Archive for Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rock ‘n’ recipes: Head chef uses local ingredients and creativity to make meals sing at The Oread

Chef Molly Myers of The Oread, right, and sous chef, Sean Jolly, flambé, some locally grown wild mushrooms in the hotel kitchen. Myers has structured the hotel's menus around seasonally available local produce.

Chef Molly Myers of The Oread, right, and sous chef, Sean Jolly, flambé, some locally grown wild mushrooms in the hotel kitchen. Myers has structured the hotel's menus around seasonally available local produce.

December 13, 2011

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As a teen, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get to rub elbows with rock stars and get a chance to do your dream job at the same time.

But that’s exactly how Molly Myers started off her career as a chef.

“I started catering at an early age with a friend of my father’s and she catered all the rock concerts that came through Kansas City — at every venue, and in Lawrence and in Salina and in Wichita,” Myers says. “I worked with her for two years on that and then I took it over and worked another eight years.”

Her favorite performer to work with? Frank Sinatra (“Very cordial, very appreciative, very simple.”) One of her most memorable meals? A vegetarian birthday dish she made for the members of Brooks & Dunn and their families (“(They) could not believe that they were getting more than cheese and fruit and crisp vegetables.”)

But it wasn’t all glamour, of course, cooking for a rotating cache of stars was a lot of work. Myers and her crew would have to be on call for a week at a time, preparing meals at any hour, while sleeping in a Winnebago and “shopping” in a semi truck full of food on site.

“You had your breakfast, lunch and dinner, you had your dressing rooms and then, sometimes when they’d have after-parties at the hotel, which they expected you to be there (and do),” she says.

It was exhausting, even for a young chef, but served as quite the springboard for Myers, who has parleyed that zero-to-60 start into a career as an executive chef. Her current gig is at The Oread, 1200 Oread Ave. It’s a job that’s still rarely inhabited by a woman in the male-dominated world of the culinary arts — something Myers knows all too well.

“Being a female in this industry is ... I’ve had issues in the past, where I’ve been stabbed in the back pretty hard,” she says. “Sabotaging food, the whole bit. Pouring vinegar in it to make it go bad because they wanted the position.”

And thus, she values her staff at The Oread — people she either hand-picked or culled from the old staff. A 35-year veteran of professional cooking, she knew exactly what she wanted in her staff. For the first three months she had daily meetings with her sous chefs to get on the same page. From those beginnings she forged a relationship unlike any she’d had in her culinary career — a tight-knit bond with second-in-command Sean Jolly.

“Now, it’s like right foot, left foot walking the same line. I’ll start a process and then we’ll get into it and we’re both right there,” says Myers of Jolly, whom was already on the staff at The Oread when she arrived. “That ‘marriage’ like that is hard to find between a chef and a sous chef. So, once you have it ... I could not do it without him, that’s for sure.”

Jolly says Myers’ trust and top-notch experience — which includes a culinary degree she received after working for a decade in the industry — has really taught him not only how to work the business end, but also has revived his creativity.

“She’s incredibly creative and she allows other people to be creative,” Jolly says. “Not that we’re doing anything too wild and exotic here, but she lets us kind of breathe and it’s a little bit of fresh air back here to get somebody new and somebody that has that much experience and is that creative.”

That creativity is on display each day in a menu Myers dubs “our playground” — the series of nightly specials for the hotel’s high-end restaurant, Five 21. The menu is flexible, giving the chefs more latitude than just creating a fish special or a chicken special night in and night out. Rather, its premise is much more open, divided into “dishes to savor,” “dishes from the garden,” “dishes from the water,” “dishes from the land” and “sweet dishes.”

Myers got the idea for her flexible evening menu after checking out the produce each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market. She wanted a way to showcase the very best of each shopping trip, without being confined to something set. She started building relationships with local farms once the market opened in May and now has an extensive list of local producers with whom she prefers to work spring, summer and fall.

“I would just walk through the market and just purchase as an individual, rather than going up and grandstanding, ‘I’m the chef at the Oread.’ I don’t do that,” she says. Later, if she liked what she found, she’d contact the farms for a larger order, though she says, “I like going and picking and sorting through, versus just having something dropped off. I enjoy the interaction and watching the people shop and not knowing who we are.”

Included on her seasonal menus are Goddard Farms, Wakarusa Valley Farms, Backyard Produce, La Ferme du Bonheur, Pendleton’s Country Market, Sundance Emu Ranch, Rocky Hills Elk Ranch, Tomato Allie, Blossom Trail Bee Ranch, Lulu’s Garden and Pome on the Range.

Using local ingredients works well into the style Myers has cultivated over her years in the business — a fusion of “across the board” cuisine made with the freshest, seasonal ingredients and always, always from scratch.

“We are a ‘made from scratch’ kitchen,” Myers says, proudly. “All of our sauces are made from scratch. They’re not packaged. We use the freshest ingredients we can find and make our own reductions, we make our own veal stock and then start building up from there. It makes all the difference in the world.”

Of course, the from-scratch nature of the kitchen, plus her constant hunt for the freshest ingredients means Myers is working day in and day out in the kitchen. She, her husband and 19-year-old daughter (who works with Myers at The Oread) still have a home in Prairie Village, not that she’s seen it much recently. Until they find a suitable small farm around Lawrence, Myers has been commuting or crashing at a studio apartment she maintains in Lawrence. It’s a grueling schedule, but one totally worth it to Myers, who says there’s nothing she’d rather be doing than cooking each day.

“It’s in your blood, there’s not two ways about it,” she says of her need to be in the kitchen. “It’s not just something you take on, it runs through your veins.”

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