Chef Celina Tio Represents Kansas City on ‘The Next Iron Chef’

The tough and talented owner of Julian competes against some of the best chefs in America on the Food Network program starting this Sunday

Some months ago at 6:30 on a Friday evening, Chef Celina Tio of Brookside eatery Julian, received a very important phone call. As this was nearly the height of the dinner rush, she was slightly taken aback. “They were obviously working in a different time zone,” she said, referring to the California-based casting company on the other end of the line. Much to her surprise they asked Tio if she would be interested in auditioning for the next season of the popular Food Network program, The Next Iron Chef. ”It kind of came out of the blue,” said Tio, “I was wondering if it was a joke.”

Celina Tio

Chef Celina Tio

She accepted the offer and wound up interviewing with two people over the telephone before she was invited to Los Angeles to perform on-camera. This interview involved a series of questions, partially to ascertain how Tio came across onscreen but also to evaluate her personality. “They asked me if I had a tattoo,” she said, “I’m not really sure what that had to do with anything. I guess that’s the new hot thing I guess if you’re chef you have to have a tattoo.”

Soon after the interview she was informed that they liked her and wanted her for the show. “That kind of worried me because I wondered what personality they cast me as…am I the bitch? I don’t know.” Recently the Food Network magazine came out with a spread of the contestants, listing Tio’s “competitive edge” as her “likability,” which probably means she comes across pretty positively on the show.

They did all the filming in one stretch but she won’t say how long it took so no one can draw any conclusions about her success on the show. The better you perform, the longer you stay after all.

Taping took place primarily in the West which meant that Tio was far away from her family for a time. “That’s certainly part of the mental game, for sure,” she said. “If you are pining for home I think you are not going to do as well.” For that reason she elected not to call home on battle days to keep herself sharp and determined. “Not that I didn’t miss my family but you just have to focus. It’s a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things and potentially what it could lead to is far going to outweigh that small amount of time.”

In the vein of other reality competition programs, The Next Iron Chef asks its contestants to perform under extreme pressure. The nature of the challenges, the ingredients available and the time of execution are typically a mystery. Fans of the show know that the ability to think on one’s feet is just as important as technique or training. “Being an iron chef is being adaptable, being innovative, having all these different qualities so cooking is just kind of a background.” Because of the wacky challenges and high-pressure atmosphere, being on the show allowed her to try out some new techniques. “You need to be able to take risks,” said Tio.

Celina Tio attended college at Drexel University in Philadelphia where she majored in Hotel and restaurant management. “I always wanted to be a chef but at the time it wasn’t really acceptable to go to culinary school right after graduating high school, at least not widely popular.” After school she went to the Ritz Carlton where she worked her way up from breakfast cook to chef of one of the dining rooms in less than two years.

Before coming to Kansas City, chef Tio worked at Walt Disney World for five years, opening three of their eleven specialty restaurants which were among the country’s best-regarded including one aboard a transatlantic cruise ship. This took her to Italy for a two month stretch. “It sounds far more romantic than it actually was,” she said, “I was living in a ferry boat in a shipyard.”

She was was not looking to relocate from Disney but still tried to keep abreast of culinary scenes around the country. An Internet job posting for the American Restaurant led her to Kansas City where she served as executive chef. While there she won Best-Chef Midwest from the James Beard Foundation in 2007. “That family was great to work with and it was the venue that I thought it would be.” Missing the friendly personal interaction with guests that is nearly her trademark these days, Tio left The American to open Julian in 2009.

More than her experience however, Tio feels that her personality is what gave her an edge on the show. For example, she wanted to familiarize herself with television production enough to make her comfortable on the show. “Out of probably sixty people on the production crew, I probably knew forty of their names and said hello to them every day. My first battle I introduced myself to the camera guy and then it was really easy for me to deal with the cameras which hinder some people I think.” Tio even felt comfortable giving camera and sound operators mild instructions so that they didn’t interfere with her performance.

Still, the atmosphere during taping was high-pressure and tense. “I’ll be curious to see if the camera shows me as anxiety-ridden as I was,” she said. As for the notoriously harsh judging, it did not bother her to be evaluated. “I didn’t take anything personally because it’s their job to do that, she said, adding “the level of cooking was so high, it really does come down to ‘this was not salted or this was too spicy sweet or whatever.’”

Tio had met nearly half of the other contestants including Ming Tsai, generally considered the favorite (if there is such a thing in reality television). While competing with other luminaries in the business she did pick up a few ideas and techniques, but mostly stayed focused on her own performance. “Most of the things you learn,” she said, “you learn about yourself in that environment.”

Beginning with the premiere this Sunday at 8 p.m., Julian is hosting a series of watch parties for all eight weeks of this season of The Next Iron Chef. For each episode in which Tio appears, guests can order a meal comprised of the dishes she created on the show for $35. The word has spread and most of the spots are accounted for, but interested folks should still call the restaurant.

Julian is located at 6227 Brookside Plaza, Kansas City, Mo

originally published on, 2010

BB’s Lawnside Celebrates 20 Years on Friday

One of Kansas City’s most unique and beloved barbecue joints turns 20 years old tomorrow. BB’s Lawnside BBQ has anchored a little stretch of 85th street near Troost since 1990. Since then, it has entrenched itself as a true KC Original, marrying laid back atmosphere with good food and live blues.

BB’s has among the most loyal clientele of any place in town. Recently they managed to soar through a period of intense road and bridge construction that made the joint difficult to see and hard to get to. The 20 year anniversary celebration will last all year and will feature special BB’s merchandise and food discounts. Drop by tomorrow for live music from Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang and a champagne toast.

Fans of BB’s are invited to share their favorite memories on the restaurant’s Facebook page. Several folks have already done so and it makes for fun reading. Berry Anderson also has a great little piece in the Pitch about the history of BB’s.

BB’s Lawnside BBQ
1205 E 85th St, Kansas City, MO 64131

Mini-Review: PizzaBella

In a town not necessarily known for great pizza, the Crossroads’ PizzaBella manages to deliver a mighty fine product in a style that isn’t necessarily well-represented locally. Initially opened by chef Rob Dalzell, PizzaBella closed briefly last year after the financial shakeup that drove most of Dalzell’s businesses under. It quickly re-opened under new ownership essentially unchanged.

Pizza Bella

A recent visit found it largely empty on a weekday evening. The attractive, modern dining room features a lot of wood accents which serves to warm the space up quite a bit. Two wood-fired pizza ovens anchor one corner of the room, where a couple of cooks prepare the thirteen varieties of pizza offered on the menu.


Choice is limited here but it’s easy to see that topping combinations have been chosen with care. In addition to pizza, the menu has a handful of delicious-looking appetizers and only a couple of desserts. I for one, like the simplicity of the menu although others might crave the endless do-it-yourself topping deliberations that are the hallmark of most traditional pizza joints.

The brussel sprout appetizer was prepared in the hot pizza oven and came dressed with a pancetta ham vinaigrette, dried cranberries and almonds. It proved to be slightly too big for two people as a starter, but tasted wonderful.

Brussel Sprouts

For dinner proper, I opted for the classic pizza margherita which featured fresh basil, tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and roasted garlic, the latter of which is an unusual but welcome addition.


The Prosciutto pizza, while bordering on too salty, nonetheless was a favorite of mine. The storied Italian ham was barely warmed, most likely added just after removal from the oven. A pile of spicy baby arugula provides a delightful fresh contrast to the buttery richness of the meat and parmesan.

Prosciutto Pizza

PizzaBella’s crust is a force to be reckoned with, as it stays defiantly crispy–despite its thinness–long after it leaves the oven. The pie itself is rustic and uneven in appearance but matches the simplicity and quality of the toppings.

Rather than dump a ton of highly flavorful and expensive ingredients together on its pies, this places focuses on quality toppings used in a judicious manner. No, it’s not the traditional pizza experience, but PizzaBella delivers mightily.

Join the Westend Stampede This Saturday

This weekend, merchants of Westport’s west end are collaborating on a fun event to showcase the great business of the area and to raise money for charity. Running roughly from Roanoke to State Line along Westport Road, this part of town houses some wonderful restaurants including two of my favorites, Bluestem and Potpie.

But the rest of the lineup is pretty impressive too: The Filling Station, Cupini’s, Boozefish, The Point, Recordbar and the Westport Flea Market will offer food and drink specials for attendees as well as tastings of “a new beer from Boulevard Brewery.”

I like that the westenders are establishing an identity for themselves distinct from the more youthful, raucous and occasionally douchey vibe of some of their neighbors to the east. More importantly, this is an affordable, small scale charity event that seems like it will be fun and low key.

You can purchase tickets ahead of time at the Recordbar website or in person (cash only) at the Recordbar or Boozefish.

Mama’s Changes Hours, Revamps Menu

Mama’s 39th Street Diner is a go-to place fairly close to where I live. The menu is large, varied and relatively dependable so I often pop in when I need a quick, unpretentious bite to eat.

However, the hours advertised on Yelp, Facebook and large, etched letters on the front window are incorrect.

Unlike the all-night Nichols Lunch which gloriously occupied the spot for many years, Mama’s seem content to be a breakfast and lunch joint.

When I popped in for breakfast this past weekend, I found the menu to be redesigned and somewhat scaled back from the monster menu that preceded it. Gone are all the specialty omelets which are replaced by a build-your-own system. Each meal is seemingly smaller in choice, but you can still get corned beef hash, meatloaf, reubens and pancakes. Honestly since they don’t have a website with the menu posted it’s hard to compare the old and new menus. However, the character of the place is virtually unaltered and I suspect this is merely an effort to streamline their operation.

The hostess mentioned that they are experimenting with staying open late on weekends, presumably to cash in on the Westport bar crowd. Apparently, if the place is busy, they will stay open if not, they will close up at 9 p.m. as indicated on the sign. I’ve never much cared for this loosey-goosey approach to one’s hours but it might work for late nights.

Anyhow, changes are afoot at Mama’s but it appears to be thriving particularly on weekend mornings. Just keep the new hours in mind when paying a visit.

Sunday: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Monday – Thursday: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Friday – Saturday: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Gavino’s Does Good Mexican in Overland Park


I’ve mentioned Gavino’s in passing before, but I think this place bears special attention. The Mexican fare there leans toward traditional preparation and is simply prepared and presented, but I have yet to experience a disappointing meal. The tacos, while surprisingly priced at $3 apiece are excellent, piled high with highly seasoned meat and topped with cilantro, onions and very good guacamole.


The chicken mole is quite nice as is the pork chile verde I had this week.


While this spot near 83rd and Metcalf was home to the well-regarded Tienda Casa Paloma for some years, Gavino’s surpasses it on almost every level. The service is friendly and food is delivered quickly to your table. There is a dearth of good Mexican in the area; indeed the closest place to get a good, authentic taco is probably several miles away at Two Amigos in Shawnee.


The interior space is much cleaner and sparser than in years past. Gavino’s used to serve breakfast and they still do on weekends, but now I believe they don’t open until 10:30 during the week. The place is never even close to full at the lunch hour, so I’d encourage everyone nearby to give them a try.

Gavino’s Mexican Restaurant
8220 Metcalf Ave, Overland Park, KS

Korean House Opens Inside 888 Market

My friend Meesha V. and I have been culinary acquaintances for a few years now. We share a love for food and occasionally go out to lunch during the week when he has time off.

A few days ago while shopping for fish at 888 Market on 119th street, he noticed this:

888 Market is almost like an Asian mall, with separate businesses inside that rent out space, and complement the grocery store. They already have a computer repair shop and an insurance office in addition to Korean House and we decided to pay a visit recently.

Korean House is a family business. We chatted with the young woman who takes orders and delivers the food to tables, and she indicated that her mother and aunt do all the cooking. And there they were in plain site, cranking out homestyle Korean fare behind the counter. The menu is decently sized and offering seem to be a mix of pre-made and freshly prepared items.

I ate a dish with buckwheat noodles, vegetables and braised beef while Meesha opted for bibimbap. For about 8 bucks you can get a dish like this along with the traditional banchan dishes.

Here are a few photos:






They are still wet behind the ears and haven’t done much marketing, but it’s worth a visit. The food is good and the service is very friendly.

Oktoberfest at Grünauer This Weekend!

Impressionen vom Oktoberfest

Photo by on Flickr.

I’m not much for crowds, but this really sounds fun. Two nights of music, drinks and delicious food at one of the most appropriate venues in town for an Oktoberfest celebration. The food at Grünauer is seriously good and the Oktoberfest menu sounds like a winner. From the website:

Chef Peter Grunauer will prepare Sauerbraten with Rye, Bratwurst, Cheddarwurst, Austrian Pulled Pork Sandwiches, Hungarian Gulasch with Spaetzle, a Salad Sampler of Kraut, Potato, Cucumber, & Tomatoes, and Grunauer house made Pretzels.

Few things appeal to me more than the prospect of house-made pretzels and I know from experience that the Cheddarwursts are first rate.

Naturally, there will be polka music, traditional German dancers and frenetic, Eastern-European inflected rock from Nuthatch 47.

The action begins under the tent this Friday, Oct. 8 at 4 p.m. and continues on Friday from noon to 1 a.m. I’ll meet you in the beer garden, I’ll be the drunk one.

San Diego Man Sues Chipotle, Wins

The Kansas City Star posted a story yesterday about Maurizio Antoninetti, a San Diego Urban Studies professor who uses a wheelchair, suing Chipotle Restaurants because the height of their counters denied him “The Chipotle Experience.” The 45-inch counters prevented him from seeing his food while it was made. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Chipotle restaurants were in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which specifies a counter height of no greater than 36 inches in operations of this nature.


photo by Christine Chan on Flickr.

Needless to say, commenters are having a field day over at the Star, and some of them have valid points.. Yes the lawsuit seems a little silly. Yes it will be very expensive for the chain to lower the counters at offending restaurants. Yes, Mr. Antoninetti has a history of bringing similar litigation.

But the fact remains: Chipotle should have known better. They are in violation of the Act. Only after the lawsuit was filed did Chipotle develop an accommodation policy to deal with the fact that their counters were too high.

Many are laughing at the “Chipotle Experience” phrase. But that is the phrase used in the restaurant’s marketing. A very prominent aspect of the Chipotle brand is the ability to choose your ingredients and see your food being made.

Lining Up. This is where the magic happens. Each ingredient is laid out in front of you so you can choose the perfect combination to make your perfect meal. You can watch the process as your burrito, bowl, tacos, or salad is prepared exactly the way you want it and handed to you almost instantly.


They also boast about their open kitchen. It’s not so open if you can’t see over a 45-inch counter.

So I try to think of this lawsuit as teaching Chipotle a lesson. The merits of the case may be dubious from an external vantage point, but it must be grating as hell for people in wheelchairs to hear advertising that promises something but only delivers it for a privileged category of person.

Is it Ice Cream or Mechanically Separated Chicken?

Okay, if you are on the Internet a decent amount you have probably seen the photo of mechanically separated chicken and perhaps the accompanying web page that provides a gross-out explanation of the product.

Basically, the entire chicken is smashed and pressed through a sieve—bones, eyes, guts, and all. it comes out looking like this.

There’s more: because it’s crawling with bacteria, it will be washed with ammonia, soaked in it, actually. Then, because it tastes gross, it will be reflavored artificially. Then, because it is weirdly pink, it will be dyed with artificial color.

The good folks at Snopes and some other places have looked into this and quashed some of the outrageousness of these claims. No, the eyes, guts and bones are not ground up. Mechanical separation is a process that facilitates removing remnants of meat from its bones and is perfectly legal and apparently safe when done correctly.

The USDA’s description of the process:

Mechanically separated meat is a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue.

Mmmmm, I love my meat in batter form. Snopes does not address whether this is, in fact an accurate photo, but it sounds like it may be. That’s pretty gross, it doesn’t really need the panicky exaggerations.

Did you ever wonder why you can buy a package of hot dogs int eh grocery store for $1? Mechanically separated pork is why. Yes, it’s disgusting, but it points out the value of knowing what your food is made with. Conveniently, the federal government mandates that mechanically separated meats be identified on the ingredients listing. So if you don’t want to eat the stuff, read the label and don’t buy it.