"You just have to make good food,” he says. “It's not rocket science.”
His wife, Megan Garrelts — pastry chef and, with Colby, co-owner of the restaurant Bluestem — points to the white wall that separates this room from the dining space where their kids have amused themselves. The wall is coming down, making way for an open kitchen with a chef's table. The couple and their partner, Kim Cooley, want the kitchen to be a focal point here at Rye, the restaurant they plan to open in mid-November.
The new venture caps a busy 12 months for the Garreltses. *Bluestem: The Cookbook (the couple’s first) arrived last November; an extended kitchen-management gig with Park Place’s Trezo Vino ended when that venue closed in March; and 2012 was the fifth year that Colby Garrelts was a finalist in the Best Chef: Midwest category at the James Beard Awards. Fat City caught up with the two to find out the latest with Rye.
Fat City: You’d been looking for spaces in Leawood for a while when this Mission Farms spot came open.
Colby Garrelts: I grew up in that neighborhood, at 98th and Mission. I went to Brookwood [Elementary]. I think this was somebody upstairs helping us out.
Megan Garrelts: It felt really neighborhood-y. We live in Leawood, and I feel like we have a good understanding of where people go out and why they deem certain places worth eating and stopping to dine at.
What did you take from your Trezo Vino experience?
MG: It wasn’t entirely our vision, but it did let us figure out how to manage our time and go back and forth between restaurants for six months. We also have a better understanding of the demographic in Leawood. We know there are diners out there that haven’t heard of Bluestem. And we heard what customers want, which is why nearly everything will be available in three sizes: a tasting size, like at Bluestem; an entrée size; and family style.
How are you going to split your time?
CG: We’ll manage both. Joe West will run the midtown kitchen. We’ve also hired Eric Willey to be the general manager at Rye.
MG: Van Zarr will go back and forth as well. He’ll be the bar manager for both restaurants and oversee cocktails. At Rye, we’ll focus on really good, straightforward cocktails.
Q: Bluestem opened eight years ago. How is your approach with Rye going to be different?
CG: It’s how we’re building it. We did Bluestem all by ourselves. This time, we’ve got architects and designers to help. We’re trying to give the Midwest some identity. Over the years, I’ve realized, across the country, nobody really understands what we do here. It’s an issue with Kansas City on the whole. Everybody knows we do barbecue, but that’s it.
What do you see as the fulcrum of that identity?
CG: Obviously the food. There’s such an enormous food culture here. When we opened Bluestem, I felt like we almost had our thumb on it. We were trying to figure out the culture of barbecue and steaks and build on that.
MG: I feel like we’re back on track. After years of doing Bluestem and fine dining — and I still love that aspect [of cooking] — I think we realized what we wanted while writing our cookbook. We were afraid that people would see our food and say, *What is this food from the Midwest?* But that’s when we had an epiphany as chefs and realized that we love being from the Midwest. This was about our food and the region and building a restaurant that could give them the respect they deserve.
How does the identity influence the menu?
CG: It’s more a style than anything. I want to take barbecue and compose dishes around it. When was the last time you had smoked pork or pork shoulder and you ate it with anything besides a bun and a side of french fries? I grew up eating fried chicken. Our fried chicken is ridiculous. It will be sous-vide and then fried and come in these really cool wooden bowls we’re having custom-made for us.
Are you using buttermilk for the fried chicken?
CG: [Laughs.] I grew up doing buttermilk, but we’ll brine it. I’ve found much better ways of doing fried chicken. Our objective is to make the best of everything, whether that’s chicken or Megan baking pies. We may do an apple pie, but it might be apple and tarragon. We’re going to make all these classic foods and do them perfectly.
Eater included Rye in a list of anticipated fall openings, and chef Graham Elliot has repeatedly tweeted his excitement. Does securing national attention for the KC food scene drive you at all?
CG: Early in our careers, we wanted to compete with people in the city and try and stay in the national spotlight. Now I feel like that’s just a big waste of time. No one is ever going to pay attention to us until we start being ourselves.
Can you be more specific about what all of that means for the menu?
CG: I can see it in front of my face as clear as day. It’s just when I try to describe it that I lose people. We’ll use more freshwater fish, catfish and trout. We’re going to have a huge meat program. On Sundays, we’ll bring back prime rib night. We’ll dry-age our own steaks, cure our own hams and make our own sausages. We have a huge German culture here just waiting. It’s a more northern version of Southern food, without the seafood. There will be a lot less oysters and shellfish and a lot more sausage. I love the pork, baby.
MG: We’ll do our own breads, like Parker House rolls and cast-iron cornbread. Brunch is going to be really big for us, Saturday and Sundays. We’ll have smoked-Missouri-pecan cinnamon rolls, and I’m working on some recipes right now with black walnuts. We’ve been trying to remember what Grandma made and looking through cookbooks to get inspired.
CG: I’ve done fine dining. I’ve laser-shot blueberries. I’ve vaporized marshmallows. Now we really want to reinvent and celebrate the Midwest.