When you shop at the farmer's market, do you try and create a relationship with the farmers and buy from the same ones time and time again? It seems like there are just so many vendors down there, I can't figure out which ones are the top producers. Oh, are there seasonal vegetables that you keep on the look out for as we near fall?
There are a lot of vendors on Saturdays, which is awesome because it lets us know the market is doing well and growing. Remember, you can go down there just for lunch, even if you're not shopping for produce, or to buy unusual odds and end gifts and such. But if the search is for produce, I go to whoever has the best looking products I'm looking for that day, and I usually scout out the entire market, then go back to the ones with the best looking produce. Sometimes the little mom and pop with just the tomatoes from their back yard are the best, sometimes the Missouri guy wins, sometimes the Meier's. I always think Gidget's has nice stuff and unusual.
As fall comes, I start thinking about pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut squash, cold weather cauliflower. Good tomatoes are here the whole month of August and into September. Root Vegetables always become staple in the cooler to colder time of the year as well. My mind goes to stews and soups and chili, but not yet. Enjoy what we have for a few more precious weeks.
Go see Julie and Julia!
Since your menu changes from week to week, how do you develop your recipes?
Research and daydreaming — equal parts of both. I look through every cooking magazine I can get a hold of, read cookbooks for entertainment and watch a modest amount of the Food Channel. I also visit lots of different restaurants when I travel and tuck ideas I take from them to make my own. I also have typed ingredients into the tool bar of my Web search that I want to combine and see if anyone else might have an idea to base off of. Mostly I think about what I'd like to eat.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
I love "The Joy of Cooking." If I am lost and have questions, it never fails me. My other favorite is Laura Calder's, "French Food at Home,” but not because it is French. She just has beautiful, simple, great-tasting recipes. Her lemon tart is what I base my lemon tart off of, and it's fantastic.
What made you want to become a chef?
It has always been in my plan. As a kid, I thought of restaurants I'd like to open. I love the cooking and especially at RowHouse, the level of change and creativity, but what really draws me to the business is serving people. It's simple enough, I love making people comfortable and happy. I love the level of intimacy it creates.
So, you've said you're a salad nut. What are your tricks for making a really great salad?
Greens, crunch, cheese and always a quick homemade dressing are the keys to my favorite salads. Usually the easiest greens to have on hand are the boxes of baby mixed greens, but my absolute favorite green is arugula (it is spicy and peppery).
For crunch I love to add nuts. If I have time I like to coat them with a bit of brown sugar, salt and butter, and toast them in the oven for 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Pecans are my favorite, but sliced almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts — they all work. If there isn't time or desire to candy them, I throw them in raw.
Bleu cheese, feta, goat, cheddar, Parm and Asiago are all cheeses I love. Each of them has great character, and just a few chunks really make a salad. My vinaigrettes are 3 parts extra virgin olive oil, 1 part vinegar, 1 part sugar and a pinch of salt. Pepper is optional for me. It's also always delicious to add a pinch of dried mustard. You pick the vinegar, I like it. My current favorite is white balsamic.
My recipe for a creamy dressing is 1 part mayo, 1 part sour cream, 1 part milk/cream/half and half, 2 tbls vinegar, pinch salt, and 2 pinches sugar. Tobasco is a nice addition, and any handy fresh herb. I like to put my cheese in this dressing and then toss the salad.
What's the most surprising ingredient that can help make a really wonderful salad?
Fresh herbs, dill, mint, cilantro, basil — all delicious additions. I love the subtly of dill, and the kick of basil. Mint is mysterious.
How can I keep a salad delicious without loading it up with too many fattening items?
Nuts are good fat, remember that, they also help to fill you, cheese is fine in small quantities, and the creamy recipe I use is using low-fat mayo, and low fat sour cream in equal parts. Non fat doesn't taste so great, but could be used also, BUT I WOULDN'T DO IT.
What do you fix when you don't have much time?
I toss a mix of veggies — potatoes (sweet and/or reg), garlic and onion — with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sugar, and salt and pepper. Then roast for 20 minutes and eat. I love to toss in a spicy bratwurst if I'm craving some meat. If I have time, I'll toss this with some pasta.
What do you cook at home?
The above roast veggies with pasta. Burgers on the grill. I'm a salad nut, and I go to eat a lot. I spend at least a day a week at El Mezcal or Tuptim Thai.
I'm never sure what to do when I've got a crowd coming to my house. Do you have any quick party ideas?
I might sound like a broken record, but again, the pasta and roasted veggies is a great easy party food. I always toss a salad, and never go without fresh salsa and some chips. If I'm in a hurry I love to serve a sorbet from the store for a yumm dessert, and will mix two varieties to make it look better and taste better. I also have a killer recipe for quick sesame noodles that never fails.
What do you like about summertime cooking?
Produce. I am a closet vegetarian. I love all the spring and summer veggies in abundance. Asparagus, beans, beets, lettuces, my own herbs, tomatoes, peppers. I am a slave to all things vegetable.
Where do you get your produce?
I never miss the Topeka Farmer's Market on Saturday, and it is especially fun for me once July hits, and we are getting local stuff. I also always go to Wednesdays market on the south walk of the Capitol.
For everyday, I'm just like the rest of you, I go to Dillons for most things, and if I can't find it there you'll see me out at Hy-Vee.
What do you look for when selecting your fresh produce?
Color, smell, texture and firmness. My biggest pet peeve is the mister on produce. Sure it makes it look pretty, but I hate shaking off things and getting wet while doing so.
I go by the seasons with most things, and my love for tomatoes is satisfied a bit by the abundance of the grape tomatoes nowadays. (They don't really compare except when slow roasted.)
So, how did I become the owner of a restaurant in a renovated row house in downtown Topeka?
I grew up in Topeka, attended Assumption, followed by Hayden, Bryan Travel College and Washburn. I am a big fan of Topeka but always knew I needed to travel. I moved from Topeka to New York City, in the late 1980s and loved every minute of it. I worked, and supported myself as an actor but worked in some of the city’s finest restaurants as well.
My acting, took a turn toward writing and singing, which led me to Nashville. While I had some success in Nashville with music, my interest in cooking took over. I worked for several major hotel chains, including Loews, Westin, Historic Hotels of America and Starwood Lodging. My final job working for someone else was as food and beverage director of the Hermitage Hotel and its five-star Capitol Grill.
I didn’t go to culinary school but honed my skills in restaurants for more than 20 years, from Ted E. Bears in Topeka to the Capitol Grill in Nashville. It may have been quicker and less painless to have gone through a program, but the background and knowledge I attained gave me the tools I felt necessary to venture out with a place of my own.
I, with my business partner Sylvia Harrelson, opened our first restaurant, Cibo Cafe, in Nashville, in 2000. It received huge praise and quickly became an “in” place. We specialized in quick, homemade, healthful, beautiful lunch. We had a line out our door almost from the start, and it was truly a magical place.
We both came from front of the house jobs and neither of us had run a kitchen. So we both learned — both suffered. Somehow it worked, and it worked well. We kept a great clientele.
In 2002, we opened a sister shop called CiboPress. It was not as clearly thought out, being a coffee shop, magazine store and gift store. We also tried to manage it hands off and see if it could thrive with less of our bodies in the mix. It struggled, never really hit its stride, and taught us lots about business and about how some ideas work and some just don't.
We ended up combining the two shops — they were next door to each other — and running with Cibo and letting it grow, as opposed to operating two shops. It continued to excel. In 2004, after more and more visits home to Topeka, I realized I was either going to go ahead and root full force into Nashville, or finally and anxiously, I would make my way back home. My partner was willing to take over the business, and I packed up my things and came back with some ideas and dreams, and not much else.
After ups and downs, and much searching and research, out of the sky fell 515 S.W. Van Buren. The RowHouse.
It was not where or what I had imagined. It didn’t fit my business plan, but it felt like home the minute I walked in, and with only faith, I found ways to make it happen. Unbelievable things came together to make RowHouse a reality. Mostly, Topeka came, and believed in the place.
And now we have RowHouse. I am thankful for every minute I spend here. I haven't looked back once, because I feel so at home. Just like it's said, “there is no place like home.”