Much of Wichita’s restaurant community was awoken by the same sad message on Friday morning.
Texts from server to chef, chef to owner. Did you hear the news? Tanya Tandoc is dead. That can’t be true. Can it?
Jeremy Wade, a longtime Wichita chef who now heads the kitchen at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse inside the Ambassador Hotel, said his phone blew up with messages the second he picked it up on Friday morning.
Taste and See’s Jason Febres received a text from Anchor owner Schane Gross, who’s out of the country.
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Ben George, the executive chef at Intrust Bank Arena, saw a post on Facebook and thought it was a hoax.
Bella Luna owner Matteo Taha, who has been a personal and professional friend of Tandoc’s for more than a decade, said his phone also was flooded early by messages from distraught staff members.
“I can’t believe it,” Taha said on Friday afternoon. “I really can’t believe it. I really love her so much.”
Local restaurant owners and chefs said on Friday that Tandoc was a beloved member of their close-knit community – and possibly the most colorful. She was one of the first celebrity chefs Wichita had, and she viewed her fellow chefs as friends, they said, not competitors. She supported other locally-owned restaurants so much that she frequently raved about them on local radio station KMUW, where she offered occasional restaurant reviews.
Many in the restaurant community said they had last seen Tandoc on May 28 at a private fundraising event at Botanica called Amuse Bouche. Tandoc was one of the organizers of the event, a fundraiser for Rainbows, and it was her job to get local chefs to participate.
She was in true form that night, they say, flitting about the gardens, hugging everyone. At the end of the evening, when there was food left over, she volunteered to go back to her restaurant and get carryout containers so people could take the rest home.
Taha, who rarely participates in such events, said he agreed to do so, but only because Tandoc asked him. He sent food and a server but wasn’t able to attend himself, even though Tandoc begged him to come hang out.
“Now, I wish I did,” he said.
Wade, who has been cooking in Wichita since he came home from Detroit in 2000, said he first met Tandoc at a cooking competition when he moved back to town. Both were regulars on the circuit and would frequently say yes to charities putting on restaurant-themed fundraisers. Both frequently participated in the Celebrity & Chef Cookoff, an annual fundraiser for the Orpheum.
Tandoc was scheduled to serve as a judge at this year’s event, which happens on Tuesday.
When Wade first returned to Wichita, Tandoc was three years into owning the first incarnation of Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, and it was always packed. She had fans, and she liked to talk to them. She was frequently in the dining room with her stylish glasses, tattooed arms and tousled brown hair, accepting praise and making friends.
“She kind of paved the way for chefs in Wichita,” Wade said. “Antoine Toubia certainly had his notoriety, but I don’t think he had nearly the notoriety she did. She paved the way to make it more acceptable for people to interact with chefs.”
Taste and See owner and chef Febres met Tandoc when he was a young chef starting out in Wichita. He admired her kitchen skills, he said, but he admired her as a person even more. The two spent many evenings drinking and partying together.
“She was probably one of the most influential people in my career as far as her personality and her vibe,” he said. “I really enjoyed my time with her. She was goofy and silly and funny as hell, and she would say the most random things.”
Febres, who has a boisterous Facebook persona, said he took his cues from Tandoc. She was loud and uncensored and unafraid to say what she thought – in person and on social media.
“She was so bold, and it was kind of inspiring in my chef life,” Febres said “I learned to be a real person and to be who I really am on Facebook.”
Febres put a chalkboard sign outside his restaurant on Friday that read, “RIP Tanya Tandoc. We miss u already.”
George said he also met Tandoc early in his career, when he worked as a chef for Gross at the Anchor. Tandoc and Gross “were like sisters,” he said, and they shared encouragement, laughs and staff members. The two shopped in the same employee pool, he said, and many servers he knew work at both the Anchor and at Tanya’s Soup Kitchen.
He remembers being impressed by Tandoc’s big heart, he said.
“When I first met her, I thought, ‘Wow. This is a very eccentric, wild woman,’ ” George said. “What really stuck out to me, though, was not just the quality of her food but also how she gave jobs to people that she knew had a good work ethic.”
Taha became close to Tandoc when she became a regular customer at his Bella Luna Cafe, he said. They would offer each other encouragement and talked on Facebook at least once a month. When Tandoc had a conversation with someone, Taha said, she made him or her feel like he or she was the most important person in the world.
She loved cooking, he said, and it came across in her food. Once, not long ago, he remembered, Tandoc asked him whether he needed any help with his restaurant. He didn’t, he said, and he’s not even sure what help she was trying to offer. But that’s how Tandoc was – always wanting to find out what she could do for people she cared about.
“I really think she’s in a good place,” Taha said. “I think God wanted her. I think God only takes the good ones. If you have a plant and it has roses, when you go to pick a rose, you pick a good one.”