A conversation with Keith Studebaker

07/07/2013 7:28 AM

08/08/2014 10:17 AM

Before the Food Network was regularly making rock stars out of chefs, Wichita had its own hotshot in the kitchen, and people paid to join him there.

Keith Studebaker was the first chef at Cibola in Bradley Fair and was known for his popular Chef’s Table where diners could join him for meals in his kitchen.

The restaurant closed in 2009, but Studebaker left long before then. Today, he’s with Ben E. Keith and is selling food and equipment to restaurants.

Growing up, what did you dream of doing?

“Not working in the food service business.”

What was your first job?

“Washing dishes in a restaurant in South Hutchinson.”

And that led to other restaurant jobs?

“Basically just got the food service bug at that point. … I worked for several different chefs to keep learning more and more. I prefer the school of hard knocks over some culinary school.”

As you moved to other restaurant jobs, did you start dreaming of owning your own place?

“That’s always a dream, I think.”

That was part of the plan in going to Cibola, right?

“The goal … was to move back, get a name for myself and find somebody who wanted to finance a restaurant.”

What happened?

“After being so intimately involved in that from start to finish, after two years I was shot and burnt out, and I wanted no part of it anymore.”

Yet you stayed in the business by selling food?

“That was the other thing. I couldn’t just walk away from everything I knew. This was a great natural progression.”

So many business people seem to want their own restaurants. If I had a dollar for every person who said they one day want to open a restaurant …

“Yeah, you’d be rich. You hear it every day.”

Why is that?

“It’s a mystique. … I don’t know, society has built this image … of (a) glamorous restaurant owner’s life. It’s not. It’s a ton of hard, hard work, and I don’t think people realize how much hard work it is to own and operate a successful restaurant.”

Do you miss it?

“I miss the creativity. I miss the instant gratification. … It’s a huge ego thing.”

In what way?

“When you cook a great meal and go out to the table, and they’re all gushing … it was good. It was instant. … It’s a rush, too. It’s a physical, mental, emotional rush to be in that environment. The day-to-day operation, I do not miss that at all.”

Will you ever have your own place?

“I am done opening restaurants. I’ll sell ’em. I’ll sell ’em all day long, and I’ll help you open one.”

Is it too dangerous to ask you what your favorite restaurant is?

“It’s Chester’s. I mean, that one’s safe.”

And your favorite hole-in-the-wall?

“Now that one’s (a) toss-up, I’d say, between Alejandro’s on South Rock Road … and Little Saigon off of Broadway.”

So many people say Wichita is such a great dining town. Is it?

“There’s a lot of quantity, and I wish there was more diversification.”

Really? In what way?

“There’s just too many people doing the same thing. The same type of thing. I wish there were more risks being taken or more thinking out of the box. I love what the Flying Stove does because it’s totally out-of-the-box thinking and food. I wish there … were more restaurants like that.”

Do your former diners still recognize you? Do you miss being the star chef?

“Some remember. … But overall it’s not something I live and die by right now. It’s just not part of my day-to-day life anymore. It’s not something I need.”

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