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Sustaining Life: A Wichita Chef finds joy in the relationship between food and diners

The Sweet Spot executive chef Preston Darnell spends as much time creating savory meals as he does sweet desserts.

It may be called "The Sweet Spot" but executive chef Preston Darnell spends as much time creating savory delights as sweet ones. The professionally trained chef has worked in Wichita at the Olive Tree, YaYa's Euro Bistro and has been at The Sweet Spot since it opened its doors five years ago. For this edition, of In The Mix, Carla Eckels checks out Preston's culinary skills.

Interview Highlights

CARLA ECKELS: How did your love for cooking begin?

PRESTON DARNELL: It began early on when I was three years old [and] cooking with my mom, watching her make recipes; and then later on it was during Thanksgiving ... the big family comes over and everyone's eating and enjoying everything. And I figured I could get in the kitchen and get [to the] food first before everybody else ... I'd like to get in early and taste everything and make sure everything's good. That's when my love began.

When you were growing up would your family members say, "Mmm Preston, your food so good?"

Oh yeah. Yeah, they always did. My cousins would come over; I'd let them taste it. And then when I was in high school, I would cook for my friends and they were like, "Oh, this is good. I never had a steak like this!" And I was like, "That's the way I cooked my steaks. You know?" I used a cast iron skillet that I got from my grandma and just seared them. Got a nice crust on it. Just, it was beautiful. It was always nice.

You have to be pretty proud, huh?

Oh, yes. It's a joy ... when you prepare something that sustains life, people eat it and they just have like a look on their face sometimes. Like the dining room will be completely quiet when people are just enjoying the food.

How would you describe your cooking style?

My cooking style is kind of eclectic. I do African, Cuban American, French, Cajun ... I like to travel the world on the plate.

You go table to table through the restaurant when time permits. What's the best compliment you've ever received about your food?

Well, there was a Sunday brunch. I did Jamaican — I did some meat pies — and the lady was from the islands, and she said, "This tastes like my mom made it." And I was like, "That's High Praise! Love it!"

Valentine's Day is coming up. Are there things that you do special for Valentine's Day?

Yes, we have a fixed menu and I have a lot of seafood options on there; some steak options, some duck. I have some fabulous dessert options on there as well.

And you make all of it?

Yes, I prep it. I have a team that will help me with executing my vision; my goal.

What is that like?

It's basically art on the plate when it comes down to it. You formulate a recipe, you pass it off to your staff and like, "This is how I want this to taste. This is how I want this to be." And then let them, you know, go for it. And sometimes I give them creative freedom, on their own, to express their creativity as well. I think that's a big part of working together as a team because you have to trust the people that are working with you.

Do you taste everything before you send it out?

I do. I try to taste everything.

How do you keep your weight down?

*laughs* Small, small spoons. Small bites. *laughs*

Where else have you worked as a chef in Wichita?

I worked at the Olive Tree for about 13 to 14 years. I worked at Lakeside Club, at Yaya's Euro Bistro, The Shadow and now I'm here at The Sweet Spot since they opened in 2018. I was hired in April [of that year], and they opened in July.

You went to Pennsylvania Culinary school in Pittsburg, PA in 2000, then returned to your hometown of Wichita. Are there very many African American chefs in the city? Are you aware of a group of them here?

I've met one in passing — executive sous chef, Ruben Hughley. He was working over at the DoubleTree hotel. And ... educator/chef Greg Cole, who sells his cookies — Little Bits.

What advice would you give to young people who may say to themselves, I would love to become an executive chef?

I would say, first off, study in school; get your education first and foremost. Wichita State University has the NICHE program, National Institute for Culinary and Hospitality Education, which is a brand-new facility. It's top-of-the-line.

Also cooking shows; finding a celebrity chef that you kind of want to emulate. I enjoyed watching Justin Wilson. He was the Cajun Chef on PBS, Channel 8. I would watch him every Saturday morning after the cartoons went off. I just loved the fact that he was on TV. I loved the fact that he would tell a story when he was cooking food and everything he made looked good.

What do you like most about being an executive chef at The Sweet Spot here in Wichita?

Meeting all the people that come through the door, you know? I like the fact that we have an open kitchen so I can see people come and see people go and ask, "Hey, how's it going?" Wave and greet people and it's just...it's nice. I love the open kitchen. I love that atmosphere.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.