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Let Them Eat Dinner

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On the morning of September 11, 2001, Kim Garza's Evanston bakery, like most retail establishments in the country, was empty. But by 1 PM, says Garza, "there were about 15 people in here. They were sitting on the windowsills, they were sitting on the floors, sitting on the tables. Some people were crying; we ended up laughing about some things. It was just a place where people came to get a cup of coffee and just be."

That afternoon was a turning point for Garza, who had opened Kim's Kitchen just four months earlier. "As many times as I had thought, Maybe I'll just shut down the store and be a catering shop--it would be a lot easier, hours would be better--I knew then that I couldn't do it. I knew I had to stay with it the way it is."

Garza was raised in Winthrop Harbor, in the far northeast corner of Illinois, by parents from Mississippi. "Coming from the south, there was always the cardinal rule of, Don't forget to feed the guy next door. Don't forget to invite the preacher to dinner. And if you have anyone over, don't run out of food." She'd been wanting to put those words into action for a few years when she spotted a former video store for rent in September 2000. Garza, a former technical training salesperson, gutted the place and installed a kitchen that takes up most of the square footage. "Everybody said, 'You're not gonna make it, there's never been a place like that here before,'" she says. "Well, we've been here over two years now."

Though Garza's interest in cuisine dates back to childhood, she was never really interested in cooking until she met her husband, Richard, in college. For a long time "he was the cook, I was not," she says. "I could make spaghetti sauce out of a jar, cake out of a box. Once we got married I got really tired of everyone asking, when I invited them over for Thanksgiving, 'Is Richard cooking?'" She started watching cooking shows and reading cookbooks and "every single cooking magazine I could get my hands on."

These days she tries to cook with only fresh ingredients: real butter, real eggs, real milk, real cream. Soups at Kim's Kitchen--varieties include tomato bisque and sweet potato--are made from scratch. "We do a lot with fresh herbs," she says. The only item not made by Garza or her staff is the bread, which comes all the way from La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles: "I can't even try to top that."

But the best thing at Kim's is the sweets. Scones come in flavors like blueberry, ginger, and chocolate toffee. There are coffee cakes, dessert bars, cookies, fresh strawberry muffins, and a cupcake that looks like an oversize version of the Hostess classic. There are cakes you can buy off the shelf; others are available by special order. "We do decorated cakes, but not froufrou cakes," says Garza. "We don't do frosting flowers."

The bakery sells take-out breakfast dishes for groups of eight or more, "like an egg strada you can just throw in the oven and finish," says Garza. Kim's also does catering--clients include the Sheridan Shore Yacht Club in Wilmette and the Midwest Montessori School--and will host graduation and birthday parties. For Valentine's Day the store sells take-out dinners for two with four or five courses and a dessert ("usually chocolate," says Garza). And as of last spring it serves the occasional dinner, usually five courses done family style--and "dessert is always another two or three courses," Garza says.

The first dinner was held in May. In response to a menu posted in the window, 24 people signed up to sample Garza's puff-pastry-wrapped asparagus, tamarind-glazed Cornish game hen, butternut squash with polenta and lentils, and chocolate ginger truffle tart. "We thought it was going to be too much work and not enough payoff, but it's just been fun," she says. "We had half the second dinner full before people left the first."

For the next installment, in August, Garza chose a southwestern theme, making stuffed jalapenos, seviche, tuna in cilantro vinaigrette, margarita mousse, and cinnamon ice cream. In October the menu was French, and for their upcoming fourth dinner Kim and Richard will cook Italian: zucchini fritters, spaghetti with shrimp in garlic and oil, sweet-and-sour chicken ("my husband's dish"), risotto croquettes (balls of risotto stuffed with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto and deep-fried), and for dessert, tangerine sorbet, flourless chocolate almond cake with cognac-and-white-chocolate sauce, and poached pears with currants and fresh vanilla.

Garza now limits the dinners to 20 people per seating (there are one or two seatings per night). "We get a few people who repeat, and we have one couple that comes to every dinner," she says. "It's a really nice way to get to know your customers." It's also a way for customers to get to know each other: a guest at one of the dinners found that another guest was his high school English teacher from 20 years ago.

"In my town I knew who was next door," says Garza. "I knew the chief of police. Everyone's so busy now, we don't even know who lives across the street anymore. . . . What happened here was, we had this place that people came into every single day, and we have this big table just like you have at home. So people have to sit across the table from each other. They have to learn about each other. We had college kids who would come in and tell us about their dissertation, or about a test, or about the girlfriend. Or they'd tell us, Geez, I really screwed up, or whatever it might be. It just became this huge family: the people who worked here and the customers who came in. And it still is that way."

Kim's Kitchen is at 815 Noyes in Evanston, 847-475-5467. "Dinner at Kim's Kitchen: An Italian Holiday" starts at 7:30 PM on Saturday, January 24, and costs $55 per person; reservations required.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.

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