Shawn Wheeler took the helm of the kitchen at Ambrosia in summer of 2017. Before that, he cooked for a variety of local restaurants. Some might recognize his name from his time as chef de cuisine at Downriver Grill.
RESTAURANT WEEK: Tell me about your journey to become a chef.
WHEELER: I started off in high school washing dishes at a Vietnamese restaurant. I'm from Rapid City, South Dakota. Then I got a job at a hotel, and the chef there started teaching me how to cook. I started off in pantry, moved to broiler, and then sauté. I found out that I just really enjoyed it. I worked with a lot of people who were very talented and very willing to teach somebody who was eager to learn.
What do you love best about cooking in our region?
Seasons for sure. Growing up in South Dakota, spring and fall are like rumors to us, so that was the first thing I noticed. A lot of what inspires me culinarily has to do with what's seasonal, what's fresh, what the weather's like. I love the climate, I love the amount of fresh local product that you can get here that you couldn't always get back East. There's a lot of great farms and ranches around here, and some local cheese-makers who are really awesome.
How would you describe your philosophy of cooking and dining out?
The wonderful thing about food is that it's something that brings people together. Even in restaurant kitchens, you have so many diverse people with so many different backgrounds who will look at a dish in a little bit different way than you might. When I dine out — and what I hope we can accomplish here — I feel like food is meant to be shared. It's a shared experience and it's the entire experience; it's the service, it's the flavors, it's the company, it's maybe not being afraid to try something different or new. It's all of those things. It's a total experience.
Who are some of your culinary heroes and why?
I draw inspiration from all sorts of people — every chef I've ever worked for, every sous chef I've ever worked with, to maybe that badass sauté cook cooking next to me who is completely talented, but has just never got his shot at that top spot.
What's your next creative challenge?
Honestly, probably Restaurant Week. This will be the first year that I've been the guy writing the menu. As far as something specific, I couldn't tell you. I have so many things on my back burner that I haven't had time to try out yet that I've been working on. I kind of have culinary ADD sometimes, if that makes any sense. You'll have a dish and you'll be like 'all right, that's great' and then you get an idea out of left field and you're like 'now I've got to try this.' That's why I have lots of notebooks.