Felix Sturmer is one of the most accomplished chefs in Kansas City you’ve probably never heard of.
The last two decades of chef-driven reality TV have fostered a cult of chefs as personalities. There’s even a look: Chefs with tattoos, beards and sometimes the lion’s share of the press.
But our fascination for all things food rarely extends to those chefs who head the behind-the-scenes kitchens found in hotels, country clubs, catering kitchens and culinary schools.
Sturmer — who is clean-shaven and does not have visible tattoos — grew up on a farm in post-war Germany and started his culinary apprenticeship at age 15. He knew he wanted a career that included travel. A German government official told him, “ ‘Oh, if you want to travel, you need to be a chef.’ I came from a small village. I didn’t know what a chef was.”
Sturmer, who is married and has three grown children and a 7-month-old grandson, worked in several countries and around the United States with Westin hotels before he settled in Kansas City in the mid-1980s.
The Food Network was barely in its infancy when I first met Sturmer in the late 1990s shortly after I became food editor. At that point I couldn’t have told you the difference between soubise and sous vide. (The first is a pureed onion-bechamel sauce, and the second is a thermal cooking technique.)
He invited me to have lunch with him at the Westin Crown Center, where he was the executive chef, and he continued to feed me stories as he made the leap from the Westin kitchens to teaching at Johnson County Community College.
Now, after 15 years of guiding the Hospitality & Culinary Academy’s students and the award-winning culinary team — one he has coached repeatedly on the international stage — Sturmer will retire May 19 to spend more time with family, travel (Australia and Peru are on his list), enjoy his hobby of woodworking and watch more international soccer matches, his favorite sport.
Over the years, Sturmer has been mostly a footnote — or at best a quote — in stories I have written. But last fall I told him it was time to do that profile on him I’d always been meaning to do.
In October, Sturmer — ever knowledgeable, gracious, helpful and funny — wanted me to attend the final Monday night practice before his team embarked on the last, most prestigious culinary competition under his command: The Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany.
It was a bucket list competition for a man whose competitive streak is as far from the Gordon Ramsays of the world as you can get. His first language is German and his voice rarely raises. He has never allowed profanity in his kitchen (“I don’t need to bite my tongue. I don’t slip because I don’t use it.”) and he once even had the nerve to tell a student to cut his hair “because he didn’t look the part.”
The student cut his dreadlocks and has become one of Sturmer’s most successful students — a young chef capable of staging in the country’s toughest professional kitchens, including Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and Grant Achatz’s Alinea, and ending up with a job.
That fall night during culinary practice, Sturmer continued to push his students into the spotlight. Our first stop was the pastry kitchen, where he wanted to introduce me to up-and-coming pastry chef Kathryn Ratzlaff. Ratzlaff and I talked and when it became clear she needed to get back to work, I turned around but Sturmer was gone.
Students and colleagues refer to him as Felix the Cat. “Felix just disappears,” Ratzlaff assured me. Whenever he disappears during an early-morning team practice, they assume Sturmer — a night owl — has gone in search of coffee.
“Felix’s favorite thing is coffee — and hard, crusty bread with butter and jam,” said Ed Adel, a JCCC culinary instructor and a longtime friend. “He eats it every day, and he’d tell you if that’s all he had every day, he’d be fine.”
Sturmer’s passion for such simple pleasures caught me off guard.
“I think as you mature in your cooking, you remember the basics and the simplicity of what things are, and that’s what you cherish,” Adel said. “Bread and salted butter and jam are one of those things for Felix.”
Sturmer agreed: “This is something I could never, ever give up.”
His favorites: Ibis Bakery in Lenexa, Wheatfields in Lawrence (especially the Danishes) and the Hen House at 135th, thanks to a “wonderful Spanish oven.” He pairs it with light- to medium-roast German or Viennese coffee all day — and late into the night.
But never decaffeinated.
When I caught up with Sturmer again, he was advising working chefs on how to improve their cold foods display. When Sturmer grabbed a paring knife and began to work, the chefs were mesmerized.
“Every chef has lots of things that they can be good at — and usually one thing they excel at. Felix’s is garde manger. His hand carving of fruits and vegetables is immaculate, and he takes great pride in it,” Adel said.
Garde manger literally means “keeper of the cold foods.” Think appetizers, hors d’oeuvres, pates, terrines and the like. Then again, Sturmer is no slouch when it comes to meat fabrication, a less trendy name for whole animal, nose-to-tail butchery.
“Competing was always my passion … I don’t think I’m overly competitive,” Sturmer said, “but I look at them as a tool to improve and get better. If your students get better, you get better.”
Once Sturmer trained to take the American Culinary Federation’s master chef certification, but work commitments got in the way. When I asked Adel if he thought Sturmer would have passed the rigorous eight-day certification exam, he laughed: “He could probably take it blindfolded.”
One of the chefs waited until Sturmer stepped out of the kitchen to explain why he signed on to train with Sturmer when he already had a full-time job.
“There’s a breadth and depth to his knowledge (that) is, frankly, why I wanted to be on the team. The learning here is like a secondary apprenticeship,” said Todd Walline, executive chef and food and beverage director at Blue Hills Country Club and a JCCC culinary arts and hospitality management alum.
“He’s really in it for the students and the food,” Walline continued. “He’ll still come in and say, ‘I saw this technique on YouTube.’ He still gets excited about teaching.”
Sturmer’s reputation is as a chef who is tough but equally inspiring. “People flock to him,” Adel said. “He just has a good delivery. He can deliver bad information in a good way.”
He also ignites a wanderlust that exposes young chefs to the possibilities of their profession. Former student and culinary team member Katee McLean says having Sturmer as a coach pushed her out of her comfort zone. “I fell in love and saw food in a new way,” she said. “I was born and raised in Platte City, so going to Hong Kong (to compete) opened my eyes to the world.”
The experience prepared her to dive into her family roots. Today she owns Krokstrom Klubb & Market, a Scandinavian-themed restaurant. Sturmer’s only criticism: “It’s a terrible name.” When I said Krokstrom is an asset to the local dining scene, he elaborated, “It’s too hard to remember.”
Ratzlaff said Sturmer’s blunt delivery and deadpan sense of humor can take some getting used to, but when I asked her what losing Sturmer will mean for the JCCC culinary program, she said, “it makes me feel really lucky that I was here when he was here.”
“The experience students got would not have happened without his fortitude, his ability to find all the pieces,” Adel said of their team’s experience competing at the Culinary Olympics.
The way I see it, Sturmer’s mentorship of culinary students — and the occasional aspiring food journalist — has a lot to do with Kansas City’s recognition as an up-and-coming food city. I still owe Sturmer a retirement lunch — but plenty of chefs in kitchens throughout Kansas City owe him for their future success.
“What will I miss?” Sturmer pondered as we sat in the lobby where students were studying for their culinary exams a few days before graduation. “I think I will definitely miss the team … these people really want to be here and they work harder than most. If I’m 5 minutes late for practice, they’re outside waiting.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’ s James Beard award-winning food editor. Reach her on Twitter at @kcstarfood and on Instagram as @jillwsilva or on Facebook.