Wichita’s top chefs are mostly men.
But lately, that’s been changing.
Even though, nationwide, women are rarely in charge of professional kitchens – a trend I outlined in a story published in November – the Wichita dining scene has recently added several. And all are culinary school graduates.
Just two weeks ago, Natasha Gandhi-Rue, a graduate of New York City’s French Culinary Institute, announced that later this year, she would open a new restaurant, The Kitchen, in the original Tanya’s Soup Kitchen spot at 725 E. Douglas.
At about the same time, Beautiful Day Cafe brought on its first head chef: Kansas native Regina Campos, who is using knowledge gained at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Ariz., to add elegance to the year-old restaurant’s farm-to-table menu.
And there’s Kassidy Sollars, a 25-year-old Wichita native and Johnson County Community College Culinary Arts graduate who is the head chef at The Hungry Heart, an Intrust Bank Arena-adjacent brewery and gastropub whose menu showcases smoked meats and Asian flare.
Recently, I sat down with Campos and then Sollars to find out what led them to their top restaurant jobs.
Regina Campos: Beautiful plates at Beautiful Day Cafe
When she sees a plate with hash browns heading out of her kitchen at Beautiful Day Cafe, Campos feels a little tug. The chef trained in French cuisine wants to yank the plate back and send out beautiful and delicate potato croquettes instead.
But Campos, who grew up in Deerfield and recently returned home from the San Francisco Bay Area to be closer to family, said she’s learning to match her skills with the healthy, farm-to-table food on the menu at Beautiful Day Cafe, Charolett Knapic’s restaurant at 2516 E. Central.
“I definitely want to keep it farm-to-table. I just want to make it prettier,” Campos said with a laugh.
Campos, who as a child learned to cook from her grandmother, wanted to go to culinary school when she was 22. At the time, she had two small children, and traveling across the country for school wasn’t an option.
She worked instead in the aircraft industry, but it wasn’t where her heart was. Fifteen years later, in 2010, her children were older, and she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Scottsdale.
“I didn’t go to culinary school to learn to cook,” she said. “I went to learn technique.”
After graduation, Campos moved to the Bay Area, where she worked as a caterer, ran a corporate food truck, worked in kitchens for the Darden Restaurant chain and held other food jobs. When she felt pulled back to Kansas, Campos said, she saw a help-wanted ad from Beautiful Day Cafe. It was a perfect fit, she said.
Campos has already made some additions to the menu, including orange-scented French toast, gazpacho and raw green collard wraps. And she said she’s excited to keep experimenting with the type of fare Beautiful Day Cafe’s customers want: food that emphasizes fresh produce, minimizes salt and sugar and replaces butter and cream with more healthful options like olive oil, almond milk and coconut cream.
“I love learning,” she said. “This is a whole new experience for me.”
Campos said she loves her new job but has another dream. She eventually wants to open her own gourmet taco truck, focusing on healthier tacos dressed with some of her famous fermented daikon, carrots and slaws.
Kassidy Sollars: A steak-and-potatoes girl with a tattoo to prove it
It’s unlikely that Sollars will forget her cuts of beef. At 25, she has a culinary degree and already has a job running a restaurant kitchen.
But if she would forget, she’d need only to consult her left forearm, which features a large tattoo of a beef cow with lines drawn to designate where the sirloins, tenderloins and flanks can be found.
“I love steak,” she said. “I’m a steak-and-potatoes girl.”
Sollars, a Wichita native, got the tattoo after graduating from the Johnson County Culinary Arts program with degrees in both culinary arts and food and beverage management. She’s now using her skills in the kitchen at The Hungry Heart, a gastropub and brewery at 222 S. Commerce, where she’s worked since it opened in late 2014.
A 2009 Northwest High School graduate, Sollars learned her way around the kitchen as a child. Her grandmother was a good cook and taught her how to make all her favorites: chili, chicken noodle soup, cherry cheesecake and vegetable pizza. In high school, Sollars enrolled in a program that taught her culinary basics, and she shadowed a chef in a local kitchen. That’s where she learned about Johnson County.
While in school, Sollars had an apprenticeship with Aramark, which handles catering for some of Kansas City’s biggest venues, including the Overland Park Convention Center, Arrowhead Stadium and Kauffman Stadium.
After graduation, Sollars worked as a server to round out her front-of-the-house knowledge, she said. Then her grandma told her about an opening she’d heard about from friends. A new gastropub near the arena needed a chef.
Sollars now works turning out plates of Korean short ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, tuna wonton nachos and more. She’s become an expert on the smoker, which Hungry Heart uses to cook its meat, and is a smoked salmon specialist. She’s also become known for her beer ice cream, which she makes using recipes developed with the restaurant’s head brewer and freezes using liquid nitrogen.
“I love the freedom I get here,” she said. “Since it’s not corporate, we get to come up with things as we go. We get to do whatever we want.”
Being the boss suits her, Sollars said, even though she’s occasionally had to show the door to kitchen workers who aren’t accustomed to taking orders from a young woman.
But she’s learned from those experiences, Sollars said, and she dreams of someday opening her own gourmet ice cream shop in Wichita.
The cow will get to come along.