Melissa Poelling made her name at Harold's Doughnuts in Columbia, Missouri, and experimented with sweets at downtown favorite 44 Canteen. After her son graduated from Hickman High School this spring, the family moved to Kansas City full time for her husband's job.
Poelling has been back in CoMO to help her friends at Barred Owl Butcher & Table and Peachtree Catering, most recently for the Columbia Farmers Market Farm to Table Dinner. Later this month, she starts her scholarship at the American Baking Institute in Manhattan, Kansas.
We caught up with Poelling to talk the perfect chicken-fried steak, Kansas City barbecue and the merits of cinnamon.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? Butter! I use it all the time, in everything. Because butter makes everything better. Also, bacon.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? Absolutely: It’s spices. It's not that it’s a spice blend or whatnot, but like, cinnamon makes a really big difference and people think of cinnamon as a one-note thing but there are all different kinds of cinnamon – floral cinnamon, hot cinnamon, warm cinnamon. So if I really want to pull out the stops, I'll switch the cinnamon. I think what you get at the store is usually cassia, but I’ll use Vietnamese or Hong Kong.
What's your perfect day of eating in Columbia? I’ll answer Columbia and Kansas City! My favorite breakfast in Columbia would be Cafe Berlin, hands down. My favorite lunch would be  Canteen for tacos; my favorite dinner would be Barred Owl for their charcuterie platter and drinks. You cannot beat their bar, it's amazing. [Bar Manager] Andrew Ruth is a rock star. He’s a magician. My favorite late night would be Pizza Tree. And then in Kansas City, the amount of barbecue that I have eaten in a short period of time is almost ridiculous, but I am undeterred and I keep on going. So in Kansas City, I would eat barbecue and then have a taco palate cleanser, and then go eat more barbecue, and then have pupusas. I would have Joe's Kansas City on 47th for lunch, I would have pupusas on Mission and then I would have fancy dinner at Q39. And then I'd have ice cream at Betty Rae's.
Who are Columbia chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? Just having come off the experience of the Barred Owl Farm to Table dinner, I would walk over broken glass for any of those people that I was with that evening – Benjamin Hamra, Amanda Elliott, Anthony Schmidt, Anna Meyer, Josh [Smith] and Ben [Parks] and Devin [Angsten] and all of their staff. They make me want to be a better chef, a better caterer, a better human. They look at food in ways that my mind is absolutely blown. You give us the same task or the same ingredient and I guarantee you it will not come out the same way, and I am absolutely blown away by Amanda and Benjamin on the daily.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? When I cook at home, I either cook to try to please the horde – I have three children – so some kind of casserole, something fried, or I cook for whatever I want to eat or however I'm inspired. So right now, I was inspired by Benjamin and Amanda, so I've been on this wonderful Persian, Middle Eastern, Lebanese kind of jaunt. I've made baba ghanoush from scratch, and the fluffiest, creamiest hummus. So that’s where my heart’s been at. Otherwise my feet are up and I’m drinking a beer!
What's your favorite comfort food? Chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, gravy and corn – like that’s one word [laughs]. And I won't eat it out, because I am always disappointed. I don’t know that I make the best – I wouldn’t go that far – but I make the kind that I like. I don’t know that it’s the best, but it makes me happy. It’s the kind that reminds me of my family, of summer on the farm, what my grandma would make. You don’t put it in the deep fryer, you pan fry it in a cast-iron skillet, and you leave the skins on the mashed potatoes, and you make chunky, lumpy gravy with bits from the bottom of the pan and a splash of buttermilk for the tang, and put all of the butter on the corn. I can’t even imagine the calorie count on that, I try not to pay attention! And then the other thing I’m obsessed with is Stroud’s cinnamon rolls. They’re cheater rolls – they should, conceivably, be easier to make, but they’re not. They’re like little tiny buns that have this caramely, crunchy crisp on the top and then this gooey on the bottom and they serve them warm at the end of the meal and I eat the whole thing.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Just get in there and do it. Don’t be afraid. There’s nothing intimidating about the kitchen. Even if you fail, even if the stove catches fire, it’s still a memory you can have and you can laugh about it later – "Remember that time I made the gravy that was so chunky we could use it for wallpaper paste?" So just get in there, just try, just do it.
What's your first food memory? My grandparents lived on a farm in Eskridge, Kansas, and I can remember going there to stay for the summer like – where’s the milk? I don’t see the milk, the gallon jug of milk. Because it was in a gallon jar, because we had cows and we milked them. I can remember that seeming really strange to me. My grandmother had the creamer pitcher that looked like an ear of corn, and I can remember trying to pour it on my oatmeal at breakfast, and I had to lap it out with a spoon because it was so incredibly thick. I can remember being out in the garden amongst the tomatoes – they were taller than I was – picking okra and tomatoes before dinner. And the ease with which my grandma would put meals together just absolutely floored me.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? There’s a sauce, a Lebanese garlic sauce, called toum, and I had it in Pennsylvania when I was on a road trip. We were only there for three days, and I went to that restaurant three days in a row because it was so magnificent. I read the recipe on it, I brought some home with me – it’s just garlic and salt and oil and maybe and egg white, and I was like no that’s not it, that’s not this sauce because it was thick and spreadable like mayonnaise but thicker, and I was like, there’s no way! I went down a little bit of a rabbit hole, and I made that. I made several vats of the garlic sauce in the span of a week. I went through three large bags of peeled garlic, and I finally worked it out. And I would make it again. I need to make some when I get home, as a matter of fact. It’s just those four things. I want to go door to door with a spoon and a bucket and put it in everyone’s mouth. "Don’t you need it? You should make it! It’s super easy!"
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? For me, it works a lot of different ways. I'm very collaborative, and I’m very reactionary. So whoever I’m with – like if you and I are hanging out and you say my grandma used to make [whatever] – challenge accepted. I’ll go to old timey church cookbooks, the internet, friends’ cookbooks, textbooks, and I will drill that recipe down until I can recreate it, and then give the recipe to you so you have that memory at your disposal for the rest of your life. That’s how I like to work. It's really hard for me to come up with stuff from the ether, because the stuff that I like doesn’t necessarily go together. [At 44 Canteen] I wanted to make a wonderful rich Japanese-style milk bread, then the brioche method, then not a frangipane almond cream, but the other kind, which is the kind they fill pastries with, more of a pastry-cream base – spread that on there, sprinkle it with pecans, because I don’t necessarily care for almonds. Praline the pecans before I put them on there, a dash of cinnamon and sugar and then run it under the broiler. Don’t you wanna eat that? Super-glorified praline toast.