Editorial Feature

Kansas City’s Culinary DNA: From Barbecue to Midwest Manners

Food writer and editor Jenny Vergara on the way Kansas City's food scene is a mix of rustic grub and fine dining  

Many people who visit Kansas City for the first time leave surprised, and ultimately impressed, with the local flavor of the food we serve in our friendly, mid-sized metropolis.

Honestly, we're a little surprised that they are so surprised.

Our food scene starts with the humble smoke and fire of Kansas City-style barbecue, the birthplace of burnt ends, and finishes with a humblebrag of being home to four James Beard award-winning chefs, and eight current James Beard semifinalists.

With regards to our food, we have never seen our “center of the map” location as anything other than the bonus it has been for us. With rich farmland located less than an hour from downtown, we have farmers and ranchers who keep our restaurants and farmers markets brimming with fresh produce, dairy, eggs and meat.

Buyers and sellers looking over steers in stockyards, Kansas City, 1954 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Stockyards in Kansas City, Missouri by W J Curtis (From the collection of Jackson County Historical Society)

With our name attached to both a style of regional barbecue and a cut of steak, Kansas City is a town built on beef and pork. Once processed in the historic stockyards located in the West Bottoms, now we get meat from local families who process our protein at places like Paradise Locker Meats, Bichelmeyer Meats, Local Pig and Broadway Butcher Shop.

Barbecue for us is not just a cooking style, but an institution. It also sits at the very heart of our culinary origin story and is one of the biggest points of pride when we talk about “our food.” With over 100 barbecue restaurants operating today, and being home to the world’s largest barbecue competition, the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, you could say we bleed Kansas City-style barbecue sauce here.

Locals tend to group their favorites by barbecue sauce or by the type of protein preferred. For example, you may like the beef brisket from Slap’s BBQ, burnt ends from LC’s Bar-B-Q, sausage from Q39, ribs from Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, pulled pork from Joe’s Kansas City Bar-b-Que with everything slathered in Arthur Bryant’s tangy orange barbecue sauce.

Even as we proudly claim our barbecue as our “own,” we have at times been a little conflicted about our casual and comforting culinary roots. While we appreciate the fact that barbecue is what put Kansas City on the culinary map, as our food scene grew and started to flourish, we secretly started to yearn for culinary recognition for something beyond barbecue.

Postcard showing a view of the Stock Yards in West Bottom, Kansas City (From the collection of Kansas City Museum)

That recognition finally came to us with our first James Beard Foundation award in 1998, when our favorite 65-year-old pan-fried chicken restaurant, Stroud’s, was given an award for being an “American Classic.” Although the James Beard Foundation had been giving out chef and restaurant awards, often known as “Oscars of the food world,” since 1990, this comfort food establishment received this award the first year it was created.

Just one year later, Michael Smith and Debbie Gold, would win joint Best Chef: Midwest titles from the James Beard Foundation, five years after they started cooking together at the finest 5-star restaurant in Kansas City at that time, The American. That same award would be given again, eight years later, to Celina Tio while she was at the helm of The American in 2007.

It may have been Stroud’s pan-fried chicken that first caught the eye of the James Beard Foundation, but one year later they were back to recognize Kansas City’s fine dining cuisine. It was at that exact moment, when Kansas City realized “our food,” all of our food, was worthy of recognition on a national scale. We always knew our food was good, but it felt good to know that others knew it, too. The pride for Kansas City’s culinary scene grew a little bigger that year, bolstered by a little love from James Beard.

Table shot at Q39 (From the collection of Visit KC)
Rib prep at Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que (From the collection of Visit KC)

In 2013, Kansas City’s food scene took another giant leap forward, allowing us to move beyond the culinary legacy of The American. Colby Garrelts won Best Chef: Midwest for Bluestem, the fine dining restaurant he and his partner, wife, and pastry chef, Megan Garrelts, opened together in 2004. It was a big win for him, as he was the first chef in Kansas City to take home this award while cooking his own food in his own restaurant. This power couple would go on to open their second (and a third) more casual restaurant, Rye, serving barbecue, fried chicken, steaks and delicious pie.

This win, for a chef who was known for cooking both casual Midwestern food and cutting-edge Midwestern cuisine made us realize it is okay for Kansas City to celebrate our culinary roots, play to our culinary strengths, work with what the land has given us, all while creating vibrant dishes that taste of our own unique environment.

Chef Michael Smith and his wife and wine director Nancy Smith understand this duality in Kansas City’s culinary DNA. They recently opened their glamorous new Italian restaurant, Farina, serving up steaks, seafood and impressive house-made pasta, while next door, they also operate Extra Virgin, their more comfortable and casual Mediterranean-inspired tapas bar.

Same goes for Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room when it opened in 2017, in the Crossroads Arts District. Michael and Christina Corvino delivered Kansas City jazz served with stylish shared plates and a late-night bar menu with one of the most talked about burgers in town. By contrast, their private tasting room, located in the same space, offers a more luxurious, prix fixe fine dining experience.

Selection of meats at Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue (From the collection of Visit KC)
Freshwater restaurant, Kansas City, MO

Other Kansas City restaurants successfully walk the line between casual comfort food and fabulous fine dining. Like Novel, known for serving the thickest pork chop in town. A Midwest meets Mediterranean menu full of local game tempts at The Rieger. Black Dirt is a love letter to the food grown in our Midwestern soil, while The Restaurant at 1900 offers a fresh and flavorful seasonal menu that is making waves. The Antler Room and Freshwater have both purposefully kept the size of their spaces intimate, while they dish up exciting and ever-changing menus that use every part, of every local, seasonal ingredient in delicious and incredibly inventive ways.

From barbecue to James Beard award-winning chefs and restaurants, today Kansas City delivers a dynamic food scene that celebrates who we are and where we live. We have quietly mastered the art of taking Midwestern ingredients and turning them into dishes that can be both comforting and cutting edge.

But, perhaps, the single most important ingredient in the ongoing success of our food scene is the friendliness of the people that live here. The familiar greeting, “Hi, may I help you?” that Gates Bar-B-Que first made famous in Kansas City, perfectly demonstrates that we know how to take care of our guests. It comes from living in a city located in the middle of the country, where we have been historically, and still are today, a welcoming place for weary travelers who are just passing through on their way somewhere else.

You see, in Kansas City, we have always understood that a good meal, a refreshing drink and friendly smile is all people need to feel right at home.


"Hi, may I help you?" neon sign at Gates Bar-B-Q (From the collection of Visit KC)
Words by Jenny Vergara
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