Thursday, November 17, 2011

Succotash's Beth Barden has a story for you

Posted By on Thu, Nov 17, 2011 at 11:37 AM

Beth Barden stands behind her rainbow cake.
  • Beth Barden stands behind her rainbow cake.
Everything at Succotash (2601 Holmes) comes with a story. The tables are from a bowling alley in Topeka, while the chairs are refugees of a defunct Thai restaurant in town. The wooden monkey next to the coffeemaker is "Little Buddy," a gift to restaurant owner Beth Barden. He's perched next to the aqua diner stools, so you "always have a little buddy to dine with if you're eating alone," Barden says. The curios and auction finds are interesting, but none have a tale as engaging as that of Barden, 44, who ran a commercial kitchen for the first time the day she opened the original Succotash in the City Market a decade ago.

"I served 24 people the first day I was open, and it almost killed me," Barden says. "But it just kind of evolved naturally over time."

The same could be said of how she came to be running a breakfast and lunch spot in Kansas City. Her first kitchen job was a pot stirrer alongside her mom in her childhood home in Washington, Michigan, a small town about 40 miles north of Detroit. In time, she graduated to making Hungarian recipes — chicken paprikash and cabbage rolls — under the tutelage of her maternal grandmother, Rose. It was simple fare, well-prepared.

"There was salt, pepper, paprika, parsley, and maybe some chili powder if someone was feeling frisky," Barden remembers.

When Barden enrolled at Michigan State, she thought she would graduate as a journalist covering stories around the globe. The world came to her in front-of-the-house jobs at a Lebanese restaurant and baseball-themed diner. She discovered the joy of feeding others via a pop-up restaurant in her dorm room. During finals week, she'd front-load her tests and spend the final few days with a sign on the door announcing the soup and sandwich specials from her dorm-room kitchen.

She graduated with a bachelor's degree in multidisciplinary studies with a minor in women's studies and film. That degree didn't have a specific career attached to it.

"I had geared myself up to work in a restaurant without really knowing it," Barden says.

She moved to Detroit and continued to work the front of the house, although her curiosity for different cuisine had her always hovering around the kitchen. In time, she came to learn that her great-grandparents had run the Delmont, a 24-hour joint that served steaks and pork chops in Motor City. A sign on the door explained that it was "an all-around restaurant for fine ladies and gentlemen." Those of lesser character could always grab an egg sandwich from the tiny adjacent shop, the Sunrise, their other operation.

After nearly two decades in the Detroit area, Barden needed a change. A brief stint as a chicken-farm owner in rural Arkansas preceded a move to Kansas City. Here, she was hired as a sex educator for Planned Parenthood. But not long after she arrived, her father passed away, and she lost her job. And she found herself seeking solace in a cup of coffee at YJ's Snack Bar. The owner had just had surgery and needed some help, so Barden offered her services.

"One or two days a week turned into six days a week for the next two years," Barden says.

On the two little hot plates at YJ's, Barden began making soups, curries and casseroles. She developed relationships with farmers at the City Market and opened a small catering company a few doors down from YJ's. Succotash, the catering company, was open for six months before Barden made the decision to open a restaurant.

"We opened the whole restaurant for $4 shy of $20,000. And when I opened, I had $4 in the till," Barden says.

In 2009, in search of a bigger kitchen and more room in the dining room, she moved her restaurant to 2601 Holmes. Garage-sale and auction finds helped her transform the former space of the Dutch Hill Bar & Grill. But even today, she still sees the operation as an organic thing, meant to change in the coming years.

"There's something to be said for having your hands in something that is always in flux. The restaurant business mixes art, flavor, atmosphere and personal skills. You're always working for that one moment when everything clicks, when the front and back of the house are functioning together beautifully, and people are happy. It's that sweet spot of the bat — that one perfect sound, perfect feel," Barden says. "I love that craziness. The crazy that nobody else loves. The crazy that you have to be wired in a particularly bizarre way to enjoy."

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