Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Michael Foust serves up Midwestern comfort food with a French twist

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2011 at 2:20 PM

Michael Foust is loving life in the River Market.
  • Michael Foust is loving life in the River Market.

In the course of a two-hour conversation, chef Michael Foust uses the word "blessed" no fewer than five times. He was blessed to grow up with a family that loved traveling. Blessed to work for talented chefs who demanded his best in the kitchen. And blessed to find a corner space at Third and Delaware, where he opened the Farmhouse in July 2009.

"I didn't find this space. This space found me. It was the perfect neighborhood spot to serve the food I love," Foust says.

After graduating from high school in Lake Quivira, Kansas, Foust was working at a country club, prepping during the day and watching the pool at night. While around food, he never thought of cooking for a living. He had bigger dreams of ski slopes out West.

So Foust moved to Aspen, Colorado, to be a snowboard instructor. The problem was that it wasn't so easy to live on a snowboard instructor's salary in Aspen. So it was back to the kitchen and working for a French chef with a hot temper. A week later, he was on the grill when the restaurant's grill cook didn't show.

"It was literally trial by fire. But it was a blessing because I didn't know any better," Foust says.

At the age of 19, he had risen to the position of sous chef. He was content, but the chef saw promise in him and kicked him out, telling him that he needed an education if he wanted to be taken seriously in the kitchen. Foust enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland, Oregon. He continued his study of French culinary-technique cooking in Lyon, France, for a year before returning to Kansas City. He landed at the former Joe D's in Brookside (now Julian) and, for the first time, was the chef writing the daily menu.

"It was the place [in Kansas City] for anybody that loved food. Joe had a menu that was a blackboard. I loved that," Foust says.

After close to a year at Joe D's, he applied to continue his education in France, receiving a student visa that allowed him to work 28 hours while taking continuing-education courses online. Eighteen months later, he was hungry for a new challenge.

"I saw Lyon as the gastronomic capital of the world. And I thought if I can cook there, I can cook anywhere. So, of course, I picked New York City," Foust says.

There he discovered another Kansas City transplant, Room 39's Ted Habiger. While Habiger worked the grill at the Union Square Cafe, Foust rotated through the saute, pasta and grill stations. New York has a way of grinding a chef down, though, and in the wake of 9/11, Foust sought the comfort of open spaces and the countryside. After almost a decade, he was back in Aspen, Colorado, where he found a mentor in renowned sushi chef Ken Kenichi.

"Every time I'm in the kitchen. I try to find the best guy and elbow up. I tell him, I'll push you, and you push me," Foust says.

Kenichi demanded perfection when it came to fish. After a humbling experience with a small tuna, Foust was told not to touch the knives in Kenichi's kitchen. The ban was lifted after three weeks when Foust demonstrated that he could be trusted to filet and bone a fish. He followed Kenichi out to Kona, Hawaii, but he couldn't shake an idea that he'd had since his days at Joe D's. Foust was finally ready to open a restaurant in Kansas City.

"I had a hundred ideas. I just tried to narrow it down to what I thought would work, and that was Midwest comfort food just done with French technique," Foust says.

The Farmhouse, in the former Delaware Cafe space, has been open almost two years. Foust is glad that the restaurant is receiving a reputation for local ingredients -- he is often heard telling customers that the fish he cooks must arrive at his restaurant alive -- but he doesn't want to be pigeonholed. 

"I can't make it through the year on what's available within 90 miles," Foust says. "But that doesn't mean you'll see anything out of a bag, box or can. No chemicals and no food science." 

Still, the 37 farmers who supply the restaurant manage to give him quite a bounty to work with each week. The thrice-weekly trips to the City Market and his work ethic are two of the likely reasons for the Farmhouse's success. Last year, he took just four days off from the kitchen at the Farmhouse. A chef who's always cooking in his kitchen? That's a blessing for Kansas City.

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