Chef Craig Howard is a rare breed in the Kansas City’s food scene. He is half chef and half urban farmer and a wholly successful entrepreneur. After culinary school, Craig worked in several restaurants around KC, but a life on the line was not all he wanted to accomplish. In 2012, Craig walked away from restaurant life and opened his own 24/7 organic grocery store/CSA called Howard’s Organic Fare and Vegetable Patch, in the City Ice Arts building located in downtown Kansas City.
Business was good from the start for Craig, as those looking for locally grown, organic produce and food products were finding him and signing up for his CSA. Craig missed cooking in a kitchen, but he was still farming and his market was a success. Then earlier this year, Craig’s landlord dropped a bombshell. He had decided to raze the building where Craig rented and sell the land. Craig was back to square one.
Luckily, that’s when Craig connected with local artist, Julia Cole, who had just purchased a couple of old buildings in the Crossroads area and was looking to rehab them into a live/work/studio space for herself. In her plans, Cole also had a vision for a couple of rental spaces opposite her live/work studio that would have a common area courtyard between them. She spoke to Craig about the possibility of him reopening his organic market in one of the spaces, and those talks lead to other talks about the ability to use the long, flat roofs of the building for solar panels, rainwater collection systems and a rather large urban garden. It was the perfect situation for Craig to bring both of his passions back together, cooking and gardening. An agreement was reached between them, and now Craig just needed to raise the money to build out his kitchen, market and rooftop garden.
Craig launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter in early November for his newly named concept, Howard’s Café and Rooftop Garden. When the campaigned ended on November 23rd, he had met his goal and had raised a total of $35,000 to put towards his new kitchen.
The café will have only about 20 seats, as he expects much of his food and business to be “grab and go.” The dining room will share space with the organic market/CSA, and the new café will be open for breakfast and lunch only. He is also excited about the opportunity to accept catering opportunities in the evenings.
Craig is now busy planning the new menu for his café, which will be located at 1708 Oak Street in the Crossroads and is slated to open along with his new market on February 2015.
Meanwhile, back across town, at a small gathering at Craig’s home that he shares with girlfriend and local artist, Cory Imig, friends and family are arriving with bottles of wine in hand; ready to sample some of the dishes Craig has been working on for his new café.
Craig addresses the crowd that has gathered, thanks them for coming, and briefly discusses the plans for Howard’s Café and Rooftop Garden. He passes around his floor plans, and shows off his new logo and branding colors. He is still tinkering with the name and the colors of his new venture, but he is getting close to baked on what he likes. He shrugs and smiles, as if to say, “I don’t know, I’m not too worried about this stuff, it is all going to work out,” and heads back toward his little micro kitchen that is packed with canned, frozen and dehydrated vegetables that he has put up at the end this years harvest.
The crowd watches as Craig works out of a teeny tiny apartment kitchen on a small 4-burner electric stove. Each person prepares for the food that is to come, as they proceed to pour wine into every available jelly jar and wait, forks in hand, for the tasting to begin.
Craig steps out of the kitchen and places what looks like a giant pasta salad, stacked tall on the table. A hush comes over the crowd as Craig, clears his throat and says,
“This will be one of my vegetarian options. It’s a salad made from zucchini that has been cut to look like pasta, and I’ve let them sit in vinegar and ice water. I tossed the zucchini with spinach, fresh cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, green beans and a fresh herb vinaigrette dressing and baby beet micro greens on top. Dig in.”
Hungry family and friends descend on the salad jabbing their forks in and asking Craig questions about portion size and price he will charge for it. Finally, everyone agrees that the salad is a creative approach to what can be perceived as boring option for a vegetarian, a salad.
The crowd smells the next two courses before they even hit the table. The first is a crispy, pan-griddled golden brown grilled cheese sandwich that most everyone agrees is crying out for a tomato soup to be served on the side. Craig was thinking of just a smear of tomato jam on the bread, but the old school grilled cheese lovers insist that tomato soup would be more satisfying. Craig is weighing the additional workload and cost of a tomato soup on the menu and decides to consider it further.
The tiny kitchen fills with smoke, as Craig begins searing off burgers made from 100% grass-fed Kansas beef. He is like Scotty on the starship, Enterprise, pushing his little electric stove until it is “giving it all it’s got.”
Craig shouts over the sound of the wheezing exhaust fan in the hood of his little electric stove, “Sorry for the smoke, I have this stove turned up as high as it will go to get a good sear on these burgers.”
When the cheeseburgers hit the table they look and smell fantastic, with cheese slowly oozing down the side of the juicy burger topped with fresh pea shoots and a little secret sauce. The bun for the tasting is a Farm to Market Brioche bun, but Craig plans to make his own buns from scratch using organic flour.
The cheeseburger is juicy and the fresh pea shoots on the burger make a huge difference, almost everyone in the room remarks about them as they bite into their piece of burger.
Craig says, “It is just the fresh shoots of the plants that I harvested. Normally, you would just pull them off and toss them, but they have a nice clean spring pea flavor, so I saved them.”
We realize then that Craig wastes nothing the land gives him to work with. If a farmer could cook, he would be Craig Howard. We all agree the shoots really do cut through the richness of the cheese and meat to bring a contrasting fresh green note to the burger. It is going to be a fantastic hit for Craig at the café, we all agree.
That’s when someone asks about the cheese on the burger, and this is what blew all of our minds. Someone commented about how the cheese tastes like white cheddar, but looks like American cheese on the burger.
Craig’s face lights up, as he says, “Exactly! I was wanting a cheese that had the melting properties of American cheese and the flavor of rich cheddar cheese, so I made this cheese myself to embody the best of both cheeses.” He had made this cheese from scratch. Incredible.
With that, we had come to the end of the tasting, and as we moved out into the street toward our cars, we all congratulate Craig on his new venture, and look forward to visiting his new spot once he is open.
This part chef, part urban farmer is ready for his whole next chapter to begin, and so is Kansas City.
Howard’s Café and Rooftop Garden
1708 Oak Street
Kansas City, MO
Estimated Opening February 2015.