Executive Chef Matthew Arnold took over the culinary reins in June 2011 at The Webster House in a return to his Midwest roots. He grew up in Lee’s Summit and graduated from the University of Kansas. He studied at New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Montpelier, Vermont and worked elsewhere in the country before coming home.
Arnold’s interest in cooking began in his youth. “My grandmother was a huge influence on my appreciation for cooking,” he says. As a child, Arnold lived across the street from her. “She cooked for four boys and put a tremendous amount of care into it. After I got off the school bus, I went to Grandma’s house. It smelled so good.”
Arnold made a commitment to cooking professionally after working with his mentor, the late Don Fortel of Teller’s Restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas. “Witnessing Don and seeing it done in a professional, wise, and ethical manner as a chef, I wanted to know what this man knew. A light went off.”
He worked at Teller’s for three years as a bartender, manager, and general manager. After completing his degree at KU, Arnold headed to NECI where the student to teacher ratio was 7:1. The training was challenging and practical. “It was a for profit school. They had a bakery, fine dining restaurant, bar and grill, catering, and cafe,” says Arnold. “From the first day, you were thrown into the fire.”
He completed an internship at Lidia’s Kansas City and the Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina, learning from James Beard award-winning chefs at both locations. After graduation, he worked as a chef at Lidia's in Pittsburgh. His next role involved work at the Dunes restaurant back in North Carolina. When the sagging economy dimmed the prospects for that restaurant, Arnold returned to Kansas City.
He earned the job at The Webster House after they hired a search firm to evaluate candidates for the high profile position. The historic building houses antiques, interior furnishings, a gift shop and restaurant in close proximity to the Kauffman Performing Arts Center. With such a premium location and increased traffic, The Webster House found the chef they sought with superb management skills and deep culinary knowledge.
Arnold gained an appreciation for sourcing local artisan food from his mentors, chef-owners Ben and Karen Barker of the Magnolia Grill. At Lidia’s, he learned how to manage operations and people. He says, “At Lidia’s, she runs a tight ship.”
Glad to be back in Kansas City, Arnold focuses on refining and expanding the menu at The Webster House.
Drawing on his lessons from the Magnolia Grill, Arnold looks forward to sourcing food from local farms. “I need to get re-acclimated to the area. It takes time,” he says in regard to finding meat, dairy and produce vendors to supply his larder. Eventually, more locally grown and produced food will find its way on the menu. “I want the food to have a midwestern feel. It’s important for locals and guests to identify with that cuisine.”
His food offers bold and fun flavor profiles. The chef draws attention to classic dishes with a twist such as the grilled meatloaf sandwich that incorporates spicy smoked tasso ham or fresh presentations of fried green tomatoes in season. For brunch, he takes classic buttermilk pancakes and adds chives for a savory touch to complement sausage gravy. Arnold’s sense of fun shows with his Bananas Foster waffles and other fanciful interpretations of brunch standards.
His favorite dish is the rib-eye steak served with sweet potato hash, but he enjoys preparing his version of pork and beans as well as the wedge salad. He touts his hamburger, made from ground tenderloin and served with homemade spiced pickles, as “the best in town.”
Overall, Chef Arnold appreciates the opportunity to work and lead staff in an environment where there is “high attention to detail.” He adds, “The cooks work hard. We have high standards for the food and service for our guests. Everyone is focused.”