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.
That love was on display Monday, October 24, when a line of 700 mourners, some waiting as long as three hours, arrived at RecordBar for an impromptu memorial. It was a party that he would have loved, the kind no one wanted to leave. They drank wine from pitchers and signed a 13-liter wine bottle until there was no more space to write.
"We lived in a small community for 40 years," Marilyn says. "It wasn't that expansive. But here were all these people that loved John."
"He was a cool dude," Gilbert adds.
When he was little, he pushed his stool up to the counter," Marilyn recalls. "He wanted to stir. He wanted to taste and smell. He just had a gift."
The youngest of three children, McClure was born and raised in Tescott, Kansas, a rural town a half-hour's drive from Salina with around 300 people. McClure inherited his size and his work ethic from his father, but his destiny lay beyond the family's cattle ranch. At 10 years old, he was glued to Yan Can Cook on PBS. Soon, he was learning how to make noodles, taught by the family's Japanese next-door neighbor, Sanae. McClure began touching up his mother's goulash with a bit of cayenne, and he was developing a knack for understanding why a dish worked — or didn't.
In 1986, he began competing at county fairs. His first entry, an Italian cream cake, earned him reserve-grand-champion status and pulled in a winning bid of $125. He took home purple ribbons every year after that, competing in 4-H until he was 17. After graduating from Tescott High School, he surprised his parents by enlisting in the Navy on the day that his housing contract was due at the University of Kansas.
"He was one of those people that, once he makes his mind up to do something, he does it," Marilyn says. "And he was going in the Navy."
McClure's goal was to test himself in a big kitchen. He believed that if he could cook aboard an aircraft carrier, a shorebound restaurant would be a piece of that Italian cream cake. He thrived on the grind of making food for a floating city of 5,000, and just 10 days after being discharged, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
"John always seemed to have a goal or a mission for himself," Gold says. "He was always fun to have in a kitchen because he brought an energy, and he could always rally the troops."
In 2001, he set two new goals: Move closer to home and get hired as a cook at the American. He did both. At 25, he was working for two of the most talented chefs in Kansas City: Gold and Michael Smith. Gold encouraged him to seek opportunities beyond the city, but she hoped that the hungry young chef would return.
"I made a commitment to myself to find the best chefs in the country and work for them," McClure told The Pitch in February of this year.
He had set his sights on working for Frank Brigtsen, of Brigtsen's Restaurant in New Orleans. He knew that he'd made the right decision when Brigtsen, after just six weeks, gave him two weeks' paid vacation alongside the tenured staff. He wanted to know that McClure would be taken care of during one of the restaurant's regular breaks. In his time at Brigtsen's, McClure saw his boss take similar care of employees on and off the line.
"John's always said that the dishwasher is as important as he is because if the dishes aren't clean, nobody could eat the food he prepared," Marilyn recalls.
The idea that a restaurant staff could be a family left an indelible impression on McClure, as did the flavors in that kitchen, which changed his cooking style. He was lured back to Kansas City to work as a sous chef at 40 Sardines, the Leawood restaurant run by Gold and Smith. In 2003, when he was 27, McClure cold-called Cliff Bath, the owner of Starker's Restaurant, and told him that he was going to be his next chef. A year later, Bath called back to say that he'd just let his executive chef go. That was McClure's cue.
"I remember Cliff once told me that John reminded him of himself 30 years earlier, that he was like a Kansas tornado," Gilbert says.
Keeping the established Starker's clientele happy while remaking the restaurant's menu wasn't easy. McClure drafted longtime Starker's general manager Dean Smith to help oversee the wine list and redefine the identity of a place that had been open since 1972. McClure purchased the restaurant in 2006. And although accolades from the James Beard Foundation and Wine Spectator magazine would come quickly, he had an entirely different agenda.
"We found a journal about how he would run a restaurant if he ever owned one," Marilyn says. "And one of things it said was that he wouldn't do it for awards. He would to do it to make people happy."
McClure was a happy eater and the kind of customer who helps provide the foundation for a neighborhood restaurant — a regular. He held court at J.J.'s on the Plaza, at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange in the Crossroads, and at Vietnam Café in Columbus Park. Fellow chefs and servers and diners knew McClure. His favorite dishes and drinks were delivered without his having to ask. "People would remember who he was, not just what he ate," one friend says.
To many, he was "Big Country," a barrel-chested Kansas farm boy with iron skillets for hands. "Growing up on a cattle ranch gave me a different view of food production," McClure told The Pitch in February. "I know the hard work and sacrifice that goes into getting a steak on the plate."
At Starker's, McClure showcased local farmers. A dinner spotlighting heirloom tomatoes evolved into an annual night centered on heirloom vegetables.
"It was quintessentially John, bringing all kinds of people together to laugh and talk around tables filled with amazing food," says Nicola Heskett, a writer who counted McClure as a close friend.
Those conversations often spilled into the early hours of the morning — a fact that never stopped McClure from being the first inside the restaurant the next day. After a childhood spent wrestling ornery calves and his tour in the Navy, he simply ran on less sleep than everyone else. He also ran hotter, and he wasn't afraid to share what he was thinking.
"What you see is what you get," Craig Adcock, the owner of Jude's Rum Cakes, says. "One thing that I loved about him was that he was heartfelt. If he wanted to talk to you, he just wanted to talk to you."
His directness likely contributed to the fact that Starker's may have been the only fine-dining establishment in the city without a formal dress code. It mattered more to McClure that he had the chance to feed people. And though he kept a strong hand in his own kitchen, he often reached out to the very first cook who taught him.
"Our phone would ring, and there would the ID for Starker's. It was John on the line, and he wanted to pick Marilyn's brain," Gilbert says.
His parents were his staff for the Starker's booth that McClure ran at the Plaza Art Fair the past three years. Marilyn also baked for the restaurant sometimes. This year, she shrank her cinnamon rolls — the ones that lured McClure out of bed on Friday mornings as a teenager — down to amuse-bouche size for a Mother's Day brunch.
That impulse toward family, toward closeness, also fueled McClure's charitable works. The Cliff Bath Memorial Scholarship Fund has raised more than $100,000 in four years to help students pursue secondary education in the restaurant and hospitality fields. And McClure donated his food, talent and personality to several other causes.
He was known for his annual crawfish boil, a Memorial Day weekend party that mushroomed in size to more than 500 people this year because of an open Facebook invitation. Westport Café and Bar co-owner and chef Aaron Confessori, who lived across the street from McClure's West Plaza home, found himself recruited to run a satellite party. Far from lamenting the prospect of cooking 200 pounds of crawfish, McClure, Confessori recalls, was just excited about a backyard Mardi Gras.
"He never lost that childlike enthusiasm, and I think that's what separates the truly successful people. They can remain enthused and not be consumed by the day to day," Confessori says.
At last year's crawfish boil, McClure also enlisted the help of fellow neighbor Dan Doty. Back in 2009, Doty had invited McClure, who was new to the block, over for a spaghetti dinner. The pair matched each other, meatball for meatball.
"You eat until you're miserable," Doty says, "but you're going to have a great time doing it."
After nearly a case of wine, as his guests left and the backyard fire they'd been sitting around began to dwindle, Doty was ready to call it a night. But McClure, with that crooked smile, asked if his host had anything else to burn. A pair of lacquered doors and an antique library table later, Doty and McClure had forged a permanent friendship.
"He claimed me," Doty says. "He was really good at putting people in a position where they think something was their idea."
The idea that McClure and Doty shared was Barrio, a taqueria concept that McClure had tested with pop-ups this year, most recently at the Twin City Tavern. In the spring, Doty agreed to partner with McClure and to run the place for the chef. Now he's meeting with potential investors in the hopes of still launching the restaurant at 4141 Pennsylvania by the end of the year.
"He gave me the confidence to do it," Doty says. "And it's still a really good idea. John and I were real similar. John just had a little bigger voice. I don't know if I can match it, but I'll try my best to fill it."
The memorial service for McClure was held Saturday, October 29, in the Tescott High School gymnasium, 17 years after his graduation.
"The leaves were falling from the yellow cottonwoods, and the green wheat was just starting to come up," Gilbert says. "There's always something coming and going."
Sitting in the front row for the service was Pablo Muñoz, a 2010 award recipient of the Cliff Bath Memorial Scholarship, and his mother.
"John wanted other people to succeed. He told Pablo to dream big," Marilyn says. "Pablo's mother wanted me to understand just how much John had helped Pablo."
The McClures learned that their son had been following Pablo's progress at the Kansas City Art Institute, making sure that he had enough money for school supplies and was keeping his grades up. On his breaks from school, Muñoz popped into the Starker's kitchen to watch McClure work.
The stories kept coming. Marilyn, a United Methodist lay minister, found comfort in the gospel music that filled the tiny gym: I'm two steps away from my lord and I can almost hear him calling my name ...
Rob McClure, John's older brother and a former manager with Beech Aircraft, is running the day-to-day operations at Starker's.
"We're keeping it open, and we hope the community continues to support it," Marilyn says. "We have parties and reservations booked through the end of the year. Eventually we hope to find a buyer to take it over."
Gold has been aiding the McClure family in the search, and other friends of McClure's continue to look for ways to honor him. It's possible that his name may be added to the scholarship fund he started or that the crawfish boil may become a fundraiser for suicide prevention.
"It literally feels as though the heart of the Kansas City restaurant scene has been removed," Heskett says. "Just a big gaping hole where once stood bighearted, passionate, talented and good-natured John McClure."
At his home, McClure displayed a triptych of paintings by Kale Van Leeuwen — whose artwork also graces a wall of Starker's — depicting empty chairs, stand-ins for those that should have been around McClure's dining-room table. He never wanted to look at empty seats. He wanted his friends around that table. In their absence, he kept it free of chairs.
Tonight, there will be empty chairs at J.J.'s and the Rieger and the Vietnam Café. The chairs sit waiting for him. McClure would have been 36 years old this Friday.