The young chef prepared to whip the ends of the plastic wrap around his rabbit roulade to create a tight cylinder before poaching the mixture in water. He rolled his wrists forward and, in that instant, realized that television studios don't stock commercial plastic wrap. The centrifugal force of the spin propelled the rabbit straight up in the air, and like some misguided magic trick, he made a rabbit explode on live television.
"I was just glad I didn't curse," chef James Landis says, "but I finished the segment."
That was probably the moment that the chef at Blue Grotto knew he wasn't destined for a career in television.
Still, that doesn't stop him from entertaining diners every night from the open kitchen of the Brookside restaurant where he has worked for the past 14 months. But it's not patter or showmanship that Landis uses to lure in an audience; it's a straightforward approach to cooking that has subtly expanded the menu beyond pizza at Blue Grotto. Well, that and his use of bacon.
"Caramelized pork belly is really just caramelized bacon. Who doesn't love bacon," Landis jokes about one of the restaurant's popular starters.
He was born and grew up in Carrollton, Missouri. In the town of 4,000 people, Landis was a two-sport athlete, playing football and basketball in high school. He also could bake a mean batch of chocolate-chip cookies. At the age of 19, he moved to Columbia, Missouri, and began working as a prep cook at Chris McD's Restaurant & Wine Bar. When the lead line cook was let go shortly thereafter, he was thrown into the fire on the grill.
"It took me awhile to figure it out. But I felt good when it was alive on a Friday night," Landis says. "The tickets were rolling in, and it reminded me a lot of playing sports. The pressure is on, and you've got to deliver."
For five years, he did deliver, rising to the position of kitchen manager. He was well-versed in American cuisine when he moved to Kansas City in 2001, but his next position as chef du cuisine at Le Fou Frog would introduce him to the world of French cooking.
"Mano [Rafael] is very trusting and demanding. He allows you to experiment and make mistakes," Landis says.
Landis worked on and off at Le Fou Frog, with stints at Blue Grotto in between, learning about preparing sauces from scratch and developing a daily menu based on what was on the prep station in front of him. When a position became open last January at the Brookside spot, he felt that he was already familiar with both the diners and the space.
"I tried to adjust the menu to reflect how I liked to eat, tasting small things as you go," Landis says. "but we're not going to get too far out of the wagon."
The thin-crust pizza is still the main draw at Blue Grotto, although Landis has worked in seasonal entrees with Mediterranean flavors, in part, to accommodate those on a gluten-free diet. In an era of celebrity chefs, it's refreshing to meet a chef who just wants to be a chef. You'll have to leave your couch to get to know him.
In the future, though, he might just be appear tableside."I think about other things I'd like to do. Something like a small restaurant with just 12 seats and a menu that changes every day," Landis say. "A beautiful piece of meat that's on the menu until it runs out. Something where you pay $60, and I'll fill you up."