Chef’s Table, Main Street, Winfield, Kansas, the year in review and what a year it has been—certainly worth a look back. The Chef’s Table, like most restaurants, was a dream, long before the food was being made. The dream / concept was to bring French Country and Norman Rockwell America, together into a dining experience, in which, the entire environment made patrons feel as though they were with the Chefs as their food was being prepared, or more simply put, in the kitchen, without actually having to be in the kitchen. Of course, for this experience to be as authentic as possible, I (Chef Stan) decided that the first Chef’s Table needed to rise out of the Heartland of America, so after a 4,000 mile drive about, I decided that Small Town, Main Street, U.S.A aka Winfield, Kansas, was as good a spot as any for the first Chef’s Table by Chef Stan!
Now Chef Stan, that would be me, is neither an architect, nor contractor, thus the title Chef Stan, but I did know that the Chef’s Table in Winfield needed to be a large open space with, with lots of brick on the outside and wood on the inside. I also knew that there needed to be multiple cooking and dining environments. To this end, we were able to create the first, which we call the café and pantry. The concept of the café and pantry being, casual / affordable fine dining—patrons order at the counter and we bring them their food. I should mention that the pantry, really is our pantry, stocked with more than a 100 types of olive oil and balsamic vinegars, and at least a 150 different spices, all of which we use and offer for sale. With respect to fine dining, it’s no simple task to elevate soups and sandwiches to this category, but I think that we have—in a big way. And our Onion Quiche Lemon Tart combo, is simply one of the best meals in the world!
The menu started off simply enough. I replicated the Mexican Grilled Cheese I had become known for as far back as my days at the Daily Brew, but I added a new Grilled Cheese, the Caprese Sandwich, which we now call the Italian Grilled Cheese, fresh, in the water, mozzarella, vine ripened tomato, fresh basil, olive oil, smoked sea salt—game changer on the Panini grill! The Egg Salad Sandwich, just like my mom used to make it! A new take on my old Tuna Salad Sandwich, still Panini grilled, but I substituted extra virgin olive oil for the mayo and apples and capers in place of relish. Add some red onion, seasonings and a baby artichoke on top—well, I’ve never had a better tuna salad sandwich. When it came to our popular Smoked Salmon Sandwich, it took some courage to end its being made on a bagel, but the move to our own handmade ciabatta roll paid off—a great sandwich, became a perfect sandwich! And then the hits just kept coming, Salami topped with fire-roasted red peppers and peperoncini’s, Corned Beef / nothing else needed, it’s that awesome, and the TLT / Turkey, Lettuce, Tomato. And on and on..
Having just mentioned our ciabatta roll, I’d like to expound a little further. Decades ago, I started to open a chain of restaurants called the New York Sandwich Company, they showed great promise, so people were shocked when I decided not to move forward with this business venture. The reason? The bread. I felt that what we were putting between the bread was special, but the bread, was just like everyone else and anyone who knows Chef Stan aka Stan Lerner, knows that doing something extraordinary interests me, but normal / average / everyday / mundane, well, not my thing…About a year after having returned to the kitchen, after a 15 year hiatus, I took to baking, first Amish Bread, which I am fairly well known for, and then cookies, cakes, pies and yes, finally, we created the perfect roll for my sandwiches. And what makes the ciabatta roll at Chef’s Table so special? The sour starter, this particular one has been more than a year in the making / fermenting and like all starters its character comes from what’s in the air around it, remember those 150 spices and a building made from materials that date back to the mid 1800’s—you get the idea.
Can we talk about pies and tarts? As I mentioned previously, both came along after cakes and cookies…I have to say, our Chocolate Cake, Oatmeal Cranberry Cookie, Chocolate Chip Cookie, well, they have no equal, but this wasn’t enough. Norman Rockwell America, meets French Country, simply demanded that Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, Peach Pie and the list goes on, share the counter with the world’s best Lemon Tart—this was the vision, this had to happen, it did, and we sell a lot of Apple Pie and Lemon Tart, here in little old Winfield, Kansas! Let me add this, as a Chef with those crucial 10,000 hours of cooking under the belt, I was confident that I could make pie fillings that would wow. Taking great apples, cutting them to an 8th of an inch, with a razor sharp, fourteen inch Chef Knife, crafted from German steel, and then taking these apple slices and cooking them down in a huge French copper frying pan, until they are the perfect, silky, smooth pie filling—this is standard good cheffing 101. But making each crust by hand, no mixers ever, and making the crust with a hand churned butter; this is the coup de grace, this is what makes the ultimate pie crust. And I love ending my night, mixing and making our pie dough by hand, then wrapping it and letting it rest until the morning.
“Scratch Kitchen”, “Farm to Table” folks like to banter these terms around now-a-days, and frankly, I won’t pretend to know to what degree any other kitchen, than my own, lives up to the integrity of these terms. One of the reasons I love working so out in the open, is that I adore when people watch as I mix dough with a hand carved wooden spoon. In fact, I mix just about everything by wooden spoon. And then there’s the local farmers, who come in, in the late afternoon and show me what they have just picked, set down atop our French Standing Table—this is in the middle of the restaurant, for all to see. Sometimes our customers bring items in from their own gardens and give them to me to cook up! I love this! In phase 3 of Chef’s Table, we will have our own farm…But I digress. The point that I am hopefully conveying is, that a lot of people claim to be something that they are not, this isn’t the case at Chef’s Table, Winfield. We are a truly scratch kitchen and we are as farm to table as we can be, but one day, we will be, our own farm to table restaurant—produce, cows, chickens, will all be part of our farming effort.
Having looked back at the concept and food of the last year, I should probably dedicate a few words to our mission—it evolved substantially. Everybody knows that I am a lunatic when it comes to providing the ultimate food / taste experience. And my passion for cleanliness, causes me to insist that my work environment be more sterilized than an operating room, these things never change. But a big part of what I was trying to accomplish over the last year, was an impact on culture. I wanted Chef’s Table Winfield to become a place where folks hung out. Where they collided with each other and had spontaneous, beneficial social interaction. This impact on culture; was far more important to me than how much money we could make. And while we did make spectacular food over the last year, and while we did host some significant musical events, and while we did make some funny Chef Stan videos, we did not succeed at changing the culture of the town, let alone the county or state. On a few occasions, it seemed as though we were making progress, but just when it felt like we were gaining traction with the community, it would go away. The discussion as to why we failed to improve the socialization of our community; is an essay unto itself, but for now I can say, we’re not going to give up on this. We will keep trying to become more than a place where people just eat great food and go on their way. Our mission, in this respect, will be accomplished when people think of the Chef’s Table as a second home, a place where members of their extended non-biological family can be found any time of day—there must be coffee, community and conversation going on, always!
I’d like to conclude with a thought about my own personal journey through the Chef’s Table over the last year—it was stupendous! The work was as physically and financially challenging as anything I have ever experienced, prison time was literally a cakewalk in comparison. But pushing oneself in this way, as it turns out, transcends the physical experience, it takes one to a spiritual height, which I used to imagine, but never attain. Close friends and family, expected this experience to age me 10 years, but all have commented that the opposite has transpired…And I have come to a place in life, where it doesn’t matter, how one looks, how much money one has, how much power, how much social status, as King Solomon said, “Vanity.” Being honest, working hard, and loving the Lord, G-d, Creator of every living thing—well this is the good life and over the last year I was very blessed to live such a life…I hope to write about this coming year, next year, so talk to you / write to you, then. Oh, and keep on cooking!!!