Back into the Frying Pan
Story by Dave Eckert | @eatsanddrinkswithdave
Covid did a true shake-up to the hospitality industry and Kansas City was no exception. While I can’t begin to capture the full scope and impact the last 18-months have had on the metro’s dining scene, I can provide some personal insights from three people; chefs who’ve had their worlds turned upside down, emerging in different positions, and, in some cases, in different parts of the country.
Joe West has always struck me as a genuine and humble man in addition to being one of the metro’s most talented chefs.
When Covid struck, West was the Executive Chef at the historic Savoy Grill in the 21 C Hotel, which he had helped reinvent and reinvigorate. “Our food was the best it had ever been, business was booming, and we had a really strong team. It was truly heartbreaking to see our hard work come to a halt,” West recalled.
West says during the shutdown, he started focusing on his health. In two months, he was down 40-pounds and back at work at The Savoy, though things were never the same, including the loss of his chef de cuisine who passed away in an accident.
West says that was one of many factors that had him look for a change of scenery and his career path. He says he’s always yearned for more than managing a day-to-day kitchen operation, so he took a job as the Director of Culinary Operations for the Fine Dining Restaurant Group out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “I oversee the menus, recipes, kitchen operations, staffing, and training. I just couldn’t find anything like what I have here in Kansas City, but my love for my hometown remains the same and I will be visiting as often as I can,” West shared.
Laura Comer is another homegrown chef. From her early days at Trezo Mare, to her pre-pandemic position of Executive Chef at The Dining Experience at The Kauffman Center, Comer has always been one of the creative, talented, and kindest chefs I’ve come to know. At the time of Covid’s explosion onto the scene, Comer was riding high at The Dining Experience with great reviews, new menu introductions each season, and some of the most creative cuisine in the metro. Then Covid shut down all shows at The Kauffman Center and The Dining Experience along with it! “I remember getting the call that we would be shutting down for a few weeks and telling my staff to go home. I don’t think at that time any of us could have foreseen that we would still be really dealing with this 18-months later, and how hard the repercussions would have hit us,” Comer recalled. “As a single mom, I was really panicking about what we were going to do. This has been my career for nearly 20 years, and I felt incredibly lost.”
Comer was able to return to The Kauffman Center in August of 2020. She began developing a holiday “to go” menu program along with seasonal dining menus, also “to go.” As for the future, Comer says she’s optimistic. “We hope that The Dining Experience will re-open soon. We are in the planning stages on some wine dinners and a fun surprise for the holidays. I’ve also got a few exciting side projects going on!” Comer smiled.
Finally, Bradley Gilmore, a North Carolina native who worked with Comer at Trezo Mare before being named opening chef at the wildly popular Gram & Dun and then moving on to Ignite Woodfire Grill. When the shutdown hit, Gilmore says he needed a plan. “We started developing family meals and it took off. I’ll never forget that feeling when the first ticket came through. It gave us a sense of ‘it’s going to be ok.’ Then Ignite closed in August of 2020. That was a hard blow,” Gilmore remembered.
Gilmore said he’d been cooking for the Royals and visiting teams and continued to do so through pandemic. In order to honor our agreement with them, and make money for his family, Gilmore, his wife, and his sous chef started a catering company, Kravin’ It KC. “Today, we not only still do family meals and The Royals, but also serve the KC Women’s Soccer League lunch four days a week, have a food truck, and do private in-home chef dinners, large scale events, and more. Basically, whatever your food needs are, we make it happen,” Gilmore said.
The latest food happening for Gilmore is a new southern food-concept pop up that’s going to run out of the former Nara space in The Crossroads every weekend. Gilmore says it’s an extension of both his southern roots and Kravin’ It KC. And, he says, he’s learned some lessons from the pandemic. “Nothing is certain, life is fragile, and it’s important to slow down. Family has always been very important to me and my motivation, but after what we all went through, I am more determined than ever,” Gilmore stated.
By the way, Gilmore’s wife, Brittany, is pregnant and due on Christmas Eve. How’s that for a Christmas miracle?