Jessica Rush and her husband, Dave Derr, spent six years operating the Wiener Wagon as a side hustle before opening a brick-and-mortar, dubbed Wiener Kitchen, last year in Overland Park, Kansas.
Derr and Rush first started making sausages while they were working at a local country club, and Derr suggested that her husband make some for an Oktoberfest party. In 2012, they began operating the Wiener Wagon at the Overland Park Farmers' Market and gained a following for their creative dogs made with natural casings, including the best-selling chorizo rojo, a pork sausage made with cayenne, crushed red pepper, cumin, garlic and paprika, served on a tortilla and topped with a fried egg and hot sauce.
We caught up with Rush to talk about summer produce, what she eats when she's feeling under the weather and soup dumplings.
What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? Wow – one thing that I like to cook with...produce? Can I be vague and broad like that? [laughs] I love market produce and there's such an abundance of it in the summer, I don't think I could narrow it down to one thing. I'm in love with fennel right now; I love anise. Used properly I think it adds depth to a dish that can benefit from another flavor profile.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? Yeah, I like to call that salt! I think properly seasoned food really speaks for itself. You can eat a garden tomato and it can be great, but you can sprinkle it with salt and it can be mind-blowing. The same came be said of a lot of foods, and why finishing salts are popular. We see salt and vinegar chips, salted caramel – because salt is delicious.
What's your perfect day of eating in Kansas City? Oh gosh, where would I go for breakfast? You know, I really like home breakfast. My husband is really a B.A. breakfast cook, and he enjoys making it, and we really like to get down on it. We'll do the full monty with Belgian waffles and eggs and potatoes and fruit and whipped cream. There's six of us [in the family], so it makes sense to cook big and eat big sometimes. [Then] I'd take a nap - just head right back upstairs and take a nap for an hour and a half. I'm gonna pretend this is Sunday, so we're gonna end with ABC [Cafe] for dinner. It's so close to where we live and we love everything about the place: the people, the food, the atmosphere, the food, the food, the food. And lunch, gosh...where would I go for lunch? There's so many places I'd go. I really liked Gennessee Royale, why did they close? That was such a bad idea! Lunch is tough because it depends on what I'm really in the mood for – a barbecue place, or sometimes we want something lighter and we hit sushi. So lunch is kind of anything goes.
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? I love that people are really making a strong effort to work with local farmers. I love it so much. It's so much a part of what we do and when you see more and more people embrace that community – obviously we see it weekly working at the farmers' market. It's so varied, [and] to see that really exemplified on menus throughout the region, it's awesome. I love community supporting community. I love anywhere I can go and know that they're working with other artisans or small-batch, craft-made vendors. That's really something we always wanted to do was stay really local.
Who are Kansas City chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? The Garrelts I think are super impressive. I love that they opened a second Rye and went from super fine-dining to casual dining but made it work. I love cocktails at Rye. I think their bartender, Van [Zarr], is probably one of the most talented mixologists. I secretly stalk his cocktails and concoctions. I really do. And he's been so pleasant about offering recipes or ingredients, which sometimes are obscure things. I love their concept, their program, I like how it's presented. I love Jonathan Justus something fierce. I think he's super admirable from a local artisan standpoint. I love that Ryan Brazeal just overhauled Novel. I think, again, that's a gutsy, gutsy move to make and they did it super gracefully. I think the Eans, Abbey-Jo and Josh – we have a very small-scale restaurant, both of their restaurants are small. I love knowing you can see them at either one at any given time. You get the feeling that they're still really connected with their businesses.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Kansas City? If someone could do soup dumplings, I would go. I love Asian food. More of that quick service but not buffets. Quick service but without the Chipotle feel – more authentic or fast-cook Asian places would be awesome for me.
What’s your favorite comfort food? I like it all. I'm gonna have to with brothy Asian soups, dumpling soup or hot and sour. When I'm not feeling well I usually go for wonton soup or hot and sour. It's always the winter and it's cold and drizzly out and you feel miserable so the hottest pho works for me – something super aromatic and brothy with a not-too-heavy substance in it that feels filling without making you feel bloated and heavy.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Take your time. Even watching my kids cook, everybody wants to do everything on the highest heat in the fastest possible way. If you get yourself set up before you start – get your mise en place ready, get everything ready and really know what your steps are gonna be before you even start, and what your end result is supposed to be and it helps you visualize the process throughout.
What's your first food memory? I've loved food forever. Honest to god, I think I was probably 4 years old and my dad put super-hot eggs on a plate and the plate cracked [onto the floor]. And I remember being super bummed that we couldn't eat the eggs! I think that was honestly my first food memory – lamenting the fact that there were no eggs!
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? We've got one we're about to do on Saturday. We've done a gyro dog before with tzatziki and cucumber relish, but this time, we got some beautiful parsley and tomatoes from our vendors and we're doing a tabbouleh with it. We've never really topped a dog with grains before so we're kind of excited about that. It's gonna be delicious. Again, we like to do everything from north African lamb sausage to chicken pot pie on a bun. I like to think we really span the globe.
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? Our menu is definitely vendor-driven. In our winter months, we preserve a lot of things and know how to elongate the use of it by canning and whatnot. Our menu changes: It's gonna be more hot toppings and root vegetables, and in the summer it's lighter. You want some acid and bright things, texture from different produce. The tenderness of a tomato paired with the crispness of a cucumber is really nice when you're pairing that with a savory aspect of the sausage. Trial and error, no, I hope that 25 years into the industry I know how to pair flavors and know what's gonna go well. Sometimes we pull spices out of the sausage that we want to incorporate. If there's warm spice in the sausage, maybe we'll make a cumin mayo or something like that. So we can isolate a flavor and play off that flavor and give contrasting flavors to really let that be the forerunner.
Wiener Kitchen, 9645 W. 87th St., Overland Park, Kansas, 913.296.8023,wienerwagonkc.com