Chef Ali Shirazi runs the test kitchen for Original Juan, the specialty-foods manufacturer at 111 Southwest Boulevard, where he has developed thousands of products over the past three years.
"I always say, 'Yes, I can do that.' It just sometimes takes a few tries," Shirazi says.
In his defense, it's not that easy to make harvest apple barbecue sauce, salsa that rings in at over 1 million Scoville Units (the scale to determine whether something will incinerate your tongue), and hot sauce from pumpkin seeds.
On a recent Friday morning, Shirazi is chopping piles of cilantro in the spotless test kitchen that is the nerve center for Original Juan (which is perhaps best-known for its Pain Is Good hot sauces and Stockyard BBQ sauces). A four-burner electric oven sits next to two stainless-steel steaming pots, where the day's batch of salsa will be prepared. On the other wall is his "library," a fridge and a beige cabinet that has the extracts, essences and control samples providing the raw materials for the four to six recipes he'll make per day.
"It's always something different, and I love that," Shirazi says. "I was exposed to cooking at the age of 7, and at 59, I'm still learning."
His first teacher was his mother, who would bring him into the kitchen of his childhood home in Tehran, Iran, while she was preparing dinner. He would pepper her with questions as she and the maid spiced meat or shopped in the city's markets. He kept asking questions, attending Le Cordon Bleu in England after graduating from high school. But it wasn't until he came to the Kansas City Art Institute to study photography that the idea of his own restaurant came to life.
Shirazi opened the West Side Cafe in 1983 with partner Noori Jones at 723 Southwest Boulevard (it's currently the Irezumi tattoo shop), in an old gas station only a few miles from the offices of Original Juan.
"Every night was a different country. We were just a postage stamp on a big envelope," Shirazi says.
The rotating menu let him call on his heritage and travels in Europe, presenting French, Lebanese, Indian and Italian food. It was his inventiveness in the kitchen that built a steady following, and the West Side Cafe grew from a counter with five stools to seating for 35 people. But Shirazi wanted more, and he found it only a few blocks away.
In a Lousiana-style brick building, he opened his namesake, Shiraz, with his wife, Stephanie, in 1994. He put in a wood-burning pizza oven at 320 Southwest Boulevard and hired a talented young line cook by the name of Christopher Elbow.
"We wanted to have simple, elegant food. If you love what you do, you have to let people enjoy it. I just wanted to cook for people," Shirazi says.
He did for 14 years. Shiraz closed in November 2008, and Shirazi went to work for Original Juan the following May.
"I never get bored because I'm always thinking about the next day. I love sharing my knowledge. If you know how spices and herbs interact, the rest is easy," he says, pointing to a pair of posters that detail the medicinal properties of herbs and spices.
But even a chef who believes he can create anything has his limits. Shirazi hasn't yet tried Original Juan's line of hot sauces and salsas made from the world's hottest pepper: the Naga Jolokia or "ghost pepper."
"When we make those sauces, we put on masks. That's too extreme. I don't have the guts to try it," Shirazi says.