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Chef Nick Goellner on Not Setting Boundaries, Mental Health, & the Evolution of The Antler Room

Cover Image for Chef Nick Goellner on Not Setting Boundaries, Mental Health, & the Evolution of The Antler Room
By Sophie Brochu
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Categories:Interview

When the pandemic hit last year, Leslie and Nick Goellner, the husband-and-wife team behind The Antler Room made a pledge not to furlough or lay-off anyone on their team. And they succeeded. This year, the beloved Kansas City restaurant celebrates its fifth anniversary. See what chef Goellner has to say about not setting boundaries, mental health, and the evolution of The Antler Room.

Tock: Your cooking has been described as Mediterranean meets Midwest. Are there any staples on the menu or is it constantly in flux?

Goellner: Defining our style of cooking is hard, not because our menu is esoteric, but because it is very personal. The food at the Antler Room is a reflection of the staff cooking in the kitchen. We don’t set many boundaries for ourselves. Honestly, we still don’t really have many guiding principles when it comes to what “style” of food should be on our menu. We usually get excited about some ingredient, preparation, or dish, and let the chips fall where they may. We try our best to cook food that is delicious and executable in a fast paced environment, but we don’t limit ourselves by regionality or anything like that. We serve produce from all over the world. In the summer most is local, in the winter almost none of it is. If a dish is delicious, and we feel like we can replicate it during service without pulling our hair out, it goes on the menu. 

We do not operate with set parameters regarding how often we change the menu. Usually something will remain on the menu until we get sick of making it or we cannot get the produce anymore to make it. There is a love/hate relationship we have with the food on the menu, we can love a dish for weeks and then all of a sudden think it’s no good and needs to leave the menu immediately. We usually try to trust our instincts in those matters. That being said, we tend to focus on seafood more than meat, and we always have a few pastas on the menu no matter what.

Photo by Bonjwing Lee.

Tock: The restaurant’s name is a nod to the famous 1930s-era saloon, The Antler Club. Do you pay tribute to this West Bottoms Prohibition bar in any other ways? 

Goellner: No. The real story there is that we just had a really hard time coming up with a name, so we just went the homage route. The name is really just a name, we probably worry about branding far less than we should. But we just think that at the end of the day, people who dine in the restaurant are going to form an opinion of the place based on the full experience, the name seems pretty unimportant in that sense. If the food sucks and the service is slow, nobody cares if your restaurants name is cool, they won’t come back.  It doesn’t enter into any of our decision making.

 

“We don’t set many boundaries for ourselves.”

Tock: Travel has been an important element to your creative process. Are you experimenting with any new ingredients or techniques based on your recent trip to Oaxaca?

Goellner: Our trip to Oaxaca was filled with truly incredible food, but the main purpose of that trip was stress relief. Travel is the number one motivation Leslie and I have. It is our favorite thing to do and sometimes can excite changes in the restaurant, but it really just depends on the trip. We try our hardest just to enjoy everything we eat on vacation without looking at it through restaurateurs’ eyes.

Tock: Do you have any pre-shift rituals? 

Goellner: I can’t really speak for Leslie, but as for me, human interaction can be challenging, so a bit of silence before service is necessary for regulating my mental health. I usually just try to have a nice calm break of fifteen minutes or so, usually filled with eating staff meal and playing online chess.

Photo by Bonjwing Lee.

Tock: It’s been a wild year and then some for the restaurant industry. How do you keep your team motivated?

Goellner: We made a pledge to ourselves that we would do our best not to furlough or lay off anyone, and we were fortunate enough to have achieved that goal. So our team now is little changed from the team we had a year ago. That has helped morale immensely, everyone (rightly) feels like they had a hand in keeping the restaurant afloat and healthy. There is a feeling of great relief and accomplishment that has made the last few months feel more normal than any of the previous fourteen or so.

Tock: How has The Antler Room evolved in the last five years?

Goellner: We have learned so much. The first year or so seems like a million years ago. It is an absolute blur. It was so chaotic and busy, everything was a challenge. Now I think we have fallen more into a groove. There is a lot of organizational momentum we have built up over the last few years. So things seem to run smoother now with less effort than before.

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