas City, Missouri. howardskcmo.com. Opening February 2015.