On a Friday morning in November, Gilbert McClure stands on the staircase leading to the dining room of Starker's Restaurant. The silver-haired former cattle rancher is tall, and his hands still have the crackling strength that comes from roping steers for 40 years. He booms out a welcome to the two diners who have just entered, and for a moment, his son, former Starker's owner John McClure, is back in the front of the house.
Gilbert is there for the same reason that those two diners are — to see if a restaurant can go on living without a heartbeat. The life force behind Starker's was extinguished when John McClure took his own life October 19. He was 35 years old.
"Starker's was John," says Debbie Gold, executive chef at the American. "The menu is John, and the restaurant is a reflection of John and the force of his personality."
Inside the dining room, conversation is muted. The voices coming from two occupied tables overlooking Wyandotte Street are barely louder than the hum of the wine refrigerator and the hiss of the heating vents. The food is still McClure's — inventive dishes such as heirloom green beans with fiery jalapeño and tempura-fried Shatto cheese curds. But there's a void at 201 West 47th Street.
"They can fill the post at Starker's, but they can never fill his apron," says longtime McClure friend Katie Van Luchene, executive editor of KC Magazine.
McClure reveled in talking to his guests. He would approach a table in his chef's whites, plate in hand, a crooked smile on his face. The plate was often a gift, some dish that a diner had never tried. The smile was because he knew the plate would come back clean. He would say: Try it. You might like it.
"He was a giver. He loved to give pleasure to people, whether that was with wine, conversation or food," says Dan Doty, his partner in Barrio, a taqueria that McClure was working on at the time of his death.
His oversized personality and matching frame — at 6 feet 4 inches and close to 300 pounds, McClure was a big man — dominated his Plaza restaurant and made him a force on the Kansas City restaurant scene. Young and charismatic, he was a bridge between the established chefs of the city and a rising cadre of independent chef-owners. With the Cliff Bath Memorial Scholarship Fund, which he established in memory of the former owner of Starker's, McClure also committed himself to the next generation of cooks.
"He was the ringleader. He kept everyone together, eating at everyone's bar. He was everywhere," says Ryan Sciara, the owner of Cellar Rat. His friendship with McClure began when they worked together at 40 Sardines.
The news of McClure's death broke on a late Wednesday afternoon in October. Those who knew him struggled to understand how the biggest cheerleader could have fallen silent at such an early age. Four days later, Gilbert and Marilyn McClure sat down with Mary Sanchez at The Kansas City Star and revealed a difficult truth: Their son committed suicide.
Two weeks later, in the McClures' Kansas City, Kansas, living room, they're equally candid: "It was suicide," Gilbert tells The Pitch. "We're talking about it because if we can save even one life, it's worth it." They've encouraged his friends and family to try and focus on the John they knew, rather than attempting to pick apart the inexplicable.
"We don't want to know the why. We just knew he loved other people more than himself. And we know that John was loved," Gilbert says.