Those standing on the sidelines of the city’s creative renaissance are apt to notice that the most successful creative leaders are indeed the ones who are most daring. Reference Christopher Elbow, the Kansas City pastry chef turned chocolatier whose No. 6 Dark Rocks bar topped Food & Wine’s list of best chocolates on the continent.
Nearly 10 years ago, Elbow challenged Kansas City to embrace a concept, Christopher Elbow Artisanal Chocolate, that celebrated chocolate as an artistic medium, and not as sugary, waxy “candy.” Today, his relentlessly perfect-looking bonbons are the culinary equivalent of supermodels, and year after year, they’ve walked the catwalk of magazines such as Gourmet, Bon Appétit and O, The Oprah Magazine.
“We work with chocolate as a medium just like someone else would work with clay or metal. People eat with their eyes, so we put a lot of focus and emphasis on how our product looks. We try to use new techniques to always make it look very cool, and have it highly decorated and ornate.”
Elbow’s fans span the world. But one of them works down the street and is himself an artist whose resume includes that standard set of accolades and honors that define this nation’s best chefs. He’s Colby Garrelts, co-owner of Bluestem, and this year, the James Beard nominee and his wife, Megan, wrote a cookbook that announced a new movement in cooking: Kansas City Regionalism.
“It’s about the smoke flavors, with the sweet and savory,” he says. “Megan is doing a lot with fresh fruit, preserves and cobblers. I’m working on a barbecue sparerib. But I’m actually taking the meat off the bone and shaving one tiny, little perfect slice off a cabbage and dressing it in buttermilk. And I’m serving this perfect piece of rib meat and then garnishing it like crazy. I’m trying to really capture the flavors of barbecue, but when you look at it, you think, ‘Holy crap, it’s a work of art.’”
This rib—it’s a symbol not just of an artistically driven culinary movement, but of a broader, more aggressive, region-wide arts movement—one that’s finding fans in unlikely places. Like in New York.
“What’s happened here in Kansas City is cause then for both celebration and emulation,” writes the Lincoln Center’s Levy. “So, bravo, Kansas City. You are a national model of positive change. Please count me a loyal fan.”
Says Byrne, “Here’s someone from N.Y. saying we can learn things from you, and I don’t think that we should pass over that without stopping to say there really is something significant going on here.”
“I think Kansas City is seeing what Atlanta or Seattle saw 15 years ago—this kind of surge of artistic interest and artistic creation,” Hatley says. “And the two are meeting kind of brilliantly, and we’re at the crossroads of that right now.”