Talk to Kansas City native Kyle Williams for only a few minutes, and you’ll immediately pick up what he’s putting down. With the heart of a chef, the focus of a personal trainer and the mind of a nutritionist, his positive outlook on life and food will have you ready to climb a mountain. After that, committing to healthy eating seems like a snap.
For more than a year now, Williams has been working as the executive chef for Good Food Good Futures, which runs the corporate dining room for Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Williams was brought in to re-work the existing corporate kitchen from a place where processed, pre-cooked frozen food was the norm into a kitchen where healthy food is prepared fresh daily using local ingredients. It has been a big challenge for Williams, but one for which he was trained and ready.
After graduating from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island with a degree in culinary nutrition, Williams worked for some of New York City’s top chefs: Todd English, David Burke, Daniel Boulud.
Those heady experiences made coming home to Kansas City a little bittersweet for Williams, who admits he is “beyond driven.”
His story is a familiar one. In New York City, the money was good, but the hours were crazy and the cost of living all too high. After his wife Hannah gave birth to their second child, the couple knew it was time to make their way home.
“For my wife and I, it is family first,” says Williams. “That made our decision to come home a very easy one.”
Last fall, Williams returned to New York to compete on the Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay.” Two chefs cooking with a secret ingredient are pitted against each other, and then a panel of celebrity chefs decide which one advances to compete against Bobby Flay. Williams lost his competition to Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, but he still brought back his dish – secret ingredient: ricotta -- to make for Blue Cross and Blue Shield employees as a café special.
To Williams, being on TV was just another way to show BCBS employees that a real chef is in their corporate kitchen. Yes, it’s closed to the public, but the food being served could still go head-to-head with top “real” restaurant
Today the cafe at Blue Cross and Blue Shield runs much differently than before Williams’ arrival. Employees must now come downstairs to the kitchen and order their food directly from Williams and his team, instead of at kiosks on each floor. RIGHT?
“I want them to know that there is a chef in their kitchen cooking for them, and I am here to answer any questions about what is in each dish,” say Williams. “If they have a request, the answer is always ‘yes.’ If we can we will, because that is the core of what hospitality is all about.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield has between 600 to 800 employees in its downtown Kansas City office across the street from Union Station. The company has committed to helping employees make better food choices, by subsidizing 75 percent of the food cost for menu items designated as healthy. Typically, these are dishes that are under 550 calories, made with whole grains, lean meats and healthy starches like lentils and quinoa or brown rice. That means employees pay less for the healthier items on the menu, with most healthy entrees several dollars cheaper than those that do not meet the criteria.
Bucking current trends, menus are not designed for, say, those practicing the paleo diet or the Atkins. Says Williams, “We don’t offer specific meals to cater to specialty diets in the dining room. We just want to teach people to eat real food that powers their brain and their body to get them through their day without crashing at their desk after lunch, or craving a candy bar in the afternoon to get that boost of energy. Eating the right food at lunch can eliminate that 3pm crash.”
He adds, “There is some really terrible tasting healthy food out there, so my goal is to find a way to make healthy food, taste good, so my customers will want to order it in my dining room, and will enjoy the health and monetary benefits of doing so,” he says.
There have been some hits and misses on the menu, but Williams looks at them as mere bumps in the road to better eating. Not everything can be a hit.
“I cannot get them to embrace the texture and taste of buckwheat gluten-free pancakes for breakfast,” he says. “They just want those processed flour, light-colored, fluffy pancakes that they grew up eating. And who wouldn’t want those pancakes? They are delicious, but that is what I am up against.”
His South American take on steak and potatoes encountered no such problems.
“I use a grass-fed sirloin steak and make a delicious chimichurri from garlic, fresh herbs, chili peppers and EVOO and use it as a sauce to go on top of the steak, which I serve with oven-roasted rosemary potatoes, and the crowd goes wild,” Williams says, laughing.
It is not one of the subsidized healthy items, but he still keeps the calorie count in check through portion control.
“We have to offer a selection of healthy and not-so-healthy dishes or people will get bored,” says Williams. “But my goal is to make even the dishes that are not subsidized taste better by using local ingredients and by making everything we offer from scratch. Portion sizes are also key. That is another sneaky tool I use.”
“Just like chefs that own their own restaurants, I consider the employees at Blue Cross and Blue Shield my customers, but I do differ from restaurant chefs in that they get to deliver their food vision to the customer on their terms,” says Williams. “I look at it this way, this is the employees’ café, and I treat it as such. I want them to tell me what they want, and then it is my job is to figure out the healthiest way to give that to them.”
For all his passion for the job, Williams may return to a commercial kitchen sooner than not. He hopes to open his own restaurant in Kansas City in a few years.
“I want to contribute to the incredible food scene that Kansas City already has,” he says. “I am looking forward to having my own restaurant to support and be a part of our food community.”