There are two ways to chef Charles d'Ablaing's heart: salt and a sun-ripened peach. And he'd probably be happy if you could track down the motorcycle he sold so he could begin attending culinary school in Atlanta at the age of 18.
Check out yesterday's story to hear how he got his start before reading about what's in his kitchen or what the future plans are at Webster House. Tomorrow he'll talk about what it's like for diners sitting nightly at the chef's table at Webster House.
What are your culinary inspirations? I can see something in a store or walking. I'll pick something up in our walk-in and find meat or nice veggies. I'll just start cooking stuff. Sometimes it's lunch -- I'll fix myself lunch. I'm often thinking about ideas when I'm falling asleep. And I don't write them down. If I remember it the next day, then it's a good idea.
What's your favorite ingredient? Salt because nobody uses it right. You have to put enough in there so it enhances your flavors. Use your salt. Everybody has salt in their restaurant. Use it. I don't have salt and pepper shakers on our tables at night. About once a month, I'll take the hit that something is too salty. But I hate when I go out to eat and something is underseasoned, like flat spinach. It's the basics. You're layering flavors, and you need salt and pepper behind every one of those flavors. It's like building a house. We go through tons here. I'm sure I'm killing a lot of people and giving them high blood pressure.
What's your best recent food find? I always go to Brazil and find something new and fun, like a great guava. My wife's family has a coffee plantation, and I'll grab my little cousin, and we'll go chase cows and walk through the fields, picking mangos and avocados off the trees.
Your favorite local ingredient? I really like that we grow figs out here in the Midwest. I have to drive up to Powell Gardens to get them. But it's fun for me to go out there and wander around their harvest garden. We have great pears. There's a ton of stuff that we grow here that you wouldn't think of. We have good peaches. That surprised me, being from Georgia. That's my favorite. There's nothing better than a warm peach heated by the sun and picked from the tree. That's heaven.
One food you hate? There's a fruit in Brazil, I can't remember the name of it. Maybe because I hate it so much. They make it into a juice, and it's the most foul thing you've ever drank in your life. I took one drink and almost threw up. I don't really like pig brains or chicken hearts and gizzards. My mom used to make me eat them [gizzards] as a kid.
One food you love? I don't know that there is just one. I would eat something when I was younger and eat it so much that I don't like it now. One of my favorite things is, if we have to work on a Sunday, I'll get some chanterelles and a nice fresh lobster. I'll cook it in a little butter and thyme. That's one of my guilty pleasures. I don't want to get super complicated on the plate. I think most of your really good food is simple. If somebody walks out saying that's interesting, that's a very bad thing. Interesting is ... I'm glad I went there because it was a different experience.
I love comfort food. Comfort food is ingredients used properly and not overdone. A Berkshire pork -- brine it for a couple hours in a salt water solution before searing it with a pan sauce. Add some mashed potatoes and seared Brussels sprouts with butter. Things like that get me going. It's just about getting really tasty food.
What's never in your kitchen at home? There's nothing ever in my kitchen at home. I just have ramen noodles. But I love going to the grocery store. I go every Monday at 8 a.m., and that's when I get food for the next few days. It could be Ramen or a box of mac and cheese.
What's always in your kitchen at home? Fruit, lots of fruit. That's about a third of our grocery bill -- fruits and vegetables. With an apple, you want to give it a little squeeze. That's how you know if it's going to be mushy. You could give me broccoli, a knife and ranch dressing. But then I learned to cook it properly, and I loved that, too. My favorite is the downtown market in Sao Paulo [Brazil]. There are these long rows, as long as the big hallway in Union Station. And there's 20 stalls on each side of the row. The fruits are unbelievable. I'll go and fill my backpack with fruit and stop by a friend's tattoo shop. Then I'll just sit in back by a little sink, and they'll laugh at me while I gorge myself on fruit.
What would you like to see more of in Kansas City from a culinary standpoint? More chefs. More chefs that really stand out, that really want to do good things. Great restaurants. There's lots of mid-scale restaurants where everybody knows what they're going to get, but it's not adventurous.
What would you like to see less of in Kansas City from a culinary standpoint? I'd like to see less of the kids playing around with molecular gastronomy and putting it out there and putting if off as food. The classics are classics for a reason. Learn them and then you can move on and play. No matter what it is, just try and step back and make it really good. I think people are getting ahead of themselves.
Where are you eating if you're not at your restaurant? I don't eat out very much, but I've been shopping brunch places. Father's Day will be our first brunch. I love spending the day with my wife. She's my favorite person on Earth. I know that Sunday is our day, and we're going to be together all day. The best one I've had in town is Colby's at Bluestem. It was solid, brunchy food. There was a sliced steak with salad and pommes frites. I'm an eggy guy. I love bacon and eggs and biscuits and gravy. I went to the M&S Grill, but I didn't really enjoy it. I don't like going to a place and seeing the mess out front.
I know it's going to be good here. Maybe you'll see a chicken-fried steak and eggs becase I love it. Or an egg souffle with whipped whole eggs, sauteed red peppers and red onions, garlic, herbs, and some aged Henning's cheddar, with some duck-fat-fried potatoes and a bit of mustardy hollandaise.
What recipe would you steal off any menu in town? To be honest, I can't think of one. I don't eat out that much. I've had enough bad meals, and I don't want to have a subpar meal. I'll tell you a recipe that I wouldn't take from anyone else: Justus Drugstore.
What's one book that every chef should read? I'm not going to say Kitchen Confidential. I think there's some really good reading in cookbooks -- The Cake Bible [by Rose Levy Beranbaum]. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People [by Stephen R. Covey] -- I read it in school. There are things in there that really help with management.
Who's got the best barbecue in town, and what are you ordering? I'm going to say the obvious, Oklahoma Joe's. I do like the ribs and brisket. The beans are good. I typically don't do that many sides. If I'm thinking barbecue, I go in and attack the meat and ribs or whatever is back there on the smoker.
A chef is only as good as ... quality of everything around him. The quality of his cooking, staff, management. And it's not necesarily things like a pan. I cook on an aluminum pan. You don't have to do anything really fancy, just perfeclty sear a scallop. It falls on the knowledge in your head and the people you have around you. You have to surround yourself with good staff who will challenge you to do better.