Thursday, April 14, 2011

Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. talks about the family business

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2011 at 3:00 PM

Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. in front of the portrait of his late father, Jasper.
  • Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. in front of the portrait of his late father, Jasper.

Frank Sinatra's voice floats slowly and softly out of the speakers inside the office at Jasper's Restaurant every night at 5 p.m. He is singing "My Way," the same song that played at founder Jasper Mirabile's funeral in 1998, the father of current chef and co-owner Jasper J. Mirabile Jr.

"It's been that way every night since opening night," Mirabile says. "And it's not even our tape, but it's how I know my dad's watching what we do here. That I better be on my game because there's a lot of tradition to uphold." 

Chef Mirabile Jr. is eating a banana on a Wednesday morning, taking a look at last night's covers -- the totals written in pen inside a creased black ledger, the very same ledger that has been in use since Jasper's opened in 1954. Later in the day, his nephew, Jasper Mirabile III (the fourth generation of the family business), will type the information into his computer as a backup. But for Mirabile Jr., staying connected to how his father ran the business is as important as the food that comes out of the kitchen at 103rd and State Line.

That's what happens when you're born with the name Jasper. Mirabile Jr. was one of four boys. Leonard, the oldest, was always going to be in the family business. Today, he is Mirabile Jr.'s partner, sharing a desk in the office that's to the right of the dining room. Jim was going to be a doctor, and Salvatore a lawyer.

And as for Jasper? He would sit on their father's bed, a pair of silver cuff links in his hand. One had the restaurant's name engraved on them; the other was the restaurant's address.

 "I used to stare at them and say someday those will be mine," Mirabile Jr. says.

His culinary education started at the kitchen counter, when he was 6 years old, watching his nana cook for family dinners on Sunday nights. The restaurant is still closed on Sundays -- that day is reserved for the family. He remembers his mother rushing him and a brother in and out of the restaurant, resulting in his always wanting more of the tastes and smells in the place they never lingered. Instead of sleeping or studying for his final exams in eighth grade, he was alongside his father in the kitchen developing recipes until 2 a.m.

"It was probably at that point, my father knew I was hooked," Mirabile Jr. says.

For a more formal education, he went to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to study restaurant and hotel management. But when his father had a heart attack, he moved back to be closer to the family. He worked summers in the kitchen and transferred to Kansas State University.

He officially came on as a chef in 1984 with the opening of Marco Polo's Italian Market at 75th and Wornall. It was supposed to be a small grocery store (olive oil, roasted red peppers and pasta), but the first day, a line formed at 11:30 a.m., and customers began asking for sandwiches.

"My dad and I stayed up until 3 a.m., and the next day we had a sandwich menu," Mirabile Jr. says. The well-known sausage cart launched not long after that. 

Seven years later, Trattoria opened next door with Mirabile Jr. as the head chef. It was a more casual version of Jasper's, where diners were still served by waiters in tuxedos. The corner at 75th was busy enough to also sustain a coffee shop, Il Cafe, which opened in 1993. Then the Mirabile family received an offer.

"I was the only one in the family who didn't want to sell. But then my father started to tell me to look around and see what was happening in the city," Mirabile says.

Walgreens purchased the property. And the family set about reimagining the restaurant. Service would be a bit more relaxed to reflect a culture where carryout was no longer a luxury. The tuxedos would come off the waiters. And then a shopping center at 103rd and State Line became available. Jasper's Restaurant and Marco Polo -- the casual eatery and sausage cart in front -- opened in November of 1998, a month after Mirabile Sr. passed away.

"I struggled with whether or not to touch the menu, but I knew I had to offer new items. I told customers that it was still the same cooks and the same family," Mirabile Jr. says.

Original dishes like the scampi alla livornese remain untouched, but the menu also reflected Mirabile's tastes and the changing seasons. Since that first night, he's been proud to say that there has been a family member in-house whenever Jasper's is open for business. It's MITH -- a Mirabile In The House. Although, if you wanted to lodge a complaint eight years ago, you would have had to see 10-year-old Alexandra, who manned the office while the partners were at City Hall to sign some papers.  

"Whatever it takes to run this restaurant, we'll do," Mirabile Jr. says.

He tugs absent-mindedly at the hems of the sleeves on his blue oxford shirt, right about the spot where a pair of cuff links would sit. And in that moment, his words sound an awful lot like something his father might have said.

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