Howard Hanna

Chef/Owner, The Rieger and Ça Va

Howard began working in restaurants while in high school in Manhattan, Kansas. Later he worked in some popular casual restaurants in Lawrence and Manhattan before helping to open Coco Bolos in 1998, first as sous chef then chef.

In 2001, Howard moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America. He graduated first in his class in 2003 while gaining invaluable work experience first under the “Godfather of American regional cuisine,” Larry Forgione, and then with Italian-born chef Giovanni Scappin, who taught Howard a respect for simplicity and love of Italian cuisine. Howard has worked and studied around the world in places such as France, Italy, Canada, Mexico, Samoa, New Zealand, California and New York. During his travels he has honed his culinary skills and deepened his understanding of hospitality in the kitchens of five James Beard Award winners, two Food & Wine Best New Chefs, and five Michelin starred restaurants.

Howard arrived again in Kansas City in the fall of 2003 where he worked at 40 Sardines for chefs Debbie Gold and Michael Smith, then helped to open Room 39 as sous chef, then chef de cuisine.  In late 2007 Howard took the executive chef position at the River Club.  There he revitalized and updated the premier private dining facility while remaining in the public eye through events at Powell Gardens, Green Dirt Farm, Crum’s Heirlooms, Test Kitchen and as a featured chef for Chef’s Classic and Cochon 555.

In December of 2010 Howard finally achieved his dream of opening his own restaurant, The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange in Kansas City. Shortly after opening, the restaurant and Howard were featured in No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. The Rieger has been featured in the New York Times twice, and in 2014 Howard was named a James Beard Semi Finalist for Best Chef Midwest. Also in 2014, Howard opened Ça Va, a Champagne bar in Kansas City’s renaissance Westport area.

Howard is thrilled to be a part of the Kansas City culinary community and continues to play an active role in local farming movements.

What makes Kansas City a great place for creativity and innovation?
I think the size of it is perfect. There are a lot of influences here and a lot of people that have lived different places but ended up back here. It’s big enough to have some diversity and a mix of ideas and cultures and backgrounds, but at the same time, we’re small enough that everyone knows each other. I think it’s hard to have that cutthroat competition when you all have to live together, and go to each other’s places [restaurants]. Sometimes in bigger places it’s very  very competitive. I feel like here, we push each other and we definitely do compete when it comes down to it, but at the same time we’re really all friends and we really all support each other. There’s a lot of collaboration and a lot of support for other local businesses. They are other people with good ideas and other businesses just trying to do good things. I think what everyone realizes is that what’s good for Kansas City is good for all of us, so I love that we have that kind of attitude.

I know the circles I travel in are restaurant people and chefs in particular, but I feel like it’s really interdisciplinary. Where we’re at in the Crossroads, I know musicians and dancers and writers and artists and I love that there are all these different interchanges where we can have food at an arts event. I feel like it’s big enough to have stuff going on, but small enough that we all have to know each other and have to work together and that’s great to me for collaboration and creativity.

What is your favorite spot in Kansas City?
The Concourse, a park in the historic North East, has a really beautiful fountain and wading pool where all the neighborhood kids hang out and splash around. I love Union Station and Liberty Memorial too because they are iconic to KC. Being at one and looking at the other is always cool.

And I just moved to the River Market, it’s awesome how walkable and diverse it is. It has a real honest neighborhood feel to it.

Where's your favorite place outside of Kansas City?
My mother is from Samoa. So I have only been there twice, but each time I’ve gone for like a month. My sisters and I grew up pretty isolated from that side of the family. It’s strange that half way around the world I have well over 40 cousins, a huge extended family, all in Samoa. So Samoa is always in my heart. Not only because of my family and the cultural significance, but also because it is such a beautiful place.

What's your most treasured possession?
I don’t like “things.” I like doing stuff with people. I like relationships - I like stuff that you can eat and drink and then it’s gone.

Who's your favorite fictional hero?
Vito Corleone. The Godfather.

Who do you most admire in real-life?
There isn’t one individual, but there is a common thread through the people I admire most. They’re the people that have fought for other people or stood up for other people that were unable to take care of themselves. On a personal level, Howard Zinn and Cesar Chaves, these are two guys I’ve met. All the people that inspire me and mean the most to me are people that fought for something bigger than themselves. I’d also have to include my mom. She was the strongest person I’ve know. She could do anything!

When and where are you happiest?
Standing there in my kitchen [The Reiger] when we’re busy, and things are going well. For anything to happen, I have to say it. From where I stand I can see everything going on; from what’s being served on the plate to the people walking in the door to the look on someone’s face after they have their first bite to people sharing food and enjoying themselves. For me to feel this adrenaline it has to be very very busy and it has to be going well. When I’m really busy and I’m doing a thousand things at once but I feel happiness around me in the dining room. It’s the best. When everything is busy, and everything is great. It’s not all of the time, but when it is, it is. I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m exactly where I want to be, and I don’t think you get that too much.

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