Why Fox & Pearl is KC’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year
*Photos by Samantha Levi and Zach Bauman
When Vaughn Good left Lawrence to attend culinary school in New York, he wanted to study cutting edge molecular gastronomy. Among all those spherified cocktails and beet foams, he discovered a love of the ancient and primal art of butchery. Upon his return to Kansas, Good opened Hank Charcuterie inside a former gas station. His intention was to spend his days making rillettes and salt-cured beef tongue.
The universe had other plans.
“I just kind of wanted to make sausage and pickles all day,” Good says. “But we had people walk in and they wanted to eat. We didn’t have anything, and people would walk out, and I was like, ‘Well, that can’t happen.’ So I put together just a little accessory menu, maybe like four or five things, and that really took off.”
Indeed, Hank quickly became a cult favorite, with Kansas City diners making the trek for juicy pork chops smoked over cherry wood and a hulking ribeye with steak sauce made from fermented black garlic. Before long, Good outgrew his repurposed gas station digs.
In March 2018, Good announced that he was closing Hank and moving to Kansas City to open Fox and Pearl in the fast-changing Westside neighborhood. It took more than a year for the restaurant to rehab the space, but it was well worth the wait: Fox and Pearl was an easy choice for Kansas City’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year.
Good is small, soft-spoken and tattooed down to his knuckles. He’s thirty-five years old and has been cooking since he was eighteen. He went to Johnson County Community College, where he was in the culinary program, before leaving for New York, where he graduated from the French Culinary Institute. Good staged at several restaurants around the city before coming home to work at Lawrence’s well-regarded Pachamamas.
Fox and Pearl is an embassy of KC cuisine, showcasing the best traditions, techniques and ingredients our region has to offer, from bone marrow with caramelized green tomato jam to blue cheese from the Ozarks to fragrant garlic scape hush puppies. Good butchers a pig every other week and uses the whole animal to make bacon, porchetta and chorizo. His ham is brined in maple syrup and brandy then smoked first with Missouri white oak, then hickory, then applewood before being tucked into a fluffy biscuit.
Fox and Pearl’s cooks start their morning by firing up a traditional cabinet smoker built by a friend of Good’s grandfather. Much of their shift is spent gathered by the hearth, searing steaks on cast-iron grilltops or drying chiles and figs on makeshift racks.
“I knew how to cook with fire before I started this restaurant, but the more we use the hearth, the more we figure out we can do and the more new techniques we want to try,” Good says.
Live fire cooking and smoked meats are not trends unique to Kansas City, of course. But Good’s restaurant enjoys an enviable place — not just because it’s in the heart of livestock country with easy access to prime beef and pork but because his Westside space is in a neighborhood with “a lot of history and kind of soul to it” that also affords a rare opportunity for a young chef. Good has two smokers, a massive charcuterie room and an antique walk-in cooler.
“We needed a little room to breathe,” Good says. “With what we do — all the fire and the smokers — we needed space.”
Kristine Hull, Fox and Pearl’s co- owner and Good’s wife, designed the interior, which eschews dark masculine tones for a clean, bright and airy look with caramel banquettes and a veritable rainforest of tropical plants sucking up sun through floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap around the building.
Good credits sophistication of the space and a move to a larger city with his ability to connect customers to more adventurous items on his snout-to-tail menu — people are more willing to trust a chef when they’re in a beautiful space, he reasons.
“The food scene [in Lawrence] for so long has been geared toward college students,” he says. “It’s more bar food, like a pubby kind of atmosphere, and that’s what the majority of diners want. So I think a lot of times we would kind of have to adapt our menu to that.”
Perhaps no item is more emblematic of his evolution than the foie gras sausage. Like the impressive list of natural wines, the Hudson Valley foie gras is one of the few items where the menu wanders from its deep local roots. But, like the Czech pét-nats and Loire Valley Chenin blanc blends, the dish is well worth the departure. Fox and Pearl’s decadent foie sausage has quickly become a signature item.
“I did that in Lawrence and I couldn’t sell it at all, really,” Good says. “We put it on a bun and I called it foie gras hot dog, and it sold a little. Here it’s become one of our top things. I think that’s going to be a hard thing for me to cycle out in the menu.”
Good’s talents and an eager audience have combined to make Fox and Pearl a restaurant that both refreshes cherished Kansas City traditions and advances them. Expect it to continue.
“If you’re going to come out to a restaurant and spend a pretty good amount of money, it should be an experience, and you should be able to try things that you don’t try everywhere else,” Good says. “If not, then what’s the point of coming? So we try to push it as far as we can. Also, a little bit selfishly, if we’re cooking the same thing all the time, then we’re going to get bored and be not as inspired about it, and that’s going to translate out to the customer. We want to keep ourselves inspired and pushing forward.”