Kevin Gillenwater’s road to executive chef-dom was dotted with fascinating stories from dozens of legendary Wichita kitchens.
He got his first cooking job as a teenager in the once-popular Garden Cafe at 21st and Woodlawn, and lost it when he returned from a family vacation only to find the place boarded up.
He worked as a cook at Angelo’s and once accidentally dumped a hot-from-the-oven deluxe pizza directly onto the shirt of 90-year-old founder Angelo Fasciano.
He was a bartender at Cy’s Bar and Grill, a tortilla-chip fryer at Margarita’s Cantina, a cook at most of the fledgling Old Town Square restaurants and an apprentice of Douglas Pitts when he opened 626 Douglas in 2005.
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Most significantly, he helped open the upscale Chester’s Chophouse with respected local chef Bobby Lane, serving for years as his sous chef. He left that job last year, having spent seven years in the Chester’s kitchen.
“The extent of my cooking experience, I owe to Bobby,” Gillenwater said. “It was like going to culinary school and getting paid for it.”
Now, Gillenwater is executive chef at the Crown Uptown Dinner Theatre at 3207 E. Douglas, and the job is unlike any of the many he’s had before, he said. It’s not just because the Christmas season often sees him feeding 1,000 hungry “White Christmas” fans each day, requiring 130-hour work weeks performed on three hours of sleep a night. And it’s not just because, as one of the leaders of the tight-knit Crown crew, he’s often needed for non-kitchen jobs such as fixing toilets, repairing doors and building tables.
Gillenwater took over in April of 2012, shortly after the venue abandoned its traditional buffet in favor of nicer, plated dinners. The pace is hectic, said Gillenwater, a theater buff who gets to create always-changing menus that will please production-specific crowds (chicken fried chicken and mashed potatoes for the “Church Basement Ladies” audience; chicken Marsala and beef rouladen for “Hairspray”-goers).
Recently, Gillenwater, a 2001 graduate of Northeast Magnet High School, took a break from planning the new menu for “Spring Awakening,” which opens on Aug. 2, to answer a few questions about his long Wichita restaurant resume.
How did you first become interested in food?
“My grandmother is from Italy, and almost every single Sunday, we’d go eat at her house. My grandfather had a garden, and everything was fresh. There was nothing from the package. She was friends with Angelo Fasciano, and she got all of her bulk sausage from him. Her food was incredible, and those family recipes have been passed down.”
Besides your restaurant, where do you like to eat out in Wichita?
“I don’t eat out a lot, but when I do, I go to My Tho for sure. It’s the best pho in town. And the best bahn mi in town is at Little Saigon, hands down. I really love Asian food.”
What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
“I’m going to have to say my staff. I couldn’t do this alone. If I were on a kitchen line with one other person, I might be able to pull it off. But here, no. I need all those guys.”
What’s your most indispensable kitchen ingredient?
“Salt and pepper. Cooking here is different from cooking anywhere else. I’m always changing the menu. I don’t rely on one type of ingredient.”
What do you cook when you’re at home?
“When I’m at home, I have three or four smokers going. I love smoking food. I have a big pile of wood, from apple to hickory to oak. I’m always smoking something, whether it be brisket, pork shoulder, salmon, turkey, ribs, even pizza and mac and cheese. Anything you can cook, you can smoke.”
What’s your favorite dish?
“What I love to make and eat is Italian food. It’s in my blood. I’ve worked in seven Italian restaurants. I love Italian food that’s not traditional – a lot of seafood dishes. I also love manicotti and lasagne. I remember my grandmother making lasagne, and I make it just like she did.”
Are there any foods you don’t like?
“I hate mint. I cannot stand it. I don’t even use mint toothpaste. I use orange. I will cook with it, and if I have to taste it, I have to taste it, but I don’t like it. I also hate saffron. I won’t use it at all.”
What are the best and worst things about the dining scene in Wichita?
“The best thing is the worst thing. There’s so much variety in town and so many options that things are always changing. You go find a place you like, and then suddenly it’s not there anymore. It’s a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. There’s a lot of variety, but it’s always changing.”
What’s your philosophy about your job?
“It’s not about you. It’s about the customers. I’m all about making it happen for them.”