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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.