Rick Mullins might not have gotten much of a formal culinary education, but working with some of the best chefs in Kansas City did the trick.
Mullins, who co-founded monthly dinner series Soil Collective with Freshwater's Calvin Davis and Mickey Priolo, recently joined the team at Café Sebastienne at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art as executive chef. In addition to Soil Collective, his resume also boasts time at Bluestem, the late República and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Priolo, a frequently collaborator of Mullins', serves at the general manager at Café Sebestienne; along with director of food and beverage and special events Tony Glamcevski, the three put together an art-worthy experience inside the museum.
We caught up with Mullins to talk about Kansas City, Kansas, his favorite ingredients and fried chicken.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? I really enjoy cooking fish in general; I like cooking pretty much anything that’s not really heavy meat. Maybe in winter it’s a little bit more appropriate, but I don't think it takes nearly the amount of finesse to cook a piece of meat as it does a piece of fish. Right now, I'm really loving sunflowers – petals, the seeds, the rest of the entire plant. I’ve gotten pretty interested in stuff like amaranth. My friend and I have been growing amaranth and quinoa and stuff like that, so that’s piqued my interest as of recent.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? I've been playing a lot with sassafras, which is something foraged that I think is a little bit misunderstood. It’s just a really unique flavor profile. I’ve been using it in various applications, whether that be grating it directly onto something, or I have a duck dish on the menu that has a sassafras-horchata jam on it. It's kind of been my thing lately, so just trying to figure out ways to use it and ways for it to be approachable for people who don’t know what it is.
What's your perfect day of eating in Kansas City? I would spend my entire day on the Kansas City, Kansas, side. I'm a big, big, big fan of Mexican food. I've been to Mexico a few times and the food is a huge inspiration for me – it pops up in my cooking, like the horchata in the duck dish. I spend a lot of time in KCK. Jarocho [Pescados y Mariscos] is somewhere I eat quite frequently, El Camino Real, El Pollo Rey, stuff like that. On the Missouri side, probably Mesob, which is Ethiopian and Caribbean cuisine. I like the food of immigrants: I think it speaks a lot about where we should be in American cooking.
Who are Kansas City chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? I’ll probably permanently admire Carlos Falcon [of Jarocho] – just his approach to food, and how genuine he is and the sincerity in his food. I certainly respect Howard Hanna, Ryan Brazeal, those guys. But I also respect the grandmas who are slapping corn tortillas in the back room. I have respect for anybody who puts love into the food they make.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Kansas City? There’s a lack of South American food, which I find pretty interesting. [I'd like to see cuisine] even more specialized: Like instead of just a Thai restaurant, it would be fun to see regional Thai. It would be fun to see more African food in Kansas City.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? [I don't] as much as I used to. I do make tacos quite a bit at home. Other than that – you know, I do a lot of takeout [laughs]. I try to eat at work – I spend most of my waking life at work.
What's your favorite comfort food? If that was gonna be an American comfort food it’d probably be fried chicken. Any other comfort food, I'm a big fan of menudo and honestly anything that has heavy spices – any type of Caribbean or African food. Those spices kinda bring it home for most people. It reminds me of the holidays.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Taste your food constantly. Taste it, taste it, taste it. Don’t over salt your food. That’s what I tell every cook who comes through here: Taste your food. If you don’t like it, there’s a good chance no one else will. It seems obvious, but it is not, for some reason. Always taste your food.
What is your first food memory? I do remember watching my grandma cook fried chicken on the stove. There was no big grand food [moment]. We grew up with not a lot of money so we made do with what we could do. The earliest memory would have to be when I first started cooking – the smell of garlic and butter, and that was a catalyst for me to want to get further into what I was doing.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? Actually a dish that I’m going to run this evening, I'm taking potatoes that I just got from a farmer and hitting them on the grill. We’re doing a yolk aïoli with them and on top of that, we dehydrated scallops. Preservation is kind of a thing here, so any time at the end of the week, and since we’re closed on Mondays, if there’s anything we don’t think is gonna last, we try to preserve it. So we dehydrated a bunch of scallops and I’ll be microplaning that on top of all of it so it’ll be this nice rich scallop powder on top of that [with] Missouri hackleback caviar, pickled rose petals and cracked black pepper. We just did a dish with some cucumber and crème fraîche and mint oil and pickled immature dill flowers, and fried some potatoes and made a seasoning for the fried potatoes. The dish essentially was a play on fried dill pickles – a way deconstructed version of it. So, stuff like that – we’re just trying to have fun with stuff.
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D, and what inspires that process? Really, it's first off, what's available to me through my farmers. I tend to not use big companies too often. So it's either what I have grown with my friend, what the farmers are bringing in, what I have preserved and what I have sitting around that I need to use up. So that’s how it starts. I usually work out flavor profiles initially. And then start working textures and start doing that. That's kinda the process, but there's no one way I do it. It's what I think will taste good and what I would want to eat if I went to a restaurant.
What are your future plans? Well, hopefully being here. I'd like to stay here for a while. I [also] want to travel. It doesn't take much to make me happy – just keep cooking, no matter where I’m at or what I’m doing. I’d like to keep cooking, see more of the world, see what it has to offer and see what I can learn from it.
Café Sebastienne, 4420 Warwick Blvd., North Plaza/Rockhill, Kansas City, Missouri, 816.753.5784, kemperart.org/cafe