By Denise Neil - Photography by Aaron Patton
Usually, the path from line cook to executive chef takes years of grunt work in kitchen after kitchen after kitchen.
But Woodfire Grille’s head chef skipped all that.
At age 30, Jennifer Reifschneider, who leads the kitchen at the Kansas Star Casino’s premiere fine dining restaurant, has managed to shoot ahead in her profession. A culinary school graduate, she’d worked in only one other restaurant kitchen in her life before answering an ad for a line cook position at the casino.
Three years later, she’s the boss.
But then, Reifschneider has kind of always been the boss.
She’s the type of person who earned near straight A’s in college and in high school. Who excelled at high school and college sports. Who is particular to the point of being a perfectionist. Who decides what she wants to do and then does it. Quickly. Efficiently.
“One dream I had was playing college softball,” she said. “The other was going to culinary school and becoming a chef. I tackled one, then started working on the next.”
A Midwestern girl
Reifschneider was born in Trenton, Missouri, a town of 3,000 about an hour and a half northeast of Kansas City. The youngest of two siblings, her dad worked for an inkjet printing company and her mother was a special education teacher.
But her mother, Mary, was also a “country girl,” and a talented home cook who would get up extra early before work to make hot breakfasts for her husband and children.
“Ever since I can remember, I was always in the kitchen with my mom,” Reifschneider said. “I had my own little stool to get up to the counter, and she would let me do anything and everything.”
When her father got a job in Wichita, the family relocated to Maize. Reifschneider was a fourth grader.
By the time she landed at Maize High School, she’d discovered two passions.
One was softball. Reifschneider was an outfielder, and during her senior year, her team took second at state.
The other was food. As a teen, she devoured Food Network, and her competitive spirit was stirred by the channel’s many cooking contests. At the time, Maize offered four culinary classes, and Reifschneider took them all. She excelled and would often be the one leading her high school classmates through cooking challenges.
She received a scholarship to play softball at Pratt Community College, then was recruited by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she played first base and earned a degree in business administration, graduating in 2010.
But she quickly realized that the only business she was really interested in was the food business.
Reifschneider decided to attend culinary school at The Art Institute of Colorado. She loved the sections where the students would study famous chefs and learn their techniques. She learned the ways of chefs like Thomas Keller and Alice Waters.
“The first day, I was so excited,” she said. “I was like a little kid again. I felt like I fit right in.”
She’d never had a job in a restaurant before, but to earn extra money during school, she worked as a waitress at Dave & Buster’s. Her manager there learned she was in culinary school, and she was quickly promoted to kitchen manager.
Reifschneider finished the culinary program in a year and a half and decided to move back home. She noticed a job for a line cook at the Kansas Star listed online, and even though she’d never set foot inside a casino before, she decided to apply.
As tends to happen when managers spot talent and dedication, Reifschneider was quickly singled out for promotions.
Within two years, she was a sous chef. Then in August of 2017, the restaurant’s seasoned executive chef left for another job.
Jim McNulty, who is the executive chef overseeing all of the casino’s many on-site restaurants, immediately thought of the Woodfire Grille’s young sous chef.
He had been impressed by her work ethic, but he’d also been wowed by her kitchen skills. Often, when the Woodfire Grille’s chef would present new menus, McNulty found he could pick out the dishes Reifschneider had come up with. Her style, he noted, had Austrian and German influences, and she had an ability to make comfort food dishes seem upscale.
He also liked that Reifschneider was a longtime Kansan. Some of the other head chefs who had led Woodfire’s kitchen were from big cities and had definite ideas about what Wichita clientele should eat. But they often didn’t understand what Wichita clientele actually wanted to eat.
Reifschneider was different.
“She understands our clientele,” he said. “She understands the people who live here.”
Despite her relatively short career, McNulty said, he had no doubt that he should offer Reifschneider the job.
Compliments to the chef
A year into the job, McNulty said, Reifschneider is still single-focused, a perfectionist.
When she’s preparing wine dinners for Woodfire Grille, her favorite thing to do, McNulty often offers her help or more people to assist with the prep work.
“I’ll tell her, ‘I love you being here every day, but at some point, you’re going to have to realize you’re going to have to give something to somebody else to do,” he said with a laugh. “But she’s still at the point where she doesn’t want to give anything up.”
Reifschneider, who oversees a staff of four cooks and a sous chef, said she’s enjoyed honing her skills at the casino, an environment unlike any other in town.
Customers there aren’t the same customers her contemporaries in other Wichita fine dining restaurants are serving. Sometimes, they’re people who have never eaten in a fine dining restaurant before. Reifschneider said she strives to make them feel comfortable.
“It’s kind of the Vegas mentality,” she said. “You get some interesting people that come in after having lost some money on the floor, or on flipside, they just won a big jackpot and say, ‘What is the most expensive thing on the menu? I’ll take that.’ We have a lot of regular guests that are pretty awesome and visit frequently.”
When she’s off work, Reifschneider said, she’s still a “daddy’s girl,” and she and her father, Todd, have recently taken up pistol shooting as a hobby. They’ve joined the United States Practical Shooting Association and have started competing in contests where they shoot targets with pistols as quickly as they can.
“I’m super competitive, and it gives me a chance to compete against other people again,” she said. “It’s just fun.”
Her parents also are pretty excited that their daughter is a fancy chef, and Todd and Mary are frequent Woodfire diners. They often bring their friends along, too.
Long term, Reifschneider said, she’d love to open her own restaurant, something similar to the award-winning Bluestem in Kansas City, which features a small, locally sourced menu.
But for now, she’s content trying to wow the customers who frequent Woodfire Grille.
“Guests will be like, ‘Tell your chef he did a great job,’” she said with a laugh. “And the servers will say, ‘Actually, I’ll let her know.”