By Michael Humphrey
Celina Tio is not only a remarkable chef, she is remarkably honest.
“I wrestle with this self doubt probably once a year where I think, ‘I know nothing,’” she says, while Colleen Plattner winces. “What am I doing here?”
“Please don’t let that be the pulled quote,” jokes Plattner, sales manager of The American Restaurant in Kansas City’s Crown Center. Tio has been executive chef at The American since 2001.
But maybe it should be the pulled quote. There might not be a more perfect statement to explain Tio’s remarkable talent.
First, let Tio put everyone’s mind to ease with what she said next: “Then I’ll go do an event, and I’ll see other chefs, and I’ll go to other restaurants and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I know something.’”
She really does. Just ask the James Beard Foundation, which named Tio 2007 Best Chef: Midwest.
Or ask John Mariani of Wine Spectator Magazine, who wrote, “…Tio has matured into one of the more outstanding chefs in the United States today, with a style of her own …”
But Tio’s first statement is even more convincing, because it reveals two important truths. First, the 37-year-old chef is attaining greatness by following her instincts and not simply the trends of the day. Secondly, it reveals she is an artist – equipped with that voice that nudges visionaries along – though her unpretentious, friendly manner might mask her artistic side.
General manager Jamie Jamison won’t shy away from talking about Tio in artistic terms.
“There’s a deconstructive element to every great chef,” Jamison says. “What ingredient is really driving that dish? Let’s rip away everything else. And she is on the cutting edge of that.”
A restaurant of distinction
Experiencing a Tio-made meal helps you understand that America truly has its own cuisine – it’s not simply a rehashing of inherited recipes. She is the first to admit that such epiphanies didn’t begin with her, but the Pennsylvania native is carrying on a tradition of excellence at The American.
“This restaurant is known as a chef’s restaurant,” she says. “It provides you with the freedom to create and that’s really important. So I knew I was coming to a place where chefs grow and find their own style.”
When Tio first arrived at The American, she replaced two chefs, Debbie Gold and Michael Smith, who were until this year the only Kansas City-based chefs to win the Beard award. But the alumni list doesn’t end there – it also includes Bradley Ogden, now the chef and co-owner of the Lake Creek Restaurant Group in California.
If a visitor comes to Kansas City wanting to experience its most distinguished and celebrated restaurant, there might be a debate about what takes second. But there’s no debate about this – The American Restaurant is Kansas City’s culinary giant.
That kind of reputation can be a blessing, but also a curse.
“I think the exclusivity of The American Restaurant is the biggest myth,” Jamison says. “That you have to be a member of the club, the unspoken city club. It’s really not.”
So it’s probably important to explain what The American is not. It’s not stuffy. The décor is sleek and comfortable, a “most elegant room, spectacular downtown view,” as the New York Times put it. The attitude is not uppity – “come as you are” is just fine. The prices are not cheap, but that doesn’t mean groups can’t have a special night out without going bankrupt.
“We can work in a $45 to $50 range per person,” Plattner says. “We can work in a moderate budget and still offer the experience you can only get at The American.”
An American menu
One of the common attributes among most great chefs is restlessness, and Tio is no different. At the core of her philosophy is a solid notion – keep it simple, keep it fresh, keep it delicious – but the results can be as exciting as the ingredients she chooses.
“I just say to the local suppliers, give me the best of what’s in your field,” she says. “And then I’m forced to use it. And I like it better that way.”
That’s great news for meeting planners, because it brings creativity back into the mix when coming up with a dinner menu. Tio says she likes groups, which isn’t true of all chefs. She likes the challenge of keeping The American’s standards, while at the same time pleasing a wide variety of palates.
Just to get an idea of what the possibilities are, here’s a snapshot of Tio’s daily menu from a few months back.
Lunch first courses included creamy mushroom soup with bacon lardons and parsley; watercress salad with stone fruit, manchego cheese and plum vinaigrette; and steamed mussels with white wine, garlic, shallots and thyme.
Lunch entrees included pan roasted sockeye salmon served with fingerling potato salad; Campo Lindo chicken served with soft corn polenta, arugula, parmesan and grapes; Beef flat iron served with goat cheese gnocchi, heirloom tomatoes and Saba salad dressing.
Dinner first courses included squash soup with bacon wrapped mousse and fennel oil; Hudson Valley foie gras torchon with caramelized Vidalia onion, toasted brioche and vanilla; heirloom tomatoes with herbed ricotta gnudi and fresh basil; Sonoma mushroom stack with house-made ricotta cheese and panko fried egg.
Dinner entrees included fennel brined sturgeon with crispy eggplant and summer squash; Wagyu beef with summer corn “spoon bread,” chanterelle mushroom and lobster ragout; slow-roasted pork belly with cannellini beans, tomato preserve and castelvetrano olives.
A sample of desserts included pots de crème, molten caramel melty pie, red wine spiced mission figs and many others.
Tio’s gift is mixing exotic ideas with simple ingredients and never letting herself get in the way of the food. So when a woman recently asked what magical secret Tio had for her scallops, the chef smiled.
“Salt, pepper and love,” she laughs. “I try to do as little as possible just to enhance the features.”
An American event
If the idea of taking your group to one of the finest restaurants in America tantalizes you, there are numerous options based on your needs and numbers. It may not feel that way when you first walk into the room, which is open and bright. But through multi-layered tiers and intimate nooks, The American can host groups from 8 to 350.
Here are the options:
• Upper Dining Room. This offers the most space for a private dining event, short of renting the whole restaurant. It sits in a loft overlooking the Kansas City skyline and the main dining room below. It comfortably accommodates up to 96 guests for a seated dinner or 150 guests for a standing reception, and can be transformed into a presentation room. It also comes with a private bar and entry space, making it the most private room in the restaurant.
• Window Balcony. The space is actually indoors, but the floor-to-ceiling northern windows make you feel like you are eating al fresco. With views of activity in the Crown Center Courtyard below as well the Kansas City skyline, it’s ideal for social gatherings. Seating is semi-private and located on its own tier of the restaurant. Conference-style seating accommodates up to 22 guests at one table, two rounds will accommodate 24 guests and four small rounds can seat 32. It’s also a nice space for smaller receptions of up to 45 guests.
• Wine Room. Located just off the main dining room floor, this is ideal for small presentations, board luncheons or closing celebrations. The room accommodates up to 16 guests at either a conference-style table or two rounds of eight. The wine room can be used either as a completely private venue, or semi-private. MM&E
(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)
The American Restaurant