Jerry Naster makes some of the best flapjacks in Kansas City: light and fluffy and just hot enough to quickly melt a spoonful of whipped butter. He's also known for his hearty omelets, hash browns and hand-cut fries. The cooking isn't the type to land him on a reality cooking show, but the honest, home-style fare is a reality worth knowing nonetheless.
Three years ago, Naster almost stopped cooking altogether. After the death of his wife, Esther, he went into such a deep, rudderless funk that he made one of the biggest mistakes of his life: He decided to get out of the restaurant business.
At the time, he was running Jerry's Woodswether Café, the popular diner that he founded in the West Bottoms before moving it to Ninth Street in 2005. He had operated his namesake diner since the early 1990s, after two decades spent cutting meat at Snyder's Supermarket.
"When I bought the restaurant," he says, "I didn't even know how to boil an egg. Two of my waitresses had to show me how to cook eggs. But I just kept on cooking and learned how to make all kinds of things."
But after Esther died, in 2007, he impulsively sold the café. When retirement didn't suit him, he briefly tried another career, working for eight months at a local Hy-Vee supermarket. "It was just something to do," he says. "It wasn't really me."
So for the last nine weeks, Naster has been in his new kitchen — not much bigger than a walk-in closet — as the head cook at his latest venture, Jerry's Café. "After I got over the depression of Esther's death, I realized that I had really loved running my restaurant," Naster says. "So I started looking for a new location."
He was drawn to the shoe-box space formerly occupied by Georgie Porgie's, a strip-mall neighbor of Jasper's Restaurant. Like Naster's first restaurant, it's small (only 44 seats), and it's tucked into a narrow storefront with mustard-yellow walls. The tiny kitchen is enclosed by a peculiar black-and-gray construction that looks like a stage set for a community-theater production of Women Behind Bars.
When he sold his former venue, Naster signed a five-mile noncompete agreement, so south Kansas City fit the bill. "I haven't done any advertising, but my old downtown customers are finding me here," Naster says. "I guess they live out here."
But the clientele is also different in the suburbs. Gone are the burly truck drivers — regulars in the West Bottoms — sitting at black Formica-topped tables. These tables are fine, square and unpretentious, but they're not nearly as sturdy and comfortable as the ones on Ninth Street.
It doesn't help that Naster loads the tables up with condiments and accessories. On the Sunday morning that I shared breakfast with Linda, Richard and Carol Ann, there was hardly room for the plates amid everything else on the tabletop: a roll of paper towels, a tray of jelly packets, a mustard container, two bottles of hot sauce, packets of sugar, and a little bowl of nondairy creamers. Then came the plastic tumblers of water, the mismatched coffee mugs, and separate plates for almost every food item. The bacon was served on its own melamine plate (unbreakable, and it lasts forever, honey) instead of with the scrambled eggs and hash browns, so we were nearly overwhelmed by the stacked dishes and glasses that cluttered the table by the end of the meal. One unexpected jolt to the table might have created a landslide.
Naster admits that the tables are too small and that the service is still a bit uneven. That morning, I noticed a veteran waitress working the room (she's a political consultant in her spare time). But our server was joyless and even snapped at Carol Ann: "Don't talk so fast, I can't write that fast."