Let Them Eat Cake...or snails
by Rachel Coleman
Mike Brack remembers the day he got his first taste of the pleasure of cooking. He’d agreed to bring a cake to school for his third-grade class — but forgotten to tell his mother ahead of time.
“I said, ‘Mom, you’re supposed to make a cake for tomorrow,’ and she looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’re going to learn how to do it.” She had her recipes taped to the insides of the cabinet doors and I remember her telling me how to do it.
The cake turned out, and Brack was hooked. The realization took hold in his mind: “Cooking food makes people happy — and it’s a lot of fun.”
Today, Brack makes a living doing just that.
As manager and head cook at Liberal Country Club, he oversees operations in the golf pro shop, lounge and dining room, golf course and pool. He manages day-to-day matters like supplies and staffing, budgets and special event planning. He handles the paperwork for state and federal regulations.
And, with the help of three other cooks on staff, he puts in his shifts in the kitchen.
It’s that last item that brings him the most personal pleasure, he admitted. The menu at LCC balances standard Southwest Kansas fare with rarer tastes.
“I’ve got members that would like to see foie gras, sweetbreads and snails on the menu,” he said, “and then I’ve got the other type of member, who, if it doesn’t say meat and potatoes or he doesn’t know how to pronounce it, he isn’t interested.”
Because his goal as manager is to provide members with a place that can be enjoyed “almost as an extension of their home,” he said, steak and fried chicken are part of the line-up.
But while Brack is fully willing to list hearty standards like meat loaf on the menu, the chef in him must draw the line somewhere.
“I don’t like canned anything,” he said flatly. Fresh is always better, he said, pointing to spinach as the ultimate example. “I ate canned spinach as a child and couldn’t stomach it. It’s just horrid. Years later, I tasted fresh spinach and it was totally different. I said, ‘Now, I can handle this.’”
Brack changes the menu seasonally and offers a special every night, which allows the kitchen staff to experiment with new items. The house specialty is Strawberries Rebecca, a piquant offering of fresh-cut strawberries topped with rum sauce.
Brack’s ability to respect humble classics, even as he appreciates the gourmet, dates back to his childhood.
“We were a middle-class family living in Liberal, Kansas,” he said. “My mom worked two part-time jobs and she had to rely on my brother and sisters and me for the normal stuff that keeps a house running.” What helped his mother then, he noted, “helped me as an adult.”
During his student days at Seward County Community College, Brack got the hang of cooking more than a single-family meal, expanding to dinners for 15 to 20 friends. From there, it was a short step to cooking on a larger scale for community events — Boy Scout fundraisers, church spaghetti suppers and the like.
“It was chicken and noodles, pancake meals, that sort of thing,” he said.
Then his pal, Jolene Brown, approached him with a proposal to do fancier catering: hors d’oeuvres and desserts for the annual open house at Brown’s Furniture Store. The venture suited Brack’s taste perfectly, and it was fun. But it also created a dilemma.
Brack was working toward a music educator’s degree, and financing his college education with part-time jobs at restaurants, drinking establishments and freelance catering gigs. Increasingly, he noticed work in the food service industry appealed to him more than teaching. It just had more sparkle.
“Finally, I took a year off between my junior and senior years to find myself,” he said. Liberal hotel owners Clarence and Phyliss Windle snapped him up as manager for their restaurant at the Gateway Inn. Ultimately, he completed his degree in education, but the connections forged in the interval served well and he landed a job at a hotel in the Kansas City area. There, Brack learned the ins and outs of banquet management and various catering structures. He operated a fitness center restaurant that offered cafe luncheons and a weekly Sunday brunch and hosted weddings.
“It seemed like I did a wedding every weekend for more than a year,” he recalled. “It was anything for sale — the whole spectrum from really expensive affairs to receptions with plastic silverware.”
Continuing his hands-on training in higher-end food service, Brack put in a few years back at Liberal, this time at the country club, before he moved to Garden City’s country club and then back east. He worked at a metropolitan K.C. club where ice sculptures were common fare, the kitchen employed a full-time pastry chef and paper plates were nowhere to be seen.
He relished city life, with its access to gourmet food markets and ethnic restaurants, but when LCC called him back for a second stint in 2003, it was hard to say no. The building had burned down and members intended to start over. The proposal offered Brack a chance to gain valuable, resumé-building experience and spend some time back home after years away and a divorce that, he said wryly, “is the kind of thing that will change everything.”
Change was the word in the air at LCC, where construction was underway for a new club house. Brack found moving home to Liberal was not a sacrifice, as his counterparts in the city imagined. A major reconstruction/remodeling project gave him plenty to think about. The chance to put his own stamp on the place where he’d work was appealing.
Today, the job continues to offer satisfying challenges. His educator’s background has come in handy as he provides on-the-job training for willing but less experienced kitchen staff. He enjoys the freedom management offers, constantly looking for new ways to attract and retain members.
And the community feels like home because it is home. This year, Brack’s plate is full as he fills the spot as Rotary Club president and the first of two terms as president of Liberal’s International Pancake Day. He’s also chair of a national club manager’s association, which puts him on the road five times a year.
When he returns to Liberal, he said, it’s the club atmosphere that lets him know he’s home.
“When you work in a nice atmosphere, you kind of escape the things you don’t care for so much,” he said. “You come in to work and it doesn’t matter how it smells outside. Everybody’s in a good mood, everybody enjoys good food and a good time.”