Story By Joe Stumpe - Photos By Whitney Pulen
How do you get away with charging $750 per person for dinner? It helps to start with a great cause - Music Theatre Wichita - and host, Bonnie Bing. But you better have some serious culinary chops in the kitchen, which is where Josh Rathbun comes in.
Rathbun, executive chef at The Ambassador Hotel and its Sienna Tuscan Steakhouse, prepared a memorable seven-course feast for 30 lucky diners at the east-side home of Laura and Phil Knight. As those patrons enjoyed entertainment by Music Theatre performers on the patio, a show no less engrossing was unfolding in the kitchen.
Rathbun was joined by Shaun Brady, his counterpart at the Kansas City Ambassador, and Jared Williams, a pastry chef at the hotel here; Richard Onkunya, the Ambassador’s banquet manager; and Karl Lakin, a wine expert with Standard Beverage; young Music Theatre cast members; and Roxanne Kellogg, volunteer dishwasher par excellence.
The trio of cooks set up shop surrounded by plastic storage bins and coolers filled with pots, pans and ingredients hauled from the hotel. They worked fast and yet never seemed to be in a hurry, communicating in a kind of kitchen shorthand and even - at Rathbun’s urging - occasionally pausing for a sip of wine.
For the appetizer, Brady minced raw beef tenderloin for beef tartare. Rathbun tossed it with mustard, shallots, capers and sesame seeds before mounding the mixture and microgreens on homemade potato chips.
The first course proper was Foie Gras Tourchon, the latter word French for dish towel, referring to the method of wrapping the fattened goose liver during poaching to achieve a cylindrical shape. It was served on toasted brioche with fresh fig, aged balsamic vinegar and pickled mustard seeds.
For the salad course, Rathbun tossed green beans, peppery watercress, luscious tomato confit and a red wine vinaigrette with tuna that had been poached to perfection in olive oil.
He followed with one of the most intriguing dishes of the night - agnolotti, a handmade pasta that translates as “little pillow.” It was filled with polenta and tossed with melted marscapone, mushrooms and herbs.
From there it was on to the serious protein courses - pan-seared barramundi with puréed fennel, golden brown potatoes and pistachios; and then K.C. Strip with roasted carrots and a peach port sauce.
As a sweet finale, Rathbun served up polenta cake with citrus curd, almond crumble and marscarpone cream.
Rathbun, who cooked in Australia and Denver before returning to Wichita a couple years ago, described his menu as “more like a state of mind” than any particular regional genre - “just using seasonal and local ingredients as best as we can, and applying good technique to it.”
Surrounded by seasoned pros, he had no concerns about being able to execute the meal in a home kitchen.Judging by the diners’ reaction, his confidence was justified.
“We had people that made reservations to come to the (Ambassador’s) restaurant during the dinner,” he said. “It was a great night."