A look at the life of the Plaza restaurant owner and chef.

Starker's chef John McClure cut a giant figure — and leaves a big apron to fill 

A look at the life of the Plaza restaurant owner and chef.

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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.

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