Many say Kansas City’s dining scene would not be where it is without Michael Smith—both the chef and the sophisticated restaurant that bears his name.
A protégé of Chicago’s late Charlie Trotter and Denver’s Jean-Pierre Lelievre, Smith grew up learning from his restaurant-manager mother and spent years studying in France. Since his early days at The American Restaurant—a Kansas City landmark—and later at his first restaurant, Forty Sardines in Leawood, Kansas, Smith has drawn a regular crowd and fiercely loyal staff.
In 2007, Smith married Nancy Mellor, his longtime general manager at Forty Sardines, and after a honeymoon in Europe, they returned to Kansas City to open their signature Michael Smith restaurant in just five weeks. Six months later, they followed it with the opening of Extra Virgin next door.
A Match Made in Restaurant Heaven
It’s been said that successful business partnerships are like successful marriages.
In this case it’s both. Hard to miss with his long ponytail, chef whites, and ear-to-ear smile, Chef Smith is a popular guy in his dining room, constantly called on by both regular and newbie customers. Smith’s so popular and outgoing, in fact, that he admits Nancy—his business-focused better half—often pulls him out of the dining room and back to the kitchen to keep service moving.
“We balance each other,” says the chef. “Nancy is a fixer and I would rather sit on a decision for a day or two. I’m also a ‘yes’ person and it’s hard for me to say ‘no,’ so I’m lucky Nancy manages the front of the restaurant.”
For Michael, the business-marriage partnership also works because, growing up in a restaurant family, he’s comfortable blending the personal with work. At home, you’re home; at work, you’re at work, he says.
While Michael drives the culinary vision for the restaurants and helms the kitchen with the occasional TV show appearance, Nancy runs the day-to-day operations with a “get it done” mentality that focuses on private events, office management, and table management. She is also an avid wine connoisseur and experienced beverage director, who personally handpicked the more than 400 bottles of wine—including many boutique and hard-to-find selections—housed in the two restaurants. In fact, both Michael Smith and Extra Virgin have earned awards for their impressive and thoughtful wine lists.
A Tale of Two Settings
The Smith duo has learned how to balance both restaurants as well. Where Michael Smith is the sophisticated—not to be confused with stuffy—fine-dining experience with a creative, farm-to-table menu and sleek brown, beige, and neutral accents, Extra Virgin is its lively, boisterous brother that showcases a Spanish and European tapas-style menu with wall murals in bright red and orange hues.
Though each of the two restaurants has its own kitchen, the dining rooms are separated simply by a small, private wine-tasting room so a change in demeanor is necessary when restaurant staff pass from one concept to the other.
“I may literally be running around handling different parties in Extra Virgin and have to slow down and compose myself before going into Michael Smith,” says Nancy. “I’m often coming from loud music and a busy bar—then halfway down the hall, I slow my walk so I’m not out of breath talking to a table of people buying a reserve bottle of wine.”
Michael describes similar changes: “I might be louder at Extra Virgin but try to be more polite and get it together next door,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean people at Michael Smith aren’t having fun.”
The differing dynamic between the restaurants plays out in the menus as well. At Michael Smith, the focus is on elevated, artfully plated dishes—nothing too far out, dishes like Kansas City strip steak with beech mushroom-spinach wellington, a suckling pig tasting of chop, belly, and braised leg, and sautéed barramundi with black garlic gel, quinoa, and parsnips.
Chef Smith is more playful at Extra Virgin, which features a “For the Adventurous” special menu with many dishes using offal and off-cuts, like roasted bone marrow and the popular duck tongue tacos.
“We’re not afraid to experiment, but when we try something new we pair it with something familiar, like tacos or raviolis, so it’s more comfortable for people to try,” says Smith.
Long before the “snout-to-tail” and “whole animal” concept was trending, Smith had adopted this approach—not only as a way to showcase the best of local farms, but also to cut down on waste. Having two restaurants side-by-side is a huge advantage for this philosophy. For instance, when trimming a rib-eye for Michael Smith, Chef Smith might save some of the fattier pieces and roll them up with onions, garlic, and herbs for a bresaola at Extra Virgin. Or, he’ll take extra thighs from chicken and stuff them with chorizo and figs, always saving the bones and livers for stocks and pâtés.
“We knew it would be one space with two restaurants right from the beginning,” Smith says. When an art gallery in the space adjoining Michael Smith decided not to renew its lease, the Smiths knew it would be the perfect space for another dining destination.
And they were right. The once quiet, almost deserted stretch of downtown Kansas City known as the Crossroads Art District has evolved into a burgeoning neighborhood with a new performing arts center, four-star hotels, residential spaces that appeal to a young demographic, and a street car that stops conveniently at Michael Smith and Extra Virgin. It’s a perfect fit for the restaurants and the Smiths, who take weekly art classes and have been longtime supporters of local artists, showcasing artwork on the walls of Michael Smith.
Design also plays an important role in the success of both restaurants, and especially at Extra Virgin, where the centrally located bar and exposed wood-burning oven were very deliberate decisions. Having diners face each other elevates the social aspect and action of the space, explains Smith.
If managing two conjoined but very separate restaurants isn’t enough, the Smiths consulted with the new Spin Pizza franchise, where Michael helped develop the core menu while Nancy selected the wine. Now, they’re helping Gene Simmons (from the band KISS) open a restaurant in Overland Park.
Still, Michael Smith and Extra Virgin are the Smith’s babies—already standing the test of time through a powerful recession and a slight retraction of fine dining. “We stayed true to our intentions the whole time,” says Smith.