Stearns, 27, is kidding - mostly. But until he picks out the car for his version of *Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, he's trying to turn Independence into Flavortown. He arrived at Ophelia's in June 2012, after graduating from Johnson County Community College and working as the sous chef at Taste with Jonathan Dallen, a friend. Among his changes has been the addition of short plates, including that hit short-rib dish: short ribs braised in plum wine and served with sweet-potato hash, crispy onions, blue cheese and a bacon glaze. It's part of his effort to attract diners to Independence Square from his native Johnson County.
"I want people to know that I'm back there in the kitchen, cooking for them," Stearns says. "I think if we use a few ingredients and cook them perfectly, then people will keep coming back. This is fine dining that doesn't take itself too seriously."
The Pitch sat down with Stearns after a recent lunch service to find out what he thinks is off-the-hook.
The Pitch: What are your culinary inspirations?
Stearns: I just have to be in the right mindset. I'm vegged out at my house, watching Food Network on the couch. I watch a lot of Triple D [Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives]. Stuff flies in my head. I can't sleep. I just lie there thinking about different dishes. I like to take simple, classical dishes and just twist them up.
What's your favorite ingredient? Pork. I'd rather have a juicy pork chop than a steak. It has more flavor and it doesn't dry out as fast. The Venetian, at Jasper's, is a great pork-steak sandwich. I also like a really good burger. We've got a really good burger. It's a brisket burger on a pretzel bun with caramelized onions and cheddar cheese.
What's your best recent food find? I went to Avenues the other night. Their bread pudding is really good.
What are you experimenting with? Last month, it was lobster - tempura-battered lobster tails, and crab-stuffed lobster. I can play around with our small plates. I'm hoping to show people Ophelia's doesn't have to just be an anniversary, birthday or special-occasion place.
What's one food you hate? I'm not a big fan of Indian dishes. It's all just naan bread and curry chicken. I used to go to India Palace a lot - my friends love Indian food. I do love lunch buffets, though.
What's one food you love? Italian food. I like antipasti platters with Italian meats, cheese, roasted red peppers and olives. I love pizza. Villa Capri makes a really good Neapolitan-style pizza. I used to go in for lunch there when I worked at Taste. The cosmopolitan pizza is the house pizza, with a thin crust and anchovies. I also love Anthony's for the veal steak, topped with lemon and butter sauce, and the garlic with calamari. That's one of my favorite Italian restaurants.
Who's got the best barbecue in town, and what are you ordering? I'd say Gates. Oklahoma Joe's is really good, but I want the big huge sandwich from Gate's with double meat. I'll go with pork and ham, and the beans are really good. I live right next door to the Stack. I'll get the Goob [burnt end sandwich]. It's their version of Smokestack's Poor Russ.
What's your guilty pleasure? I have a lot of them. I stay out too late in the Power & Light or Westport. A lot of my friends love the Riot Room. I eat out a lot on Sundays and Mondays, my days off.
What's always in your kitchen? I hate to say it but not much. If you looked in my fridge, you'd probably say, "I guess we're calling for carryout." I love anything anybody wants to cook for me. Anytime I can relax and have food brought to me, that's the best.
Besides your own place, where do you like to eat out? Mi Ranchito. I get the cream-cheese-and-chicken enchiladas. Ken and Cindy McClain are getting ready to open up a new Mexican res-taurant, El Pico. The test kitchen is open. I'm hoping to get in there and create some dishes. Bo Lings has got the consistency and service - it's probably the best Chinese food in the city. I always get the same thing: the chicken and shrimp Hunan style. It's got bell peppers and a spicy brown sauce. And then I just dip everything in hot mustard.
What's one book that every chef should read? No Reservations, by Anthony Bourdain. Some chefs think that right out of culinary school, the keys to the restaurant are going to be handed to them. But when you're new in the kitchen, they tell you to go peel those potatoes and work your way up from there. I remember when I was in culinary school, there were a lot of middle-aged people used to a regular 9-to-5. And they realized that this is really hard work and stressful and they didn't want to do it.