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Alumni Chefs

September 16, 2020
woman with apron cooking
Sheena Ernst at The Wild Table.

You’ll find UW alumni—chefs, restaurant owners and winemakers—making their mark across the country.

 

By Micaela Myers 

Think of the nation’s top chefs, and you may assume they went straight to an esteemed culinary institute. Surprise! Many started or finished their education at the University of Wyoming, studying anything from engineering to English and psychology. From winemakers to executive chefs and entrepreneurs, meet some stars of the food and drink industry—all UW alumni.

 

Sheena Ernst, chef and owner of The Wild Table in Red Lodge, Mont.

Favorite thing to cook and eat: lamb or sourdough bread. “Also anything sweet. We do a lot of baked goods at the restaurant, and it is hard not to always be tasting those!”

Sheena Ernst grew up in Powell, Wyo., helping her mom cook in their family kitchen. At UW, she majored in psychology with minors in history and honors (’07). During college, Ernst worked for a catering company. Her senior year, she had an epiphany: Psychology wasn’t her calling, but cooking was. She moved to London and attended Tante Marie Cooking School, earning a Le Cordon Bleu certificate, afterward working at the attached deli, Flavours.

“I worked all over the city on my days off—all the Michelin Star restaurants—just to get the experience,” Ernst says. When she returned stateside, she worked in Vail, Colo., then an exclusive guest ranch in northern Wyoming, before a headhunter found her on LinkedIn and recruited her for the head chef job at a historic hotel in Red Lodge, Mont.

“Eight months later, I was buying my own business in Red Lodge, and now I have owned and operated The Wild Table going on five years,” she says. “It is a small bistro and bakery that specializes in breakfast, lunch, cooking classes, private events and a lot of catering. I also teach culinary at the University of Montana.”

Her business motto is “Love people, cook them good food,” and the restaurant’s open kitchen allows Ernst to interact with her customers. The menu changes daily.

“I feel like an artist who gets to create when I am in the kitchen,” she says.

“My time at UW was so great! I had such a great group of friends and got involved in a lot on campus,” Ernst says. “I had incredible professors and real opportunities in the psychology labs to feel like I was a part of something. Even though I didn’t pursue psychology, I feel like I use it every day in the kitchen, from staffing problems, to how food should be presented to be found appealing and sellable, how to handle difficult customers, and how to get someone to try something new!”

 

man standing outside
Greg Morthole. (Photo by Adam Decker)

Greg Morthole, winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards/Davis Bynum Winery in Healdsburg, Calif.

Favorite wine: Davis Bynum Lindley’s Block Russian River Valley pinot noir. “Pinot noir is a notorious grape for being difficult to work with, but it can make a majestic wine as often as it makes you cry. The Lindley’s Block comes from a small part of our Jane’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley and is separated from the rest to ferment in small concrete fermenters, oak barrels and square macrobins. The grapes are punched down by hand twice a day until draining. Then the new wine ages in French oak barrels for about 14 months before going to bottle.”

Favorite thing to pair it with: “Pinot noir pairs with a wide range of dishes, even gamey dishes, so try it with duck or venison for something interesting.”

Greg Morthole’s dad is from Cheyenne, and his mom is from Lovell. They met at UW on a blind date. After graduation, his father joined the Air Force, eventually settling in California. Morthole knew he wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps and graduated from UW a degree in natural sciences (’96).

“That degree left the door open for me to enter into any science field and would serve me well later, when I got into the wine industry,” he says. Morthole and his wife settled in Santa Rosa, Calif. Sonoma County is known for its wine, and serendipity led him into his lifelong career. 

He started at the wine lab Vinquiry. From there, Morthole moved to Chalk Hill Estate and on to quality control lab manager at Rodney Strong Vineyards. His boss, veteran winemaker Rick Sayre, invited Morthole to start making wine under his guidance. That same year, Rodney Strong bought the Davis Bynum brand, which specialized in Russian River Valley pinot noir. In 2010, he moved to making the Davis Bynum wines plus the Rodney Strong reserve wines. Today, Morthole continues to make the Davis Bynum wines as well as all the Rodney chardonnays and pinot noirs—the wines that he enjoys the most.

“The biggest thing that I love about my job is that it’s the perfect combination of agriculture, science and art,” he says. “We own vineyards and either grow the grapes ourselves or purchase from local growers. I get to blend the wines, which is one of my favorite parts and which is very artistic. I have full control over picking when to harvest and calling the shots during processing and fermentation, aging, what barrels to use and how we’ll finish the wine, all the way to the bottle, up to 14 months later. I also get to meet a lot of people and do some traveling to promote our winery.”

Morthole’s UW roommates went on to open Gruner Brothers Brewing in Casper

“UW helped me on my career path, as I had a lot of great teachers in all areas,” he says, fondly remembering an astronomy class, where he drew the phases of the moon from Prexy’s Pasture.

 

man in a chef's coat
Craig Richards. (Photo by Heidi Geldhauser)

Craig Richards, chef and owner of Lyla Lila in Atlanta, Ga.

Favorite thing to cook and eat: fresh pasta.

Craig Richards, originally of Omaha, Neb., worked as a dishwasher and prep cook during college at The Overland as he studied English at UW (’96). In the kitchen, he loved the camaraderie and creativity. After graduation, Richards combined his degree and his side passion in Lawrence, Kan., working at a fine-dining restaurant with a day job as an editor for a publishing company.

After a few years, he decided to commit to cooking full time, working first for chef Lidia Bastianich at her restaurant in Kansas City, then opening Lidia’s Pittsburgh in 2001, where he became executive chef. Richards went on to train in New York City and Italy for several years before moving to Atlanta in 2005. There, he headed three kitchens before becoming vice president of culinary for Rocket Farm Restaurants.

In December 2019, Richards opened his own restaurant, Lyla Lila, where he’s executive chef and managing partner.

“I love the opportunity to make people happy, make them feel at ease and taken care of, and I enjoy the creative side of my work,” he says.

“I think my degree from UW prepared me to be a forward-thinking chef, to not always take the easiest answer to a solution but to analyze and think further about how to solve a problem or create something. I fondly remember some of the professors

I had at UW and the influence they still have on me today.”

Richards makes it a priority to return to Laramie yearly to catch a football game and see friends.

 

woman in a green apron
Angela Peterson. (Photo by Alyssa Blumstein)

Angela Peterson, soon to open a gourmet donut shop in the Denver area called the Shield Maiden

Favorite thing to make: entremets. “They are a French-style layered dessert that is glazed and decorated. The main component is usually a mousse that has layers of some kind of cream, a cake and a crunchy bottom. I love that they are contained in a neat little package but have so much complexity when you cut into them.”

Favorite thing to eat: kouign-amann (Breton cake). “I will eat them any time, any place! That is actually what I am making today at home.”

Angela Peterson graduated from Star Valley High School and earned her bachelor’s degree in management with a minor in Chinese from UW (’12). While her husband earned his Ph.D. in Boulder, Colo., she worked as a 911 dispatcher. When calls died down, the dispatchers liked to watch cooking shows.

“I started baking as a way to manage the stress,” Peterson says. She decided to study baking and pastry arts at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, where she earned an associate degree, then transferred to the Rhode Island campus for her bachelor’s.

“I have always been a creative person,” she says. “I am a chef, but I think I am more so an artist who chooses to express myself through food. You have so much control over the texture and mouthfeel, the color, the flavor and the aroma. Food has such a magical way of sparking people’s memories and associations. You can really connect with people through these shared experiences and memories.”

After culinary school, Peterson worked for a number of celebrated chefs in the Boston area, including James Beard-Award-winning chef Jody Adams at Trade and two-time Food Network finalist Joshua Livsey at Harvest. She then became a pastry chef at Catalyst Restaurant and then at Fox & the Knife under James Beard-Award-winning chef Karen Akunowicz.

“I found that my passion is ice cream and frozen desserts,” Peterson says. “I decided in January that I wanted to move back to the Rocky Mountains and open my own place where I could focus on frozen desserts and bring some pastry love with me.” The business will offer donuts first and then add ice cream and frozen desserts later. Keep your eye out for her new addition in the Denver area soon, and follow her at bakingwithintention.weebly.com.

“I don’t think I have the words to express how much UW prepared me for this journey,” she says, adding that her management degree helps her in the kitchen with everything from inventory to cost sheets and sales, plus managing a staff and production. “I am so grateful that I studied at UW and had incredible professors. I hope that they read this and are able to come into my shop when it opens and taste the fruits of their dedication to teaching and inspiring their students.”

 

man leaning on a tree
Benjamin Huber. (Photo by Kenzie Hassey)

Benjamin Huber, freelance chef in Denver, Colo.

Favorite thing to cook and eat: lamb. “It’s what I grew up with, tied to so many significant memories and celebrations.”

Ben Huber grew up raising sheep and cattle on the family feedlot in Worland, Wyo.

“My earliest memories of food service come from cooking together as a family to promote lamb and beef with the stock and wool growers communities,” he says. “My passion for food and people grew as I started to get recognition at 4-H baking competitions and work in local restaurants.”

Huber first attended Johnson & Wales University in Denver before transferring to UW to earn his degree in family and consumer sciences with a focus in human nutrition and food (’10). Throughout his culinary career, he has worked in country clubs and resorts, restaurants, catering companies, a cruise ship and most recently as the executive chef for the Broncos stadium at Mile High.

“I love the people,” Huber says. “There are so many stories, and there is a passion that I don’t know that I have seen in any other industry. The ability to create and share something that inspires you is a great feeling.”

He says: “My time at UW helped prepare me for my career by challenging myself to step out of my comfort zone in the kitchen and put focus on the whole industry, from the nutrition aspect to the business aspect.”

 

man standing with arms crossed
Adam Sutter (Photo courtesy of Adam Sutter)

Adam Sutter, chef at RK Group in Austin, Texas

Favorite thing to make: baked ziti. “I’m a sucker for gluten and dairy.”

Favorite thing to eat: Japanese cuisine. “An authentic ramen or raw fish puts me in my happy place.”

It’s not often a professional chef holds a mechanical engineering degree (’11), but such is the case for Adam Sutter. Growing up in Irvine, Calif., he became enamored with the idea of school in Wyoming. Sutter first declared geology as a major but later switched to engineering. After an injury ended his career as a walk-on kicker for Cowboy football, he picked up a side job in UW catering, also working at area restaurants each summer.

After college, he gave up engineering to follow his passion for cooking.

“In Denver, I worked for Earls Kitchen and Bar, where I started as a cook, and six months later I was promoted to a sous chef and ambassador. With an ambassador title, I traveled to cities such as Vancouver and Miami to train and open new restaurants.”

After several years, he joined his family in Austin as lead line cook at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse. Over four years, Sutter worked his way up to executive chef and then joined True Food Kitchen as its executive chef, helping run several locations within Austin until recently.

“I have happily found myself at a full circle, returning to the catering industry as a chef for the international company RK Group,” Sutter says. “Here, I have run daily food services for multiple corporate buildings and catered major events throughout the Austin area, such as Formula 1, the Super Bowl and Kentucky Derby, to name a few.” He’s also travels throughout the United States, and the job provides a better work-life balance.

“The part I love most about this industry is the familial connection you quickly establish with your kitchen team,” Sutter says.

The food industry is known for being tough, and Sutter says those minus-forty-degree walks across the UW campus after a long day of school and work gave him that grit.

“Being in this industry is far from easy—from horrible initial pay and working awful schedules to being passed up on promotions and never having time to be with your own family,” he says. “But knowing all that I know now, I would never give it up! If you want to succeed, never accept the position you are in. Always be the hardest worker in the room, and eventually someone will notice that you were meant for more. Starting at a small catering kitchen in Wyoming helped eventually get me into cooking for thousands of people a day in a large metropolitan city. And at 32, I still have more to cook.”

 

head portrait of a man
Mark Warren (Photo courtesy of Mark Warren)

Mark Warren, majority owner of The Creek Patio Grill (Cave Creek) and minority owner of Kasai Asian Grill (Scottsdale), both in Arizona

Favorite thing to make: anything grilled.

Favorite thing to eat: “That’s a tough one, because I love to eat, but nothing beats a great cooked ribeye with fresh-cut french fries, sautéed broccolini and a glass of one of my favorite whiskeys or bourbons.”

For his day job, Mark Warren uses his business degree (’90) in dental sales, but he’s also an owner of two local restaurants. Growing up in Rock Springs, Wyo., Warren worked in restaurants and always wanted to have his own place.

“Several years ago, my partners and I took over a struggling bar and restaurant,” he says. In 2016, they remodeled and reopened as The Creek Patio Grill, a bar and grill with great food and a comfortable place to hang out.

“Several of the Alumni Association guys have been my guests at both places when they’ve been in town,” says Warren, who is active in the association. “I love when I go to one of my restaurants and visit with friends and customers. I love to see them enjoying the food and atmosphere, and I like to get their feedback on what we’re doing right and areas where we could do better.”

Warren feels fortunate to be a UW alumnus. “There is nothing like Laramie and the campus and the opportunities there. I was lucky to get to really know my instructors and build lifelong relationships with classmates. Many of my instructors were still professionals in business outside of the college, so they gave me real-world and timely experience. It wasn’t just something we read in a book and talked about. When I graduated, I had a great background to prepare me for my career in business and sales. I was also blessed to meet my wife of 30 years there, and we both still refer to Laramie as home.”

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