A Chat With Kansas City Chef Patrick Ryan of Port Fonda Restaurant
From the depths of Port Fonda, Kansas City’s sparkling Mexican eatery in its old Westport district, a sensory smorgasbord inundates. Fairy lights stream from rustic wood, bowls of house-made salsa dot a bustling bar. Tattoos peek from a hostess’s sundress, mole almendrado and other twists on traditional staples pop from menus that diners keep their hands on. With pork dumpling soup, shishito peppers and tequila gimlets on the roster, whether the food is ‘authentic’ Mexican is up for debate—though it most certainly is ‘authentic’ Patrick Ryan.
A James Beard-nominated chef with decades of experience, Ryan earned his chops in Portland and then Chicago before returning to his Kansas City stomping grounds in his mid-thirties. After launching Port Fonda from an Airstream trailer—and to much applause—over a packed six-month span, Ryan swiftly gained a rep for inventive Mexican that didn’t follow the norms of burritos, rice and beans. Transitioning from kitschy aluminum to historic Westport, with a sister restaurant in the neighboring city of Lawrence, Ryan is slowly building a regional empire to rival barbecue row. But the chef isn’t interested in that sort of competition (he’s a fan of BBQ, in any case). His eye is on something broader, nobler, and a whole lot more fulfilling—an invigorated city with opportunities for everyone who calls it home.
We caught up with Ryan right after he returned from Mexico City’s Polanco district for some culinary R&R.
How do you see Port Fonda with respect to Mexican cuisine?
It’s kind of a long story—and it’s a question I get asked a lot. I started cooking for a paycheck as a teenager, at little mom-and-pop Americanized Mexican restaurants in Kansas City. During that formative time in my life, it was really fun to work with Mexican guys and girls and learn something about the language, culture and heritage. I kind of fell in love with it all at once.
After college, I went to culinary school in Portland, Oregon—the biggest part of school, at that time, was where you’d do your externship and internship. After doing some research for where I’d go next, I headed to Chicago to work at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo with Rick Bayless. It was truly eye-opening—both places are such well-oiled machines—and it was an experience that stayed with me forever.
What brought you back to your hometown?
I always tell people how I left Kansas City shortly after I graduated high school, and at the time, I didn’t really think there were any phenomenal restaurants to work at here. If you would tell the 18-year-old me that the 40-year-old me would love living in Kansas City as much as I do, I wouldn’t have believed you [laughs]. I moved back here specifically to open up a restaurant, and sometimes if you do that and get good press, people think you’ve come from out of nowhere. I’m 42 now, but I’d been cooking at places for 25 years. Port Fonda is basically a ‘long’ overnight success story.
What was your conceptual inspiration for your restaurant? It feels delightfully upscale and casual, yet trendy and down-to-earth.
There’s not really an easy answer when it comes to that. I’ve been lucky enough to cook a lot of different places and [to] work for some really fantastic people. At one point I worked with Suzanne Goin, and she said something I’ll remember for the rest of my life: “You only get one chance to open up your first restaurant. Make it exactly what you want it to be.”
Going into Port Fonda, I had no idea about all the different challenges that would be thrown at me. I went into with the attitude that, “At least if everything goes bad, I’ll have done exactly what I wanted to.” My target market was myself. When you do that, it’s a much more honest and true approach, rather than trying to pull off a concept. I’ve poured so much of my own personality and energy into the place that it’s tremendously satisfying to see it work out. It’s a reflection of myself as a person.
How do you infuse your experiences into your food?
Music, fashion and art—everything’s cyclical. We’re cooking in a very interesting time now. Fusion is a kind of dirty word to throw out sometimes in the restaurant business, but with the popularity of social media and how so much is globally accessible, you can find pretty much any menu item in the world online. My food is a true mashup of all sorts of Mexican cuisine, but it has a Midwestern stamp on it as well. We also get a decent amount of stuff locally, so some things are unique to Kansas City and the Midwest.
What’s an example of a more Midwestern take on Mexican food?
Good question. For one, throwing barbecue elements into it—like a variation of my mother’s barbecued baked beans recipe. We add chipotles and use a smoker for our own baked beans. It’s hard to explain, I guess—that’s what makes it so unique. It’s a style and approach to cooking that I’ve been doing for so long [that] it’s hard to describe.
Why did you initially decide to launch Port Fonda out of an Airstream?
When I first moved back to Kansas City, it was at the height of frustration for me in terms of opening a restaurant. I was started to second-guess moving back here. I thought, “I want to do something as fast as possible, as cool as possible.” So I decided to buy an Airstream trailer and run the restaurant out of there. We’d get so much press and publicity for the dinners we were doing inside the trailer for six to eight people. But for someone like me who has been cooking my whole life, the idea of being limited to doing street food, or food-truck food, was not interesting to me at all. It was lightning in a bottle in terms of timing—we only did it for five and a half months. After that, restaurant investors came to us and we took it from there.
What are your favorite restaurants in Kansas City and the Midwest?
Bluestem Lounge, in Westport, is one of my favorite places in Kansas City. I go to Chicago around every other month or so—and my favorite restaurant there is called Avec in the West Loop—it’s been around quite a long time. It’s probably my favorite restaurant I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to quite a few. Mediterranean with a little Middle Eastern influence. It’s so good.
Now that Port Fonda has established a firm reputation, what are you excited about right now?
That’s a great question—something I think about maybe even more than I should. Westport’s Port Fonda turns five in June. When I was growing up, my parents did a lot of philanthropic work, and I’m in the phase now of thinking about how to give back to the community. I’m trying to model something after Frontera Grill’s Frontera Foundation—trying to help Chicago kids go to culinary school. I’d like to set up a culinary school scholarship foundation here for Mexican-American high-school students. I’d like to see that come to fruition by the end of next year.
I’ve never been good at the grind, having one task and doing it everyday. I like to constantly keep inventing and creating. I get excited about the bigger picture. I can’t wait to do our new fall menu, but my role is growing a bit outside of the restaurant world.
Port Fonda has done so well, and it’s not lost on me at all. I think about how lucky I am daily—and mention it out loud.
What about Kansas City as a culinary destination?
My goal was always to make a restaurant that wasn’t just “good for Kansas City,” but that would be taken seriously in Portland, or Nashville, or any city. With the press we’ve received, it’s been really validating to know we’re “good” on a national level.
I feel like I have my finger on the pulse, but our city right now has more going on than I can keep up with. It’s starting to feel like a real city. People here—myself included—don’t really worry too much about what other cities think of Kansas City, and that’s one of our best-kept secrets. If we talk it up too much, everyone will want to move here and the costs will go up [laughs]. Right now, there’s so much stuff happening that it sometimes feels like it’s closing in on us. But I’m big-time pro-growth. The more we can improve our city, it makes the places that are already good even better.
Photographs courtesy of Port Fonda restaurant.