By Alec Weaver
It comes as a welcome shock that I’ve found myself enjoying a crispy pork belly gyro with a cup of tomato bisque in the Kansas Union. Like many students, my experience with food on campus has pretty much been limited to grabbing a chicken-cheddar wrap or a mass–produced plastic box of sushi between classes, but here at the Impromptu café in the Kansas Union, the hustle of campus seems miles away.
The Impromptu Café is a bizarre culinary entity at KU. It is staffed by the university’s catering service and students, and yet retains its identity as a genuine restaurant. After spending some time with the staff, who are more a family than co-workers, I am ashamed to admit that this is the first time I’ve actually stepped foot into the place and eaten the food prepared as ordered by the Impromptu’s head cook Chris Clark.
Clark, like others who make the impromptu tick, comes from a restaurant background. The line cook, who looks a lot like comedian Jon Lajoie, learned his trade from growing up in the restaurants his parents started. “I’ve been doing restaurant stuff for about eight to 10 years now,” he tells me while stocking his prep station with ice to keep all of the cooler ingredients as fresh as possible until plating. The Wichita native took a brief hiatus from the culinary world when he accepted a job doing tech support for the university, but in July of 2014 found himself right back in food service and accepted a position with KU’s Dining Services. “I guess I just can’t leave it. It’s in my blood,” he tells me.
Clark is just about the most easy-going guy you’ll meet. It seems nothing gets to him, even when Kim Nixon, manager for the Impromptu comes to him in the middle of the lunch rush to tell him that they have a customer with 32 food allergies. Nixon and Clark manage to hammer out a special order in a little under a minute, plain grilled chicken breast and wilted greens. As Chris gets the order started, Nixon returns to the dining room, what’s commonly referred to in the restaurant industry as the “front of the house.” She tells me that in addition to two groups of six from the university, she also saw a lot of visiting “nametags” walking around on campus. “We shouldn’t be too busy today,” she told me, “but then again, you can’t ever be certain of anything in a restaurant,” Nixon says “It’s called Impromptu for a reason.”
Nixon is simultaneously mother hen and Don Corleone of the Impromptu, and like Clark, she too has a long history in the foodservice industry. “As you can see, I never really had a chance,” she says, her blue eyes beaming from behind her multi-colored glasses as she holds a picture of her father sitting in the kitchen with her as an infant. “I was literally raised in the kitchen.” For the first few years of her life, her crib was in the kitchen of her family’s small apartment. It is apparent that her father, a cook in the National Guard and later for BSNF railroad, was a great influence on her. She takes down a hardback, railroad recipe book from the bookshelf behind the cash register and flips to a bookmarked recipe, a published recipe of her father’s.
Since her childhood in the kitchen, Nixon has spent 31 years in the restaurant industry, mainly sticking to front-of-house positions, and it is her veteran mettle that has made her an integral part of the Impromptu since it opened in February 2008. Her day starts at 8 am Two hours before anyone else arrives to work the restaurant. Between 8 and 9 a.m. Nixon has already checked the dates on the prepped food in the refrigerator, made notes on what she needs made fresh and what she needs to order for the next big shipment of food. Once she’s taken stock of what’s in Impromptu’s kitchen, she’s off to what Nixon describes as the “Mother Ship” next door.
Across the hall, in the belly of KU dining services’ massive kitchen hub, a buzzing hive of cooks, bakers and dishwashers are all hard at work performing the various tasks needed to feed the university. Kim must snake her way back to the walk-in cooler where she must once again note what’s available before writes her final food order on the whiteboard next to the heavy metal door. She works her way to the back of the kitchen, where the chef de cuisine describes the day’s specials to her. There will be a roasted tomato and bell pepper bisque today as well as a shrimp nacho plate with chipotle black beans and what Nixon jokes are “the usual suspects,” i.e. salsa and cilantro.
Once we finish up in the “Mother Ship,” its back over to the dining room of the Impromptu where Kim makes the necessary preparations for her serving crew who will be arriving shortly. She stock’s their bill folders with plenty of tickets and draws up their zones on a laminated chart of the 16-table brasserie. Later I will come to find out that these dry-erase borders don’t mean much, as the close-knit crew operates with maximum efficiency. Each of the three servers help wherever they are needed, while Kim floats from table to table taking care of guests’ needs in between visits from their respective waiter or waitress. “It really is like a family here,” says Paige Kime, one of the seniors on the Impromptu’s wait staff. While I ate with them at the end of the work shift, her co-workers echoed her sentiment, especially Ben Honeycutt, a junior who applied to serve at the Impromptu for two years before finally being hired in February. “I just really wanted to work here,” he says, “I was just blown away by the work environment.”
The Impromptu is not the first restaurant to inhabit the Kansas Union. Before it opened its doors seven years ago, the union has been home to five other restaurants, three of which have occupied the space that Impromptu currently calls home, and with its student-budget friendly menu ($10.00 and under) the Impromptu isn’t going anywhere soon. Despite only being open for lunch between 11 a.m. to 2 p.m, Nixon is there for a full eight hours, making preparations so that the day can run smoothly without a hitch.
Aside from the food itself, the environment of the Impromptu is truly remarkable. The warm palate of decor complements the warmth of the staff; it is an oasis for students, faculty and visitors alike. A place to just have a little time for yourself away from the mad rush of the campus that can at times feel like a micro-city. I know that as I sat, eating off of an actual plate, using actual silverware, I wasn’t thinking of graduation or finals or careers, in that moment I was merely thinking of how good that pork belly gyro tasted.
Photo courtesy of Impromptu Cafe.