By Denise Neil - Photography by Aaron Patton
Kayson Chong was a young chef on the rise in Los Angeles who had not only worked with a who’s-who list of the nation’s top chefs but also had just founded a successful and growing restaurant chain.
That’s when he got a call from Wichita.
Chong, a native of Los Angeles, had a friend and former colleague who had just moved to this mysterious flatland to help open an upscale restaurant for businessman Brandon Steven, and he needed a chef.
“He said, ‘What do you think about Wichita, Kansas?’” Chong said. “And I’m like, ‘Where? I know Kansas, but what’s Wichita?’”
Now, it’s been six months since Chong – the executive chef at Wichita’s upscale 6S Steakhouse, 6200 W. 21st St. ‑ not only talked himself into starting a new life in a strange place but also persuaded his fiancé to join him.
And to his surprise, he said, they love it. They’re looking for a house and have found that their lives are so much less stressful (and their personal space so much less crowded) than when they lived in L.A.
“We’ve almost completely decompressed,” he said. “It feels good to be here. We can get anywhere in town in about 15 or 20 minutes, which is really nice.”
Chong, 40, was “made in Korea but born in L.A.,” where he was raised and lived most of his life. His parents were immigrants who owned a dry cleaning business, and Chong spent his days on the streets of L.A.’s Koreatown.
His father was traditional and requested meals native to his home country: banchan, a stew called jjigae and lots of kim chi. His mother and his grandmother who moved to the states to help raise him and his sister, would oblige, but they also fully embraced American-style meals. In the 1990s, they loved making bread in the trendy bread machines, and he was served plenty of quality meatloaves.
“My mom makes a bomb-ass turkey, too,” he said.
As a youngster, Chong was good with his hands and was obsessed with putting things together and taking them apart. He would stand in the kitchen and watch the women cook, and he always wanted to get his hands dirty with them.
After a particularly rough spell of teen-age rebellion, he finally graduated high school and attended college then found himself bumming around Laguna Beach, “surfing, skating and doing all that stuff. It was really fun for me.”
But he was 20 and knew he needed to start a career. He’d always been a fan of the show “Iron Chef,” the original series that often featured Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto.
“That show just really intrigued me,” he said. “I’m seeing these guys making these incredible dishes just out of ingredients. It’s like alchemy. It really caught my attention.”
Chong said he didn’t want to disappoint his parents after all he’d put them through as a teenager, so he decided to enroll in culinary school. He chose the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, a school that has produced chefs like Charlie Trotter.
After he graduated in 2002, Chong launched a career that would land him in some of the west coast’s top restaurants working along some of the country’s best chefs.
His very first restaurant job was in the kitchen at the Postrio, Wolfgang Puck’s now-closed restaurant in San Francisco. Chong made soup and gnocchi for three months before graduating to the fish station.
Chong said he loved it when the famous chef owner stopped in the kitchen.
“He would come in, and that guy’s got so many things going on, and still to this day,” he said. “He’s an amazing chef and mentor and just a genuinely kind dude.”
Over the next decade, Chong worked in a series of high-end restaurants around Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. He worked with Chef Julian Serrano at Picasso Restaurant in the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He cooked with Chef Noah Rosen when he helped open BLT Steakhouse in Los Angeles. And he worked with Chef Michael Mina at XIV, also in Los Angeles.
He took a brief break to open Kayson’s Family Restaurant, a 45-seat diner that his uncle purchased and his parents helped him run.
In 2015, Chong was one of the founders of Mainland Poke, a restaurant that helped launch the poke craze in the United States. Though he’s no longer affiliated with it, Mainland Poke Shop has four California locations.
When the Wichita opportunity came up, Chong said, he had one important person to get on board with the idea: his fiancé, Brooke Kozlowki, whom he will wed on Dec. 30 in California.
She had her own successful career in editing in Los Angeles, and even though she grew up in Indiana and was familiar with the middle of the country, she wasn’t sure about the move at first. But she found a job as a producer at a Wichita television station and is settling in well, Chong said.
“It took her a month to say, ‘Yeah, let’s go out there. Let’s check it out,’” he said. “We needed something new. L.A. is just so congested.”
At the moment, the couple is on a tour of Wichita restaurants and make a special effort to eat in locally owned places. So far, their favorites are My Tho, Chiang Mai and Pho Hein.
Chong said he’s also settling in at 6S, where he’s showing his staff many of the service and kitchen techniques he’s picked up during his big-city career.
When he built the 6S menu, he said, he wanted to use ingredients he was used to, like fresh fish, even though he didn’t know how it would go over in Wichita. But so far, his hamachi crudo dish is one of the restaurant’s top sellers, and oysters move well, too, he said.
Other big hits are his Korean braised short ribs, made using his grandmother’s recipe, and his aged steaks, including a 140-day-aged bone-in rib eye.
“It was all very unknown, and it took my staff to kind of teach me what will work and what won’t,” he said. “But I didn’t let that stop me. I know good flavor, and I knew I wanted to show Wichita some new flavors.”
Chong is about to introduce some other big-city touches to 6S, including rolling out some tableside carts on which his staff will make things like tableside Caesar salads, baked Alaska and tableside steak tar tar.
He also hopes to launch a new fast-casual concept of his own while he’s here, Chong said. In the meantime, he’s beginning to recognize the faces of returning customers and says he hopes that this is just the start of his career in Wichita.
“We’re looking for a house, and we’re not going to leave anytime soon,” he said. “I want to stay and see where 6S takes us.”