Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Starker's John McClure won't eat canned water chestnuts, can't resist cinnamon rolls and might just open a taqueria

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 2:00 PM

The fresh ground burger with homemade pickles is on the lunch menu at Starker's.
  • The fresh ground burger with homemade pickles is on the lunch menu at Starker's.

The first night that executive chef John McClure worked the kitchen at Starker's Restaurant, the dining room had eight covers. A little over a month later, he was busting out 700 plates of food for 146 tables on Valentine's Day.

"If you're not going fast, the one-man line will eat you up," McClure says.

But the former Navy cook and son of a cattle rancher is no stranger to pressure. Rather than be consumed by the pace, McClure became hungrier for greater challenges. He purchased Starker's in 2006 and has spent the past five years building a dual menu that honors the restaurant's classics -- Starker's has been on the Plaza since 1972 -- and allows him to show off some of the Southern style that he picked up while working at Brigtsen's in New Orleans. 

Today, chef McClure talks about where to eat in Kansas City and who can claim to have the best tacos in town. Tomorrow, he'll share how he got his culinary start at the county fair, and on Friday, he'll forever change your opinion of the ribeye. 

click to enlarge The fresh ground burger with homemade pickles is on the lunch menu at Starker's.
  • The fresh ground burger with homemade pickles is on the lunch menu at Starker's.

What do we need more of here in Kansas City from a culinary standpoint? We need great cheap food of any kind and late-night dining. I'm talking simple food you can eat with your hands. I've been thinking about doing a taqueria that would stay open until 4 a.m. on the weekend -- $2 tacos, no beer over $5 and $1 PBRs all the time. I'd love to do a taqueria, although my passion is Southern food. I'm underwhelmed by the traditional Southern food here.

We need more places like in Kansas City, Kansas, with El Camino Real. The pastor is as good as anywhere I've been and that includes Mexico. Kansas City has grown more than any other city in the past 10 years from where it was to where it is now. It's so exciting. There are young, exciting chefs who are connected to the area and doing interesting food. It's places like Green Dirt Farms and [chef] Howard [Hanna] at the Rieger.

What do we need less of from a culinary standpoint?
Corporate diining, national chain restaurants. There's great corporate restaurants, but I have a commitment to my staff, and they have a commitment to me. Creating jobs is something I cherish. I get as excited about the business part of a restaurant as I do about creating a new dish as a chef.

What's been your best recent food find? Rancho Gordo beans and hominy. I just cooked them for the first time. The beans are creamy. This is the first time I've worked with dried fresh hominy. I just fried it up with a little bit of bacon and onion in a bun. I'm working on a South American-inspired dish, maybe something with green chiles and braised pork -- a pozole.

What's one food you hate? Burnt. Underseasoned food. Disrespected food. When somebody doesn't take care and love their food, it's not happy. The way I look at food, you can get a product that is this good or this good [McClure held his right hand about a foot over his left hand]. This product [right hand] can only go down. This product [left hand] can never get to that point.

There were things I used to not like. I used to not dig salt cod. But your taste buds change over time. One thing I don't like -- it's a bad memory -- are canned water chestnuts. I can't eat them. I was forced to clean my plate as a kid. There's something specific about water chestnuts soaked in soy sauce. It's a weird, crunchy sauce, and I feel like my teeth are falling apart.

click to enlarge The crab cake is a Starker's classic.
  • The crab cake is a Starker's classic.
What's one food you love? I love anything from my mom's kitchen. She's a tremendous baker. I can remember every Friday morning waking up to her cinnamon rolls. They are upside-down caramel rolls. I've scalded my tongue too many times to count. Homemade chicken potpie. The best I've ever had was at my house, the filling and crust were perfect.

What's always in your fridge at home?  Champagne, a small grower's champagne. Kistler Chardonnay. Condiments. I don't go to the grocery store. When people ask where's your favorite grocery, I say Starker's. I'm not a market shopper. I buy something and cook it. Smoked paprika. Extra virgin olive oil. Horseradish. Mustard of about 10 different varieties. Fish sauce.

Glace ice cream is usually in the freezer, and I always have a half loaf of Farm to Market bread. And peanut butter. I like chunky peanut butter, extra crunchy Jif. There's homemade jelly and pickled beets in my pantry.

If you're not eating at your restaurant, where are you eating? I dine out a lot. The number one restaurant that I dine at is the Vietnam Café in Columbus Park. At least once a week, easily 60 to 65 times a year. I get the beef pho or the combination plate. I get excited when I can bring people because I can share. I also get a double iced coffee, but only one has the sweetened condensed milk, so it's more like a triple.

I love Le Fou Frog. Mano [Rafael], his menu is like a love letter to me. I love offal and beef kidneys and tongue. I love Extra Virgin. I just ate at The American. El Camino Real has the best tacos, and I dig the bar at Room 39.

Where's a must eat in New Orleans? Brigtsen's. I'd go to Parasol's for a roast-beef po' boy and Guy's for a shrimp and oyster po' boy. Casamento's for an oyster loaf and Arnaud's Remoulade for turtle soup. There's still a few restaurants from [chef] John Besh I want to try. 

Who's got the best barbecue in town, and what are you ordering? I got two. Oklahoma Joe's, anything on the menu, and L.C.'s burnt ends. At Oklahoma Joe's, it's the pulled pork and Z-Man, but when the burnt ends at L.C.'s are on, it's the best it can be.

If you could steal one dish off somebody else's menu, what would it be? I would take it off Frank's menu. The stuffed oysters at Brigtsen's. It's an awesome dish. Baked oysters with shrimp and crab and bread crumbs and pecorino cheese. There's roasted eggplant that keeps it moist and a plump, bubbling oyster.

Which Kansas City chef do you think could use a stint in the Navy? I couldn't choose one because all of my chef friends are now married.

[Chef photo by Allie Mason. Food photo via chef John McClure]

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