It's been five months since chef Charles d' Ablaing took his leave from the kitchen at Webster House to replace Jason Wiggins as executive chef at Chaz on the Plaza at the Raphael Hotel. The staff at Webster House hired a recruiting firm to assist in finding his replacement: "We looked at candidates in Kansas City and across the country," says Webster House chief operating officer Kevin Hobbs. "We were looking for someone with incredible culinary knowledge, proven leadership skills and a team player."
There was a lot of interest in the job, Hobbs says. The role of executive chef at Webster House -- a combination fine-antique shop, gift store, restaurant and special-events venue -- will be even more high-profile after the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, located right next door, opens in September.
High-profile and seriously demanding. Starting in September, Webster House is adding Sunday brunch to its repertoire and a late-night menu. Beginning September 7, the restaurant will serve food -- from a limited menu -- from 9 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Saturday nights.
The job duties are daunting, but Matthew Arnold says he's up for the challenge.
Arnold, a graduate of Lee's Summit High School and the University of Kansas, had recently returned to Kansas City when he heard about the position at Webster House. Although he has lived in Kansas City -- off and on -- for years, he had never actually eaten at the restaurant. But, hell, he's a chef and works most nights.
Arnold's restaurant career started at the front of the house, waiting tables, bartending and later managing dining rooms, before a chef -- the late Don Fortel at Teller's in Lawrence -- suggested that Arnold might find more passion in the kitchen. "I've always loved cooking, I've always cooked," Arnold says. "But until Don Fortel suggested culinary school, I hadn't considered that route."
Arnold trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont; his two culinary internships during the two-year program included jobs cooking at Lidia's Kansas City (under chefs Linda Duerr and Dan Swinney) and the Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina. After graduation, he took an executive chef position at the Lidia's restaurant in Pittsburgh. Two years later, he returned to North Carolina to work at the Dunes restaurant. When the economy began to affect the fortunes of that operation, he returned to Kansas City.
Arnold, Hobbs says, was one of four chefs chosen as the finalists for the executive chef position at Webster House. Each of the finalists was asked -- on different days -- to come to the Webster House kitchen and prepare a meal from a mystery basket of ingredients. "They each had 30 minutes to create a menu and three hours to execute it," Hobbs says. "Matthew created a sensational meal." (Webster House owner Shirley Helzberg was particularly taken with Arnold's icy lemon-basil granita.)
"Matthew has an incredible ability to communicate his passion for food with our staff," Hobbs says. "And there was a feeling that he shared our vision for what Webster House is and our excitement for all of the things happening at Webster House. He's also a diplomat and understands the importance of graciousness at the highest quality at this restaurant."
Arnold was hired a month ago and has hit the ground running. He has tweaked the current lunch and dinner menus (his signature lunch menu will be unveiled next month, and his dinner menu in six weeks). He's creating the Sunday brunch menu and working on the late-night menu to be launched in less than a month.
"There are challenges ahead, yes," Arnold says, "but so many great opportunities for Webster House. I feel so honored to be part of it. The stars were definitely aligned in the right place for me."