When the Covid lockdown closed the dining room of Lawrence mainstay Ramen Bowls, owner Shantel Grace found herself reconsidering the restaurant industry as a whole. Though she was still open for carryout, the pandemic disrupted her business and pushed her livelihood into question.
“We always thought we were locally focused [at Ramen Bowls],” she says, “but we realized that we sourced so many Asian ingredients and suddenly we couldn’t get them any more.”
On a rural drive in 2020, Grace and partner Rozz Petrozz stumbled across a historic farmstead in the tiny Kansas town of Overbrook, population one thousand and five. The property was for sale, and in the overgrown grass and handful of neglected buildings on a small plot in Douglas County, the pair saw their future. In July 2021, just a few months after purchasing and painstakingly restoring the original farmhouse, Grace and Petrozz opened Saltwell Farm Kitchen.
At first, dinner was served exclusively outside, at a long table shaded by a grove of oak trees. As Saltwell’s popularity grew—thanks mostly to social media and word-of-mouth—Grace and Petrozz began preparing for cooler weather. They installed a wood-burning furnace in a room they call the parlor (it was once a garage) and placed mismatched tables and chairs throughout the space and on the wrap-around porch. There are just forty-five seats, and they are full almost every Friday and Saturday evening—the only two dinner services Saltwell offers.
From the parlor, a narrow hallway leads to the kitchen where Petrozz prepares all of Saltwell’s food. This is also the kitchen he shares with Grace and Grace’s children: Saltwell is the couple’s home, too.
“Covid taught us what we didn’t want to be anymore and what we wanted our restaurant life to look like,” Petrozz says.
Born in the Chicago area, Petrozz has lived in Lawrence since 2013. He met Grace while working at Ramen Bowls in 2017. Usually, he says, a chef orders ingredients based on what they want their menu to look like. But in the wake of the pandemic, neither he nor Grace could imagine doing things that way again.
“I knew that I never wanted to see a big-box food delivery truck on this property, ever,” Grace says.
With the exception of olive oil, spices and a few cheeses, everything on the menu and in the kitchen at Saltwell is sourced from within six miles. (Concessions are made for select produce from their friends at Crum’s Heirlooms, located forty miles east in Bonner Springs, and occasional seafood overnighted from Fabulous Fish.)
“We get a list from the farmers of what they have, what they can’t get rid of, and we create a menu out of that,” Petrozz says. And, of course, the couple grow plenty of their own ingredients and forage as much as they can.
Petrozz translates all this into an eight-course meal that manages sophistication without ostentation. The food is Midwestern: With almost everything grown or raised in Kansas, what else could it be?
The menu changes weekly, but when I visited, there was a tomato and cucumber salad dressed in robust red wine vinegar dressing, and it reminded me strongly of the community potlucks and church suppers I’d endured as a kid in western Wisconsin. But in my memory, those tomatoes and cucumbers were condemned to a slow, slimy death in a mixture of sour cream, vinegar and dill. They had none of the satisfying crunch or peppery bite that Saltwell’s version offered.
Saltwell’s eight courses follow a relatively standard format. Guests are greeted with a small charcuterie plate (a mix of local and imported meats and cheeses, along with Saltwell’s own excellent pickled farm eggs), followed by two appetizers, salad, soup, pasta, a protein and dessert. Petrozz’s imagination flares unexpectedly, usually as a consequence of whatever produce arrives in his kitchen. Meaty heirloom tomatoes are sliced, skinned and briefly torched, then balanced atop tender scoops of sushi rice and dressed with Saltwell’s house-made aged soy sauce. Finished with fresh basil and foraged thistle, this is a caprese salad playfully camouflaged as nigiri. A knockout broccoli and apple soup, served in an antique teacup, is both earthy and bright. The goat cheese-stuffed ravioli is made with local wheat that Petrozz hand-mills on the farm and infuses with pollen from foraged goldenrods: It is as impressively serene as a Kansas sunrise. And who knows how Petrozz gets his tenderloin to eat like the beautiful prime beef of your Midwestern supper club fantasies?
Dinner is offered with thoughtful wine pairings, and seasonal cocktails are available (Kate Frick, who owned the beloved, recently closed Myers Hotel Bar in nearby Tonganoxie, curates the beverage program). Saltwell’s bar opens at 6 pm, and dinner begins at 6:30—it is the only seating time offered. The eight dishes arrive at an unhurried pace (dinners are expected to last around three hours), and guests are encouraged to wander the property between courses. You may stumble upon some free-ranging white rabbits or chickens. A sweet shepherd will greet you eagerly by the pen full of goats she is guarding from opportunistic predators. Breathe in the fragrant lavender, shake your head free from bumblebees or falling leaves. Follow the farm cats to the barn and glimpse its rustic state before Grace and Petrozz convert it into a tasting room, perhaps, or one of the other dozens of dreams they have between them.
The lessons the couple learned from the pandemic are never far away. “When we look at hospitality in America, it’s built on this idea of giving and generosity with nothing in return,” Grace says. “What I have learned is that hospitality is a give and take: It is me giving you as a guest everything I can, and in return, you acknowledge and respect that effort. When that happens—and it happens so often here—it is a magical experience.”
It happens in part because of the atmosphere that Grace and Petrozz have come by naturally. Petrozz is trans, and most of Saltwell’s serving staff identifies as queer. The couple have successfully corralled the staunch support of their old-school farmer-neighbors, a population that has traditionally not held space for marginalized communities. Most dinners start with a toast from the couple, an expression of gratitude for Saltwell’s guests and contributors. With it, the restaurant’s vibe is cemented: If you hadn’t already noticed, things are different here. In just two evenings, Saltwell finds more joy and wonder than other restaurants encounter in an entire month.