Just a couple of chefs in love
Josh Eans is a man of few words. He’s the antithesis of a TV chef—boisterous, loud, ego-driven. Instead, Eans prefers a laidback but focused vibe in the kitchen, where his staff for beer dinners at Happy Gillis Cafe and Hangout, which routinely sell out, works together like a well-oiled machine. The people that cook with Josh typically cook in other well-known kitchens—The Antler Room, The American, The Reiger. But they come back for him, whip out their tweezers, and go to work.
Of course, Josh is part of a team. His wife, Abbey-Jo Eans, is just as educated, creative and food-obsessed as he is but she brings the bubbly—not champagne, but a genuine cheer that people are there to eat their food and make memories at their tables and chairs. Where Josh is soft-spoken, Abbey-Jo is opinionated. They are a balanced couple and one that is slowly but surely making their mark on Kansas City’s culinary scene.
You’ll have to excuse me if I speak of them in glowing terms. Full disclosure: I’ve known and worked with the Eans for many years and am happy to call them friends. With this piece, I was able to uncover the story of how they became the Eans, and what part food plays in their life, beyond the obvious.
Josh and Abbey-Jo met here in Kansas City, in a Christian discipleship program. Abbey-Jo, who grew up in New York, was 19 when she moved to Kansas City to be with her mother and complete the program. Josh came from Arizona. At the completion of the program, they began dating. Even then, food was a theme.
“Cooking was just one of the things that we liked to do. For our first date, we made a tiramisu and watched a movie. We’ve always liked going out to eat and exploring new flavors. We used to love going to the salad bar at Price Chopper and building our own salads, just because we got to experiment,” Abbey-Jo laughs.
Love bloomed over Price Chopper salads, and the pair got married in Kansas City. After a year, they decided to take the real plunge and moved to Arizona to enter the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. It was there that they found their strengths–baking and pastry for Abbey-Jo and the road to chef for Josh.
That road is long and difficult. After graduating, they moved again, this time to St. Simons Island to complete externships. Josh was placed in the catering division of the resort island, while Abbey-Jo found her place in the pastry department. Three weeks after their move, with few belongings but plenty of drive, the pastry chef left and left Abbey-Jo to run a 5-star resort pastry program. In a sink or swim situation, they made it work.
St. Simons Island led to Atlanta and an apprenticeship for Josh at the now-shuttered Seeger’s. While the five-star restaurant was a great opportunity, it came at an inopportune time–the couple had just found out they were pregnant. In an empty apartment, the couple faced what they both say was the hardest period of their life. Seven days after the birth of their son, Elliot, they moved back to Kansas City, bought a house and started looking into husband and wife restaurant ventures.
Josh found a job at the now defunct 40 Sardines, then run by husband and wife team Debbie Gold and Michael Smith. This entry into the world of Kansas City’s independent restaurants opened the door to relationships that they still maintain today. After creating menus for The Drop and Blanc Burgers and Bottles together, and adding a son, Henry, to the brood, Josh left the Blanc concept and took a position at The American under his former chef, Debbie Gold. When she decided to move on, he took the position of interim Executive Chef.
This was a crossroads for the Eans. While Josh was garnering acclaim for his innovative menus, the nighttime schedule left little time for their growing family, which quickly grew to include a daughter, Caroline. While enjoying breakfast with Abbey-Jo’s mother at Happy Gillis one day, they had an idea.
“My mom actually said it. She said, ‘You guys just need your own Happy Gillis. You need somewhere with daytime hours, and you can do it together. That’s it; I’m just going to ask God to give you your own Happy Gillis,” Abbey-Jo says.
While God’s timing is His own, He does answer prayer, in the Eans’ experience. A few months later, after a guest chef dinner at the American, featuring Happy Gillis owner, Todd Schulte, Josh made an interesting connection.
“After service, Todd just sort of casually mentioned that he was thinking of selling Happy Gillis. I just thought ‘Why would you want to do that? That seems like the ideal situation’. I talked to Abbey-Jo, and she said, absolutely,” says Josh. After securing financing, they purchased Happy Gillis in December of the same year.
If you’ve never been to Happy Gillis, it can be described as a culinary hug. The bright yellow walls enclose only a few tables that are coveted during the weekend brunch rush. The menu of sandwiches, salads, and soups rotates based on the availability of local produce, and their biscuits and gravy routinely make ‘best-of’ lists. Their Line Cook Lunch continues to evolve and be one of the best sandwiches in the city. The Line Cook 5.0 features chicken liver mousse, pork terrine, pickled daikon radish and carrots, jalapenos and cilantro on ciabatta bread. Happy Gillis, under the Eans’ tutelage, has become breakfast and lunch for the culinarily adventurous but with plenty of options for the more staid of palate.
Not content to keep things simple, the Eans turned the storage space behind the restaurant into the Columbus Park Ramen Shop a short year and change later. After using the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to raise funds, they began the wave of ramen shops that now counts four in their number. With their shop, they gave Kansas City a crash course on ‘traditional’ Japanese ramen, with a Midwestern twist.
Over their years of growth, child rearing and making their way in Kansas City, the Eans have found a solid community of other chef-owners. They say that the community is small but supportive here because everyone knows the struggle.
”We all realize what comes with owning our own businesses. And Kansas City is very proud of its own. We all like to support each other,” says Josh.
So what do chefs eat when they come home after a long day of slinging ramen and avocado toast? The Eans make full use of their kitchen in their new home in the old Briarcliff area. After sharing the upstairs apartment in the same building as Happy Gillis, they hopped the river this year into what they consider their forever home.
While there may be a stereotype of chefs eating cold leftover Chinese with an easy egg on top, such is not the fare in a family home like the Eans’.
“When you have kids, you don’t really have the luxury of just having popcorn and a beer for dinner, like you do when you’re single!” says Abbey-Jo.
“The kids eat what we eat. We don’t dumb things down for them,’ says Josh. “That just creates picky eaters.”
Abbey-Jo agrees. “I mean I don’t hand them a bowl of fried eyeballs and expect them to eat them but if I make a salad and they think they don’t like it, they still have to eat it. I think that we try to eat simply and even healthily when we can but we also eat out a fair amount. We grill a lot. I like thinking through a dish and all the components that go with it,” she says.
They are fans of their CSA where they get local produce weekly, but they also load up at Costco. Feeding a family of six (Abbey-Jo’s mother also lives with them) is no easy feat, but the pair makes it look delicious.
When it comes to inspirational meals or cult restaurants, the pair is surprisingly down to earth. Instead of chasing Michelin stars, they are focused on trying menus that seem intriguing, like Saison in San Francisco. Or they keep researching for their own menus, like the ramen tour of Chicago that they undertook before opening the Ramen shop. Either way, although they did feed Ferran Adrià when he came to Kansas City, they aren’t consumed with not having eaten at his now-closed El Bulli.
As you consider the Eans, their strengths and weaknesses are beautifully apparent. Josh’s quiet nature is offset by Abbey-Jo’s exuberance and hearty laugh. Her dogged determination at being healthy is tempered by Josh’s love of craft beer. The balance is in place, and their family buzzes in a happy orbit because of it. While they sometimes doubt the sanity of opening two restaurants side by side, they are also creating a safe place for Kansas Citians to test the waters of things that sound exotic and familiar at the same time. And at the end of the day, they come home to the family that they have worked so hard to nurture.
As the Eans’ culinary journey continues, Kansas City is getting a great deal–a tasty place for lunch or dinner and two stewards of food and family.