Hundreds of miles from any coast, Kansas City has never been considered a seafood destination. Yet a new crop of chefs and restaurateurs, including Bryan Sparks of Ostrea St. Joseph, are bringing ever-fresher fish to the Midwest. As its name would suggest, Ostrea specializes in oysters, served both fresh - one or two days out of the water and bare except for a few drops from a squeezed lemon - or lightly fried with decadent toppings including lardons and blue cheese. Look for a second location of Ostrea to open in Kansas City next year.
What's your culinary background? I'm from Brookside, so [I'm] Kansas City born and bred. At 19, I joined the Coast Guard; I served seven years, mostly in the Great Lakes area. While I was up there, my commanding officer, who was a foodie, introduced me to the whole world of cooking beyond typical military food. From there I went to Schoolcraft College right outside of Detroit, where I got my culinary degree. My first job back here was at Genessee Royale Bistro. For a new cook to come in and work at a place like that, which allows you to mature quickly, was a great thing. From there I went to 801 Fish in Leawood, Kansas, and then helped open Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar in Kansas City. That was where I found myself, I guess. It opened my eyes to sustainability and plating. Your plate doesn't have to have a thousand things on it; if you cook great ingredients well, then that's all you need. It's also where I learned about oysters.
Did you have much seafood experience prior to those restaurants? The great thing about the Coast Guard, where I was, is that we were in a situation where I could go to farmers' markets and bakeries up in Detroit. I got to explore a lot up there. We cooked a lot of perch, and I ordered a lot from Sea to Table, which acts as an intermediary between chefs and fishermen. It only works with sustainably farmed or sustainably harvested fish.
What should we know about oysters? The East Coast oysters are typically grown in the Virginia area. Some of the best ones come from the Rappahannock bay. On the West Coast, the best ones you find are north of California, where it's colder. West Coast ones are a lot creamier [and] smaller, and there is a bigger variation between the different breeds. East Coast oysters are more briny, and their liquor is more salty. For the average person who has never had an oyster before, [those] are where you want to be at. In my opinion, the best oyster you can get is a Rappahannock.
What oysters do you serve at Ostrea? We serve a Madhouse and a Stingray. Both are from the Virginia area. They are really solid oysters. The Madhouse has a kind of melon-y finish to it and is a little bit sweeter; the Stingray is a super briny, good oyster. The taste is important [because] in St. Joe, many people have not had oysters as fresh as we're getting them. We're getting them here two to three days out of the water, which is very refreshing for being in the Midwest. Things I look for are uniformity in size and flavor. I also want a variety that holds a lot of liquor, and it gets kind of syrupy. That's part of what makes the oyster good.
Written by April Fleming. Photography by Zach Bauman. This article appears courtesy of Feast Magazine. Feast Magazine is dedicated to broadening the conversation about food and engaging a large, hungry audience of food lovers.