Meet the Chef: Red Kitchen KC

Meet the Chef: Red Kitchen KC
Posted on 09/11/2023

The bright red sticker on the sack says “Red Kitchen KC.” But in so many ways, it’s more fitting to say the delicious, comforting burritos, tamales or tacos inside came from Alejandra’s kitchen.

Chef/Owner Alejandra de la Fuente is one of the Lenexa Public Market’s best-known success stories. She’s gone from serving tamales to-go once a week when the Market opened in 2017 to a Mexican street food stall to one of the Market’s anchor merchants. She’s gained a passionate following of customers and plenty of press from food journalists - her breakfast burritos were even named “Best Burritos in Kansas” by Food & Wine.

“When this started, I never really thought about starting a business,” Alejandra said. “The business side, I didn’t think about. I love to cook. I love to host. And I never imagined myself having a big restaurant, because I love that communication and that touch with my customers. I see their faces, and connect with them, and see that they enjoy the food.”

Consistently great food keeps customers coming back for more. When they reach the counter at Red Kitchen, Alejandra often knows exactly what they’re going to order. She knows their kids’ names. She asks how work’s going. She asks about vacations, pets, families.

Alejandra has long loved to cook and gained a reputation among family, friends and coworkers for mixing up delicious delicacies from her hometown of Mexico City. One of her kids, unfamiliar with the vast range of regional dishes and techniques that make up Mexican cuisine, just assumed that meant she could make a proficient batch of tamales.

“Taylor asked me over and over again to make him tamales,” she said, laughing. “But I had no idea how. One Christmas, my kids gave me a pot steamer for tamales.

“I called my aunt, because she’s the only one in my family who made tamales. I asked her for tips, and then made her recipe.”

Shortly after she made her first batch of chicken tamales, Alejandra collaborated with a friend, also from the north of Mexico, to share their tamales at a Super Bowl party. Everyone loved them. And so, the idea to sell tamales was born.

Alejandra was working full-time for a local credit union when she and her friend first posted that they were accepting tamale orders for friends and the Kansas City Eats forum. The response was literally overwhelming.

“The orders just started coming in,” she recalled. “We had pots outside in the grill, in the stove, in a little paella thing. We had pots everywhere. But the tamales were not cooking.”

They asked other friends for advice – which often took a superstitious bent. Stand away from the pot. Add a pepper. Smack the pot with red underwear.

“Finally, they were hot,” Alejandra said, miming a snap of her fingers. “They were steaming hot. I think even the bags were melting because it was so hot. “

Transitioning to Facebook sales let them hone several key parts of the tamale process.

“My aunt always spread her masa with a spoon onto the corn husk,” Alejandra said. “But it has lard so it goes one way and it goes the other. I remember I was telling my kids, “Please, be serious! If you really want to tamales you need to do this!” And they’d say “We can’t!” They just move everywhere!

“Those first tamales were a struggle because they were not staying on the corn husk. So my friend and I came up with the idea of doing it with a tortilla press, and we started pressing. That was the best. When I do my classes, I tell them this is the best secret. All the tamales come out the same size.”

Dishes from Red KitchennAlejandra had just moved to Lenexa when she saw the City of Lenexa post about the Lenexa Public Market’s planned opening later that year.

 “I said, this is my chance. I need to be in that building. Every day, I drove past to work, and I said “I need to be in that building.””

 Alejandra reached out to the Market, and City staff were impressed with her delicious tamales. But she wasn’t quite sure how her tamale side hustle would balance with her steady job. Her friend had decided not to join in her pursuits at the Market due to the demands of starting a new business venture.

 “When I came to tour inside the building, I told Carmen (Chopp, the first Market manager), “But I have a full-time job.” She said, why don’t you do Tamale Tuesdays? I knew I needed to do this."

 So, she went to her employer and offered to work every Saturday – a day few people wanted to work – in return for getting Tuesdays off. But that arrangement was short-lived.

 The first Tamale Tuesday was in September 2017. Alejandra planned to sell tamales to-go for lunch and dinner in The Kitchen upstairs at the Public Market. The bright crimson cabinets of her first in-person sales spot are why she chose the name “Red Kitchen.”

 “That first day, it was insane. I made 500 tamales. My friend helped me. It took me the whole week. I came here, put the sign up at 11, and the line was all the way down the hall. 45 minutes. They were gone. 500 tamales. I thought people would buy two or three. They were buying like three dozen.”

 A suggestion to take preorders for the next Tuesday resulted in 900 preorders at close the first day.

 “So I put my two-week notice in.”

 Her new full-time job was, in her words, “exhausting.” In addition to the 8 hours it takes to make 100 tamales, there are hours of ingredient prep that takes place – the meat is slow-cooked, salsa is made from scratch and everything is seasoned to perfection.

 “In the beginning, that’s why I was up all night. I was selling tons of tamales, and I was picking up Santiago (her son) from school at three or four, and going home to start cooking.

 “I was boiling five pots all night, but I didn’t have the stove I needed. I had a microwave on top of the stove, and my pot didn’t fit, and I told my husband, take that away, and he actually ripped it off! It was in my way, so he ripped the microwave right off!”

 “Why tamales?” Alejandra asked, laughing. “I’d never made tamales in my life. Why did I pick the hardest, most time-consuming food?”

Alejandra de la FuenteA stall opened up on the Market floor in 2017. It was the perfect opportunity for Alejandra to start serving more authentic Mexican dishes. But for Alejandra, any dish served from her kitchen needed to be just right.

 “The second-best thing that happened to me was the breakfast burritos,” she said. “I closed for all of October and was going to reopen in November downstairs. I was looking for the right tortilla for a burrito, and I couldn’t’ find it. I told Carmen, I’m going to open, but I don’t have the tortilla I want, and I don’t know how to make flour tortillas. It is not from my hometown, the flour tortilla, so I don’t know how to make it.”

 Timing again was perfect, Carmen connected Alejandra with the owner/chef of Caramelo Tortillas in Lawrence.

 “He was making tortillas in his house. His mom had just died in 2016 and the only thing he got from his mom was a tortilla maker, a little machine. He’s from Sonora, Mexico, and couldn’t find traditional tortillas anywhere, so he started making them. He started making bigger batches and selling them to the Merc. And that was it. I was his first restaurant.”

 “When he pulled those tortillas out like this, like a movie you know. There was a light. Those are the ones. I just had to cook with them.”

 "The first week, I think he gave me seven dozen. I now receive like 150 dozen a week.”

 Those delicious pork-fat tortillas were exactly the kind of authentic flour tortilla she needed for the perfect burrito. But getting the menu just right is only one part of running a thriving business.

 When the new Red Kitchen stall opened in November 2018, it was open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. But it had to be staffed much earlier and later than those hours to prep food and clean up. To keep up with staffing needs and avoid becoming burnt out from an activity she loved, Alejandra shortened her hours.

 As so many new merchants at the Public Market have discovered, there are dozens of difficult decisions just like that – fine tuning your hours, your technique, your menu, your staff, your customer experience – that come from transitioning a hobby into a living.

 “People say when we are not here, you’re probably in bed watching TV. It’s not true. You’re always working. I feel so much more respect for people in the restaurant business, and I love it so much. I was told once, “If you don’t have passion for what you do, you are going to fail.” Passion is the first thing you have to have.”

 In September 2021, once again the timing was right. Two Public Market merchants prepared to take the next step forward on building their businesses. Chewology, an anchor merchant since 2017, was moving into a restaurant space in Westport. Alejandra was ecstatic to see chef/owner Katie Liu-Sung’s success and to have the opportunity to move into the ideal new location.

 “It was the only space I wanted,” Alejandra said. “But I wanted it to come at the right time for both of us, and it did.”

 A bigger space meant she could serve more people, begin offering refreshing cantina beverages and share an even wider variety of the authentic Mexican dishes.

 “I’m learning, exploring, learning, exploring so the menu changes. I always like to have a surprise on the menu.”

 Alejandra serves tacos de guisado, different from the Tex-Mex tacos many customers are used to. Like her kids who assumed that all Mexican chefs cook tamales, many people assume that all parts of Mexico serve similar foods.

 “There are many parts of Mexico,” Alejandra explained. “So the food they eat in the south, they don’t eat up north. There is a completely different menu. But tacos in general, tacos are everywhere, you know. And the only variety is probably, the meat, more pork or fish. But the tortilla is always soft. They can be flour or corn. In the north of Mexico, they use flour most of the time. And in south and central Mexico they use corn.”

 Getting to introduce such a wide audience to real, authentic Mexican cuisine is endlessly rewarding for Alejandra. Small nuances, like serving a street taco using a corn tortilla filled with rice and meat, is Alejandra’s way of bringing Mexico City to Kansas. She stays true to the authentic approach of Mexican cuisine as part of her business model.

 “People expect what they’ve known as Mexican food their whole life. We don’t do chips and salsa in Mexico. You’re not going to find any restaurant chips and salsa, for starters. No crunchy tacos. The tacos don’t have lettuce in them, unless it’s on top."

 When focused on the authentic preparation of her menu items, the most prominent flavors of the ingredients are enhanced by the use of simple flavors of cumin, oregano, salt, pepper, onion and garlic.

 “Everything is from scratch. I don’t buy cans. The only thing I buy canned is tomato sauce, for certain things, like chilaquile sauce. We peel the tomatillos that make the salsa. The garlic is garlic cloves, no garlic powder or onion powder. The beans are not canned beans; we actually cook the dry beans each day.”

 And, she gets to introduce people to real, authentic Mexican culture.

 Market visitors can join in on the fun this year with a special Mexican Independence Day edition of Friday Night Sound Bites on Sept. 15. Alejandra loves sharing more about her heritage and appreciates the Market embracing the cultures of fellow merchants.

 The special events are fun to look forward to. But really, every day at the Market is meaningful to Alejandra.

 “Every morning when I drive here, I just feel so lucky to be here. It’s so pretty to see the lights in the morning and the illumination from the building. I come in at 5:00, and everything is off but the lights in the Market are on. I just feel so blessed, so lucky to be here. I love it here.

 Everything came when it was supposed to come. You pursue your dreams and don’t let that go. It will come to you sooner or later. These people believed in me. When somebody will mentor you and give you all you need to succeed, it’s just amazing. It’s a wonderful life. Even with the endless hours, endless problems, every morning I feel like my life is perfect.”

Published Sept. 11, 2023