Most men fix up an Airstream in the hopes of one day taking it on the road and seeing the country. Chef Patrick Ryan is just hoping that it helps him plant roots in Kansas City.
Fat City sat down with Ryan to talk about the progress on his mobile restaurant, Port Fonda, and the Mexican cuisine he's preparing to cook and serve from a vintage Airstream beginning this March.
He may not have envisioned owning a food truck when he graduated in 1998 with a degree in hotel management from Western State College of Colorado, but his passion for cooking led him to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland, Oregon. The yearlong program was an important moment in his culinary career because it awakened him to Nuevo Latino cuisine.
He worked at Oba Restaurante in Portland before landing an externship at chef Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill in Chicago. Ryan remembers being intimidated, having worked a station at Oba with a dozen squirt bottles and complicated components for every dish.
"I thought it was going to be even more complicated, but it turned out to be all about simplicity," Ryan says.
But what seemed simple was the result of an extremely complex balance of ingredients. And he spent the next five years at Frontera and at Topolobampo, getting to the point where it was simple, if time-consuming, to make 5-gallon batches of mole. He also had a chance to learn how to manage a kitchen from chef Bayless, who showed him that the restaurant business can be civil.
"He was a celebrity chef that never acted like one," Ryan says. "He always had his itinerary on the walk-in, so we knew where he'd be at any time."
He left Topolobampo to help open the Union House at the W Hotel in Chicago City Center and quickly discovered that a restaurant without a clear concept can't succeed. He picked up some breakfast chops at the brunch spot, Orange, where he also met Top Chef contestant Dale Levitski. Ryan found himself next to Levitski and Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard on the line at (the now closed) La Tache. He briefly considered appearing on the show, after encouragement from Levitski.
"I went through a bunch of rounds, but it didn't feel right," Ryan says. "Maybe it's not for me."
He did meet his wife at La Tache, and they made the joint decision to move to Livingston Manor, New York, a small hamlet in the Catskills to help open a new restaurant. While vacationing Manhattanites understood the seasonal farm concept, the 1,700 full-time residents of the town wanted a bar and grill. During his two years in New York, Ryan had the chance to cook alongside chef Suzanne Goin at the De Gustibus Cooking School and design a wire basket with chocolate leaves for a fashion show with designer Sylvia Heisel.
But with flash floods and a new child on the way, he knew it was time to move. Ryan came back to Kansas City in 2007, 14 years after he had left to go to college
"The whole reason to move back here was to open a restaurant," Ryan says.
At first, he thought he'd open a gastropub inside a traditional brick-and-mortar space. He and potential partner Tony Glamcevski, the former manager of Le Fou Frog who is now a fixture at Green Dirt Farm, were looking for a smaller space in a down economy.
The right space never materialized, and Glamcevski got more involved with the cheesemaking operation, recruiting Ryan to help cook the specialty dinners out at the Weston farm. They set aside the idea of opening a 40- to 50-seat restaurant.
"During that time, West Side Local and Julian opened up,"Ryan says. "We didn't want to get lumped into what they were doing."
He was also working on the line at Room 39. He recently took an opening at the River Club because it allowed him to continue cooking without having to sacrifice his vision.
"I don't want to be somebody else's chef. I don't want to run anybody else's restaurant and have a few specials. I want to do exactly what I want to do, and that's regional Mexican cuisine."
Tomorrow, Ryan answers questions about his favorite ingredients, kitchen rules and the one thing you'll never find in his fridge. On Friday, Fat City will have details about the menu and space inside the Airstream.