Chef offers upscale lunch fare for Koch employees
It serves duck breast and fermented pork and dressings made with homemade vinegars.
It offers a taco special that has hungry fans lined up out the door every Friday.
Its chef, a culinary school graduate and former star of the Austin food scene, makes everything from breads to pickles on-site, and in the two years the restaurant has been open, he’s never served the same dish twice.
It’s one of Wichita’s best new restaurants, and it has people talking.
Sorry, you can’t eat there.
Not unless you work at Koch Industries or have a friend who does and is kind enough to invite you to the office for lunch.
Many Wichita businesses have cafeterias that can feed lots of employees affordable blue plate specials and salad bars. But none are quite like 37 West, the 2-year-old restaurant/cafeteria inside Koch Industries’ newest building, a 210,000-square-foot addition to the Koch Campus that opened in 2015.
Largely driven by the talents and culinary integrity of its chef, Bill Crites, 37 West has built a bit of a reputation in Wichita’s food community – even though it’s not open to the public.
“We get people who say this is their favorite restaurant in Wichita, and it’s crazy to hear that,” said Crites, 33. “Sometimes I feel like I wish we were open to the public because I’m really proud of the food that we do. I’m really proud of the work that goes into it.”
When Koch’s new building, dubbed Building H, was being planned for the northwest end of the campus, it was decided it would get its own restaurant. Koch, whose campus near 37th and Woodlawn employs more than 3,200 people, already had a popular cafeteria. Cafe Koch, located a quarter-mile away from 37 West and said to be Koch CEO Charles Koch’s go-to lunch spot, has long served burgers, sandwiches, salads, stir fries and more.
Cafe Koch is popular with employees, too, but the buzz around 37 West has been something different.
Crites now has a growing following of food groupies who visit his place every day, post photos of their lunches on Instagram, eagerly await the release of the next week’s menu and invite their friends and spouses to eat whenever they can.
When they arrive, they dine on ajo blanco soup – a gazpacho made of almonds, garlic, green apple and mineral water than garnished with grapes, Swiss chard stem, oil, beet and garlic flowers.
The next day they get Japanese curry with miso glazed beef, ramps, snap peas, fresh herbs and togarashi. Or they might choose the braised beef short rib with egg noodles, local onion salad, sous vide egg with parsley powder, begonia flower and coriander demi glace.
For dessert: A house-made cinnamon graham cracker dipped in tempered chocolate with toasted banana marshmallow.
Most entrees cost employees about $5.
“I’ve always been a foodie,” said Nicole Hoppock, an administrative assistant at Koch and a 37 West fan. “I look at the menu, and half of the time, I can’t pronounce the stuff he has on there or I don’t even know what it is. I tell people I work here and it’s the first thing that comes out of their mouths: ‘I hear you guys have great food.’”
Crites came to cooking later than most chefs. Growing up in Ohio, he was always drawn to food and remembers that on visits to see his grandma in Chicago, he was much more interested in watching her cook than going to a Cubs game.
His father owned a construction company, and Crites was his only son. It was expected that he’d take over the family business, but Crites said he wasn’t interested. Instead, he signed up for the Army and served for six years. He was stationed in Iraq for 13 months starting in December 2004.
After the army, Crites decided to explore his love of cooking and enrolled in culinary school in Austin, where he quickly became the teacher’s pet – a chef so dedicated to his craft and doing things correctly that he annoyed his classmates.
“When I started culinary school, my goal was to graduate at the top of my class, have a 4.0 and have perfect attendance so that I could demonstrate to any future employer that while I may not have any experience, I can at least show you I have the ability to learn anything you show me and you can count on me to be here,” Crites said.
During school and after graduation, Crites worked in several restaurants around Austin, most notably as the sous chef at Olivia, a once-popular restaurant that closed last year. In 2014, he was featured in a profile in Zagat, the national restaurant rating site and guidebook producer. He’d been nominated as one of Austin’s best “30 Under 30” chefs, but he turned 30 the day before the awards were distributed. The article’s headline was “Bill Crites, the One Who Got Away.”
His culinary life also included time working on a farm as well as a stint in Spain, where he went with a one-way ticket and no real plan and eventually hooked up with a restaurant owner who hired him to open his new place.
Finding a culinary voice
In 2013, Crites returned to Austin and started working at a restaurant called Mettle. It was there that he met and fell in love with a waitress named Lee, a Wichita native. When she got pregnant, the couple decided to come to Wichita to be closer to her family.
Crites applied for jobs online and was snatched up by Koch, where he worked as a sous chef at Cafe Koch. He left briefly and worked as head chef at YaYa’s Eurobistro before he was recruited back to Koch to run the about-to-open 37 West. It was June 2015.
Since then, his skills have been earning him a reputation across Wichita. He’s now a regular on the Wichita cooking competition scene, and back in April, he beat out several local restaurant chefs to take the title at Cutthroat Cookoff, a live cooking competition that doubled as a fundraiser for the Special Olympics. He’s also befriended several of his cooking contemporaries in town, including Siena Tuscan Steakhouse’s Josh Rathbun and District Taqueria’s Michael Farha.
Crites’ job gives him the freedom to run a kitchen the way he’s always wanted to, he said, and he’s able to experiment with ingredients and techniques. He’s particularly obsessed these days with fermenting, and he’s also lately been exploring the idea of minimal waste in the kitchen. On a recent weekday, his bright and clean 37 West kitchen was full of trays of drying coriander roots that he planned to grind into seasoning. Scraps of citrus peels were fermenting in a jar nearby, and although Crites knew he had a plan for them, he couldn’t quite remember what it was.
“Now that I’ve had the freedom and space to create my own voice and style, I’m sure anxious about getting complacent,” he said. “I’m really adamant about continuing to push myself and doing things in a new way and just really searching for what is the best way.”
Meanwhile, Crites continues to thrill the palates of his customers, who say they are constantly introduced to new flavors over their lunch hours. The most popular day of the week at 37 West is taco Friday, when Crites puts out an array of house-made meats and toppings. (People were going particularly crazy for his beef tongue tacos until word got around that they were beef tongue tacos, he remembered with a laugh.)
He’s saved more than 300 e-mails from diners who wrote to praise his cooking, and he has fans among Koch employees who visit from offices in Atlanta and Chicago and tell him that they’d rather eat at 37 West than anywhere else.
Eddy Brotemarkle, who works in Koch’s legal group and is a food blogger, said he’s a devoted 37 West fan and particularly loves Crites’ Asian-inspired meals.
It’s not unusual, Brotemarkle said, for him to buy two meals a day the cafe.
“I’ll have one for lunch and save the other one for the end of the day,” he said.