Thursday, May 26, 2011

Chef Alex Pope, Part Two: cabeza burritos, the West Bottoms, and an unhealthy love of mayo

Posted By on Thu, May 26, 2011 at 10:30 AM


It's fitting that chef Alex Pope was wearing a Boccalone T-shirt when we sat down at R Bar to talk earlier this week. Because in another life or time, he very well may have been an artisan butcher -- running a shop similar to the San Francisco craft-meat purveyor. The chef who kept the American in prosciutto for literally years is now cranking out all manner of sausage in the West Bottoms for the menu at R Bar. 

Yesterday, he talked about convincing Celina Tio to order a whole pig at the American and about how he got to Kansas City from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Today, he's gushing about his favorite condiment: mayonnaise. And tomorrow, Pope will share how he got into the home-brewing of beer.

Who or what has influenced you in the kitchen? Other chefs. I've always enjoyed what Grant Achatz did. I met Graham Elliot a few summers ago; he just enjoys life. You meet enough chefs and you discover it's the rare breed of human that loves life and is happy in the kitchen. But in his kitchen, the music is blasting, and everybody is just doing their job. His popcorn was definitely the inspiration for my doughnuts. He's a smart guy that does fun things. I'm also interested in Wylie Dufresne and WD-50. I like the avant-garde.

El Bulli was the first cookbook I bought when I graduated from culinary school. It was $150 and giant. We obviously don't cook that food here, but it pushes me to always be trying something else.

What are your culinary inspirations?
It comes from a couple of places. Sometimes ideas pop out fully formed, like the pastrami short ribs. That was like a Reuben sandwich, but not exactly. I look at the seasons and write down ingredients -- ramps, peas and proteins I want to use. Then I try and match them up and get a few random ideas going.

The first step is that random idea page. I'll have about 10 to 15 pages of random thoughts. It's free-form when I start. And then I just try to create a good mix for the menu. Left to my druthers, I'd have a menu of entirely braised meats and sausages. But there's lots of varied customers in any given night, so I try and make something for everyone.

What's your favorite ingredient?
Salt. I don't know if that's an

ingredient. Everything sucks without salt. I have a salty palate, so I try and tone it back. Salt balance is everything. I even put a little bit in my desserts.

What's your best recent food find?
The banh mi. I go down to Kim Long and get them. It's got good meats, fresh herbs, pickles and chili peppers. I didn't use to be able to handle those, but then my wife called me a wuss, so I had to get my palate up. Now I approach heat as another seasoning to provide contrast.

What's your favorite local ingredient?
Campo Lindo chicken. I love that

chicken. It tastes so good. Green Dirt Farm cheese, the fresh chevre.

What's one food you hate? Monkfish liver -- I can't even get near it. The only time I had it, I gagged. I don't know if it was off or not. I like to think I can find an inherent quality in anything. Lately, I've been playing around with Dr. Pepper; it's now in one of the sauces in our desserts.

What's one food you love?
Sausage -- any kind of sausage. It works in pasta, rice dishes and stir fry. I love bread and good olive oil -- you can actually get primo olive oil at TJ Maxx. That, and paprika.

What's your guilty pleasure?
I really like cabeza burritos from Pancho's. It's all beef cheek and beef head. They hit the spot when you need them, too. You can see they're really cooking when you're at the drive-through. There's freshly made salsa, and I just love the gelatinous quality of the meat. It's succulent and braised. So, burritos and any kind of ice cream.

What's never in your kitchen? I always buy vegetables, and I'm

going to cook them, but then I get home and just make a fried egg.

What's always in your kitchen? Olive oil. Fish sauce. Lots of mayo. I have an

unhealthy relationship with mayo. I used to eat mayo sandwiches in high school. I'd go to Jimmy John's and get some day-old bread and four packets of mayo. That's a sandwich for 50 cents.
Mayo is the epitome of sauce. It's got fat, acidity. It's emulsified and salty and balanced. Most of our sauces here are mayo-based. I've only got a six-burner; I can't be making reductions. It's vinaigrette and mayo. I'll still eat mayo for a snack. It's just the perfect sauce.

If you're eating out, where are you eating? We try to go to local places. I love the fries at Bluestem and the tartare. The charcuterie plate is awesome, it's just this huge plate of meat. We go to Waldo Pizza, and I'll get whatever I'm in the mood for. I'm an omnivore; I'll eat anything. Over in the River Market, I love the falafel and baba ghanoush at Habashi House.

If you could steal one recipe in town, what would it be? I don't want anybody's recipes. I could figure something out if I really wanted to ...

What was the West Bottoms like when you started here two years ago? I look out the window, and it doesn't look like much has changed. Although we have two great new neighbors. People who are coming down here have a destination in mind.

It would be great to get some residential development because it's so close to downtown. I'd love to see the West Bottoms turn into the new Crossroads. I think that's possible. It's not scary. It's just empty. It's going to take a serious amount of investment, and I'd love for that to happen.

One book that every chef should read. First, White Heat. If you can't get inspired by that, you're not going to be inspired. You can see the intensity -- the way he talks about food. It's not groundbreaking, but there's passion. If you can't read it and think, God, I want to get in a kitchen, then stop. Then read, On Food and Cooking. I read it cover to cover. It took a year. But I know how to make recipes better and have insight into everything, how something works and why it works. It's a crazy book, dense but readable. It's that passion plus the knowledge.

Who's got the best barbecue in town, and what are you

ordering? Gates. It was the first I ate. When the burnt ends are great, they're great. The pork if they don't have the burnt ends. The sauces are good. The ribs at Oklahoma Joe's are great; that's where we go if we have friends in town. But I love Gates, maybe because it's so frickin' salty.

A chef is only as good as ... his staff. I literally can't cook

everything. I have to trust someone else to do it.

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