It’s a wet and dreary Monday morning, and it couldn’t be cozier inside Sister Anne’s on the northern edge of Hyde Park. The barista at the coffee shop-cum-record store is spinning jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is” and pulling shots of espresso as two regulars in knit beanies grab a table by the windows up front.
These regulars are chefs Johnny and Helen Jo Leach, the husband and wife duo behind The Town Company in Hotel Kansas City. In a more normal era, you’d probably have heard much more about the Leaches and their outstanding opening run at the most exciting new restaurant the city has seen in years.
The Leaches moved to KC just as the pandemic was beginning, bringing their young daughter and impressive resumes. Among their credits, Leach ran the kitchen at David Chang’s Momofuku Ko in New York. Helen Jo was the longtime pastry chef at Le Pigeon, Portland’s best restaurant of the past decade. Pressed a bit, the Leaches will tell stories of the old days, but what they really want to talk about is the micro-farms dotting the city—places with names like Prairie Birthday and Sacred Sun, plus one called Green Willow in Lee’s Summit where a former line cook “grows all these really esoteric Japanese ingredients.”
“Just down the street at Woodland and 36th, you’ve got some of the dopest farmers, Lisa and Neil,” Johnny says. “They’re part of a movement—urban farmers trying to take derelict plots and create these amazing farms. I try as hard as I can to buy as much as I possibly can from them. There’s some really cool shit going on around the area.”
It’s not rare to hear chefs geek out about produce. But the tenacity with which the Leaches talk about tracking down specific growers at farmers’ markets sets them apart. Then again, it’s the animating idea behind Town Company, an eclectic fine dining restaurant where these highly skilled chefs can riff on an Italian-ish lamb sausage with garlic scapes and an Asian-influenced duck with wild plums and shiso. To add a little intrigue—and get some flavors you can’t easily summon with a steel pan—they cook on a live-fire hearth on Missouri white oak.
“The food at Town Company is not really informed by a certain idea,” Johnny says. “It’s more: What do we got from the people who we want to work with?”
“We take what they have and cook it—that’s the concept, dude. Nothing outside that.”
It’s a great way to work if you’ve got the juice to do it. The Leaches most certainly do, which is why we are naming Town Company our 2021 Restaurant of the Year. The restaurant immediately joins Antler Room and Corvino in the grand debate over the city’s best fine-dining experience.
It’s a nice turnaround for Johnny, who moved from New York back to his native Portland to start his dream restaurant, only to watch it fail. That spot was a high-end Mexican place called Chalino, which focused on ceviches, tostadas and drinks. A lot of things went wrong, he says, and many lessons were learned—things the couple still talk about “on a weekly basis.”
“For chefs, there’s kind of this idea about a career trajectory that you have where you’re like, ‘I’m going to do this for so many years and then I’m going to have my own place,’” Johnny says. “But when you open your own place, what you’re doing is really something that’s a totally different skill set than what you’ve built over the years.”
Johnny spent some time in Kansas City on a business trip in 2019 and says he was immediately impressed with a city that “reminds me of a northside Chicago, or like Portland circa 2008, in all the right ways.” When the Town Company gig popped on his radar, Johnny was consulting on another hotel project and Helen Jo was working catering gigs. Their daughter, Perri Yoon, hadn’t started school. The chance to work together full time was a huge draw. The Chiefs’ win in the Super Bowl on the weekend the couple was making their final decision iced it.
“The timing was right, and we got to reset here,” Helen says. “There are incredibly talented people in this community, and the bigger picture for us is to really nurture and support that and be part of that growth in a respectful way.”
“We’re not here with our arms crossed, flaunting experience—we’re here to be part of something,” Johnny says.
To do that, they’re learning the region’s micro-seasons and sampling items like foraged paw-paws. Talking to the Leaches as Gil Scott-Heron moves on to “When You Are Who You Are,” it’s somewhat striking that they seem to take things one dish at a time. They each talk about their “wins”—which often seem to find their way directly onto the Town Company menu.
“Like, we had this farm, Cultivate, that had a huge flat of spring garlic, and they say ‘No one wants this, can you take it?’ and we bought it and made a really cool spring garlic ranch to dress spinach from Thane Palmberg Farm,” Johnny says. “We take what they have and cook it—that’s the concept, dude. Nothing outside that.”
1228 Baltimore Ave., KCMO.