Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bloomsbury Bistro's Cari Jo Cavalcante keeps besting the competition

Posted By on Wed, Feb 15, 2012 at 11:13 AM

Bloomsbury Bistros Cari Jo Cavalcante has carved out her niche in the Mission Road Antique Mall.
  • Cari Jo Cavalcante
  • Bloomsbury Bistro's Cari Jo Cavalcante has carved out her niche in the Mission Road Antique Mall.
In the genteel quiet of Bloomsbury Bistro, a former hard-nosed field hockey player is plating a bowl of soup for the last lunch table of the day. Her fingers are sure, and her feet are light, even now in her 50s. But after a decade of running her restaurant inside the Mission Road Antique Mall, owner and chef Cari Jo Cavalcante is proud that Prairie Village has come to know her softer side and her savory side and her pastry side.

“I’m unashamed to say that we are known as a ladies-that-lunch place. They’re the ones who have kept me in business all these years,” Cavalcante says, drinking a glass of water after the lunch shift in lieu of the standard post-game Gatorade.

At first glance, this was an unlikely future for the field hockey star who grew up with two older brothers in Lititz, Pennsylvania. She woke up each morning to the smell of pouring chocolate from the Wilbur Chocolate factory, and during the day, she’d sometimes catch a whiff of Listerine from the nearby Johnson & Johnson chemical plant.

“When I make chocolate ganache, it takes me right back to that smell,” Cavalcante says. ”But when I smell Listerine, I don’t have to run into a grocery store and pick it up.”

She would earn a full athletic scholarship to the University of Central Missouri, graduating with a degree in broadcasting and film on the way to fulfilling her dream of becoming a sports broadcaster. She had enough gas to make it from Warrensburg to Kansas City, Missouri. Once here, she took a job as a graphic artist for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and snagged an unpaid internship with the Kansas City Kings. But after the last game of the season at Kemper Arena, she knew that she’d never be going back — at least as an employee.

“I got into my car and I burst into tears because I knew I didn’t want to be a sports broadcaster. I still love sports. I just had a hard time with the attitudes,” Cavalcante says.

It was her love of sports that guided her to the Missouri Special Olympics. She was the Kansas City area director for seven years, bridging the '80s and '90s. During what she calls her “early midlife crisis,” she returned home to Pennsylvania and crafted a plan. She remembered high school when she was bored in class. Most people might doodle aimlessly, but Cavalcante designed restaurants. When she decided to pursue that dream, she didn’t do it flippantly. She gave herself 10 years to determine if she wanted to own her own restaurant or bed and breakfast.

When she returned to Kansas City, she began working at Southmoreland on the Plaza. In her three-year stint, she found herself gravitating toward the kitchen more and more often. At the same time, she enrolled at Johnson County Community College to pursue a degree in hospitality management.

Her first restaurant job was on the line at Californos, where she also worked as a server. That led to a position at the Classic Cup on the Plaza, and she again took shifts in the front and the back of the house. Her pastry skills caught the eye of Rod Anderson, and she was hired at the Hereford House in Leawood. That position quickly evolved when the restaurant group opened a central commissary downtown across from the original location. As the production demands grew because of a new line of wedding cakes, Cavalcante was ready for a change.

A friend recommended that she have lunch at a bistro inside an old antique mall because the space was available. The dining room was dark then, a sportsman's cave. The kitchen was open; diners could look in only on the backs of refrigerators. But Cavalcante saw something and submitted a proposal for the restaurant in February 2001. The Bloomsbury Bistro opened April 23 of that year.

“My roommate at the time had a cat named Bloomsbury. It clicked because of the whole tie-in with Virginia Woolf. Everything else just fell into place,” Cavalcante says.

There are still a few items left from the original menu: the chicken-ham roulade sandwich (chicken breast rolled in ham and topped with Swiss cheese and Dijon mayo), the dreamy orange Jell-O surprise (orange Jell-O with a lemon topping) and an asparagus soup made to welcome each spring.

“When I was getting ready to open, one of my instructors from JCCC looked at me and looked at this place. He said, ‘Well, you’re not going to make it. I wish you the best, but this is a bad location.’ And yet, it’s turned out so great," Cavalcante says.

And while her lease is up in 2014, she’s enjoying the idea that her business is established, and people know to look for her among the antique booths.

“I’d like to do more boxed lunches, and we do a lot of charity events. But I think a real priority of mine is a cookbook — The Bloomsbury Bistro Cookbook. It would be pastry and savory because I’ve always wanted to do both,” Cavalcante says.

She knows there’s no shortage of cookbooks, but she’s eager to share what she’s learned in kitchens across the metro. And if there’s one thing she doesn’t mind, it’s a little competition.

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