Dining With Denise Neil

Pastry chef by day, rocker by night: Young chef has a sweet life

Britt Shoffner is Siena Tuscan Steakhouse’s pastry chef.
Britt Shoffner is Siena Tuscan Steakhouse’s pastry chef. The Wichita Eagle

During the day, she’s up to her chef’s coat sleeves in semifreddo, coulis, gateau, pana cotta and all manners of fancy, high-end components of desserts that she makes as the pastry chef at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse, the restaurant inside Ambassador Hotel Wichita at 104 S. Broadway.

At night, she’s on stage at local bars like Barleycorn’s, Peerless and Lucky’s (and recently on the main stage at the Chichi Riverfest), strapped with a guitar and belting out alt-country tunes with her husband, Zach, in their band Keen Kutter.

In between, Britt Shoffner is the mom of a 15-month-old girl who recently learned to walk.

Shoffner, 27, is becoming well-known in Wichita circles for her artistic versatility — and for the desserts she makes using training from her stint at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

One of a very few full-time pastry chefs employed in Wichita restaurants, Shoffner is responsible for coming up with menus of intricate sweets that will stand up to Siena chef Josh Rathbun’s cuisine and entice the clientele at the luxurious restaurant. The dessert menu now is occupied by selections like lemon curd tarts with meringue and fresh berries, chocolate and hazelnut semifreddo, and a panna cotta made with cilantro lime granite, passion fruit, mango and pineapple.

Shoffner says she likes making dessert for the same reason she likes being a musician — it brings people joy.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward food,” she said. “I wanted to make people happy.”

Shoffner, a self-described military brat, grew up with an Air Force father and lived in North Dakota, Wichita and St. Louis through her childhood. After high school, she wanted to reconnect with Wichita friends and moved back.

She decided to attend culinary school and chose to study pastry for a couple of reasons. One was that she loved the science and exactness of the art of baking.

The other: She was a big fan of the show “Ace of Cakes.”

“It was my favorite for the longest time,” she said. “And it wasn’t necessarily the cakes I liked. It was the people on that show. They were just so laid back and artistic and I thought, ‘Those are the kind of people I want to hang out with.’”

She earned her associate’s degree from the CIA in 2013 and also had an externship at Patisserie 46, a French bakery in Minneapolis where she was known as “The Tart Queen” for her mastery of the dessert.

She returned to Wichita where she got a job cooking at the then-new Public at the Brickyard. Shoffner was quickly promoted to head chef, but the the hours were overwhelming and she decided to move on to a job making croissants for Newton’s popular Crust & Crumb bakery.

After that, she took a job at Douglas Avenue Chop Shop, which had just opened and where her husband’s close childhood friend, Josh Rathbun, was working as the head butcher. Shoffner was hired to work as the cheese monger.

In between, she also worked as a line cook and catering manager at the College Hill Panera — and had a baby. Then Cliff Bragg, who was had just opened his Milkfoat dessert restaurant at 535 W. Douglas, hired her to work there last fall. Her eye catching gingerbread house rendition of the Epic Center, Wichita’s tallest building, was a social media sensation over the 2016 holidays.

One day, she got a call from her old friend, Rathbun, now the head chef at Siena, saying that he had a pastry chef emergency. His was leaving, and he had to find a new one. Was she interested?

Rathbun was relieved when she said yes.

“Britt brings solid technical skills with a modern point of view to our pastry program,” he said. “It was important to me to bring someone to the staff that had a strong background in pastry but also a strong desire to prove herself. I believe that many young people in Wichita are ready to express themselves and are finally getting the chance, and our city is starting to break free of preconceived notions about the food we receive in restaurants.”

Since starting at Siena six months ago, Shoffner has spent her days in an out-of-the-way corner of the kitchen, creating her sweets at a little counter in the hallway between the main kitchen and the walk-ins. It’s there where she experiments with chocolate and custard and cheese and fruits and nuts.

Shoffner, who says her favorite sweets are cheesecake and almond croissants, also is responsible for baking bread and providing little sweets and cookies for the hotel’s guests.

“I feel really versatile,” she said. “I’m not just making desserts, so it doesn’t get stale. Every week is completely different and a new challenge.”

People seem envious when they find out that her career is dessert, Shoffner said, and she gets a lot of good-natured grief for being such a thin person and also a pastry chef.

But she does fairly often run into people who tell her that dessert really isn’t their thing, she said.

“‘Don’t even talk to me,’” she tells them. “That’s like saying ‘I don’t like music.’ I think your body is made to enjoy sweets, but I think people just have a lot of worry about what it’s doing to their body. I like the idea of living a little. I also think variety is good, and it’s good to get your vegetables. But it’s also good to just enjoy yourself.”