Debbie Gold and Michael Smith are the only chefs working in Kansas City to win a James Beard Foundation Best Chef Midwest Award… and that’s only the tip of the iceberg for this husband-and-wife culinary team. Their eclectic restaurant, 40 Sardines, offers exciting public and private space for your next event.
The cool blue dining room, above, is a great space for events. These James Beard Foundation award winners’ restaurant has a fabulous dining room plus private space for group functions.
By Michael Humphery
It won’t take long to figure out that the 40 Sardines experience is a little out of the ordinary. You have to decide what to absorb first – the wine bar with bottles stored sideways to show the labels, the ultra cool blue dining room, half-walls decorated with bright flowers. Or how about the name – 40 Sardines.
It’s in honor of a dare between husband and wife team Debbie Gold and Michael Smith, made in Nice several years ago. She said he couldn’t eat 40 of the little fish in one sitting. He said he could.
“I ate them all,” says Smith, 43.
It’s not your average place, because it is not run by average people.
But you don’t need the story behind the name to know that. All you need to know is that Smith and Gold are the only chefs working in Kansas City to win a James Beard Foundation Best Chef Midwest Award. That might lead you to wonder if the food won’t be the most extraordinary part of all.
Traveling to find new ideas, training under some of the best chefs in the world and thinking outside of stereotypes all add up to a restaurant that has created serious buzz.
Only, none of it was ever meant to be.
“We thought we could stay here a couple of years and move on,” Smith says.
That was 1994, when they arrived as a chef team at The American Restaurant in Crown Center. But Kansas City grew on the couple, thanks to the wholesome environment for their three daughters and the loyalty of their customers.
“We couldn’t move away,” Smith says. “There were too many good reasons to stay.”
But they also never planned to open a restaurant of their own. They didn’t want to deal with the hassles that would inevitably take them away from their first love of cooking.
That changed two years ago.
“We got the bug,” he says. “We asked ourselves how we can grow beyond the level we’ve already reached. We realized the best way to figure that out was on our own.”
Heck, they probably should have never fallen in love, for that matter. They met while working at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. Both were highly competitive chefs on the way up, and they didn’t really trust each other. But once the ice broke, romance soon followed. And as it turned out, their styles blended perfectly.
“Some people say I’m the chef and she’s the pastry chef,” Smith says. “That’s not true at all. We are equals in everything we do, in all aspects of the business.”
So, voila, 40 Sardines: Good news for locals, who never wanted the dynamic duo to leave, and great news for meeting planners too.
A Tasty Meeting: Unique Meeting And Event Space
You wouldn’t expect run-of-the-mill function space here, would you? You shouldn’t. The food is the star at 40 Sardines, but the brand new meeting and event space just might steal the show.
“The first two holiday seasons, we were sending groups away every day,” Smith says. “We realized we were missing a real opportunity here. But we just didn’t have room for meeting and event space when we moved in.”
40 Sardines is located in a business complex near 119th and Roe in Overland Park—not exactly an ideal spot for expansion. But the business next door was owned by a 40 Sardines investor. When he realized the potential for meeting and event business, he closed shop and handed the space over.
The results are the James Beard Studio for up to 40 guests, and the Julia Child Room for up to 12 guests. At their most basic, both are quiet, chic spots for groups who want a room of their own. The rooms can be joined for a larger space as well. But that’s just the canned Sardine experience. It gets better.
Both rooms offer wireless Internet access, phone conferencing and audio visual capabilities including VCR, DVD and PowerPoint capabilities, and plenty more bells and whistles.
“We’ve had some groups come in for a late afternoon meeting that led to dinner,” Smith says. “It makes for a seamless meeting. You don’t have to pick up and leave a conference room for dinner.”
But even that’s not the haute cuisine of the meeting menu. If you really want the wow factor, then open the stylish rising door that connects the James Beard Studio to a demonstration kitchen.
“We can do a lot of different presentations,” Smith says. “We can do a simple one-dish presentation, something that they’ll be eating soon. Or we can do a larger, one-hour presentation where we really show some techniques. That’s for groups that have a pretty big interest in cooking.”
If Gold and Smith were giving a similar presentation for a Beard Foundation event, you could expect to pay a mint per plate. At their own restaurant, it’s $500 for the group.
“If they want a smaller presentation, we’ll work with them,” Smith says.
The room rates vary based on group size and often come with a food minimum that waives the set fee.
“We just opened that portion of the restaurant earlier this year,” Smith says, “so we’re still testing it out. If a planner comes in with an idea and we can make it work, we’re probably going to do it.”
All about the food: From France to Kansas City
Smith and Gold have shown enough business acumen to make their first restaurant venture go smoothly. That’s impressive, but it doesn’t mean the couple has gotten away from their first love. They love food and the food world loves them back.
Both come by their reputations honestly. Gold, a Chicago native, attended the University of Illinois, where she studied restaurant management. She apprenticed in French restaurants such Michel Chabran, Albert LeCompte, Jean Marc Reynaud and Le Gourmandin.
Smith actually studied psychology in college, but was soon analyzing the techniques of French chefs at Chateau Pyrenees, a French restaurant in Denver, and then moved on to France, working in Provencal kitchens for a little pay and room and board.
After they met in Chicago, the two returned to France in 1989, where they first shared an executive chef position at L’Albion in Nice.
All of that French background would lead you to assume that 40 Sardines is a slice of Provence. Not exactly.
“I wouldn’t be satisfied just running a French bistro,” Smith says. “I’m too interested in Mexican and Vietnamese flavors. I like the food in New Orleans and food from the Deep South. We start from a French basis, but we also have been influenced by Italian, Spanish, basically all over the world.”
Smith believes that each dish should be served with its origin intact.
“On each individual plate, the food is one style,” he says. “If it’s an Italian-driven plate, we’re not going to confuse that with Asian elements.”
Need proof? Look no further than the menu.
Dinner includes entrees such as a Grilled Cumin Rubbed Pork Chop, which comes with pecan mole, jalapeno pickled carrots and a goat cheese empanada. Or try the Asian Barbecue Glazed Beef Short Ribs, served with baby bok choy, wide noodles and cashews. You can also go all-American, with an oven-roasted chicken with spring morels and Wisconsin white cheddar macaroni and cheese.
International Food, American Flair Lunch is decidedly lighter if you want it to be. Thai Style Shrimp Lettuce Wraps come with jasmine rice, peanuts, coconut, cilantro and fresh lime. Or bulk it up with a wood-grilled hamburger with shoestring potatoes. But if you do want continental cuisine, you can always try the Mushroom and Gruyere Cheese Tart, served with salad greens and zinfandel reduction.
It is a fine dining experience, but with some non-pretentious twists. Like the wine list.
“There is a movement around the country to lower the mark-up on wines,” Smith says. “Why mark up the wine and watch it sit? Why not price it reasonably and sell more of it?”
So both the dinner and lunch menus come with a list of 20 wines at $20, and the range of vineyards is wide – from Oregon, Washington and California to France and Italy to South Africa and Australia.
“We keep a small stock by restaurant standards,” Smith says, “so we have to choose well and find people who can help us choose well.”
40 Sardines strives to be well-rounded rather than just unique, because no matter how esoteric or refined a chef wants to be, the most important element is the customer.
“All the food styles we brought into the menu have a common element,” Smith says. “No matter what influence, they cater to what Americans like to eat – crunchy, sweet and sour, sticky glazes, salty. But you can find that in South America, Asia, Europe, all over the world.” MM&E
(Michael Humphrey is the contributing editor from Kansas City, MO.)
40 Sardines 11942 Roe Ave. Overland Park, KS 913-451-1040