Kasim Hardaway: KC restaurateur, food influencer and storyteller

Kasim Hardaway behind a sign advertising a menu preview event for his new restaurant, Cultivare. Photo courtesy of Kasim Hardaway.

There are many titles one could give Kasim Hardaway, who is one of Kansas City’s most influential online food personalities. He is a marketer, a food influencer, a recipe developer, a food writer and, most recently, a restaurateur. Above everything he manages to balance, Hardaway’s overarching role seems to be that of a storyteller. 

Hardaway grew up around food. After leaving a career in civil engineering, he rediscovered that passion for food and, in combination with his marketing and entrepreneurship skills, turned it into his own brand: “Part social media influencer, part marketing guru and full on fatty with an insatiable appetite.” After moving from New Jersey to Kansas City while in high school, Hardaway came to love what made KC such a hidden gem – and has since dedicated his career to promoting what the city has to offer, all from the chair of a dinner table. 

One can look to Hardaway to find anything from restaurant recommendations to original recipes. As soon as July 8 – when his new fast-casual restaurant, Cultivare, is set to open – people can also find Hardaway filling the stomachs of Kansas Citians with a variety of flavorful bowls of greens and grains. 

I called Hardaway for a conversation as he, quite literally, moved from project to project in preparation for opening Cultivare. Hardaway maintained both his focus and bubbly personality even while talking over the phone and multitasking to a degree many would find too stressful. In talking about everything from his reluctant move to Kansas City during his adolescence, to leaving his job and incorporating himself into the Kansas City food scene, to developing recipes for Cultivare, Hardaway’s passion for what he does shines through. His rise to prominence happened relatively quickly but was not without hard work and an intense dedication to his passion and craft. Below is a portion of our call, edited for readability. You can also listen to the interview by clicking play on the SoundCloud player below.

TheHilltopMonitor · Interview with Kasim Hardaway

Do you think that [participating in journalism at University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC)] affected your drive to blog and be this active on social media, or do you think that came beforehand? 

A little bit. As you’ll probably come to realize through this interview, I am one of those people that are, like, all over the place in terms of passion and what I’m interested in, so I constantly find myself doing 1,000 things. Not because I have to, but just because I find a joy in all of those things. 

Where do you think your passion for food came from? 

My passion for food definitely came from my late grandmother, so my mom’s mom. I referred to her as “Nani” all of my life. It’s a funny story. My first word was “Nani,” I was trying to say “Mommy,” I guess. But I said it to my grandma instead of my mom because she babysat me a lot. She was just a phenomenal cook – she didn’t have any professional training so she was just a home cook. Her kind-of style was southern cuisine, but [she] was also someone who loved the Food Network. Some of my earliest memories are watching Emeril or Bobby Flay with her and then seeing a recipe and going to the kitchen and making it. I’ve been cooking since the age of seven – I was making food for our Thanksgiving get-togethers; I was helping her with the turkey. So [food] has always been something I’ve been passionate about and something I’ve been surrounded by. 

You moved into Kansas City in high school. What about this city were you surprised by, and what made you love it enough to stay here? 

I am originally from New Jersey. I was an urban city boy through and through. I could get on the train and go to New York, be in Times Square, do all the fun things and go to all the parks. Before I came here I threw a tantrum. I threw a tantrum on the plane. I said I didn’t want to go to Kansas – I didn’t even know about Missouri. I was one of those people who, when I heard of Kansas City, thought we were going to Kansas. I thought there would be no electricity, there were going to be wells and horses.

I was so surprised when I got here – not immediately, because I just didn’t explore… I was really surprised at how developed Kansas City was and that was – I am 29, and I was 15 or 16 when we got here – so that was a while ago, and we’ve developed more since I got here. I think Kansas City is one of those places that people don’t give enough credit to with how much we’re doing here. I told myself when I go to college I’m leaving the Midwest. That was one of my initial thoughts before I got to know Kansas City. But once I got to know Kansas City – especially after high school, being an adult in Kansas City is a completely different experience. I grew up north of the river, and once I graduated from high school, that’s when I came south of the river and really experienced things like the [Country Club] Plaza and Midtown and all of the different eateries and museums, all of that cool stuff. It kind of opened my eyes to how awesome Kansas City is, and I was like, I don’t ever want to leave here. 

It’s pretty observable how much Kansas City has changed in the last decade. How has food specifically changed how you view Kansas City? 

It’s changed a lot since I’ve been here. There have been so many amazing restaurants, stores and concepts that have popped up in the last 12 or 13 years. It’s just crazy. I have friends that come from the East Coast and friends that come from Chicago and LA, and they’re like, “Wow, Kansas City has such an amazing and diverse food scene. I always thought Kansas City just had good barbecue.” And that’s the rep Kansas City gets, that you go here for good barbecue, and that’s about it. I love it just because we do a great job of representing so many different cultures and cuisines. While we do have a lot of modern American fare, we have a ton of really great good authentic ethnic cuisine, and I love that. 

How about your decision to become an influencer in Kansas City. How do you feel about that title, and what do you feel like you bring to Kansas City in doing that? 

I think that title is really interesting. I use it because now that is a more well known and recognizable title – it just tells people what I do. But you have to be careful about how you title yourself because there are certain perceptions that come with it. For a while when I said I’m an influencer I think people just imagined me, you know, taking pretty photos and posting them and getting paid to do that. But the job is a lot more complicated and a lot more demanding than that. 

But, the way I got into the field was really interesting… I graduated from UMKC and immediately went to work in the civil engineering field… I came to a place where I loved the job and I loved the work, but it just was not fulfilling – and I did not know what was going to fulfill me. I think deep down I knew, but I just didn’t have that at the top of my mind. So I just kind of unplugged and did a little bit of traveling in Brazil. I came back and thought, okay, I think I know what I want to do, let me try my best shot. So, the first year of me being back, I just stayed on my parents couch. I applied for all these random Craigslist jobs within marketing. I was paid like three, four, five bucks an hour. My goal was just to learn paid ad strategy… just as much as I could. One job that I had, they asked me to negotiate a contact with an influencer. I did all this research and tried to understand what it meant to be an influencer, because while it wasn’t brand new at that time, it was still new enough that there wasn’t a lot of information out there. I talked to this influencer that my client wanted to engage, and I was like, this is what I want to do, you get to do this for a living? She wasn’t a food influencer, and I said, “Maybe I could do that.”

At that time in Kansas City, we had a couple, more lifestyle influencers, but there weren’t many food influencers. I remember being invited to Kansas City Restaurant Week and seeing the handful of food influencers – I remember thinking I made the right choice. So after a while different PR companies locally would reach out to me, and eventually larger brands started to reach out to me to work with me, and it became a more profitable source of income. I think it was just me finding this person, and I had this lightbulb go off – that I want to do this.

How was it creating all of these roles and fitting them together? Do you think it came naturally? 

No. Actually, it’s weird because, like most businesses, I branded and identified myself and then reidentified myself and relabeled my services. What I think it was is that I never felt comfortable saying, “I do marketing. I also am an influencer. I also do recipe development. I also do food photography,” just because I was one of the people that felt like you should probably do one thing really well and stick to it versus do a lot of things okay. I thought those were my two options: do one thing great or do a lot of things okay. But then I realized, like, that’s not true at all. You can actually do a lot of things really well – nothing’s stopping you. So once I got over that hurdle… I then figured out that these things actually mesh really well and are interconnected on different levels, and I think that’s kind of what I want to do. I want to be this marketer. I want to be this influencer. I want to be this food writer and recipe developer, and I think I can make that happen. 

In juggling your roles as a recipe developer and marketer and influencer, and now restaurant owner, you’ve become sort of a storyteller in combining all of these different avenues. Do you think of yourself as a storyteller, and, if you do, what does that mean to you? 

You just got me in a sentence. When people really ask what I’m passionate about – you really hit it on the nail – it’s storytelling. That storytelling sometimes takes the form of recipe development. It’s telling a story through something I created in my kitchen. It’s telling a story through marketing, helping tell someone else’s story through social media and digital marketing. Right now it’s taking the form of opening this restaurant, Cultivare, and creating this brand that focuses on redefining what it means to have fast-casual, healthy, flavor-forward salads and grain bowl options in Kansas City.

But, to answer your question more specifically, I love storytelling. I love being able to craft an image of something I visualize and bring that to life for others to partake in it. It’s just one of those things, like you said, it’s in all the little things that I do. How they’re all in common is that storytelling component. 

Do you have a specific story you aim to tell through all of these things, or does it change based on what you’re covering or what you’re doing at the moment? 

Yeah, I think it definitely changes from role to role or based on what brand I might be working with as an influencer or marketer. So, it’s not always the same story, but I can tell you that whenever I tell a story I want it to be a good and enticing story. What I do is really try to do a great job at everything I’m involved in – whether that be Cultivare, whether it be a marketing project, whether it be an influencer partnership – that’s really important to me. 

Tell me about Cultivare. This is your first restaurant, what led you to pursue it? What in your career progressed you to this point? Was it always something you wanted to achieve or did it just seem right at this time in your life? 

Last year – actually around this time, a bit earlier last spring – I tried to open a concept in the Iron District… I wanted to open a concept called Food for Joyce, it was going to be a tribute to my late grandmother. I quickly realized how complex opening a restaurant is and how much experience in operations and logistics you need to make sure it goes smoothly. As I said, I only like to do things I know I’ll be good at. Not that I’m afraid of failure, but I really just like to get a good product in front of people. So I thought, this is something I want to do but I can’t do it right now.

Flash forward to six to eight months ago, I was approached by a colleague that I worked with here in Kansas City with some of my restaurant clients, Kerry Goebel. He and his brother, Kevin, are actually the primary owners of Cultivare… From there, that’s when he offered me a stake in the company – I became a partner. It started with recipe development, and that evolved into doing the marketing and branding, the identity and values. It was definitely a thing that started out as a little ask but grew into me becoming a partner. 

Exterior shot of Hardaway’s restaurant, Cultivare. Photo courtesy of Kasim Hardaway.

I think that shows how much of yourself you put into all of your tasks. Would you say that’s pretty consistent between Cultivare and all of the brands you work with and your online presence? 

Most definitely. You’re getting 100 percent authentic Kasim. While it’s not, for example, what I envisioned when I said I wanted a restaurant, it’s still something I’m truly passionate about. The cool thing with this partnership that I have with Kerry and Kevin – and also my business partner in my agency, who is also a partner in the restaurant – is that the Goebels bring this multi-year experience in restaurant operations and logistics, which is what I needed with Food for Joyce. So I’m really able to focus in on that creativity, that recipe development, all the things I know I’m really good at – so I don’t have to focus on accounting and food sourcing and management – things where I would definitely fall short. 

What is your favorite dish at Cultivare, as you’ve developed these recipes? 

That’s like making me choose my favorite child. But, my favorite child as of right now is the miso mushroom bowl. It’s a grain bowl. It’s my favorite because it definitely has the most complex flavor profile on our menu. It comes on a bed of quinoa, with roasted sweet potatoes, roasted beets and roasted shiitake, which has been quick-marinated… and then fired. So, while they aren’t cooked completely, they have this great flavor. That’s then topped with this concoction my mom helped me come up with. 

To give you some background on my mom: my grandmother, her mom, was a phenomenal cook and instilled my love for cooking. It skipped [my mom] because she makes four things, and that’s it. She’s not a cook whatsoever. When I was describing this bowl… I said I need a crunch factor, and she said, “what about granola?” I said, “mom you put granola in yogurt, on fresh fruit, you don’t put granola on something savory.” But I was curious about what I could do – so I came up with this recipe. It’s a pistachio, sunflower and pumpkin seed blend with tahini, agave, garlic and onion. So, it comes out just like granola but it has all of those salty and savory notes with a hint of sweetness. It’s a crumble that goes on top of the sweet potatoes, beets, kale and mushrooms. We finish that with a maple miso sauce – miso is just an incredible, flavorful paste – and the maple syrup adds in the sweetness that really draws out the sweetness from the beets so they’re not as earthy… It’s just kind of this umami bomb.

I’m really proud of it because, I will say, some of the dishes were inspired by people that I adore. Things that they had that I said, “I really like that. Let me take this from that and put my own spin on it.” But this miso mushroom bowl and maple miso sauce with savory granola is 100 percent authentic me in the kitchen, really testing things out… The maple miso, I wish I could drink it. It’s just one of those dishes… it’s a really tasty and oddly delicious offering we have. 

The Miso Mushroom Bowl. Photo courtesy of Kasim Hardaway.

Do you think that’s something unique about Cultivare that it brings to Kansas City, that mix of flavors and styles of dishes?

I think even if you take it a step further… I think it’s really important for any restaurant to have options for every dietary preference. I was really cognizant about saying, if you are the most carnivorous eater, you can come here and have a really good meal. If you are a vegan, and you don’t even look at meat, you can have a good meal. I really wanted to make it inclusive with everyone. The other thing that’s a little bit different about our fast-casual restaurant – because, again, this isn’t like table service, it’s very much just that you go up to your order window, place your order and they prepare it for you. Similar to a Chipotle, without the interaction in between. We pack a lot of flavor into all of our dishes. Which I feel like is typically really hard in a fast-casual setting. You are coming in and getting your meal within five minutes. So, it is a speedy process in terms of how you’re served, but the quality of the product you’re getting is really, really, really, really elevated. 

Cultivare is set to open July 8 in Overland Park, Kan. Hardaway plans to update the menu each quarter, so eaters will always be able to try something new. Catch Hardaway on his Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, follow a recipe on his blog or drop by Cultivare to get a taste of his creations. May we recommend the miso mushroom bowl?

Savannah Hawley

Savannah Hawley is the Managing Editor and Chief Copy Editor of The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: Literature & Theory and French.

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