By Dave Woods
Digital market development manager
KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
Jennifer Maloney, executive chef at Cafe Sebastienne, credits much of her success at The Kemper Museum for Contemporary Art's signature restaurant to her use of locally grown products, her diverse culinary background and the staff she has assembled at the eatery in her 17 years there.
"We're able to find local ingredients about three quarters of the year," she said. "I start getting seasonal produce around February or March and then I will use that all the way up until November. We are really lucky in Kansas City."
Maloney, who has worked in kitchens in Napa Valley, Italy and the Caribbean, sees fresh ingredients and simple preparation and presentation as the keys to her longtime K.C. success.
"The best thing about buying locally and eating seasonally is the food is going to speak for itself," the Chicago native explained. "I cook very simply. A nice olive oil and a little bit of garlic, and anything can taste good."
Let the ingredients speak for themselves, Maloney said.
"Coming up this season there will be so many berries, squashes, zucchinis and tomatoes," the veteran farm-to-table chef said. "It's not even that different than (what) people in Springfield or Joplin would be making on the farm. Everything we do is seasonal. I do love it when the ingredients speak out. A good oil, some garlic and some salt. It's easy."
Simple and fresh are keys to good food, she said. She insists great food doesn't have to be complicated.
"Get a nice piece of fish or a nice piece of meat, and let its taste shine through," she said. "We are very lucky to have nice farms (around the area) where we can get nice meat. I cooked a beautiful pork chop from Kansas last night. I just used a little olive oil and some salt and pepper and some rosemary. I cooked it for five minute and that was all it needed."
While proper cooking is essential to her restaurant's success, presentation of the dishes at the museum cafe is a consideration, too.
"I think people eat with their eyes," Maloney said. "I go for color on the plate. Let the ingredients speak for themselves. I don't like to cover it up. When I'm composing a dish on the menu, I like to think about the starch, potato, protein. I still try to think about combining the flavors (to) go together. I want it to be visually appealing, and that it makes sense."
In other words, she wants her food tasty and simple.
"I don't like to build a (food) tower and put 100 different things on it," she said. "I want the dish to speak for itself in the presentation and in your mouth."
Maloney wasn't always considered one of the top chefs in the Midwest. She did her time preparing salads and working hard on lines. It wasn't always glamorous work.
"I like to work with people and came from a family of really good cooks," she said. "When I was young, cooking really came easy to me. I was able to do it and then I just stuck with it."
Maloney cut her culinary teeth in the kitchen of a Kansas City hotel. Until her stretch at The Hyatt, Maloney said she had only worked on the cold side of the kitchen.
"I got a lot of education at The Hyatt (in Kansas City) and apprenticed there for a couple of years," she said. "The Hyatt was where I got a little bit of everything. I worked at The American Restaurant, and that's where I decided that this is what I really wanted to do. I was young and someone at The Hyatt saw something in me and focused some attention on me, which made me a better chef. I knew that's what I wanted to do."
From Kansas City the young chef headed west.
"That's really what sparked my passion for cooking," she said. "I worked with some great chefs. I spent time working with Madeleine Kamman at Beringer Vineyards in California's Napa Valley. I gained a lot of knowledge about food and wine pairings working one-on-one with her. They have some of the best chefs in the country. That was a nice, really personal, intense time just learning about wine and foods and working with fresh, natural, seasonal foods."
At one point Maloney joined the crew of a sail boat and toured the Caribbean.
"I've been a lot of places," she said, laughing. "I've been really lucky to cook in a lot of different countries. Cooking has allowed me to cook in many different parts of the world."
California was good to Maloney. There she made many friends and met top-notch chefs.
"I have to say that when I lived in California, I was really lucky to work in Santa Barbara," she said. "I was able to work with a lot of winemakers because the restaurant I worked at was a wine store and a restaurant."
It was in Santa Barbara she was able to meet Julia Child a few times.
"She came into the restaurant a lot," Maloney said. "There were a lot of really young chefs there, and I got to meet other great chefs who have gone on to do other good things. Luckily, in Kansas City, we have a really big group of talented chefs. I've been lucky learning on the job."
At Cafe Sebastienne, new menus are created weekly for Friday and Saturday dinner and for Sunday brunch.
"It keeps us challenged and busy," she said. "My sous chef, Janet Ross, pretty much runs (Sunday) brunch. We write a dinner menu every Friday and that's what gets us excited. If you do the same old things every day, you are going to get bored and complacent. Every week we write a new menu and gear up for it on Fridays and Saturdays and then for brunch on Sundays."
Creating new menus weekly keeps her and the staff on their toes, she said.
"I've been here 17 years, and I do a new menu every week," she said.
"That's a lot, and we really don't repeat too much. We have a few items that we can't take off of the menu because we get people who expect (them), but we do try to change it up every week."
Cafe Sebastienne at The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
4420 Warwick Boulevard, Kansas City MO 64111
Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Dinner: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Brunch: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Call 816-561-7740 for reservations.
Museum admission and parking are free.