Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Room 39's Ted Habiger is wishing for a pocketful of black truffles

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2011 at 4:00 PM

click to enlarge Ted Habiger is comfortable at Room 39.
  • Ted Habiger is comfortable at Room 39.

Outside the village of Carignan, France, a winemaker extracts a crumpled piece of aluminum foil from his pocket. He slowly pulls back the foil, and chef Ted Habiger is shocked to see a pound of black truffles valued at nearly $1,000.

"He had just dug them up on his property that morning, "Habiger says. "He pointed to the very tree where he had dug."

The chef is sitting in the dining room of his restaurant, Room 39, in Kansas City, a few weeks after returning from a wine-tasting trip through France. But he's reliving that moment with the truffles, the location of which are typically guarded family secrets.

"You know, people don't even show me where their morels grow in Kansas City," Habiger remembers telling the winemaker.

"Well, we all have guns here."

Kansas City was initially just a stopping point for Habiger on the way to California -- a chance to catch up with his parents and family after attending college at Southern Methodist University and three years in Niagara Falls, New York, employed as a social worker. He can blame a bar for his decision to stay.

Habiger got a job as a server at the 75th Street Brewery, not far from where he grew up in Brookside. Waiting tables at lunch led to a position as kitchen manager. But it was a chance conversation with a man wearing chef's pants at the bar that determined his path in the kitchen.

"He told me he worked at the best restaurant in Kansas City. And when I asked where that was, he told me Cafe Allegro," Habiger says.

The chef, Thor Johnson, turned out to be the best man at Habiger's wedding. But first he helped him land a job as a saute cook at the popular 39th Street restaurant that closed in 2002. Habiger went back and forth between Cafe Allegro and 75th Street, serving as the sous chef at both restaurants.

"I honestly believe it takes about 10 years for a cook, working every day, to develop his own style. Before that, it's a mix of the current menu with cookbooks and inspiration," Habiger says. "But when I tell that to cooks today, they say 'I don't have 10 years.' "
 
The second half of his first decade in the kitchen would be spent in New York City, a move that Habiger thought would be for life. The simple, rustic Italian food of Union Square Cafe was appealing, and they thought enough of him to create a job on the line the afternoon he came calling. He rose to the rank of sous chef within a year, a position he held for another 18 months. 

In New York, he got engaged to his wife, Jackie, who was working as a hostess at Union Square Cafe. They were married in Kansas City in 2003 and decided to settle in the city where they both grew up. Habiger reconnected with Andy Sloan, whom he knew from his days at 75th Street and Cafe Allegro. The chefs partnered to launch Seasons Catering. A year and a half later, the catering business led to the opening of Room 39.

"We do seasonal American food. It's not a new concept," Habiger says. "Buying all of your products from California -- that's a new concept."

Room 39 was initially a breakfast spot, focusing on coffee and french toast.

"I had this romantic notion of taking business away from Starbucks," Habiger says.

The restaurant added dinner service in 2006, as Sloan, Habiger and an eager young chef, Howard Hanna (who now co-owns the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange), looked to build on the success of breakfast and lunch. A second restaurant at Mission Farms in Leawood opened in August a year later.

"New York doesn't have anything on Kansas City," Habiger says. "I just think about how nice my commute is and how wonderful my regulars are.... There's just a friendly, kind atmosphere here."

Even if nobody will tell him where the morels grow.

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