Food - The Chef

Celina Tio

Celina Tio spent most of her 39th birthday in the kitchen of her new Brookside restaurant, Julian. But she wasn't cooking. No, on that blistering hot August 12, Tio's kitchen was a work in progress — same for the bar and the two dining areas in the small, Tudor-style building that for more than two decades had been Joe D's Wine Bar. But Tio knew going in that it was going to take a hell of a lot of work to turn this slightly shabby space — built in the 1920s as a gas station — into her vision of a sleek, cozy neighborhood boîte.

Sleek, that is, but not formal, unlike the American. For seven years, Tio ran the kitchen at that iconic Crown Center restaurant like a tough taskmaster, winning the prestigious James Beard Award as Best Chef (Midwest) in 2007. The following year, Tio surprised Kansas City's culinary community by leaving her well-paid, high-profile position to open her own restaurant. The questions followed: Now? In this economy?

Tio is fiercely ambitious. The real question is, why wouldn't she want to open her own restaurant?

Her first plan was to purchase a place in the Crossroads District. Even before leaving the American, she had been in negotiations with the owner of one building, but the deal didn't pan out, so Tio announced that she was moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, to open a restaurant there. She liked Charlotte, but as it turned out, she loved her rambling old house in Kansas City's Valentine neighborhood, where she lived with her husband, computer wizard Ken Buch, and then 2-year-old daughter, Maia. "I love Kansas City," she says. "This is where I'm known. This is where I want to raise Maia. So I decided to stop thinking about buying a building and start looking to lease one."

Tio looked at a number of buildings before settling on the Joe D's space, which had just become available. It has only about 50 seats, not counting the patio tables, but is surrounded by an established residential neighborhood, which is precisely what Tio wanted. She named her new place after two inspirational sources: iconoclastic chef and teacher Julia Child and her own maternal grandfather, a hard-working Pullman porter, cook, gardener and pilot named Julian Rodriguez.

After months of preparation, Tio is ready to begin serving the solidly American comfort foods that dominate her debut menu. All summer, Tio has been considering the possibilities: soups and sandwiches, braised short ribs, pasta with meat sauce, macaroni and cheese, ribs, cheesy grits and banana splits.

"I loved my years at the American. It was an incredible experience," Tio says. "But I don't want people to think that this restaurant is anything like the American. Julian is just a fun, contemporary neighborhood place where people can come in wearing jeans, with their kids or their boyfriends and girlfriends, and just unwind." (At press time, it had just opened.) She and her sous chef, Ryan Spruhan (who followed her from the American), planned an ambitious start: breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays and dinner served seven nights a week, including special dinners on Sundays and Mondays.

"I want my customers to be able to come on Sundays and have the kind of family meal that people used to have at home," Tio said. That means Sundays will be Family Meal Night. "I pick the featured entrée, and the side dishes are served family-style. Mondays are our 'American Classics' night. That might be fried chicken one night or chicken and noodles or lasagna with garlic toast. It's a great meal for under $20."

Tio is brave to start her own restaurant in such a difficult economy, but she was also smart enough to see which way the culinary wind was blowing. She created a menu that combined familiar dishes with fresh regional produce, meats and fruits. If all goes as expected, it should taste like Kansas City.

— Charles Ferruzza

(Photo by Angela C. Bond)

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