Ben Wood, executive chef at brunch spot The Corner in Westport, is from upstate New York, so it's no surprise he really loves pizza. "Give me a slice of pizza and I'm set," he says. Wood first came to Kansas City almost 13 years ago to work as a corporate chef doing in-house food for big banks and other corporations. After a stint doing private events for Sporting Kansas City, Wood joined the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts as sous chef for three and a half years before taking the reins at The Corner in 2016.
We talked to Wood about the smell of a really good tomato sauce, sleeping in and his housemade Old Bay seasoning.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? I really, really love onions. I think there's a lot that you can do with onions, and in and of themselves they have some sweetness as well depending on the variety you get. Right now, my kids really love beets, so I'm having fun trying out new things with beets for them. I don't know about you, but growing up I never really liked beets, [but] it's one of those things that my kids have really taken a liking to, which is kinda crazy.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? I like to cook with savory spices, so things that might not be – you know, like throw cinnamon in something, or some allspice and mess around with those types of things and see what you get. I have developed my own Old Bay seasoning, because bay leaves are one of those ingredients that kinda just gets thought of as, "Well I’ll just throw it in some stock and it’ll help me out." But there’s actually quite a bit of flavor in the bay leaves themselves, so I would say bay leaves are one of those savory ingredients that I like to pulverize and make a powder and utilize. And juniper berries – I love dried juniper berries.
What's your perfect day of eating in Kansas City? I would start it all off with an 8oz Americano from Second Best Coffee and move on from there. I see breakfast food all the time; that’s what I do. I would have to give the nod to Happy Gillis, they really do some great stuff down there. Anakaren [Ibarra] is really amazing. She's one of my good friends, and it's been really awesome to watch her and Abbey-Jo [Eans] take the reins. For the most part, I would probably sleep in a little bit more [laughs] and just skip breakfast and head straight to lunch. I'm a big pizza nerd, so I love Papa Keno's in Overland Park and the Crossroads. The Crossroads, I would head down there to Papa Keno's and grab a beer and some pizza. Drinks – I’m not a huge drinker, so I would skip the drinks and spend the money on dinner, and go out to a really, really nice dinner, whether it be at Novel or [The] Rieger. I've really enjoyed my time that I’ve spent at both of those places. [At The Rieger I get] pork soup and whatever Howard [Hanna] is doing with rabbit. He changes that dish up from time to time and I love it every time.
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? It’s changed a lot. I’ve been in Kansas for maybe 12, 13 years now. Restaurants [are] really enjoying their relationships they develop with the farmers and the guys supplying them their products. That's the thing that really kept me here in Kansas City, as opposed to moving back home to upstate New York. There' a huge push for the relationship between the farmer and the food, and the chefs are really embracing it in Kansas City and trying their best to work with these farmers and do as much local as they possibly can to help the economy. We've seen new restaurants pop up like crazy; we’ve seen new ideas come into the market. We've seen fish and the [seafood] scene explode a little bit in Kansas City, which is crazy to think about. We're starting to see a lot of places that are diving into the fish and really enjoying the freshest fish product we can get, so that’s been fun to see.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Kansas City? I was just talking about this the other day, and think there's one opening up here, but I don’t see Korean barbecue around Kansas City very often. At the same time – and I know Broadway Deli just opened up – but there's not a lot of places you can go and grab and a great sandwich that hearkens back to the New York-style deli. I think with Broadway Deli opening up, that’s a huge win for Kansas City.
Who are Kansas City chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? I love what Howard Hanna [of The Rieger] does; I would go and eat his food any day of the week. Ryan Brazeal [of Novel], love him, and Michael Smith [of Michael Smith and Extra Virgin], in all honesty, he is an amazing Italian chef and I’ve loved every meal that I've had down at his place. So those are three of the guys I really, really enjoy eating their food in Kansas City, for sure.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? [Home] is kind of where I get to play around and have some fun. My family are my guinea pigs, to some extent. I love just making eggs. I think there's a lot of things that can be done with eggs, and it's just great to have some really awesomely cooked over-easy eggs done right. So I love to cook eggs when I'm at home, and I cook them in the restaurant all the time, but still. I love to make fresh-made pasta at home, doing it with the kids and getting them involved. It was something my grandfather used to do with his family, so it's one of those generational things that I like to pass along, and get my kids involved in the cooking and make those memories.
What's your favorite comfort food? If I could eat any comfort food, I really love a good piece of fried chicken, if it's done right. But then at the same time, gimme a slice of pizza and I’m set! There's just something that pizza does. There's tomatoes and cheese and dough, you put that all together in one package – it’s just great. I [also] love a great sourdough loaf from 1900 Barker in Lawrence, and a block of blue cheese.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Keep reading, keep learning, keep pushing yourself and trying new things from the cookbooks that you like. That’s what I did: I just pushed myself and grabbed a whole bunch of cookbooks, and read up and saw what people are doing and techniques – everything from super simple basic stuff to super crazy hard things, and tried my best, and used my family as guinea pigs. And [to] not be not afraid to fail, you know? That’s one of those things you can't be afraid of – failing in cooking. Like yeah, you’re gonna have disasters every once in a while that’s like "Well, shouldn’t have done that!” [laughs] But the next time you try it, you come out the other way around and it's something pretty fantastic.
What's your first food memory? I remember going into my grandmother's house and there being a tomato sauce stock pot on, some nice good tomato sauce on the stove and it just simmers all day and that’s what you eat at the end of the night. My grandmother would put time and effort into it, and my uncle learned to do it from his dad and so on. I just remember that – walking into my grandmother's house and smelling that great, awesome tomato sauce that’s just been simmering away and smelling that. That's one of my favorite ideas to think about – there's that family atmosphere that comes with eating, where you all sit around the table and you dive into the food, but you also talk and hang out together as a family. That's your support system, those are the people you rely on, and food brings you together. I loved cooking with my dad at a young age.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? Right now we're doing a five-spiced duck ragout that gets served over grits with a duck egg. It packs a lot of flavor. The other dish that everybody really loves is my shrimp and grits with a sage red-eye gravy. That's one of those menu items that people have really, really loved, and one of those things that I think there would be pitchforks at the door if I ever took it off the menu. [laughs] Those are a couple of dishes people have really come to love.
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? At The Corner we try to work with as many local farmers as possible to get the best quality ingredients throughout the season. I approach R&D with specials, and whatever these farmers [have]. This weekend, we came up with a buttermilk fried green tomato BLT, because one of my farmers was like, "Hey I've got a whole bunch of green tomatoes," and it's like, OK, well, let's see what we can do with that. I try stuff out. I have things that I've tried to do with octopus for breakfast and that’s just didn’t turn out so great! [laughs] It's like,"Well, that was a miss for sure, but we’ll see what happens next time!"
What are your future plans? I'm really loving life at The Corner, and loving the abillity to go out to those restaurants at night and try other people's food. I recently bought a farmhouse: I've got three chickens right now, and I know that’s not a lot but maybe we'll grow it from there and see what happens. That’s kind of where my head is. I think that’s what the next few years has for me – really diving into how we can push a brunch restaurant to the next level of food within Kansas City [and] not just think about eggs for breakfast or bacon for breakfast.
The Corner, 4059 Broadway St., Westport, Kansas City, Missouri, 816.931.4401, facebook.com/thecornerkc