Standing in the kitchen of The Kansas City Club, Executive Chef Joe Shirley ladles a spoonful of savory lemon curd onto a wooden serving board. Shirley, 37, used dashi – made with dried, aged bonito flakes – in the curd to infuse a traditionally sweet citrus cream with subtle smoky notes. He takes the back of a thin spatula and smears the curd across the board as a colorful base. Before assembly of his striped bass crudo is complete, the finesse of this dish on The Crystal Room menu is already evident. Shirley’s working at the top of his form in a fine-dining setting.
Most people that recognize Shirley by name or reputation associate him with überdine, his New American cuisine pop-up dining experience. Each pop-up is a two-and-a-half hour, themed multi-course dinner with two seatings in non-traditional locations. Over his career, he’s also worked at Kona Grill, Grand Street, re: Verse and Ophelia’s. Fewer fine dining fans knew that he was the former executive chef at the Federal Reserve Bank for a six-year run. The financial institution wasn’t keen on advertising the talent in their midst.
“I managed 24 employees to produce food daily for 1,500 covers in the cafeteria,” Shirley says, “in a kitchen that was 80 to 85 percent made-from-scratch food.”
When Treat America Food Services took over operations at the Fed, Shirley’s duties under the new employer expanded to food production for a 500-seat conference center, large-scale and banquet catering and executive dining. He was ready for a change after a half-dozen years.
He says, “I had a great job in my previous role and had been selective about looking elsewhere.”
As an executive chef, the options are typically to either work extensive hours each week or secure a more reasonable schedule with a sizable pay cut. Shirley was hired by the board at the Kansas City Club less than three weeks ago. In his new role, Shirley aims for a more balanced work-life schedule, greater creative control in the kitchen and the freedom to continue developing überdine.
Preparing food for far fewer covers, ideally up to 60 customers per day plus events, affords Shirley more time to focus on quality, presentation and seasonal dishes.
“We’ll have a big roll-out in May,” says Shirley. “The challenge now is to get guests to understand what we’re doing.”
Shirley has already shifted the Club’s menu away from Italian-American with institutional-quality cooking toward a made-from-scratch kitchen. Current dishes on The Crystal Room menu include a deconstructed reuben, Colorado striped bass with potato hash and ribeye loin. The limited menu barely suggests the more inventive direction he intends to offer.
For instance, he prepares an avocado panna cotta atop strawberry rhubarb compote that’s dusted with savory granola. It’s not molecular gastronomy but the dessert is striking. It shows how Shirley considers each aspect of a dish and heightens the experience beyond the pedestrian. Shirley applies laser-sharp focus to how texture, color and flavor can contrast and complement within a dish.
The Tomlinson’s Pub menu at the Club is less adventurous and veers toward comfort food. It still shows signs of Shirley’s influence and fresh preparation. Sweet chili sauce, cilantro and scallion jazz up chicken wings. Italian sausage ragout enlivens rigatoni. Founders’ Porter fortifies the chocolate chunk ice cream float.
Shirley, born in Springfield, describes his overall culinary style as “modern American inspired by Asian cuisine.” A six-year stint cooking in Japanese steak houses in Springfield and Branson early in his career was a formative imprint. Members and non-members at The Kansas City Club will soon begin to experience more of Shirley’s talents as the menu evolves.
Looking ahead, Shirley wants to transform überdine, which debuted two years ago, from a pop-up to a full-blown restaurant. However, überdine may not be the first restaurant he opens.
“Fine-dining restaurants don’t make money,” says Shirley. “I’ll open with another concept first that will make money.”
Shirley contends that fine-dining restaurants in larger cities focus on preparing and serving fine dining for its own sake and to build a brand. Breaking even is more likely than turning a profit.
überdine, or another other restaurant concept, will manifest when Shirley and his wife are ready. They have established a considerable advance timeline.
He says, “We plan to open our first restaurant when our 11-year-old son graduates from high school.”
Meanwhile, Shirley continues to offer pop-up dining via überdine several times throughout the year. His next event, Cibo Nuovo, a modern Italian culinary tour on May 2, is nearly sold out.
“The challenge of a pop-up is fun,” says Shirley. Each location, such as The Roasterie’s Factory Cafe or Yummy’s Choice production facility, isn’t outfitted with standard restaurant equipment. That creates logistical hurdles for each pop-up, but Shirley relishes the adversity. “It’s rogue, commando cooking. I want to have something feed my creative juices.”
Back in the Club kitchen, Shirley grabs long-handled tweezers and extracts pickled rings of red onion, carrots shaped like buttons, jalapeno slices and slender ribbons of pickled cucumber. Delicately, he arranges four portions of striped bass, marinated in olive oil and citrus juice, onto the savory lemon curd. Pickled vegetables take their places like actors on a stage. Shirley finishes the dish with a light snowfall of puffed rice and slides the board over with a fork.
Smoky, acidic, sweet, firm, tender, juicy, citrus and cereal – descriptions for flavor, texture and aroma – pop in the synapses nearly as loudly as the explosion of puffed rice embedded in each bite. Audibility in food is underrated and often overlooked but not here. The deft interplay and use of citrus and fish slowly registers while exploring the dish. It’s there in the curd and inherent in the crudo’s preparation.
The sensory adventure in this moment underscores how überdine as a regularly accessible dining experience is painfully far away. Yet, it also suggests an incentive to seek out chef Shirley’s food at The Kansas City Club, one way or another.