As an art student, Melinda Roeder “could never nail down a niche,” she says.
Until she discovered an art form that appeals to all the senses: food.
At her intimate, one-table restaurant in Lawrence, Cafe Beautiful, Roeder serves a visually stunning tower of flash-fried sticky rice, bright green avocado and raw yellowfin tuna. When the plate arrives at the table, you can still hear the sesame seeds sizzling on the sticky rice.
“We eat with our eyes before our mouths,” Roeder says. Many of us eat with our smartphones first — we snap photos, then edit and post them to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook before taking a single bite.
If you’re one of those food photographers who loves to share, you’ll find no shortage of deliciously photogenic food in Kansas City.
Fine dining restaurants such as Bluestem and the American are established galleries for culinary works of art. And up-and-coming chefs at Novel, Cafe Provence and Mint Asian Cafe — a sushi spot in a Lee’s Summit shopping center — are becoming known for food that looks as incredible as it tastes.
Jessica Armstrong, a pastry chef at Rye in Leawood, is one of the legions of locals documenting Kansas City’s food scene online.
Armstrong’s Instagram profile, fooddrunk, recently made Zagat’s list of “30 Food Accounts to Follow on Instagram.” Also on the list: celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver, Marcus Samuelsson and Michael Symon. No big deal.
Armstrong’s Instagram photos are utterly mouthwatering. Imagine a salty, golden pretzel next to a cup of melted cheese and 10 glasses of beer. A butternut ice cream sundae studded with mulled cranberries and topped with toasted meringue. And a green tomatillo Bloody Mary garnished with a bacon strip and an obscenely large pork rind.
“I travel a lot,” Armstrong says. “Experiencing things and traveling really inspires me and feeds my creativity.”
The pastry chef also documents the pies, cinnamon rolls and sundaes she makes at Rye and then shares them on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Looking back at the photos helps Armstrong remember how something looked and tasted. More importantly, she says, it helps her recall an experience and “the inspiration I felt at that moment.”
Not everyone shares Armstrong’s passion for impromptu food photography. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that some restaurants were beginning to ban customers from taking photos because it distracted other diners.
Ryan Brazeal, the chef and owner at Novel restaurant in Kansas City, doesn’t ban customers from snapping photos of his food. But Brazeal makes it a point not to post photos of Novel’s food to Facebook or Twitter.
He says he wants customers to experience his food in the restaurant on a warm plate — not through a cold screen.
There’s another drawback to gorgeous food photos, the chef says: All of those cool filters and effects can raise diners’ expectations to “exorbitantly high” levels.
“It’s not some ethereal, otherworldly experience,” Brazeal says. “It’s a restaurant.”
Michael Corvino, the new executive chef at the American Restaurant, makes some pretty ethereal-looking food (check out his pacific black cod dish on page 8).
But taste always comes first, he says.
“If you make pretty food and it’s not delicious,” Corvino says, “what’s the point?”
Here are five chefs who work hard to make some of the prettiest — and the most delicious — food in the Kansas City area.