By Anna Foote
John McClure, chef and owner of Starker’s Restaurant in Kansas City, spent his youth on a ranch in rural Tescott, Kansas. He grew up tending wheat fields and hundreds of cattle—but he also grew up in his mother’s kitchen.
“I’ve been cooking my whole life,” McClure says. “I started cooking with my mom when I was a little kid.”
The move from field to kitchen was a natural one for McClure. It is one that is still reflected in his food, though he’s now 10 years into his culinary career.
At Starker’s, McClure insists upon fresh, seasonal, native ingredients to craft his contemporary American menu.
“When available I try to use local produce as much as I can,” McClure says. “I mean, there’s nothing better than a fresh tomato or sweet corn that was just picked and is sweet as candy.”
A Wide Education
McClure left the Kansas countryside for the Navy just after he finished high school. As a Navy cook, he learned the skills necessary for cooking for thousands of people a day. He also discovered the emotional value food can have.
“I was very happy cooking and (seeing) how it could affect people’s lives,” McClure says. “In very extreme situations, such as (the ones) I was in a lot of the time, a little piece of sunshine—foodwise—really made a difference.”
After the Navy, McClure attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and graduated in 2000. He rounded out his culinary education with stints in Kansas City at The American Restaurant and at 40 Sardines.
McClure’s work also took him to New Orleans’ Brigtsen’s Restaurant, which specializes in Creole/Acadian food. There he learned value of using local, native ingredients from his mentor, chef Frank Brigtsen.
“The thing I really loved is that he (Brigtsen) was cooking the food from where he was from. He wasn’t afraid to cook traditional food. He could do his take on it, a new or fresher take. It made me start thinking about what I wanted to do when I was in that position,” said McClure.
What McClure has done as owner of Starker’s, since October 2006, is to refresh and update Midwestern cuisine, while keeping it comfortable for his customers.
With an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, Starker’s menu frequently changes. But a recent offering included Chef McClure’s take on steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, beef ribeye steak with whipped potatoes, oyster mushrooms and garlic bordelaise.
“I want simplicity in the food,” McClure says. “I don’t know that I’d call my food comfort food at all, but I want it to be comforting. I don’t want it to be scary—I want it to be very welcoming.”
An example of that welcoming aspect is McClure’s signature dessert.
“My menu changes all the time,” he says. “But there’s one dish that’s always on there and will always be on—lunch and dinner—and that’s my warm cookie plate. And it’s all my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. They’re homemade cookies. We bake them fresh every day. We serve them warm. And I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like cookies—especially when they’re warm.”
That sort of comfort pairs well with the restaurant’s location and décor. Starker’s entrance is tucked into the corner of a Country Club Plaza building. An inviting foyer leads people to the second-story restaurant.
As a small, chef-owned restaurant, Starker’s is a fresh face on the Plaza, which leans toward large, sometimes corporate-owned restaurants.
“The difference, I think, is intimacy,” McClure says. “When a diner comes to an independent restaurant, the staff knows the people more. I’m in the dining room and I’m talking to the guests. For the first year and a half I was here as the chef, I cooked every single piece of hot food that left my kitchen. And I pride myself on that. I think to be a great chef you have to be a great cook. I personally never want to lose sight of being a great cook first.”
Starker’s has a 40-seat public dining room and a set of private dining rooms, which when combined can seat up to 80 people. Both spaces are warm and intimate. Their thickly plastered walls and wood beam ceilings bring to mind a French farmhouse.
In the private dining rooms, the walls are reminiscent of a wine cellar, too. With built-in wine racks lining the walls floor to ceiling and corner to corner, bottles of nearly every conceivable label are on display.
Let’s Talk Wine
“We have just a little bit of wine here at the restaurant,” McClure says with a smile. “This wall has about 3,000 bottles. That’s pretty impressive in itself. What’s more impressive is there’s nothing but California Cabernet on that whole wall. There’s no Pinot Noir, there’s no Merlot, there’s no Syrah, there’s no white wine.”
But rest assured the restaurant offers all those other varieties—and plenty of others. Currently, Starker’s 65-page wine list includes about 1,690 different labels of wine, more than 12,000 bottles in all. About 8,000 of those bottles line the walls of the private dining rooms; the excess is stored in the building’s basement.
In addition to choice in wine variety, the restaurant offers choice in size.
“We have everything from wines by the glass to 6-liter bottles of wine, and every size in between,” McClure says.
The wine list is impressive in its quality and variety. Since 1992, Starker’s has earned Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, the highest commendation the magazine offers. This year, only 76 restaurants world-wide earned that honor, bestowed by Wine Spectator editors. According to the magazine, Grand Award winners “offer 1,500 selections or more, and feature serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth in mature vintages and excellent harmony with the menu.”
Starker’s extensive wine list was born out of the passion of the restaurant’s founder, Cliff Bath, a Sonoma County, California native. It’s a legacy that lives on in McClure and in other Starker’s staff.
But with 12,000-plus choices, where does the average diner begin?
“There’s a multitude of people who can help the guests navigate the wine list,” McClure says.
Many of Starker’s servers have earned their sommelier pins. General Manager and Sommelier Dean Smith is in charge of the wine list and is available to guide diners to the right wine. And the chef himself is often in the dining room and can help guests pair wines with their meal, since he designed many of the dishes to complement one or another of the wines on the list.
With its large wine list, fresh menu, comfortable dining rooms and helpful staff, Starker’s is a Country Club Plaza gem for meeting and event planners.
The private dining rooms—appropriately named the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon—can be used all at once to create a dining space for 80. Used individually, each can seat eight to ten. Combine two and your party can include 25 to 30 people.
McClure says the private dining rooms are most often used for lunch and dinner, though brunch is an option. The restaurant’s Web site lists private dining menus, but Smith and McClure are happy to design special menus.
In the private dining room, a three-course lunch menu (including starter, entrée with sides, dessert with coffee service) averages around $27 per person. A four-course dinner menu (which includes two starters) runs about $45-$50 per person. For groups on a budget, a lighter lunch menu features main-course salads, dessert and coffee for around $22 per person. To take advantage of Starker’s amazing wine list, you’ll need to budget a little extra into these costs.
The warm, intimate décor suggests Starker’s is better for special occasions than business, but if your group insists on getting work done, you’ll need to contract out for A/V services. Better yet, save the business for the boardroom and enjoy Starker’s excellent food, wine and service as a treat before or after the project’s finished.
Starker’s private dining is also appropriate for a range of social events, from wedding showers to birthday parties.
And with its second-story perch on the Plaza, Starker’s is special for the holidays. How about a holiday party that looks out over the Plaza lights?
“We have a bird’s eye view of the Plaza,” McClure says. “There’s one company (owner) who has had his holiday party here seven years in a row. And he makes his reservation for next year when he pays his bill this year.”
(Anna Foote is a contributor from Kansas City, MO)
201 W 47 Street
Kansas City, MO 64112
Dean Smith, General Manager