Friday, May 20, 2011

Chef Brian Aaron finds family in the kitchen

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2011 at 12:00 PM

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The smallest omelet chef in Lenexa was finished with his prep work. The little piles of onions and peppers had been chopped and diced, and the eggs had been cracked. The pan was hot. He just needed his mom to give him a hand, although not in the way you're probably thinking.

"My mom tells this story," says chef Brian Aaron. "I was 4 or 5, and she asked what I wanted for breakfast. Eggs. How do you want them? My way. Then I pushed my little chair over to the stove, and she had to hold onto the back of my pants to keep me from burning my belly."

The chef at Tannin Wine Bar and Kitchen will tell you that a kitchen is like a family -- a philosophy that took root while he was taking omelet orders in his own family's kitchen.

The past week was a bittersweet one at Tannin. Only five days after the restaurant's official grand opening, The Kansas City Star raved about the food. This was eight years to the day after Aaron's older brother, Kevin, died.

"He was the kind of guy that was friends with everyone," Aaron says. "He was who you wanted to be."

It was Kevin who got Aaron his first kitchen job. He remembers his brother turning to him in his car one day and asking his plans for the summer. Aaron, then 15, was cocky, replying that he might cook because he was "pretty good at it," and he wanted to earn enough money to buy a mountain bike. 

"He told me that he had been hanging out at the Sahara Cafe and had already set it up with the boss," Aaron says. "And then he said, 'I got you this.' "

Kevin opened the garage door to reveal a Cannondale mountain bike. Aaron started at the Sahara Cafe as a dishwasher. Before long, he was on the line at the converted Taco Bell, roasting Cornish game hens and breaking down racks of lamb. Owner Samir Abu-Ali worked alongside him on Sundays, tending to the grill and the dining room.

"We were the peace process in action. I was a nice Jewish boy working for a Palestinian," Aaron says.

After graduating from Shawnee Mission South High School, Aaron enrolled at Colorado State to study restaurant and resort management. At the time, he was a vegetarian -- "It was hard to find happy, healthy chickens in the late '90s," he explains. After graduation, he enrolled at Johnson and Wales in Denver. His externship was at the Brown Palace Hotel, where he learned the art of the banquet and the challenges of putting out a thousand meals a day. He was hired on as a second cook for banquets; three weeks later, he was the lead cook.

"I'm just out of culinary school and here I am sitting in meetings with a group of eight people that are running the whole hotel," Aaron says.

It was his transition into the real world, where grief and loss unfortunately are part of our daily lives. In 2003, Kevin died, and Aaron felt untethered. He was back in Kansas City, but he didn't pick up a knife for three months. It just didn't feel right.

Kevin had been good friends with John Williams, the chef and owner of Pot Pie. Williams had just bought the Westport space, and Aaron found himself drawn to the dining room. He began scrubbing ovens and sanding the bar. Williams was grieving, too. But chefs aren't meant to live in the dining room.

"He [Williams] looked at me one day and he said, 'You need to get a real job at a real restaurant,' " Aaron says.

Williams arranged for him to try out at Zin. The executive chef at the time was Derek Nacey, who gave Aaron 10 pounds of calamari to clean on his first day. After that first shift, Aaron accepted a beer as payment, just glad to have felt the energy of a kitchen for one shift. When Nacey's sous chef was in a car accident, Aaron was called back into the kitchen later that week. 

"I had been gone for seven years. I had no idea about First Fridays or the Crossroads. And Zin was First Fridays," Aaron says.

The kitchen was slammed, and Aaron loved it. Afterward, Nacey turned to Aaron and promised to give him as many shifts as possible. He not only worked at Zin with Nacey but also followed him to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Aaron was the head chef at Theo's. Aaron came back to Kansas City in 2009 and took over as executive chef at JP Wine Bar. After JP closed, he was named the head chef for Tannin.

"I'm just trying to bring in young, hungry cooks that want to have fun and see where we can take the menu," Aaron says. "And so far, the response has been great."

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