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Our Culinary
Rock Stars

Bruce CampbellBRUCE CAMPBELL
Bruce is a graduate of the Hotel and Restaurant Business School at Michigan State University. With over 30 years in the restaurant business, Bruce brings his passion and knowledge to a variety of culinary topics. As a founding member of the Rib Stars BBQ team, he has competed on the BBQ circuit for more than 17 years and has won numerous awards. Bruce has been teaching at The Culinary Center of Kansas City since 2006.
(full resume available upon request).

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CHEF SANDY DIGIOVANNI
Chef Sandy DiGiovanniSandy teaches a wide variety of classes with us with emphasis on Italian cuisine (her heritage). She’s been with us since 2012 and brings her own unique and humorous style of education. Chef Sandy was a finalist on NBC’s “America’s Next Great Restaurant” with Bobby Flay and is a contributing writer for Edible Magazine. She’s also a heck of a bartender!

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DR. LISA SHARPE ELLES
Dr. Lisa Sharpe Ellis

Lisa started cooking as a young child with anyone who would let her in the kitchen. Now as a biochemist & assistant teaching professor at University of Kansas, her love of cooking has expanded to the laboratory. Chemistry lectures often turn to how molecules in the kitchen produce yummy food. Not only is cooking a science, but cleaning is too.  Lisa makes soap using natural ingredients and loves to share this science to anyone who will listen. 

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PASTRY CHEF NATASHA GOELLNER
Chef Natasha Goellner

After graduating from The French Culinary Institute in New York City, Chef Natasha headed back to KC, where she opened Mulberry & Mott, a pastry shop on the Country Club Plaza. Her pastries have been featured in Williams-Sonoma and Dean and Deluca catalogues, and her French macarons were a best-seller in Dean and Deluca stores. Her desserts and ice cream have been on the menus of some of KC’s most highly acclaimed restaurants, and her wedding cakes have been acclaimed for their artistry and flavors. After 14 years of running Natasha’s Mulberry & Mott and Cirque du Sucre, Natasha has embarked on a new adventure as Executive Pastry Chef, working with her brother Nick Goellner’s talented team at the James Beard-nominated restaurant, The Antler Room.

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CERTIFIED SOMMELIER BRENT GRIDER
Brent GriderBrent’s passion for the food & beverage world at the beginning of the ‘Coffee Craze’. Starting as a barista, he worked his way up through the industry, and is now Director of Food & Beverage at Hotel Phillips (KC).  We’re proud to say that Brent shares his knowledge and passion of wine and spirits with students at The Culinary Center of Kansas City – cheers!

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CHEF GARY HILD
Gary HildWhen it comes to making great food, Chef Gary Hild’s love for cooking is exceeded only by his passion for teaching and mentoring others. His interest in nutrition and a healthy lifestyle is expressed in a broad range of cooking styles. Gary taught at The Culinary Center of Kansas City for 18 years, then tried out retirement in Florida before returning to our kitchens to teach once again.

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CHEF YVETTE HIRANG
Chef Yvette HirangLeaving behind a career in sales and marketing, Yvette decided to pursue her life-long dream of attending culinary school and becoming a chef. Born and raised in the Philippines, this music-loving, jet-skiing mom brings to The Culinary Center a passion for world cuisine and a knowledge how to help you prepare it!

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CHEF DANA HOLLAND
Dana HollandAlthough Chef Dana is new to the Kansas City area and to The Culinary Center, he’s certainly not new to cooking OR teaching. This well-seasoned chef has been “in the biz” for more than 35 years, involved in everything from creating restaurant concepts, training culinary staff and developing computer software for cost & recipe management to catering, being Executive Chef of a restaurant and, oh yes, appearing in (and WINNING) Food Network’s Cupcake Wars!  What can’t this guy do?!

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TODD JOHNS
Todd JohnsTodd Johns, founder and chief pitmaster of Plowboys Barbeque, and his brother-in-law Randy Hinck started the barbecue competition team Pork Pullin Plowboys in 2001. For the next six years, they traveled across the country participating in weekend competitions, learning their craft and perfecting the art of smoked meats. The duo won their first Grand Championship in Kearney, Mo., and were named “Show Me State” Team of the Year. Johns began selling his Yardbird Rub, an award-winning blend of sweet and salty with a bit of heat, that now sells more than 100,000 pounds a year worldwide. By 2009, the team had racked up 22 KCBS-sanctioned competitions in seven states and five championship wins. The most sensational moment was when Plowboys returned to the American Royal Invitational. After placing 5th in Chicken, 8th in Pork and 1st in Brisket, Johns was crowned the American Royal Grand Champion. Johns opened Plowboys Barbeque in Blue Springs, Missouri, in 2013, followed by a downtown location, two concession stands at Arrowhead Stadium and a third full-service location in Overland Park. Plowboys Barbeque also has a franchise at Barry’s Husker Bar in Lincoln, Neb. Even with newfangled pit ovens and a drift at competitions to cook in vertical drums that speed up the cooking, Johns continues to believe the best barbecur is all about Kansas City’s time-honored mantra: “low and slow.”

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LADONNA JOHNSON
LaDonna JohnsonAn autodidact specialty chef, LaDonna Johnson owns and operates Organic Soul KC, a plant-based catering company located in Kansas City. Because of her lifelong passion for growing and preparing food as well as living a plant-based lifestyle for many years, LaDonna saw a need for good, accessible and diverse plant-based food and decided to address the problem head on! Since launching OSKC in 2016, she has won accolades for creating a one-of-kind plant-based, chicken/meat alternative called ‘Chictan’. LaDonna’s mission statement for her company and career is to Nourish the body and feed the Soul, and she accomplishes her mission with love and compassion for people and the planet!

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CHEF ANDREW KNEESSY
Chef Andrew KneessyChef Kneessy has 20+ years of experience as an Executive Chef. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he completed his internship at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center, worked at Hyatt Hotels in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and even cooked at the Canadian Embassy, Blair House, and the White House (for Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton). After spending time cooking in Europe and competing as a finalist at the Bocuse D’or Culinary Competition, Chef’s travels brought him to the Kansas City Country Club, where he was the Executive Chef for 16+ years. He has attended classes at the Culinary Institute in Napa Valley and has passed the Court of Masters Sommeliers Introductory Course.

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CCKC ‘MAIN DISH’ LAURA LAIBEN
Laura LaibenLaura, owner of The Culinary Center, enjoys teaching the occasional class, as well as running the place! In addition to her extensive experience as a culinary arts instructor and teambuilding facilitator, Laura was a practicing attorney for 18 years before creating The Culinary Center.

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SUSY LARA
Susy LaraSusy’s profession is a grade school teacher, and she loves to teach! She cooks authentic Mexican cuisine and with her sister, Vicky Lara (our own “Chicana in Charge”) teaches authentic Mexican cuisine here.

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VICKY LARA
Vicky LaraVicky knows how to cook authentic Mexican cuisine just like her Mom used to make for her! She and her sister, Suzy Lara, teach classes in Mexican cooking especially the very popular “Talamada Party” classes.

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CHEF RICHARD McPEAKE
Chef Richard McPeakeChef Richard has been teaching our Smoking, Grilling & BBQ classes as well as our very popular Professional Series classes for over 10 years, He is also a Chef Instructor at Kansas City Kansas Community College as well as cookbook author. (full resume available upon request)

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CHEF MARI RUCK
Chef Mari RuckMari Ruck has been teaching great classes with us since we opened! She co-owned The Food Bin, a specialty food store, from 1983 to 2004. After college, bread baking took priority and led Mari to the Chef Program at Johnson County Community College, graduating in 1999.

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CHEF JILL GARCIA SCHMIDT
Chef Jill Garcia SchmidtCCKC Chef and Lead Instructor Jill Garcia Schmidt grew up in Newton, KS surrounded by family and food. She learned to make authentic Mexican cuisine from her great grandmother, classic comfort food from her grandma, and family-favorite dishes and baked goods from her mother. She has spent 25 years in the food industry, and her dream is to share her passion for food with the world. She describes her approach to cooking as ‘full of fun, with a touch of manic perfectionism’.

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PASTRY CHEF ERIK SHARP
Erik Sharp“It’s in my blood,” says Erik Sharp. From a grandfather who owned a bakery to foodie parents who exposed Erik and his siblings to cooking, he was hooked at a young age. He started out as a day broiler cook at the American Restaurant. After ten years of experience and learning there, he went on to work at the Downtown Marriott, the Allis Plaza, Hen House, Farm to Market Bread Co. and Whole Foods, as well as owning his own business.  While he continues to learn and keep up with changes in the industry, Erik says he truly believes most in fundamentals and proper technique. These remain constant even when trends change.

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KIM STEWART
Kim StewartKim’s interest in cooking started young. Because her parents were often busy working late, she started menu planning, shopping and cooking on a regular basis at an early age. She was also motivated by knowing that if she made dinner, she knew her brother would be tasked with dish duty!  Kim enjoys taking cooking classes and seeking out local cuisine while traveling, both in the United States and internationally.  At home, she enjoys grilling and barbecuing, as well as experimenting and perfecting recipes from all types of cuisines. Her experience started at the Culinary Center years ago as a student in CCKC’s Midwest Barbeque Institute (MBQI) barbecue and smoking classes.  She attended the very first Pro Series offered by the Culinary Center back in 2008, started volunteering shortly after that and has been working here since 2009.

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KERRI LESH
Kerri Lesh

Kerri, Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), Society of Wine Educators, was born and raised in Kansas. She’s lived in various countries and parts of the U.S. learning about food, language and wine.  She came to the Culinary Center of Kansas City in hopes to whisk you away to foreign lands and foods without leaving the table, incorporating her love of education and the cultures she’s experienced.

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 LAURA THOMSEN
Laura ThomsenAlso known as “Goddess of Good Eats”, Elle T has been drawn to the culinary world since she was a child delivering coffee, sandwiches and homemade banana bread to her farming father in the field. She was hooked. After developing her resumé at New Century Catering, the bakery at Dean and Deluca, The New Theater Restaurant, Union Station, area schools and Unity Village, she joined the CCKC family in 2014. She is not only a fabulous baker and instructor, but also manages our Made In Our Kitchens™ program.

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RACHEL VAN STRATTON
Rachel VanStrattonRachel began her cake decorating career at a local cake and candy supply store where she learned the basics of cake and cookie decorating. In 2014, she opened her own home-based small business, Sweet Ideas, that specializes in custom cookie and cake orders and any other sweet idea you’ve got. Once a month, Rachel teaches a cookie or cupcake class at the Keeler Women’s Center in KCK.

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CHEF JESSE VEGA
Jesse VegaChef Jesse has a sincere passion for teaching the culinary arts and has done so with us for many years now. He is a graduate from the Johnson County Community College Chefs Apprenticeship Program and was also a team member of the JCCC culinary team.

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LARRY WHEELER
Larry WheelerLarry has been teaching tabletop design and other popular classes at The Culinary Center of Kansas City for over 20 years. He has massive success and experience in the design and direction of social and civic events of note from small intimate parties to grand social occasions. His resumé includes his position as Director of Ambiance at the landmark Intercontinental Hotel in Kansas City for 29 years. Larry is a beloved institution here at The Culinary Center of Kansas City and our students look forward to his humorous and fun presentation style.

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BRANDON WINN
Brandon WinnExecutive Chef at the highly esteemed Webster House, Brandon has been working in the farm-to-table aspect of industry for the last 17 years. During this time, he has had the fortune of working with dozens of local growers and ranchers in efforts to support local agriculture and bring the best products the area has to offer to the tables
of his diners. He believes that a service professional has the obligation to serve people responsibly sourced products and bridge the efforts of hard-working farms and diners. He appreciates the dedication patrons have toward this process in such a diverse growing area with a very rich, strong culinary backbone. 

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LEESA YATES
Leesa YatesLeesa is a 30-year veteran elementary school teacher, and she thrives on teaching others.  She is very creative and found an outlet for that in cookie decorating! She took her passion and started an in-home cookie decorating business, Cookies by Leesa. She believes that everyone can create beautiful sweets after they learn some basics, and Leesa wants to share her decorating expertise with you.  

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TRACY RICHTER
Tracy credits her mother and father for her love of cooking. Her dad did the majority of the cooking in their house and her mom baked every Wednesday and Sunday. Tracy learned how to cook and bake from them, which led her to a lifelong path of learning and loving food. Her passion for cooking continued while studying music (French horn) in college. She started catering for her fellow music friend’s recitals. This allowed Tracy to share her passion for food with others. Her love of desserts led her to learn cake decorating techniques and eventually start a home-based bakery. Tracy started living a vegan lifestyle in 2014 (she was vegetarian several years prior) and now everything she cooks, and bakes, is 100% vegan. She loves traveling the world and has taken cooking classes in India, Indonesia, and Italy. She truly believes that vegan food can and should be fun and delicious and is excited to share her knowledge and passion for all vegan food. We are pleased to welcome Tracy to our awesome team of instructors!

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ASMAA BENBABA
Asmaa was born and raised in Rabat, Morocco and came to the United States to join graduate school when she was 26. While working as a lecturer at Auburn University, Asmaa taught her first Moroccan cooking class. Now teaching at the University of Kansas, Asmaa continues to enjoy sharing the cultural heritage of her homeland through a love of cuisine and teaching. Asmaa has been teaching classes with The Culinary Center of Kansas City since 2021.

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