Jasper Mirabile is all over the place: on TV, radio and in your local supermarket
By MARY G. PEPITONE
Special to The Star
The Kansas City chef, restaurateur, product-developer, media magnate, cookbook author, culinary instructor and community volunteer — known as Jasper, JJ or J to family and close friends — is a one-man brand.
“My wife says the Energizer Bunny’s got nothing on me,” Mirabile says, referring to Lisa, his wife of 21 years. “I just keep going and going ...”
In fact, the only time you might witness him standing still is if you see his life-size cardboard cutout, dubbed “Flat Jasper,” in a local Hen House Market.
The real Mirabile is 5 feet 7 inches tall but has a personality larger than life. Few chefs in the Kansas City area have the one-name recognition he enjoys. Dark-haired with brown, twinkling eyes, Mirabile loves telling stories and poking fun at himself. Even the Flat Jasper phenom that started as Hen House’s strategy to promote Mirabile as its resident chef has taken on a life of its own.
“People steal the Flat Jaspers and then send me pictures taken with the cardboard cutout in front of the St. Louis Arch and the Alamo,” Mirabile says with a laugh, recalling a time he was mistaken for his cardboard clone. “A restaurant patron called to complain that I was standing in the window (of our office) and wouldn’t wave to him.”
At 47, Mirabile has more energy than some half his age. His workday starts before 9 a.m. at his Kansas City restaurant, Jasper’s.
Donning his uniform — a white chef’s jacket accented with green and red buttons and stripes (the colors of the Italian flag) and with inscriptions of his and the restaurant’s name — Mirabile dashes mid-morning to a local television station for a cooking segment on how to make peanut butter and jelly cannoli.
Returning to the restaurant, Mirabile bumps elbows with the lunch crowd. Patrons order everything from “Numero Uno” meatball subs to Scampi alla Livornese, shrimp in a wine-laced cream sauce, while Mirabile’s meal consists of a simple bowl of soup and sweets.
Conversations are interrupted by fans who want to talk or bring him food to eat. The afternoon at the restaurant is filled with cookbook signings and taste-testing formulations of the restaurant’s salad dressings, sold by the bottle.
While the dinner crowd is being served at the restaurant, Mirabile rushes across town for a cooking demonstration at a local business hosting more than 20 people. He makes fresh mozzarella tableside, serves pastas and pushes the cannoli.
Returning to the restaurant around 10 p.m., Mirabile winds down and catches up with family. In bed by 2 a.m., he is ready to get up and do it all over the next morning.
The perfect cannoli
To the affable Mirabile, life is an adventure and, like his search for the perfect cannoli, he’s savoring every single bite. The youngest of four sons (Leonard, Salvatore and James) born to Jasper and Josephine Cropis Mirabile, Jasper Jr. has his own theories about his boundless energy.
“I am a sugar addict and have undiagnosed ADD (attention deficit disorder),” he says. “My mind is always thinking. Sometimes, it’s hard to finish a sentence because I’m already on to the next thing.”
But before that “next thing” happens, Mirabile knows his reputation rests squarely on the Kansas City restaurant that bears both his and his father’s name. Started more than 55 years ago at 75th Street and Wornall Road, Jasper’s Ristorante and Marco Polo Italian Market moved south to 103rd Street and State Line Road about 12 years ago. Even though his father died before the new restaurant opened, Mirabile says his father’s presence is still there.
“Leonard and I are partners at the restaurant and are proud to carry on the tradition our father started,” he says. “Now Leonard’s son, Jasper III, is working with us and learning the business. Shorthand, we say, ‘MITH,’ which means ‘Mirabile in the House.’ There’s always family running the restaurant.”
A group of loyal employees Mirabile fondly refers to as “Team Jasper” has also become like family. Staff including host Sam Gianino, waitress Eileen Laux, assistant chef Marvin Lewis and right-hand man Anthony Valdivia keep the restaurant running so Mirabile is free to take on other projects.
“When I go into the restaurant before it opens, I have high standards and go through the place with a fine-toothed comb,” Mirabile says. “When you come to our restaurant, it’s like you’re coming to my house. Burned-out lightbulbs or fingerprints on the glass are unacceptable to me.”
Though a relatively new space, the restaurant, with family photos hung on the walls, exudes an old-world charm and familiarity, much like Mirabile himself. He’s as comfortable in the kitchen as he is in the dining room. Convivial Mirabile can be seen working parties of 12 or more, as well as impatient diners waiting for a two-top.
If his culinary reputation lies in the success of the restaurant, his personal life begins and ends with his family, even though, he admits, those lines can be blurred. “Food and family are all tightly wrapped together for me,” he says. “I met my wife at the restaurant when I was 18 years old. She was working as a cashier and dropped a pizza on my dad’s blue suede shoes.”
While Mirabile admits he keeps reaching for the stars, it’s his wife Lisa and daughter Alexandra, 16, who ground him.
“When people treat him like he’s a celebrity, that’s when I tell him he needs to take out the garbage,” Lisa Mirabile says. “Whenever we go to a restaurant or event with him, Alex and I hang back and, later, we tease him.”
Alexandra also introduced her father to the new social media network by setting up his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Mirabile tweets an average of four times a day and has more than 550 followers.
While some restaurant owners shy away from 21st-century technology, Mirabile embraces it.
“We can’t rest on the success of the past. This is a great learning experience for me and keeps us growing,” he says. “People who follow me on my Twitter account realize I don’t sleep very much.”
Nearly five years ago, David Ball, president and CEO of Ball’s Food Stores, began formally working with Mirabile and named him resident chef of the 12 area Hen House Markets.
“I’ve known J all my life and have admired his restaurant,” Ball says. “Our companies have similar corporate cultures, and it just seemed like a natural fit to partner with him.”
In addition to developing recipes for Hen House Markets, Mirabile also hosts “Learn! Shop! Cook!” demonstrations on-site. Hen House Markets also are stocked with products — sausage, salad dressings and pasta sauces — that bear the Jasper’s name.
Ball says Mirabile brings a stamp of credibility to their joint endeavors.
“He has a real passion for what he does and an authenticity,” Ball says. “J has the potential to do anything he wants. I’ll tell you that much.”
Mirabile is as comfortable in front of the television camera and the radio microphone as he is in the front of his restaurant.
Mitch Baker, owner of Chase the Cake Media in Kansas City, produces Mirabile’s weekly “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” show on KCMO-AM 710 on Saturday mornings.
“No question, chef Jasper is knowledgeable about food trends and cuisines other than Italian,” Baker says. “He has an honesty and accessibility about him, and that comes across whether he’s doing a cooking demonstration or talking on the radio.”
Mirabile also does a segment, “What’s Cooking in the Kitchen Studio?” every Monday for KSHB-41. On set, he demonstrates how to make everything from a pork ragu to chocolate mascarpone pie.
A master multitasker, Mirabile tweets during commercial breaks and feeds folks in-studio. One of his greatest pleasures is sharing his authentic Italian food with others.
In 1995, Mirabile was the first Kansas City chef to be invited to prepare food at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. Returning for the fourth time in January, he wowed diners with his authentic Italian food featuring truffles and lobster cappuccinos.
Baker traveled with Mirabile to the Big Apple for the event. A trip to Wylie Dufresne’s wd~50 restaurant in Manhattan started with their eating their way through a seven-course dessert tasting menu and ended in a tutorial on molecular gastronomy. The highlight was Mirabile good-naturedly trying to convince Baker to buy a $100 bottle of beer.
“Chef Jasper is a generous, adventurous guy who respects tradition but is constantly trying to reinvent himself,” Baker says. “I’ve never seen anybody work a room the way he does, and no one works harder.”
Meatballs and more
On a recent Saturday, Mirabile and Geri Higgins, owner of Portfolio Kitchen & Home in Kansas City, spent the afternoon at Nebraska Furniture Mart in Kansas City, Kan.
After doing his live, hourlong radio show on-site, the two foodies shared cookery and conversation with at least 100 spectators at the kitchen design studio constructed by Portfolio. Even folks using the escalators overlooking the demonstration were transfixed.
“We come from the same perspective and understanding that the kitchen is a powerful place,” Higgins says. “Preparing food isn’t about being rushed, it’s an event. You have to admire someone like Jasper who elevates cooking to an artisan level.”
That afternoon it was winter outside, but inside, the atmosphere was warm and inviting as Mirabile and Higgins made gnocchi and pasta sauces together. Higgins also enjoys having Mirabile do cooking demonstrations at her business on State Line Road.
“Jasper’s cooking is very personal and is an extension of himself,” she says. “You can literally taste his hospitality.”
Mirabile feels so strongly about promoting the purveyors of fine foods that he dedicates his time to several groups: American Institute of Wine and Food, Gruppo Ristoratori Italiana, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Slow Food Kansas City.
Higgins and Mirabile also share a love of Italy, including art and architecture. But, for both, food remains the centerpiece of all things Italian.
“Jasper’s food reminds me to live life beautifully. And that doesn’t mean expensively,” Higgins says. “You can take the best tomatoes, butter, garlic and cream and make a wonderful sauce. He taught me that.”
eaching others how to cook — whether it’s at the Culinary Center of Kansas City or in his restaurant — remains Mirabile’s greatest passion. Pasta, he says, requires only four ingredients: flour, egg, water and love. It’s his mission to encourage people to slow down and bring folks back to the dinner table.
“I want people who come to our restaurant, cook from my cookbook, use my products or take a cooking class to be restored. For me, life begins with good food and ends with good food,” he says with a wry smile and shrug. “At the end of the day, I’m just a guy who makes meatballs.”
Classic Sicilian Cannoli
Mirabile’s latest published endeavor is “Jasper’s Kitchen Cookbook” (Andrews McMeel Publishing; $19.99), a nostalgic collection of more than 100 of the most popular recipes from the restaurant. The five-course cookbook spans appetizers to desserts and even features Mirabile’s quest to find the perfect cannoli, the most traditional and popular of all Sicilian desserts. You can buy cannoli shells at Italian markets. Cinnamon oil is available at Baker’s Rack in Lenexa.
Makes 6 servings
1 pound ricotta cheese
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup candied oranges and cherries, diced
1/4 cup chopped dark chocolate
2 drops cinnamon oil
6 cannoli shells
Place the ricotta in a large mixing bowl and fold in the confectioners’ sugar. Add the candied fruit, chocolate and cinnamon oil and mix gently to combine. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours before serving.
To serve, fill the shells with the cheese mixture and dust them with confectioners’ sugar.
Per serving: 316 calories (36 percent from fat), 13 grams total fat (8 grams saturated), 43 milligrams cholesterol, 42 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams protein, 74 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Mirabile Family Sunday Sauce
This is the old-fashioned sauce used by Jasper’s and Marco Polo’s. If you do not like canned puree, you can substitute whole tomatoes, omit the water and puree the tomatoes in a food processor or by hand. Make sure you periodically stir the sauce and do not let the sugar burn or you will scorch the sauce.
Makes 8 servings
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 whole head garlic cloves, puréed
1 (28-ounce) can tomato purée
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 tablespoons sugar
10 to 12 fresh basil leaves
Heat the olive oil in a 4-quart pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and remove the pan from the stove. Add the tomato purée and water and mix thoroughly. Stir in the salt, red pepper flakes and fennel seeds and cook for about 2 hours, adding the sugar and basil after 1 1/2 hours. At that time you can also add sautéed sausage, meatballs or braciola.
Per serving: 143 calories (45 percent from fat), 7 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 17 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 664 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
See the entire article on KansasCity.com (click here)
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She write the weekly Come Into My Kitchen column for The Star.
E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.