Dining With Denise Neil

Three years after kidney transplant, Wichita chef returns home for top job

Josh Rathbun is the new head chef at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse.
Josh Rathbun is the new head chef at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse. The Wichita Eagle

When Josh Rathbun was working as a chef in Australia, his feet started to ache.

He blew it off as one of the hazards of working long hours in a kitchen. But it wasn’t that.

At 27, Rathbun learned that his burgeoning restaurant career – and his life – were in jeopardy. His kidneys were failing, and he’d need a transplant.

Three years later, Rathbun has just taken over as the new executive chef at the Ambassador Hotel’s Siena Tuscan Steakhouse, a job vacated when Jeremy Wade resigned last month to take a job as a territory manager with Seattle Fish Co.

Rathbun’s cousin, Brett Rathbun, donated a kidney, and he got the lifesaving surgery he needed. Today, Rathbun is in good health and manages his condition with medication. He’s also a new dad and has just started his first head chef’s job, though it’s far from his first chef’s job.

Rathbun, 30, grew up in Wichita and got his early training in Wichita kitchens. He got his first Wichita kitchen job at age 15, washing dishes at Watermark Cafe. Not long after, he got a job at The Anchor, where he worked in the kitchen under Jeremiah Harvey, now the head chef at the Candle Club.

“Chef Harvey was one of my mentors,” Rathbun said. “He was the first real chef to encourage me to treat cooking as a career.”

Rathbun followed Harvey to Cibola, where he worked for a year and a half before leaving Wichita to explore kitchen jobs in Denver. His first job there was at Fruition, well-known Denver chef and James Beard nominee Alex Seidel’s first restaurant.

“Chef Harvey ignited a passion in me, but Alex helped me hone my skills,” Rathbun said.

Rathbun’s career took him to Australia, where he worked at a restaurant called Golden Fields in Melbourne before moving on to Quay, a restaurant near Sydney’s famed opera house. It was while working in Quay’s kitchen that Rathbun realized his aching feet were a warning sign of his kidney problems. He returned home for surgery.

While waiting, he got a job at Lakeside Club, where he became acquainted with Wade and where he met his future wife, Andrea, who was a waitress there. When he was well enough post-surgery, he did a six-month stint as the head butcher at Shane Gross’ then-new Douglas Avenue Chop Shop before being lured back to Denver for a job as executive sous chef at Seidel’s new restaurant, Mercantile. You can still see Rathbun pictured on the restaurant’s website, standing right next to the famous chef.

Rathbun worked at Mercantile for two years, and while there, he was named one of Zagat’s top 30 under 30 of restaurant industry professionals in the city. He also was married to Andrea there and became a father to Charlotte, now 1 1/2. The young couple wanted to get back home.

“We thought it was best for us to come back home to raise our baby,” he said.

When Wade heard his old friend was coming home, he called him about the Siena job he was about to vacate. Rathbun has been there just a few weeks. He plans to continue developing the Italian flair Wade tried to infuse back into the menu. Pasta is his specialty, and Rathbun recently persuaded the hotel to let him purchase a pasta maker so he can make it fresh. He’s also started locally sourcing eggs and as much of the restaurant’s meat and produce as he can.

He’ll keep the existing menu for now, he said, and likely will roll out a new one in a few months.

“The adrenaline rush, the fun and excitement of working in a kitchen is something I really enjoy,” he said.

Another thing Rathbun enjoyed in Denver was working with the National Kidney Foundation, and while living there, he was the chairman of a gala that featured the city’s top chefs providing food and cocktails, all to help raise money for the foundation.

The conference organizers are following Rathbun to Wichita, and he’s in the middle of organizing the 2017 gala, which will be staged here and will feature cocktails and tasting stations from local chefs. Details are coming, but the event should happen sometime in March, he said.

Denise Neil: 316-268-6327, @deniseneil