Chef Joe Shirley may be having the softest restaurant opening in Kansas City history. If all goes according to plan, his 10-month-old pop-up concept, Uberdine, is slated to open as a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2020.
“The spirit of Uberdine comes from two and three-star Michelin experiences that my wife [Carolina] and I have had. You go to the restaurant and you just have your experience,” Shirley says. “That’s what we want to bring to Kansas City one day.”
Since last July, Shirley, who currently is the executive chef for a bank in Kansas City, has been holding themed dinners across the metro adapting his menu to the space he’s occupying for one night only.
“I look at what we can do in a location. When we work in galleries, there’s no kitchen, so we build a kitchen,” Shirley says. “And when we’re at The Roasterie’s Bean Hangar, we’re cooking on butane burners on the loading docks.”
Shirley, 36, and his wife don’t want a more permanent space until their son has graduated from high school. They also believe they can use the next seven years to help indoctrinate Kansas City diners to accept a restaurant that only has a tasting menu.
Shirley grew up in Springfield, Missouri. His father’s family was Southern and his mother’s was Midwestern. The holidays were a mash-up of fried chicken and gravy and rice. He first stepped into a kitchen at 16 years old working at the now-shuttered J. Parrino’s, a St. Louis-style Italian restaurant (owner Jay Parrino has since opened the Queen City Deli).
His initial identity as a chef was formed at a series of Japanese steak houses, the hot restaurant trend in Springfield and Branson in the 1990’s.
“It was Daniel-san, break-your-spirits training. They had me scrub every grill, and there’s 12 to 14 tables, each with its own grill, while guys drink beer and throw tips at you,” Shirley says.
A 40-year-old chef, who had developed severe arthritis from working long hours on a teppanyaki grill, convinced Shirley to enroll in culinary school.
“He told me that I shouldn’t get stuck in this. That if I really loved cooking, I should go to school,” Shirley says.
So, he moved to the Kansas City area to take classes at Johnson County Community College. In 2000, he was hired on as the kitchen manager at Lulu’s Thai Noodle House. After a year, he began working at Grand Street Cafe on the Plaza. It was there that he met his wife Carolina, she was a server at the time.
Shirley went back to his Japanese roots as a sushi chef for Kona Grill before a stint as the executive chef for re:Verse. He had an opportunity to try his hand developing recipes for Houlihan’s in their test kitchen, but discovered he was more at home in a restaurant kitchen. His passion for fine dining came back was rekindled while cooking alongside chef Marshall Roth at Cafe Verona and Ophelia’s in Independence.
Shirley has been the executive chef for a bank in Kansas City for the past five years. In that time, he’s taught himself to bake bread and dabbled in molecular gastronomy. He says the secret is “books and Youtube.”
“I’ve grown exponentially as a chef. I never thought I like to do dessert,” Shirley says. “I would love to go be a pastry chef in New York City or Chicago, but I’ve chosen my path and Kansas City is a great place.”
Japanacreation, his next Uberdine dinner on Saturday, April 19, is sold out. But Shirley is collaborating with Farm to Market on a multi-course brunch with drink pairings on Sunday, May 25. There are two seatings, 11:oo a.m. and 1:30 p.m. The brunch is $75 plus gratuity and tickets are still available. The Recommended Daily sat down with Shirley recently to learn more about the nomadic chef’s plans.
What are you experimenting with right now? When you’re operating with themes, there’s not a whole lot of variance. You can do amazing ramen, a delicious bowl of ramen with a soft egg, without having to do everything in gel form.
But right now, I’ve got some prime strip that’s been dry aging for 60 days. I’m going to let it go 72 days and I think it’s going to be super tender. I think it’s not going to taste like beef any more. They’ll be some earthiness. I’ll salt, sear and slice it for Tataki on the Japanese dinner menu.
What’s your favorite ingredient? Salt is everything. Thomas Keller has an interesting quote about everyone wants to gellify and spherify and use liquid nitrogen. But you need to master sodium chloride first and then we’ll talk about molecular gastronomy. You may know how to cook, but do you know how to season?
You were a consultant for the opening of Kansas Town on 39th Street. What was your approach there? I set up the kitchen, but chef Garrett Kasper is a great talent. I say that God sent him to me. He moved here from Omaha and I say the identity of Kansas Town is Garrett Kasper. He makes everything from scratch. It may be Sloppy Joe’s, but he’s going to take it further.
Where you do you like to eat out? The American, Novel, The Rieger and Justus Drugstore. I’m in the process of doing my taxes right now and I’m looking at the receipts and I’m like ‘we go crazy.’ I’ll order any kind of offal or interesting flavor combinations. I like it when somebody takes normal ingredients and chars it to get a different flavor out of it. We usually get a bunch of little plates.
What’s your favorite barbecue in town and what are you ordering? Besides mine, Oklahoma Joe’s. Barbecue is exponentially better right after it comes off the smoker. The past three years I’ve competed on a competitive barbecue team. It’s Hillbilly Cheek (pronounced ‘sheek’). I’m responsible for the side dishes. It’s a twice-baked potato, the best damn twice-baked potato with a bunch of curly parsley in a box and I’m placing it with tweezers. Everything has to be stuffed. I had a butternut squash that I liked, but it didn’t win anything.
What’s your identity as a chef? I hadn’t done Asian for a long time, so for the next dinner I wanted to pay homage to that. I don’t want to be too wrapped up in modern techniques, although lots of times that’s when people see when they see my food. I want to be known for tastiness.
What needs to happen for KC to support a restaurant that only offers a tasting menu? Can Chicago support a restaurant like that? Is it all locals at Alinea? No, it’s people from all over the world. It’s got to be a destination to make things work. This is the Port Fonda business plan on a really grandiose scale.[Chef photo via Isis J]