Michael Smith describes himself as a “late bloomer.”
At an age when others might be thinking about how to coast into retirement, this James Beard award-winning chef is fired up for the birth of Farina, an Italian pasta-steakhouse-oyster bar concept at 1901 Baltimore St. in the Crossroads Arts District. In a bid to preempt the what-would-you-eat-for-your-last-meal question, Smith has been contemplating what he wants to eat for the rest of his life.
“I love French food, but I don’t crave one single thing!” Smith exclaims, stabbing the air to put a point on his words with his index finger. “I don’t crave cassoulet. A frisée-lardons salad? Maybe. But what I do need to eat is pasta, so I thought why am I not cooking Italian food, if I love it? Why should I continue American contemporary cooking, when I don’t even know what the hell that is?”
Smith started testing Kansas City’s red sauce waters in recent years by adding handmade pastas, lighter eggplant Parmesan and duck meatballs to “Big Night” dinners at his eponymous Michael Smith. As of press time, Farina was set to open at the end of January — next to Michael Smith, which will transition into a special events venue, and his popular ongoing casual Mediterranean tapas spot Extra Virgin.
Farina, a 5,500-square-foot venue, has 90 seats in the main dining room and 25 in the private party room. The menu includes rustic entrees such as aged ribeye, Kansas City strip, beef short ribs, veal chop pizzaiola and branzino, plus a few showy dishes that will be offered from a tableside service cart Smith built himself.
For diners craving pasta, the “Four Kings of Rome” offers the classics, spaghetti cacio e pepe, rigatoni all’Amatriciana, tagliatelle bolognese and bucatini carbonara. Six “atipica” pastas will rotate seasonally, including potato gnocchi with braised rabbit, squid ink spaghetti with swordfish or sagnarelli with sweetbreads, black trumpet mushroom and snails.
An expanded wine list offers regional Italian varieties plus Napa Valley’s Opus One wines by the glass or cans of chilled Lambrusco, an Italian red making a comeback from a cloying and cheap reputation earned in the ’70s.
An oyster bar adds a unique and showy twist, using sea creature pedestals to present broiled oysters with lemon and butter, octopus, sea urchin and various seafood crudo dishes.
“I really think (the oyster bar) is what will set Farina apart from the other Italian restaurants in the Crossroads,” says Jasper Mirabile, chef of Jasper’s, a 65-year-old, family-owned Italian restaurant in south Kansas City. “This is unique for an Italian restaurant. I’m sure a lot of thought will go into it, with unique preparations and sauces.”
“If you look around, Italian is the hottest cuisine. I don’t think it will ever go out of style,” Mirabile says. “But Michael’s take is evolving, and I think Kansas City is lucky to have someone with his curiosity for Italian cuisine.”
Mirabile introduced Smith to the Italian restaurateurs who make up the nonprofit Gruppo Italiano based in New York City after he was “blown away” to find Smith hand-rolling lorighittas — rare wreath-shaped pasta from Sardinia.
“You’re not going to find but two or three people in the country making that shape,” Mirabile says.
Like most classically trained chefs coming up in the ’80s and ’90s, Smith’s early career was focused on French cuisine. After earning a degree in psychology, he started working at Chateau Pyrenees in Denver. He spent the next few years bouncing between France and Chicago, with stops at L’Albion, Charlie Trotter’s, Carlos’ in Highland Park and Gordon.
In 1994, Smith and then-wife and chef Debbie Gold took jobs as executive chefs at The American Restaurant in Crown Center. In 1999, they won the James Beard Award for “Best Chefs Midwest.” The award is considered the culinary equivalent of an Oscar.
It was an important first for a city eager to gain recognition on the national culinary radar, but when Smith called to deliver the news, he received word there were no diners in the restaurant that night.
“It was a kick in the gut,” Smith recalls. “I started to realize The American was fairly irrelevant, with more national than local press. It was not busy, and we had seven cooks doing nothing.”
As white tablecloth dining began to undergo a casual revolution, Smith attended the Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac to write a business plan. He opened 40 Sardines in Leawood with Gold. The restaurant was nominated for a James Beard Award for “Best New Restaurant” and won “Best Restaurant Graphics.” But when the marriage ended, Gold retained ownership of the restaurant, which is no longer in business.
In 2007, Smith and wife Nancy Smith opened Michael Smith in the former Zin restaurant space at 19th and Main. The following year, they opened Extra Virgin next door. After a tough start barely ahead of a crushing recession, both concepts took off, and the newly minted power couple helped to turn the Crossroads into a chef-driven dining destination.
Nancy Smith — who is general manager and the force behind the wine lists — credits her husband’s willingness to mentor Kansas City’s next generation of chefs as his greatest culinary contribution.
“He is a great leader. All of these great chefs have worked for him, and they have gone to open successful restaurants of their own,” she says.
The alumni list includes Howard Hanna (The Rieger, Ça Va), Colby Garrelts (Bluestem, Rye), Josh Eans (Happy Gillis, Columbus Park Ramen Shop), Joe West (The Savoy at 21c) and Carl Thorne-Thomsen (Story).
For bystanders in the know, Farina makes perfect sense.
“I remember a lot of casual conversations about how much he loved Italian food, so when Michael told me he was going to open an Italian restaurant, I wasn’t surprised. It feels like a natural,” says Tom Johnson, a managing partner at The American.
“Michael loves to cook, and he’s a good cook,” Johnson continues. “I don’t think you can minimize how important that is when you sit down at a restaurant to eat. A lot of chefs get busy doing other things. It’s not like he’s cooking every single dish, but he’s still cooking, and he’s passionate about it.”
Smith credits Johnson for giving him a barometer for success. When you’re opening a new restaurant, one of three things can happen: You can open and become immediately successful. You can open and immediately fail which avoids a long and drawn-out death. Or, you can amble along with too much hope, until the restaurant has slowly sucked away all your time, money and passion.
To ensure success, Smith checks his bank account every morning then spends the rest of the day and night cooking as if he has never worn a coveted gold James Beard medallion around his neck.
“I’m still trying to make it in Kansas City,” Smith says without a trace of irony. “When I come to work every day, I still feel like I’m an underdog. I need to cook every night. I still have that drive to be creative.”