“People always ask why I’m smiling,” John Smith says as he sits at the bar inside Pig & Finch. “I was in hell until I was 17 years old. I’ve seen the worst of the worst. I love my life today, and I’m going to enjoy it.”
The 36-year-old executive chef at Pig & Finch Gastropub doesn’t shy away from talking about what it was like growing up on Chicago’s South Side. He lost five friends to violence by the age of 15, but he found a way out.
Smith graduated high school and went to the University of Iowa, where he started cooking for his roommates on Sundays. A table for three turned into a meal for 25, his fellow students wanting to try the mac-and-cheese that he made from his mom’s recipe.
“My quants professor came and told me that I was better at this than his class,” Smith says.
The professor introduced him to the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (now Le Cordon Bleu), and Smith began his culinary training in 1997. He also took a job at Park Avenue Café, working under David Burke and John Hogan. The hot-apps station at the restaurant proved to be more challenging than culinary school.
Smith finished the semester but decided to pursue the rest of his culinary education on the line. He spent six months in France before a near two-year stint at Craft in New York City.
“I fell in love with Craft because it was all technique-based,” Smith says. “You have to know how to present and cook an item perfectly. I tell my cooks now that if you don’t have the right techniques, it doesn’t matter if you have luxury ingredients.”
Smith learned about managing a restaurant while overseeing the Members Dining Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He moved to Des Moines, Iowa, a decade ago to work at Splash Seafood.
Sheri Osborn, a vice president with the 801 Restaurant Group, hired him away to be a sous chef for 801 Chophouse. When the Des Moines-based restaurant group decided to open an 801 steakhouse in Kansas City’s Power & Light District in 2008, they asked Smith to be the executive chef.
After almost four years of living and working downtown, Smith left to become the Jacobson’s first chef. The Crossroads spot quickly became known for its burger with bone-marrow butter — the last item that Smith added to the initial menu.
“That burger was a one-hit wonder I’m forever tied to,” Smith says with a laugh.
In September, Smith returned to the 801 Restaurant Group, becoming executive chef for Pig & Finch. The gastropub is celebrating its first anniversary this month in Leawood’s Park Place.
“I’m looking forward to this being more like a celebration,” Smith says. “Just a place where people realize they can get great beer, great wine and great food and still be casual.”
The Recommended Daily sat down with Smith last week to find out more about his plans for Pig & Finch.
What are you experimenting with right now? Next month, we’re doing something really cool. We’re going to roast short rib on the bone and get a nice pastrami crust in our wood-burning oven. We’ll serve it with beer mustard and bone-marrow-roasted potatoes and a nice little spinach salad. Some rye croutons will give it a play on the pastrami sandwich.
What’s one food you love? Italian. I dated a girl with family from Calabria. And I love pasta, especially fresh pasta. I always get pasta anywhere when I’m out, but I have to cut back on that.
What’s one food you hate? Green pepper because if you put it with anything, it takes over the flavor of the whole dish. All you can taste are the peppers.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Velveeta cheese and shells with hot sauce or Sriracha. I’ll heat that up and eat the whole thing.
Where do you like to eat out in Kansas City? The Rieger and Port Fonda. I’ll eat whatever they feed me. I’ll go to the Vietnam Café and get their pho with the tendons and tripe and everything else they put in there. When I have people in town that are adventurous, I take them there. I go to the Peanut; I love their wings. Our new restaurant, 801 Fish. I had the linguini with clams, and it was great. When somebody takes something that simple and makes it beautiful, I know it’s going be a knock-it-out-of-the-park meal.
What’s the best barbecue in town, and what are you ordering? Oklahoma Joe’s. I’m getting a slab of ribs, a Z-Man. They have good chicken — the dark meat — some red beans and rice, french fries and a strawberry soda.
Where would you send somebody to eat in Chicago? Publican. The Butcher & Larder. Blackbird. Anything having to do with chef Paul Kahan. I trust his cooking and the people he hires to do his cooking. He influenced me a lot because he showed me that a cool guy, a not-arrogant guy, can be one of the best chefs in the world.
What has been your best recent food find? I went to Nashville last May and ate at Husk before it opened. It was a great meal. Chef Sean Brock had pork bone marrow with homemade buttermilk biscuits and fried chicken skin with hot sauce and thyme. The two bones come in a cast-iron pan with the embers. You can smell the smoke as it’s coming to the table. Everything should be part of the experience, and that was an experience.
Is there a moment in a restaurant you’ll never forget? One of the best meals I’ve ever had was at Café Boulud in New York City. I was working with [chef] Marco Canora, and he called over to make a lunch reservation for me during Restaurant Week.
I got out of the train station and was walking by this guy for, like, six blocks. We kept turning the same way and passing each other at the lights. I went into the restaurant, and they had set up a table with one chair in the middle of the dining room. They told me that Marco called, and I shouldn’t worry about the menu. But I’m broke and I’m thinking that I only have $60 in my pocket, enough for the Restaurant Week menu plus tip.[Executive chef at the time] Andrew Carmellini comes out to greet me, and it turns out he was the guy I was walking next to. He’s like, “We could have been talking about what you want to eat the whole time.” But he sits down with me, and the GM sits down and opens a bottle of wine. And the entire dining room is looking at me like, “Who is this kid?” Out comes course one and course two, and Andrew is bringing them himself and talking to me about each dish. He tells me to keep cooking. I got there around 12:15 p.m. and walked out at 2:45 p.m. after eight courses and two bottles of wine. My bill was $30, and I left a $30 tip.
The community of chefs really takes care of each other. I got that treatment when I was just a kid. But that’s what restaurants do — we give somebody a great experience.[Images via Facebook: 801 Restaurant Group/Pig & Finch]