6 Burning Questions with Strang Hall Chef Brett DeHart

Chef Brett DeHart doesn’t mean to brag, but in his nearly 30 years in the culinary field, he’s whipped up pretty much every kind of cuisine imaginable. “I started out in a mom-and-pop restaurant where I fell in love with food,” he says. Since then, he’s done it all, including stints in Chinese restaurants, burger joints, and down-home scratch kitchens. From fine dining to gastro pubs, he’s mastered the art of culinary versatility. So, it’s no surprise that DeHart now heads up two vastly different restaurants at Strang Hall, the Mexican-infused Fenix and Asian-inspired Tora Zushi. “I apprenticed sushi at Jun’s,” he adds. “And my Mexican flare? I can honestly say I learned most of it from my Hispanic co-workers and friends throughout the years—and my love for that style of food.”

We sat down with the culinary pro between the lunch and dinner rush to break bread and ask him six burning questions.

6) Fenix Tacos and Tora Zushi couldn’t be more different—or am I wrong?
[laughs] “They are definitely complete opposites on the spice and food spectrum. I love all food and Latin and Japanese fare are obviously big priorities in my catalog. A unique cuisine that’s come up in the past few years is Peruvian food which actually—to a degree—marries the two cuisines surprisingly well from some ingredient aspects.”

5) We need to know—what’s your most popular, best-selling menu item?
“At Fenix—the Birria quesadilla and tacos. It’s likely the flavor profile the Birria-style has, particularly ours. People keep coming back for it; some even say they dream about it. At Tora Zushi, well, sushi, of course. People go nuts over the Tonkotsu ramen, our poke bowl trio, and Kobe beef burger too.

You’d be surprised, a lot of people mix and match my items at Strang, usually for sharing purposes or just to beeline for their favorite items. I’ve had people come back and get the Kobe burger twice in one day from Tora. Strang Hall is such a unique gathering place in downtown Overland Park. I was away from the KC food scene for almost 7 years out west in Utah and I missed it here tremendously. I’m super proud of KC on all levels—and I’m extremely grateful to be a part of our thriving Strang Chefs Collective.”

4) What’s the most complicated dish you’ve ever prepared?
“There are too many to list, honestly. When I apprenticed sushi, I think that would be the toughest and/or most challenging. I’ve never had much anxiety or lack of confidence in the food world but setting foot into Jun’s sushi bar made me feel like a newborn baby trying to walk for the first time. I was completely at the mercy of my masters.”

3) How long does it take to create, curate, and hone a new menu item from scratch?
“Usually a few weeks to a month, at least. Some dishes take years! But we spend months cultivating ideas and doing research and development leading up to execution. I have some recipes in both restaurants that have 7.0 on them from always adjusting to make things taste better. Menus alwayshave room for honing. It’s important not to be too drastic or shock the guests with changes to sacred cow menu items.”

2) Name a dish that you’re really good at making—but no one would ever know it?“Hungarian goulash—one of my favorite foods.”

1) You have a really great culinary staff working for you. What do they bring to the table, so to speak?
“I have amazing teams. I am definitely not the micromanager type. I show what I expect and ask people to stick to the recipes and treat each other with integrity. I’m also open to my teams’ ideas and opinions on everything. I try to empower my people to take as much pride in the food and restaurants as I do. My kitchen motto? ‘Let’s make great food, have fun, and kick ass.’”