Jenny Vergara is, for Kansas City, a culinary John the Baptist. No, she’s not some wild-eyed hermit, living in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and honey. She won’t scream at you or tell you you’re doing it wrong. But she will evangelize. She will tell you all that is right and good about the Kansas City dining scene. She will preach to you about Kansas City chefs and Kansas City ingredients. She will make you see the light.
Jenny Vergara is the driving force behind Test Kitchen Kansas City (www.testkitchenkc.com), what she describes as “Kansas City’s most unique underground supper club.” She works tirelessly to promote her supper club and when I think of the logistical nightmare it must be, I am grateful she is there to do it and that all I have to do is pay money for the privilege of sitting at her table. It's not really "underground" anymore and even though they make you take an oath of secrecy (Seriously. They do.) I have permission to write about it here.
It’s easy enough to join Test Kitchen. Go to the website. They make it easy. But, near as I can tell, the fun isn’t being a member (or, as she refers to the members, “disciples”). While I think there probably is a sense of community, the fun s in the dinners. If you consider yourself a “foodie” (and I don’t know why I still balk at that term. It seems that I fit by any reasonable definition.), then these are dinners you want to attend.
Here’s how it works: You join Test Kitchen and then, periodically (it seems about once a month or so, but I’m new here) you will get an email invitation advising you that you can enter the lottery to dine at Test Kitchen. My email came less than a week before the dinner date, so you need to be flexible. If you are interested in entering the lottery, you reply back and advise how many people you want to enter. Then, if you win, a day or two later you will get another email saying that you won the lottery and you have another day to make payment. Only after you make your payment will you get ANOTEHR email advising you where to go for dinner. You show up, have cocktails and are seated. Dinner is brought to you course by course with a wine pairing.
Jenny (is it okay if I call you Jenny?) works hard to get some of the best chefs in Kansas City to cook for her one-night-only pop-up restaurant. Some of KC’s brightest culinary lights have shown on her table. There are James Beard Award winners and chefs who have appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef: Masters” series. They work hard to prepare you a memorable menu that won’t be repeated tomorrow night at their restaurant because they aren’t actually working *IN* their restaurant. You can see the upside to this arrangement. You have a famous chef working hard to make a special meal for a group of about twenty fellow foodies. It’s a bit like being there when one of those rare Asian flowers blossoms once every twenty years. As much as anything, you get to be there for a very unique experience and it’s not one anyone else you know has had.
Such an arrangement does have its downside. These chefs all have restaurants of their own and, as a result, they are disinclined to be a part of Test Kitchen on the weekends. They need to do these dinners, typically, on a Monday or Tuesday. Again, you need to be flexible and make allowances if you want to dine with Jenny.
I had no idea how rare a Saturday meal was for Test Kitchen. In fact, I had pretty much assumed that Friday or Saturday was the norm. Only after I won the lottery and showed up at the secret location (a VERY high end kitchen appliance/remodeling shop in a mixed-industrial use park in Lenexa, a suburb of Kansas City) was it made clear to me just how lucky I was to have been selected for a Saturday meal.
Our chef, Dan Trefz, is/was a hell of a cook. And when I found out why he was available on a Saturday night, I was even more impressed with his skills. I hesitate to tell this story because it’s not really mine to tell, but Jenny told me that I could blog about the evening so I’m gonna go ahead and blog about the evening. Dan Trefz was available on a Saturday because he is NOT currently working in a restaurant. At least not full time. Years ago he suffered a serious head injury in what must have been a pretty horrific skiing accident. I know I’m missing some of the details and will get others wrong, but the basics are that after nearly dying and them going through grueling rehab, he finally, with the assistance of some pretty good sous chefs, worked himself back into the kitchen. We’ve all heard stories about how people who lose their sight develop a keener sense of hearing and the like. It seems pretty clear that Chef Trefz has found ways to compensate for some loss of physical abilities, because his palate is really, REALLY good. I don’t know enough about his injuries to know if he can ever work in a professional kitchen again (and it’s none of my business), but I hope he can and I hope he does because I will go there.
But how was the food?
Well, the flavors were excellent. As I mentioned, Chef Trefz has a fantastic palate and he put it to good use. The wines that were paired were also excellent and provided great foils for the dish. I did notice one problem with the dinner and it was not an insignificant one. The food almost never arrived at temperature. I have no idea if Jenny is going to be furious with me for writing this and I do not want anything I am writing here to in any way detract from what she is trying to accomplish. I can’t wait until I win my next lottery and get to have dinner at her table again, so I really hope she isn’t angry, but food arriving off-temperature is kind of a big thing with me. I don’t get the feeling Chef Trefz would want me grading on a curve and I am not going to, but having the plates arrive at the correct temperature would have taken this experience from excellent to sublime.
Our first course was duck leg ravioli with roasted fennel. I love duck. I love confited duck legs. Why has it never occurred to me to take some of the duck confit I made and am currently storing and to put it between sheets of fresh pasta? I don’t know why, but this dish made me question my own judgment for not having done so. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the roasted fennel was lovely. And, as I am not a huge fan of the flavors associated with black licorice, that is saying something. Still, the lovely pillows of tender duck were lukewarm when they arrived. As I mentioned, this was my experience for most of the courses served that evening. I’m not sure why this was such a problem or if I am the only one (aside from my wife) who had this happen so frequently. Given the number of staff working in the kitchen and the front of the house and the relatively small number of diners (twenty), it seems like getting hot food to us before it cooled shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was.
Second course was a mache salad, dressed in nutmeg. This was served at temperature and the sweet mache was served with a silky dressing but I couldn’t really taste the flavors of the nutmeg that were promised. The chef told us that he had learned this dish in Switzerland (where I believe he studied and also had his skiing accident) and I think he was doing his best to honor the person who taught him how to make it by being faithful to the recipe, but it could have used just a little more nutmeg. Still, I don’t want to make a big deal out of this because I ate every bite and was glad he reminded us that we can buy mache at Trader Joe’s.
Third course was a corn and jalapeno chowder. Again, the flavors were perfect. This dish tasted like late summer or early autumn in a bowl. Interestingly, the wine pairing was a syrah