Long before Anthony Bourdain or Paula Deen, there were local celebrity chefs. And one of Kansas City’s best-known culinary stars was Bonnie Winston.
On the surface, she was an unlikely candidate for kitchen stardom. The lithe Detroit native hadn’t gone to cooking school; she had a master’s degree in personnel psychology from Columbia University. “I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with that degree,” Winston says. “My first job was at Macy’s, where I learned 100 different ways to shoplift merchandise.”
In the vibrant, Mad Men era of New York City’s advertising industry, Winston was offered a job as a receptionist at Manhattan’s hottest agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach. “There was a period of time before that job was available, so I was living in a tiny apartment in the West Village and I started cooking. Before that, I had only a passing interest in cooking because my maternal grandmother — a divine cook — lived with us when I was growing up and the kitchen was her domain. But on my own, I developed an interest in the art of cooking.”
The job lasted two weeks. “I think my boss may have had other ideas for my duties than I did,” Winston says. But her interest in cooking became a lifelong passion.
She arrived in Kansas City in 1963 as a newlywed. (Her ex-husband is lawyer Bill Shapiro, a local celebrity himself; he’s the creator and host of KCUR 89.3’s Cyprus Avenue.) She spent five years working for a social service agency before staying home to raise her children. She also began baking bread.
“No one was baking bread at home in the 1960s,” Winston says. “And suddenly I had all these friends and neighbors asking me to teach them how to make bread. And then that just grew into teaching cooking classes.”
The cooking classes led to work as a culinary consultant. Woolf Brothers department store on the Country Club Plaza hired her in 1976 to oversee the design and menu of a basement-level bistro, Lunch. It opened to rave reviews but was a victim of the 1977 Plaza flood. “It drowned,” she says. “They never reopened it.”
Three years later, Don Anderson, owner of the trendy Prospect of Westport restaurant, hired Winston to create a new menu for his seven-year-old venue. Before Winston’s arrival, the place pulled in a hip clientele but served mediocre food. A 1976 menu lists vaguely continental dishes such as chicken a l’orange and trout amandine alongside cheeseburgers.
“Don had first hired a chef from San Francisco, who lasted about a year,” she says. “Then it limped along without a chef for a few years. Then he handed me the kind of opportunity that cooks dream about: total creative freedom.”
At the Prospect, Winston created dishes with ingredients still rare in Kansas City restaurant kitchens, such as Thai curry paste. Her dinner menu featured curried chicken with broccoli and peanuts; a signature salad made with butter lettuce, hearts of palm, toasted pecans and blue cheese; and lamb curry with eggplant. It was exotic stuff for the Kansas City of 1980.
She also created a memorable Sunday brunch menu for the Prospect and a Sunday evening pasta buffet that some still talk about today. Her recipe for carrot cake was so popular that there are still restaurants today — d’Bronx is one — selling a version of it.
Winston left the Prospect before it closed, in the late 1980s, to open Pasta Presto in Westport. “It was an exciting time to introduce new culinary ideas to Kansas City,” Winston says of her fresh-pasta takeout spot. “People were hungry for new things.” She went on to work as a caterer and, later, as culinary consultant for two supermarket chains.
Fat City: What is your thought on the recent cult of celebrity chefs?
Winston: It’s an amazing evolution from being ignored in the kitchen to being very much in the public view. I do think it’s time for chefs to be getting their due as artists, but like anything, the pendulum can swing too far in both directions. There are chefs who get so caught up in the publicity hype that they’re totally out of touch with what’s going on in their own kitchens and in their own dining rooms. The famous chefs are truly talented and that talent deservedly pulls them into the limelight. But it’s not too good to get too far away from your creative source.
Did you ever want to open your own full-service restaurant?
I had offers to partner in a couple of restaurants, but I never did and I’m glad. My skill is creativity. I’m not a manager.
What’s the most difficult thing about working as a culinary consultant?
It’s hard to really work at creating and innovating new products and to introduce them and hear the positive feedback and then, after the consulting job is over, the employer goes right back to preparing dishes exactly the way they were done before. That’s the biggest drawback of being a consultant. Not everyone really wants to change things.