Voltaire’s Wes Gartner is building a kitchen family in the West Bottoms

Gartner feels at home in the West Bottoms.

Gartner feels at home in the West Bottoms.

‘Timili’s Café & Market,’ reads the small rectangular sign that sits on a shelf well above eye level in the back of Voltaire (1617 Genessee). Timili Gartner was chef Wes Gartner’s mother. She ran a catering business and restaurant in Topeka, Kansas, three decades before he followed the same path in the West Bottoms.

“I always liked the chemistry of mixing things together,” the 37-year-old Gartner says. “But I didn’t know I was going into the food business from a young age. I just thought it was part of a family thing.”

The Gartners have always fed people. Wes’ grandmother was a caterer. His great-uncle had a donut shop and his great-grandfather was a candy maker. Cooking was how Gartner supported himself while he played drums in a series of bands — the Norman 360 while he was in Lawrence and Doris Henson in Kansas City. He was a fixture in the kitchen at Joe D’s Wine Bar, where Julian is today.

When Doris Henson broke up in 2007, Gartner came back to cooking. He had become friendly with Jill Myers, who was looking for a new partner for her business Moxie Catering.

“We share a lot of the same passions for creativity and service,” Gartner says of the decision to work together. “We knew that we wanted to push food forward and make it the focus.”

The sign from Gartner's mother's restaurant in Topeka, Kansas.

The sign from Gartner’s mother’s restaurant in Topeka, Kansas.

A neon sign for Moxie hangs on the back wall at Voltaire. The artifacts of Gartner’s life are sprinkled throughout the 10-month old restaurant he runs with Myers. If you’ve missed them, it’s understandable. The dark wooden bar and tufted banquets have a tendency to swallow one’s attention in the long raw space that previously held the R Bar.

In addition to the signs, there’s a black typewriter by the front door on a small end table. The typewriter is how Myers and Gartner penned invitations to their Revolver Dinner Parties – a loose-knit collection of friends that were invited in for experiential dinners at their previous kitchen in the Crossroads. They were elaborate affairs. On one occasion the duo built an indoor waterfall and laid down artificial grass real sod (later donated to friends) to create an indoor garden.

Moxie’s success allowed Myers to leave her job as a graphic designer with Hallmark. And as the business grew, so too did their relationship. Myers and Gartner are now engaged.

“This is about connecting and being able to communicate through food,” Gartner says.

Moxie outgrew its Crossroads kitchen and when the R Bar space became available, the partners signed a lease in June 2012. They spent a year in the West Bottoms before opening Voltaire, which is named for the philosopher and Dadaist movement.

“It was this movement that said you don’t have to play by the rules and that’s the thing with the restaurant. There aren’t any rules to our menu,” Gartner says.

He tapped Jamie Zoeller, the former guitarist in Doris Henson, to be his general manager. And Gartner took the same approach to the food that has defined Moxie – which tailors each menu to the event that it is catering.

“All these different cuisines are tied together. With the menu, we try to find things that compliment each other and find those elements – preparation, flavors, or ingredients – that ties it all together,” Gartner says. “I wanted this place to be very worldly. I love when customers say that this reminds them of when they were traveling. I want you to feel like you’re on the other side of the world by meal.”

The Recommended Daily sat down with Gartner last week to discuss Voltaire’s new menu and what’s next for the West Bottoms eatery.

The dining room and bar at Voltaire.

The dining room and bar at Voltaire.

Where do you get inspiration for a new dish? I think necessity is the main driving force. I like to be driven down to the wire to where I have to do it. That’s when some of the best creative things happen. I’m also really visual. I like to see different types of produce. I’ll go to the farmers’ market or Asian market and it’s when I’m actually looking at things that ideas come. I brainstorm with other chefs in the kitchen. ‘We’re all in this together,’ is our motto, and it’s actually true.

Do you ever get ideas from your family’s culinary background? In the fall, I did a tribute to my grandma. It was a roast chicken. She used to always make these scalloped oysters, so I did a rip on that. It was a savory oyster bread pudding. I also still have my mom’s pans and utensils. I like that I can randomly pick up a whisk and it will be my mom’s whisk.

You took a break after the holidays [Voltaire was closed from January 2 through January 22]. Can you talk a bit about that decision? I find it funny that people thought it unusual. It’s more of a European thing. About six months after we opened, everyone needed a break.

We plan on doing it every year. It lets everyone clear their heads. We offered help and financial assistance to all our staff to make sure they could get back. I really think that people need to step away from the work and come back with a fresh head. We’ve always done it [with the catering business], but this is the first time we had a restaurant and it was a little more noticeable. I was a little nervous when we came back, but we didn’t miss a beat. I think people understand.

You have a new menu. What dishes are you excited for people to try? I’m most proud of this menu. When we opened up, I kept changing things. It was a little manic. But with that little break, I could catch a breath. And all of the kitchen hashed out this menu together. Everyone had a part. There’s my sous Ryan Holopter, Mark Mansfield (who used to be a chef at Lulu’s), and line cooks Nicholas Reyes, Fernando Guerrero and Jose Chavez.

There are these tea-smoked ribs that are rubbed with Chinese five spice and smoked over black tea. You get this smokiness, but also this mysterious smoke flavor. If you didn’t tell people, it would be really hard to figure it out. There’s an homage to Kansas City, but everyone smokes with wood and we’re using tea.

And we have this baked California halibut with a carrot ‘souffle,’ It’s seasoned with coriander, ginger and cumin, and we wrap it in savoy cabbage. It makes a nice cabbage roll and it’s topped with caper brown butter. There’s a lot going on, but it all comes together in the end. That’s the biggest ‘wahoo,’ moment.

Gartner thinks everyone should get one of these.

Gartner thinks everyone should get one of these.

What’s your favorite utensil in the kitchen? I’m a big proponent of always having the right tools for the job. There are these Swiss-made vegetable peelers [Kuhn Rikon] that everyone should have. It’s double-bladed and in the shape of a ‘U.’ It’s well designed, simple to hold.

Where do you like to eat out? I love the Vietnam Café, both of them. I’ll get the pho or bun. I love Jun’s sushi, they’ve got the best sushi in town. They respect fish and you just get whatever’s fresh. We just ate at Le Fou Frog the other night. I love escargot and mussels. Mano does a great job with everything. His treatment of fish and game is awesome. He does great charcuterie too. I’ve always looked up to him, but never worked for him. He’s an old world French chef that doesn’t follow trends and gossip. He makes his own path, which I respect about him.

What’s your favorite barbecue in town and what are you ordering? It’s been too long. I like Arthur Bryant’s. I like that acidic barbecue sauce that they have. I’m all over the board there. I’ll get pork and beef and baked beans and coleslaw. And a beer:  a Coors original. I love it, that’s why we have it on tap here.

Where’s your dream drinking and eating destination? I’d like to go to Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. I haven’t been to Asia yet and that’s a big one on my list. I’d really like to go to India. I’m inspired right now by Indian flavors like cardamom, ginger and turmeric.  That’s why we have a menu that’s seemingly all over the place. It allows me to travel mentally and creatively.

Voltaire is open Wednesday from 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and 6 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday for dinner. The bar is open from 4 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Saturday. Happy Hour is from 4 to 6 p.m. The phone number is 816-472-1200.

Jonathan Bender

Jonathan Bender is the founder of The Recommended Daily.

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