This is part one of our interview with Cafe Sebastienne chef Jennifer Maloney. Check back for more tomorrow, and check back every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for more chef interviews.
It would be all too easy to imagine chef Jennifer Maloney rising through the ranks of Kansas City kitchens. With a menu that changes weekly to reflect the harvest of local farmers, diners at Cafe Sebastienne, the stylish cafe inside the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, might correctly envision an executive chef who is an unabashed supporter of this city.
But to think that Maloney's story can be told just from her experiences here would be as unwise as assuming that her Reuben is just a Reuben. Maloney's personality is as richly layered as her food. It's only after you learn of her travels from Santa Barbara, California, to the Caribbean, that you see why Kansas City is precisely the right fit.
Her career began at the Magic Pan, here in Kansas City. She was a salad girl and crepe assembler. A dynamo in a dirndl.
"It was all about speed and being able to handle the pressure," she says. "Well, that and making fried wonton strips."
At 18, she began working at the American Restaurant. As a pantry girl, she shucked oysters and cut strip steaks. This being the 1980s, she was the only woman in the kitchen. She was also just out of high school and wanted to go to a party, despite not having someone to cover her shift.
"I actually walked out on my job and got fired," she says. "I learned a very valuable lesson."
She needed a job, and the Hyatt needed a pantry girl in the main kitchen. She worked the cold side, eventually rising to manager by age 20. The kitchen ran as hot as the griddle. It was the kind of place where the sous chef would tell you to put salt in your cut finger and stay on the line. And Maloney loved the give-and-take.
"I was sassy. Growing up in midtown, I didn't take it," Maloney says.
When John Babb, the Hyatt's sous chef, left to take a position at the Harbortown Point Resort in Ventura, California, he invited the punk-rock chef with a long curly perm to join him. She packed two suitcases and took the job sight unseen, as she would several times in her career.
The West Coast suited her, but Ventura didn't. After a stint in the Plaza Cafe on Ocean Avenue, where the walls literally sweated in the kitchen basement, Maloney found her place in Santa Barbara. She learned what it meant to be a hotel chef at the Red Lion Inn before landing a job as the sous chef at the Wine Cask.
There she had her first opportunity to write her own lunch menu with the scraps from dinner. She got to meet with farmers and winemakers, developing her palate to complement the skills she'd been building since she was a teenager. But it was when Julia Child walked into the back of the restaurant that she knew she was in the right place.
"She came into my kitchen and asked, in that voice, where I was from. When I told her, she said, 'Oh ... you're from the school of hard knocks,' " says Maloney (who has a nod to that on her LinkedIn profile, where her education is listed as "the school of life.")
The mid-'80s were heady times in Santa Barbara. The farm-to-table movement and a growing awareness of California wineries found the perfect intersection in the coastal town known as the American Riviera. She received her first head chef position at Zelo on State Street. The restaurant, which turned into a nightclub after dark, is where a high school band named Toad the Wet Sprocket got signed. It's also where Maloney had the chance to make a lifelong friend in chef Mario Batali.
"I remember the first time I met him, he had on shorts and that big, red hair. I just went up and hugged him," Maloney says.
A vacation to Barbados then upended the comfortable life she had started to build in California. Determined to find a way to live there, she asked the travel agent who had booked her tickets for names of hotels and began sending out resumes. She and her boyfriend (he also was a chef) got hired by the St. James Club in Antigua.
Then they broke up. Eager to move out of a difficult situation, she began to bake pies for the sailboats that anchored in English Harbor. She also walked into the island sail shop with her resume and asked the proprietor, who helped place crew on the corporate boats in the harbor, to help her secure employment as an onboard chef.
Before she set sail, Maloney found herself cooking for rock legend Keith Richards. The owner of a local pizza shop, who was friendly with Richards, asked her to prepare an oyster feast for the Richards family. The girl who once shucked oysters at the American was now the American responsible for shucking oysters for one of the Rolling Stones.
She got hired on as a yacht chef aboard the 115-foot, double-masted Ashanti of Saba. With German captain Uli Prusse, her first assignment had the reputation of being a tough boat to work.
"It was all guys," she says. "I was back where I started. But when they saw I wouldn't back down, I was fine."
In addition to cooking, she was tasked with the provisioning, heading inland to market in order to make sure that the schooner had enough supplies for several weeks at a time. She worked the first season before staying onboard for the seasonal crossing over to the Mediterranean. During her travels in Europe, she spent a month visiting chef Batali in Borgo Capanne, Italy, the tiny village romanticized in Bill Buford's Heat.
She returned stateside and took a job at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco. But Italy and Batali came calling. Writing, actually.
"He wrote me a letter that said I should come to Italy. We can write cookbooks and listen to Tom Waits and be famous. It was exciting."
So she moved to Bologna to work alongside Batali in a small restaurant and fish market. She was the baker and reveled in discovering the Italian countryside with the larger-than-life chef.
"I called him the mayor. No matter where we went, people were drawn to him," Maloney says.
But without papers for work, her adventure in Italy ended after four months. The committed traveler came back in Kansas City. She got hired on at Grand Street and Milano. In the process of helping open a new restaurant concept downtown, she received a phone call about Cafe Sebastienne.
"I took this job sight unseen. I had never even been in the museum," she says. "The atrium was uncovered, and the kitchen was tiny, but it was mine."
On her first day, she wrote the menu, prepped it and then washed the dishes. The next day she hired a dishwasher. And over the past 15 years, she has managed to assemble a crew reflecting the cooking style that she has come to embody -- rustic, clean dishes with a complexity of flavor. Chief on that team is sous chef Janet Ross, who is the outward face of her catering team and Maloney's counterweight in the kitchen. Together, Maloney jokes, they have 100 years of experience. Each week, her team of seven creates a new dinner and brunch menu.
"People ask why I'm here after 15 years," Maloney says. "I say it's still very challenging, and I have a tightknit staff that gets me."
[Image courtesy of Brian Mathews]
Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Maloney.