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|KCMag.com: BIG NIGHT FOR BIG COUNTRY|
STORY AND PHOTOS BY Bonjwing Lee
Big names, a big space and a big cause collided in April for a man Kansas City remembers as Big Country.
Local chefs and fans of his menu masterpieces know him as Big Country, a sunny expanse of generosity as endless as the fields of Tescott, Kansas, where he was reared on a cattle ranch. As a son, a brother, a friend to many and one of Kansas City’s finest chefs, he is a presence larger than life.
So last November, when John McClure, chef and owner of Starker’s Restaurant, took his life, our city was unexpectedly left with a void. In an attempt to fill it, friends and members of the restaurant community that McClure loved banded together, gathering at bars and restaurants to grieve, to comfort and to remember.
Suicide is not an easy subject to digest, but as McClure’s death reminded, it is an important one to understand. Those who have been caught in the crosshairs of tragedy know that awareness and education are vital to prevention.
Seeking that awareness, Michael and Nancy Smith, owners of Michael Smith and Extra Virgin restaurants, and longtime friends of McClure, contacted the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and were told that a Kansas City chapter of the organization had recently been chartered by Barb Nelson and a group of 30 others. Founded in January of this year, the fledgling chapter welcomed support.
The Smiths spread the news to chefs from across the city that an event would surface to benefit the new chapter of the AFSP in memory of McClure. The Big Country Benefit would give closure to grief and resources to ambiguity.
It was as if Chef Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s Restaurant in New Orleans, McClure’s longtime mentor who was unable to attend, had sent a balmy postcard from the Crescent City just for Big Country. Summer seemed to arrive early on that first day of April, when nearly 200 people gathered in the spacious Muehlebach Suite at Boulevard Brewing Company to eat, drink and remember.
Convivial. The energy at the event matched Big Country’s way. And that’s how the evening ran, thanks in large part to emcee Jasper Mirabile Jr., chef and owner of Jasper’s, who took a lap around the room with the mic as he chatted with every chef who donated their time, talent and food.
He paused to talk with wine master Doug Frost and Gomer’s Midtown’s Jim Coley, formerly the wine director at Starker’s Restaurant. Along with a few wine distributors and Cellar Rat owner Ryan Sciara, they kept glasses full throughout the night. Frost had reached into his personal cellar to bring out a few rare gems to share. As Big Country would have done, he roved the room to pour cheer into the glasses of friends and strangers alike.
But there were teary-eyed pauses too, like when Dan Doty, one of McClure’s closest friends, and Gilbert and Marilyn, his parents, took to the podium to thank everyone for their support and attendance. Gilbert broke up the quiet room when he cheerfully reminded himself aloud that McClure had always told him, “Look up, Dad!”
Barb and Steve Nelson shared their tear-jerking story. Having lost two sons to suicide, the couple dedicated themselves to educating the public about suicide prevention. Their involvement with AFSP provided them hope that “others would not have to walk in [their] shoes. You can’t always tell when someone is at risk just by looking at them,” Barb says. “That’s where AFSP can help.” The organization helps people identify warning signs and educates them on what to do if they think someone they know or love is at risk.
The funds raised by attendance were enough for the Smiths to present the Kansas City AFSP chapter with a $15,000 check. Additional donations and proceeds from a silent auction held during the benefit almost doubled the contribution.
No memorial to McClure would be complete without the comfort foods he loved to eat and cook. So his peers, many of Kansas City’s finest chefs, such as Colby and Megan Garrelts of bluestem and Ted Habiger of Room 39, paid tribute to him in the dishes they prepared for the event.
Big Country loved Cajun and Creole cooking so much that he made it the cornerstone of his menu at Starker’s Restaurant (just try the New Orleans BBQ shrimp or the shrimp po’boy). Julio Juarez, the new chef at Starker’s, dished up bowls of gumbo, thick and lusty, over rice. Juarez also made mini chocolate pecan pies, a mainstay on McClure’s menu.
McClure’s annual crawfish boil, always the talk of the town for days thereafter, inspired Mirabile to serve a crawfish bisque. Celina Tio, chef and owner of Julian, served her version of fried chicken, made Asian with a side of sesame aioli. Howard Hanna from The Rieger went Southern with open-faced biscuits topped with ham, spinach, red-eye gravy and a fried quail egg.
Knowing that McClure loved Vietnamese food, Jennifer Maloney, chef of Café Sebastienne, prepared pho, a comforting beef broth with noodles and herbs that she spiced up with jalapenos and hot sauce. Her rendition seemed to be a crowd favorite.
As the evening cooled, the party migrated to the generous patio outside with a panoramic view of the city. Having closed down their stations, the chefs mingled in with guests, drinks in hand, to watch the downtown skyline blush with the colors of dusk and reminisce the man who made Kansas City country big.
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