Article Alicia McGarry | Photography Brian Turner
It isn’t that Tito le Chef’s personality couldn’t afford him the number of high-level political leaders and celebrities he’s served, it’s just that some of his personal accounts are so very fantastical, one can’t help but wonder where journalistic fact ends and well-placed machismo begins.
Chef Tito’s persona is larger than life – the kind that would leap through television screens typique de Gordon Ramsey or Anthony Bourdain. Yes, Chef Tito could certainly hold his own on the next Food Network fix-up (rumor has it, there may even be something in the works), but would he?
You better believe that someone who says he has served as the personal chef for Fidel Castro, Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan and, hey, even Sir Sean Connery, has a lot of stories to tell. And tell them he will – but, for the time being, you’ll need to visit Chef Tito’s Latin Bistro in Gladstone, because, above all else, Tito’s focus is the food – from which all else flows. The conversation. The humanizing, harmonizing, quality of communing over a really good meal.
Belly right up to the bar-height counter in his open-concept culinary center, and let the adventure begin.
Chef Tito’s creations are an extended departure from any kind of Mexican cuisine findable in the Northland, or anywhere nearby for that matter. Whereas most of the other Mexican restaurants in the Kansas City area serve up dishes that are decidedly “Northern Mexican,” (if not all-out Tex-Mex), Chef Tito’s hail from the Yucatan peninsula, casa de Mayan cuisine.
Maybe you’ve had Mayan on a trip to Cancun, or Playa del Carmen – less cheese, more fish, with fruity accents throughout. But even in the Yucatan peninsula, genuine Mayan cuisine can be hard to come by, since people of actual Mayan descent now make up the minority of the region’s population. One look at Chef Tito, however, and his roots are self-evident: mostly Mayan, with a dash of Spanish.“In Mayan cuisine, we rarely use much cheese, but for tacos gringa, we make an exception,” says Tito of the type of unholy-good tacos now ubiquitous in the Yucatan peninsula’s many vacation hotspotslike Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and Cancun.
“We don’t serve customers, we serve family. Sometimes people come in and stay for 4-5 hours, just because they
enjoy themselves here so much,” says Latin Bistro server Bri Phillips, whose beautifully presented Sangria was the real deal, and chock full of so many drunken slices of fresh fruit, it could have been an appetizer in itself, and completely complementary to the supreme Mayan slam.“When people come to eat, it’s a kitchen show – here, we are the artists… here it is another concept,” Tito says. “We are not just more Mexicans cooking for you behind the restaurant’s walls.”
Launching right into a diatribe on forsaken family values and lost culinary arts when meals migrate away from the table, Chef Tito mingles while nonchalantly whipping up a couple of quesadillas stuffed with two of the Yucatan peninsula’s most delectable ingredient offerings: squash blossom– fon de calabesa – and huitlacoche, also known as “corn truffle” or, perhaps the most unappealing nomenclature, corn smut.
Earthy, fermented and far more rich than most fungal flavors, huitlacoche is highly regarded, not only in Mayan cuisine, but also by herbalists and other natural medicine practitioners in the region.
And as if alchemy for the palette weren’t enough, Chef Tito – who holds a doctorate in ethnic cuisine from France – also dabbles in herbal preparations, which he also makes himself, using herbs sourced exclusively from growers in Mexico.“In the culinary concept, you have to be deeply connected to the earth’s herbs, as well,” Tito says.
It’s for his ever-expanding knowledge of herbs and the digestive tract that Tito chooses not to spice up his dishes with the jalapeño – by and far the most commonly used pepper in Mexican cooking.
“You see a lot of digestive issues with people who regularly eat spicy foods– ulcers, colitis, bloating and indigestion… those disorders are a function of the kind of capsicum in peppers like the jalapeño,” Chef Tito explains.“The only pepper that doesn’t cause these digestive issues is the habanero, which is what I use for the heat in my salsa and a few other dishes,” he continues.
Chef Tito’s cura personalis is also evident in the way he goes out of his way to ensure his clients’ individual needs are met:“If you’re planning on spending an evening with us and have special dietary needs, all you have to do is call Chef Tito up, and he’ll cook special dishes to meet those needs,” Phillips says.
Admittedly, opening a concept restaurant on a street dotted with fast-food restaurants and the standard Northland fare in one of the worst economic downturns in history hasn’t made success easy, but that’s not why Chef Tito is here.
“I have made and lost fortunes many times over in my life… there comes a point when you have to commit to something to make it work, and I am committed,” he says.
“My best check is when people love the food – all the gold in the world doesn’t give you that satisfaction.”
For more information or to sign up for classes at the Latin Bistro and Culinary Center, visit latinculinarycenter.com.