In a restaurant in an old house on Kansas City’s Westside, chef Brent Gunnels has been tending a clay oven, making a style of cuisine almost as new to him as it is to his customers.
Poached eggs in simmering stews of warmly seasoned tomatoes; savory lamb balls wrapped in freshly baked flatbread; yogurt topped with shaved carrots, pistachios and pickled beets.
He’s carrying out the culinary vision of a Turkish pub owner named Orcan Yigit, who’d planned to move to Kansas City to open a Near Eastern restaurant called Clay and Fire with a friend here. The restaurant, Clay and Fire, is now open. But pandemic and visa issues have kept Orcan in Ankara. That’s why Brent Gunnels — known around town for his pizza — is running the kitchen in Orcan’s place
Clay and Fire serves a full breakfast and lunch menu five days a week, in addition to what Gunnels calls “menu test nights” once a week, when customers can try new dishes while Gunnels receives a crash course in Turkish cooking.
He’s learning on Skype. His teacher is Yigit.
“For the first about six weeks, it was either, you know, cleaning the restaurant, Skyping with Orcan or reading recipe books, try to figure all this stuff out,” Gunnels explains, nonchalantly mentioning that Yigit has also taken him to a few restaurants.
What he means is, he tags along with Yigit on field trips all over Ankara, via phone screen.
“He’s just out with friends having drinks and, yeah, I’ve hung out with a few of his friends, had drinks out. He’s sent me to markets a few times. Like, we’ve been to a couple of grocery stores and markets.”
So, just to recap: A Kansas City chef known for pizza is going all over Ankara on a Turkish guy’s phone, and they’re making Near Eastern food together, food you can currently get at a restaurant in Kansas City.
I ask Gunnels what it’s like to be almost an intermediary between a restaurateur who’s nine hours ahead somewhere in Turkey and people trying Turkish food in Kansas City. To be present when Yigit is not.
Gunnels ponders the question for a moment.
“I’m not trying to be like super existential or anything like that, but I guess there’s where my mind’s going right now,” he warns. “It’s an interesting way to think about the definition of presence. I mean like, what really is required for presence to be there, you know? For your presence to be there?”
Yigit says the same thing. There is no overstating how passionate he is about Kansas City. As far as he’s concerned, he’s already here.
“It’s my 27th year in Ankara, and I really love Ankara, but home is where the heart is, and that’s KC,” Yigit tells me, as we videochat on What’s App. He proudly displays a bottle of Arthur Bryant’s barbecue sauce to prove it.
Yigit doesn’t tiptoe around how strange the arrangement must sound.
“It’s weird, actually,” he admits.
This is the story of not just how the unconventional collaboration at the heart of Clay and Fire works, but how these two stories — the story of a pizza chef in Kansas City and a serial pub owner in Ankara — came to overlap in the first place.
On his first visit to Kansas City, Orcan Yigit was on holiday and visiting his friend Adam, with pretty low expectations for the place itself, calling the United States at the time, “a country not even on my list of places to visit.”
But within a day here, Yigit says Kansas City felt to him like the Ankara he’d lost, referring to what happened to his once-vibrant city in a series of three devastating bombings that killed dozens of people. This all happened in 2015.
Before the bombings, Yigit was active in Ankara’s arts scene, bringing in artists from all over the world for events and exhibits. Violence brought a sudden end to that.
“I was working with artists from abroad. And when they asked about their safety, I couldn’t guarantee them anything,” he says, noting that he himself was not safe.
After shutting down all his projects, Yigit was depressed and unsure what to do next, but someone he knew was opening a pub and invited him to get involved. His new career took off from there.
Going into the pandemic, Yigit owned three pubs in Ankara. All three businesses have now been closed for 11 consecutive months because they’re licensed as food-serving pubs. Alcohol-serving restaurants — like the ones he visits with Gunnels joining by phone — remain open, Yigit explains.
Bureaucratic confusion surrounding pandemic restrictions is a global phenomenon, it seems.
Meanwhile, on another continent, Gunnels was riding out the early days of the pandemic making pizza.
He’d previously been putting on big fundraising events aimed at generating capital to launch a new restaurant in Westport, but he had to stop last March, before he’d reached his goal. So he started a one-man backyard pizza operation as a quick fix, registering Cult of Pi as a religious organization. That meant Gunnels’ pizza couldn’t be purchased; he made the curbside treat available on a strictly donation basis.
Calling it a cult turned out to be oddly fitting in other ways, though; Cult of Pi truly developed a cult following.
The stories of Brent Gunnels and Ocran Yigit intersected through one shared customer: Adam Jones.
Jones fell in love with Yigit’s first pub in Ankara while waiting out visa troubles with a brother-in-law who was immigrating to the United States. Jones’ own stay in Turkey ended up lasting two months.
“He was at my place every single day,” Yigit recalls, thinking back on this chance meeting at the beginning of his food career. “We became very close friends.”
A few years later, Jones pitched the idea of starting a restaurant together in Kansas City. It didn’t take much convincing. Yigit got a well-known chef in Turkey to sign onto the project. He’d been purchasing restaurant decor when the pandemic put his non-emergency visa application, as well as his chef’s, on indefinite hold.
Meanwhile, Jones — now back in Kansas City — tried Gunnels’ pizza. One thing led to another, and here we are, with a fully functional restaurant based on Skype collaboration.
If the story of Clay and Fire is a romantic comedy, Adam Jones is the matchmaker. And there have been plenty of comedic moments, like the time Gunnels added lamb to a traditional egg dish, which left Yigit feeling utterly scandalized.
But when Yigit went to his chef in Turkey to report what the crazy American had done, the chef’s response was equally surprising.
“He said, ‘Way to go,'” Yigit admits.
It’s hard to pull off culinary collaboration on a screen, because nobody can taste or smell what’s happening in the other person’s kitchen. For that, Yigit says, he has Adam Jones and his wife Noori. They know how everything’s supposed to taste; they can taste it for him.
You could be forgiven for thinking this story is winding down to its conclusion, but there’s still one more major plot twist.
One of the things Gunnels, Jones and Yigit had to hammer out before teaming up was what Gunnels’ role would be once Yigit and his chef finally arrive in Kansas City.
Remember how Gunnels started out with dashed dreams of opening his own restaurant?
Well, the space on 17th Street, one he’s always coveted from afar, will be home to Cult of Pi pop-ups on nights when Clay and Fire isn’t open for business. Eventually, Gunnels and Yigit will be living out two separate culinary dreams side by side, in the same kitchen, instead of on Skype.
And Yigit will finally be present, in every sense of the word.