Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chef Sandi Corder-Clootz, Part Two: Cooking by smell and secret nacho love

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 11:30 AM

Eden Alley has been serving vegetarian fare for 17 years on the Plaza.
  • Eden Alley has been serving vegetarian fare for 17 years on the Plaza.

"Smile, you are loved," reads the white sheet of paper above chef Sandi Corder-Clootz's desk in the office at the back of Eden Alley, the restaurant she co-owns and operates with her husband, Greg. The office is a former stage at Unity Temple on the Plaza. She shares the cozy nook with the restaurant's canned goods, which initially were kept in the temple's bomb shelter.

Today, Corder-Clootz explains the love she puts into her menu, the kind of love that inspires customers to become servers. Yesterday, Fat City learned why it's so important to her that Eden Alley stay open and in the same place. And tomorrow, she shares a recipe for one of the restaurant's vegetarian dishes. 

What are your culinary inspirations? During growing season, it's what the farmers have -- that's where my specials come from. It depends on the grains I have in-house, too. I look at what we haven't done in a while. Sometimes our customers will put in a request and say I haven't seen the spinach balls on the menu recently. For some of our regulars, we'll call them when we have a certain special.

What's your favorite ingredient?
Garlic. One of the best things we have on our menu is our ultimate garlic grilled cheese. If you get something from our menu that says it has garlic, then it has garlic in it. It's good for you, cleansing and delicious. I love garlic, but we don't put garlic in everything because that's another restriction that some people have. We also put mints on the front desk.

What's your best recent food find?  It's a cheese: Norwegian gjetost. It tastes like caramel. It's creamy and delicious. It's on our menu with graham crackers and Granny Smith apples. It's really easy to find, I got it at the Better Cheddar.

What's your favorite local ingredient? BadSeed Farm -- I can't just say eggplant because they have several kinds of eggplant. I feel like you get an education anytime you go into BadSeed. And everything they grow is full of love. They've opened my eyes to the different varieties of eggplant, the different textures and flavors. Their eggplant is beautiful, but all of their produce is beautiful.

One food you hate? I hate meat. I just don't like the idea of eating an animal. And texturally, that does nothing for me. The flavor of meat has never enticed me. I can tell when something that I 'm told is vegetarian is not actually vegetarian. I can taste if there's chicken stock or something else.

One food you love? I love pizza. I love Waldo Pizza. The eggplant parmesan on the whole wheat crusted with roasted potatoes, roasted garlic and vegan cheese.

Your guilty pleasure? Fric & Frac nachos. I get them once a week with the works. It's salsa, sour cream and cheese sauce. I ask them to hold the jalapenos. It usually takes me three sittings to get through. The cheese sauce is hot the first time, and then the next day when I want my nachos, I'll just eat them cold. It's bad. When I call, they'll say, "Is this Sandi?"

What's never in your kitchen at home? Milk. Regular milk, like cow's milk. I used to go through a gallon and a half of milk per week from eating cereal at home. I had asthma. One of the reasons was, we have a cat and I'm allergic. I had an inhaler and had to take allergy medicine every day. Now, I just have hemp milk with my Grape-Nuts.

What's always in your kitchen? Olive oil. Once I learned that olive oil was a good fat, I've used it on everything. In general, I'll put a little olive oil, salt and pepper on whatever I'm eating and cooking. I usually like to have a little puddle of olive oil for dipping my pizza crust.

What would you like to see more of in Kansas City from a culinary standpoint? More local restaurants. I know we have several, and that makes me happy. Greg and I try to frequent many of them, and sometimes we feel like, oh, weren't we just here? I would like a nice, new Italian restaurant. I love red sauce, but something with a little more modern take. 

What would you like to see less of in Kansas City from a culinary standpoint? In my utopia, we wouldn't have corporate chains. I know that McDonald's started as one little restaurant, but I think that chains lead people to make assumptions based on the reputation. And that means that they might eat at Pizza Hut because they know what they're getting, rather than try Spin pizza.

If you're not eating at your restaurant, where are you eating? I love Room 39. I love their brioche french toast with a side of scrambled eggs and potatoes. It's so moist and delicious. You get syrup, but it doesn't need it. I still use the syrup. They're consistent, and they have a great veggie burger. I recently tried their gnocchi. It was fantastic, and I was happy because I tend to stick to my favorites. But now I know that I have another option. I really like Blue Koi and the Mongolian Grill and Spin pizza. At Blue Koi, I'll get the vegetarian lettuce wraps and crispy tofu. I'll add the tofu to the wraps and then the awesome sauce.

You were recently given an "A" by Kansas City's Health Department. Why did so few independents get the award, and what's the key to a clean kitchen? That's probably the best honor we've ever gotten, hands down. With most people, I think that when the Health Department is on the phone, they go, Oh God. We've always looked at health inspections as education, rather than as a pain. There's a reason they want us to do it a certain way, so how can we make sure we're doing it that way.

When the Health Department required us to have a food handler's license, I'd never had any culinary training in that aspect. It should be a requirement for anybody opening a restaurant. It's not just about using an ice bath, but why you use the ice bath. The Health Department just fine-tuned us. My staff also knows that if it's a slower day, they better find a cleaning project. There is always a list of things they need to do at the end of their shift. And they do it right so they don't suffer the wrath of Sandi.

Is there a ceiling on the amount of vegetarian or vegan restaurants the city can sustain? I'm pretty sure that Eden Alley has been open the longest as a vegetarian restaurant. I would say not too many more, maybe five. And restaurants need to careful about restricting their menus or limiting their audience. I know with Fud, it was raw and vegan because Heidi [Van Pelt-Belle] got a taste for what was going to sell.

What's the most difficult or challenging dish to make from a vegetarian perspective? I think that it's interesting that people think a vegetarian menu is limited. We have so many more grains or fruits or vegetables than there are cuts of meat.

One of the things about not being educated in a culinary classroom is that I won't do a recipe that anyone has done before. I'll look at the definition of borscht, but then I'll make Eden's version of it. If you have cannelloni at Eden Alley, it's not the cannelloni at Anthony's. I had a 90-year-old Italian woman tell me that our eggplant parmesan bruschetta wasn't eggplant parmesan. And I get that. This is not going to be the eggplant parmesan that you're used to being made. I explained that this is how we make it, and I call it that because it's the closest thing to that definition. It's not perfect, but I can kind of get you there.

We'll try different combinations. I've never really restricted myself. I used to have my staff and customers taste things. And if they liked them, then I knew it was good. I used to rarely taste what I made. I would give it to someone else because I went by how it smelled -- I use my sense of smell more than any other sense. The aroma told me when I was there, and then I just got reassurance from whomever was in the kitchen. Greg has pushed for me to taste everything and know I do just that.

Do you think it was easier for Fud than for Eden Alley nearly two decades ago? It's definitely easier these days. A lot of people are learning that meat doesn't need to be a huge part of their diets. They've gone to the doctor and been told to introduce more fruits and vegetables into their diet. If I was opening a new vegetarian restaurant today, I think I would be able to call it a vegetarian restaurant. It's more acceptable. I wouldn't have to worry that nobody would come, but people are willing to try it. 

If you could steal one recipe in town off any menu, what would it be?  I would steal the coconut soup from Thai Orchid. It's just always delicious. It's comforting when you get it. I'll get pad Thai generally and then put the soup right over it, so I know it's delicious. Since I started talking about it, I'll probably need to get some this week. I crave it. I've done coconut-milk stuff, but I never tried it because I don't want to disappoint myself.

One book that every chef should read? The Doubleday Cookbook. There are two volumes of basic recipes and different versions of what to do with them. I'll look at the basic steps for a hollandaise and then work from there. It was a gift from Monica's mom, Jeanne Dabrowski.

Who's got the best barbecue in town, and what are you ordering?  I haven't been to really any barbecue places, so I would have to go with Heidi's barbecue at Fud. Her sauce is great and spicy. I'm not a huge, spicy person, but the flavor is there.

A chef is only as good as ... I would say her cooks. Because I can come up with the recipes and menus and rules, but unless they follow through and care about their jobs, it won't work. I'm not down there [in the kitchen], and we're open for business. Having people who work hard and tolerate me, I couldn't do it without them.

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