The Peanut on Main is quiet at 3 p.m. on a Monday. There's a college-aged couple sharing a plate of wings at a table just off the bar, where a white-haired gentleman in a windbreaker is attempting to explain the story of his lost tooth to the bartender.
There aren't many possibilities for conversation, but chef Aaron Confessori is a magnet for people. It's not long before the older man is extolling the virtues of canned vegetables from his spot in front of the tap. He's looking for an audience and thinks he's found a sympathetic ear.
Confessori is impassive, sipping on a cup of iced water until the man
begins to talk about his grandchildren. And it's only then that the
young chef raises his eyes from above the wooden bar and gives the man
a sad, slow smile. The owner of the Westport Cafe & Bar is ready to
do this interview, but first, one more person wants to share with him a
piece of his life story.
It's an old cliche in restaurants that the focus is on hospitality, but you can't really teach someone to be personable. Confessori's burgeoning career has been steeped in hospitality, but it's likely that his personable nature is what will make him a fixture in the Kansas City culinary scene.
He grew up in Wichita, a busboy at Hometown Buffet just hoping to earn enough money to pay for a car. That led to a job as a server with Latour Management, which runs five restaurants in Wichita. At the age of 21, he moved to Arizona, intending to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu. A friend had a couch to crash on in Tempe, and Confessori quickly found work doing sushi prep for Sake's. For six months, he made sushi rice as the chefs talked to him about why he shouldn't go to culinary school, arguing that he could learn more on the line.
"I thought I was lucky," Confessori says. "All of my friends were in college, and they didn't know what to do. And here I was exactly where I wanted to be."
Le Cordon Bleu was put on hold. It would be eight years before he enrolled in culinary school. As he worked his way up on the line, he also began taking shifts in the front of the house. On Tuesdays, instead of going home, he'd go into the back office and change into a shirt and tie to help the general manager work the front of the house for Ladies' Night.
His drive caught the eye of management of the Kona Grill, which owned the Tempe restaurant. He was brought to the chain's original location in Scottsdale for training, which shared a wall with the original PF Chang's. His first week, he was concerned as he worked 12-hour days to bread 50 pounds of onion rings. But when the Scottsdale GM left to open the company's second location in Chandler, Confessori had an opportunity to move immediately to the floor. When the Kona Grill decided to come to the Plaza, he was ready to be closer to home and have the challenge of running the new restaurant.
"Kansas City really embraced me," Confessori says. "I appreciate this town. I'm happy being here."
After two years with the Kona Grill in KC, he left to start his own restaurant. He looked at spaces in the Crossroads and considered opening a sushi joint downtown. But then he got a call from Chris Seferyn, owner of the Velvet Dog. The adjacent space in Martini Corner was available for lease. Confessori, together with his partner Chris Ridler, looked at the two big windows in front covered by glass blocks and saw potential. Confessori envisioned a patio grill concept similar to Dos Gringos in Arizona, and the Sol Cantina opened its garage doors in 2007.
Confessori was 27 and had accomplished his dream of owning a restaurant. Ridler (who still owns and operates Sol Cantina) made an offer to buy him out in 2009. That offer came with a one-year non-compete clause. His mind turned back to Le Cordon Bleu, and he typed "six-month culinary school" into Google. The French Cuilnary Institute was the first result and his next destination. A few months later, he was in New York City, finally going to school and working the hot apps station at Spice Market.
"I've never been at a job where I've literally sat there and thought, 'What am I going to do.' But I was down 14 papaya salads when I thought, 'I'm 31 years old. I can't be doing this,' " Confessori says of the 12- to 14-hour workdays.
After graduation, he was hired on as the general manager of the Sea Grill Restaurant in Rockefeller Center. But when it's 90 degrees, and you're wearing a suit on the patio cleaning plates, you'd rather be feeling the heat of a kitchen. So Confessori was considering San Diego, New York and Kansas City when he came across a story that said Blanc Burgers + Bottles was leaving its place in Westport to move to the Plaza.
Confessori signed the lease in January of last year and moved back to Kansas City in March. He drew inspiration from his classic French training and the stripped-down elegance of El Buco and Pastis, the restaurants he had liked to frequent when he lived in the West Village.
"It's the brasserie concept, a little more refined," he says. "But it's a simple equation. Really great service, a cool environment and solid execution."
The Westport Cafe & Bar opened last June. His partner today is a fellow graduate of the French Culinary Institute. Chef Rich Wiles, who bought out Confessori's original partner, Chad Bender (no relation), has been on staff since the first days of the Westport restaurant.
"Here we are seven months later and I feel like we just had our best night," Confessori says. "I keep saying that over and over. The best night usually only comes along once in a year, but I feel like we continue to grow and get better."
At 32, most of his story likely hasn't been told in Kansas City. But in order to tell the rest, he'll have to figure out when he can get a word in edgewise.