On a recent sunny afternoon, chef Renee Kelly is sitting in her office, trying to cut down on the e-mails in her inbox. Today, her office is the well-appointed patio behind Caenen Castle, and her desk is a white-metal, Highboy table.
"This is pretty great," admits Kelly, just back from a long bike ride. Yesterday, she talked about how food allergies have changed her focus in the kitchen, and today, she explains why she can't get enough of blackberries right now. Tomorrow she shares a recipe for a harissa-rubbed sirloin.
What are your culinary inspirations? The Earth and the seasons. I always look at what's going on in nature. When it's hot and muggy, the produce is kind of wilted. You cool it off with vinegar, to liven it up and crisp it up. You want to cool the body during hot times. You'll never find me serving watermelon in January. A lot of times, I just think about what would give me energy, whether that is something with lemons or something else. There's so many transitions we go though during all the seasons.
Going to the farm helps clear my head. When I see green beans that are just perfect and crisp, I think if they can be doing really well at that time, then if I eat those at that time of year, it will probably help me out. You don't want things that are too heavy when it's dark and rainy.
What's your favorite ingredient? Ginger. Mmm ... it creates heat on multiple levels. Everything needs ginger right now. Ginger and chocolate go great. I've been doing a lot lately using ginger with greens, kale and cabbage and mustard greens. Ginger complements them a little bit, hides some of the bitterness.
What's your best recent food find? I found a coriander paste down at the Chinese market downtown. Not a paste -- relish. It's awesome. It has coriander and garlic and salt and vinegar. It gives everything a fantastic flavor. The color was interesting -- it was bright-green. It's great on steak, pork, chicken. It's made me really happy, just a little dollop on top of a hot, sweet and sticky pork tenderloin.
What's your favorite local ingredient? We have some damn good blackberries. When they're in season, spot on. There's a little gal over at the Overland Park Farmers Market. She grows them in Northwest Kansas, and they're juicy and sweet. It's like they blister in your hands. It's so fantastic. During blackberry season, I'd go to the market every day and eat handfuls.
What's one food you hate? Sea urchin. Its texture. It tastes like dirt. The look of them. There's a lot of mollusks that have the same type of dirty, gross texture. And it just smells everywhere. But I know people love them. There's a reason people on the coast eat them. They belong on the coast. I don't think they really belong in the middle of the country.
What's one food you love? It used to be potatoes, but I'm allergic to them. Hemp butter -- it goes well with everything, rice and beans. I'll slather it on a burger instead of mayo. You can get it at Whole Foods or a health market. I miss the texture of potatoes, and hemp butter has a nice, creamy, comforting texture. I don't eat meat very much any more, so I needed some additional calories. You put it in rice, and it has the creamiest texture ever, even better than risotto. You can flavor it however you want, and it has some fat, but it's still really good for you. Kimchi is one of my new favorites. If you like sauerkraut, you'll like kimchi. Sauerkraut juice, which is a treatment for candida, made me smell like an 80-year-old man.
What's your guilty pleasure? Really good bread with dark chocolate melted on top of it. I'll make some challah, and the chocolate needs to be about 67 percent. You dip this fresh, hot bread into this just melted gooey chocolate. I'll buy little pestles of chocolate. I prefer Colombian chocolate. And then I'll just sit there and eat. If there's some kind of Zinfandel hanging out, I'm not going to lie, it's going to enter into the equation. It's a dessert that's not too sweet.
What's always in your kitchen? Root vegetables -- rutabagas, parsnips and turnips. It's because of their versatility. You can put them in stocks and sauces and you get this great caramelization. The stock smells good, and after eight hours, the vegetables taste awesome.
Where do you like to eat out? I don't get to go out very often. But one of my favorite places to go is Tannin. I love Brian Aaron. I like how he cooks. It's extremely simple, good food. And he doesn't balk at me when I give him my laundry list.
Last time, he made me a truffle omelet with fresh herbs and goat cheese. Before that I had a double-boned pork chop that was fantastic. I haven't been to Pot Pie, I should probably go. At Room 39, anything I get there is good. Sometimes I will crave Thai food and then I go to Lulu's Thai Noodle Shop for some medium Drunken Noodles with chicken. It's so darn spicy, I love it. I'll go to the Rieger for a good cocktail: a gin and tonic or a sour beer. I'll get a good glass of whiskey at Harry's Bar and Tables. I think Stephanie Dumler is doing a great job at the Westside Local.
If you could steal one recipe off any menu in town, what would it be? I would love Fervere's olive bread. I'm sure I would have to have the oven to go with it.
What's one book that every chef should read? My culinary response is that everybody always needs to have Auguste Escoffier's first cookbook: The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery. I think everyone should have his bio. It explains a lot about a chef's mentality. I think every chef would also enjoy Running With Scissors. I secretly think we're all like that. You laugh out loud, and working with the general public, you see all kinds of things.
Who's got the best barbecue in town, and what are you ordering? If I were to take anybody to go get barbecue, I'd go to Oklahoma Joe's and get them burnt ends. I'd get them everything. Their slaw -- I'm a big fan of the pulled pork sandwich with vinegar slaw. I'd make it a whole entire smorgasbord. It's about licking your fingers and possibly having sauce drip down your elbows and smelling like hickory or mesquite when you walk out.
A chef is only as good as ... his spirit.