Chelsea Williams is performing again.
You can see her most days at the Opera House Food & Coffee Emporium at 500 Walnut, in the building that's still called the Gillis Opera House, even though it clearly isn't a theater of any kind. The real Gillis Opera House - one of this town's most luxuriously appointed theaters in 1883 - burned down in 1925, but a stipulation in Mary Troost's will requires that any building on the property, which she had donated to the city, must include some kind of stage. (There is one in the current building, but you'd be hard-pressed to find it.)
Williams has been one of Kansas City's most popular pastry chefs for years, and at the seven-month-old Opera House Food & Coffee Emporium, she's the resident baker, making her scones, cookies and granola-style "Star bars" in an exhibition-style space ("It's sort of like a greenhouse," she says) that gives her much more personal interaction with her customers than she's ever had before.
Williams also sells her sweets to local coffeehouses, including the three locations of Roasterie Cafe, Oddly Correct Coffee, the Broadway Roasting Co., Espresso ala Carte, and the Nature's Own store at 43rd Street and Main. She has come a long way from her first job as the "potato girl" at Putsch's Cafeteria when she was 15 years old. ("My duties included scooping mashed potatoes and putting in the divot for the gravy.") Two years later, at age 17, she was working in the kitchen at Stanford & Son's restaurant in Westport. Her culinary career was officially launched.
First, a disclaimer: I first met Chelsea Williams in 1986 when we were both working at a Greek restaurant in midtown. She was working in the kitchen; I was a waiter. We endured the temperamental owner differently: She bit her tongue; I was fired. Frequently. I lost touch with her for many years until she was hired to be the chef and "sweat equity partner" at the Crossroads creperie, Chez Elle, in 2010. The partnership with the restaurant's owner, Ellen Trakas, was short-lived, and the next time I saw Williams, she was the baker for the Green Acres Market in Briarcliff Village.
She likes her job at the Opera House Food & Coffee Emporium, but she still has dreams of opening her own bakery.
"I'm a little fearful," she says. "I've had a couple of failures. That makes you wary. But I love baking so much that I've never really put away that dream."