KANSAS CITY - Here in the "Show-Me" state, in the city where barbecue is king, Midwest cuisine reigns. At a recent conference, food editors were reminded that the Heartland stretches from Ohio through the Wheat Belt of Nebraska and the Corn Belt of Iowa, and includes a wide variety of foods.
Indeed, Kansas City is home of James Beard Foundation Award-winners as Best Chefs in the Midwest, Michael Smith and Debbie Gold of the American Restaurant; Stroud's, the fried- chicken mecca that was honored as an America's Regional Classics restaurant by the Beard Foundation, and Kansas City cookbook author Judith Fertig, whose Prairie Home Cooking was nominated for International Association of Culinary Professionals and James Beard honors.
Midwest cities hold some things in common. "Insularity is a thing of the past," said Art Siemerling, a food and trend tracker who was part of a panel of food experts. "When trends take hold [on the East Coast or West Coast], the lapsed time before it shows up in the Midwest is decreasing."
The strip steak is back in vogue.Steak sales are up 30 per cent from 1998 to 1999, according to Jerry Vincent, chairman of the American Culinary Federation Greater Kansas City Chefs Association.
Other dining trends: sorbets are back, albeit fruit sorbet flavored with balsamic vinegar for a tinge of acidity; entree salads are popular in place of a heavy meal; sauces are lighter and are made by reduction for intensified flavor, rather than the traditional roux of butter and flour.
"Comfort foods are popular because many of this young generation have never had meatloaf or chicken-fried steak," said Mr. Vincent. Plus at $10 to $12 for entree, these foods are affordable.
Mr. Siemerling noted the penetration of ethnic influences in Midwest cuisine. "East European food is chic. You can have peasant food and pheasant food at one setting."
Lidia Bastianich, star of the 26-part public television program Lidia's Italian Table, said she is "considered a trendsetter, but I am a traditionalist." When she opened her first venture outside of New York City with Lidia's Kansas City restaurant, she wanted to recognize Middle America. Kansas City offered two million people "in a culturally vibrant and economically vibrant city" where conventions bring layers of customers. "We are coming to fix real food, the way it is supposed to be prepared. But I need the right products."
She went directly to the farmers. "We asked farmers what they can do for us," she said. The result was finding sources for heirloom tomatoes. "To set trends, I need the cooperation of artisans." She is interested in smaller producers where meats and poultry have not been fed hormones or antibiotics.
Artisanal foods, which are small batches of deeply satisfying foods that tap into the pride of communities, are in great demand. Watch for giant food producers to market more of their foods in the artisanal style.
The labor shortage will dictate what is on restaurant menus. Finding qualified and motivated employees is the No. 1 concern.
Kathie Smith is the Blade's food editor.