Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Stretch talks about developing his style and launching Grinders in the Crossroads

Posted By on Wed, Jul 27, 2011 at 4:30 PM


Stretch won't be the first person to greet you at the door if you stop into his studio on Troost. That honor falls to Duf -- short for Dog Under Foot -- an imposing German shepherd mix until he licks your face. Duf is Stretch's erstwhile companion, having toured the country alongside his boisterous owner since being adopted a year and a half ago.

Stretch is back in the corner office, the only room with air-conditioning. His cell phone chimes every few minutes with reminders of meetings or people hoping to pitch him a new project. It's 10 a.m. on Monday, and while most of us are thinking about a second cup of coffee, Stretch is probably close to eight hours into the day. A number on the clock that once foretold a great night, 2 a.m. is now just the start of his workday -- the only time it seems to make sense to use blowtorches in the middle of this summer heat wave.    

The Philly kid was going to be a toy designer. The Kansas City Art Institute seemed perfect with a dedicated campus and a strong design program. However, his expectations changed when it came time to try and match his personality with the design school back in 1984.

"You had to be the clean and press type, and I wasn't that clean," Stretch says. "In design, they were listening to Kenny G and drinking Diet Cokes. The boys over in sculpture were listening to Jack Daniels and ZZ Top. It was a little more my style."

Living in a studio, he was also developing his own style of cooking, using shop tools and scrap metal to create techniques designed to breathe life into leftovers in the days before molecular gastronomy. It was hamburgers cooking on an iron and hot dogs skewered with nails over a grill grating with charcoal underneath.

After graduating with a degree in sculpture, Stretch moved to Richmond, Virginia, and received a master's from Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Arts. His willingness to fix anything endeared him to local and traveling bands, and soon he was "a rock-and-roll repairman." He'd go to a show and then head over to his studio at 3 a.m. to weld, cut and fix vans and trailers that had clipped a sign or broken an axle. He hit it off with a local group, GWAR, who had a wild stage show that was perfect for the MTV generation. Stretch the repairman was suddenly introduced to the possibilities of television.

It was a job and the developing art district that brought him back to Kansas City in 1994. He became the tech of the shops at the art institute and opened his first art space -- Zone Gallery in the Crossroads. It was cutting-edge art, designed to bring the feeling of the West Bottoms downtown. This was when there was still a YJ at YJ's with bubbling crockpots, cigarettes and Snickers bars.

Stretch's studio had his first kitchen, where he made Thanksgiving dinner and where he cooked eggs on his grill as the downtown work crowd returned home to their lofts. But when he got a call from sculptor Mark di Suvero offering him a position, he dropped it all and moved to New York City. 

"I kissed my girlfriend goodbye and told her I'd see her in four or five months," Stretch says. "Five years later, I came back."

It was August 2001 that he returned to Kansas City for the third time and began to make it his permanent home. He had two studios and purchased the buildings that would become Grinders and Grinders West.

"I was missing my New York pizza and my Philly cheese steaks," Stretch says.

He worked on the original recipes with a partner from the art institute, Martin Frannea, who had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. Grinders opened in November 2004. Grinders West -- a deli concept featuring soups and sandwiches -- opened next door four years later. The quirky decor is a mix of items he's picked up from his own travels and local art.

"It's not a T.G.I. Friday's. I'm the only one who can recognize if something is missing off the walls. People have taken big signs and alligators off the wall," Stretch says. "If people want something, just trade me."

Back in his studio on Troost, an hour has gone by in the retelling of the past 25 years in and out of Kansas City. Stretch has to be off soon to meet chef Celina Tio for lunch at the Genessee Royale Bistro. Later, he'll be learning how to cut fish at a local market, working on whole tuna and shark. In a week, he'll be touring through Japan, Korea and Guam with America's Chefs, cooking for military members and their families.

"I love being in the kitchen and I just can't wait to see what's next," Stretch says.

With a television pilot for Spike in the editing phase and a busy summer music series at Crossroads KC, there's plenty on the horizon.

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