051720-du-chef

Kalecia Simmons prepares a dish called drunken shrimp in her kitchen at her restaurant, the Chef and I, at 1735 N. Washington St.

The Chef and I opened its doors in June of last year and since then, owner Kalecia Simmons has worked hard not just to keep her business open, but to put herself out there as a chef.

She has taken part in competitions, helped people in the Junction City community, and, at 8 p.m. this Wednesday night, she will be on Guy’s Grocery Games on the Food Network.

Simmons is unable to talk about much of her experience on the episode because it hasn’t aired yet.

But she said her experience filming a show for national television was extremely positive — so much so that when COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted, she intends to take part in the show again.

“I think for me, it was humbling because I got to meet people and chefs from all over,” Simmons said of her experience.

She said she was a bit starstruck. The show had Simmons fly to California to be part of the production, where she had her own trailer and the full makeup and wardrobe experience.

“Just being able to be a part of that — it’s different than being a chef as being a television chef,” Simmons said. “So that in itself was just really cool. I love entertainment and I love having an audience — I love that. So, for me, that was really fun.”

One of the chefs, Simmons said, was Guy Fieri, who hosts the show.

“He’s a very giving person,” she said of Fieri, who was one of several chefs she met during her time filming the show. “Guy has taken his celebrity status and used it to help other culinarians meet the mark and be able to reach a place of success, even if they haven’t had success in a restaurant or in the industry or just a moment of life changing publicity, if I were to call it that. And that is why I really loved being a part of going to meet them and see them and just seeing how the show works. And I mean, there’s tons of food and they give it to the food bank, you know, nothing goes to waste. Like, that kind of stuff was really spoke a lot to me because it’s something that I do as well. So I thought that was really cool.”

For her, the having the show air is a dash of hope in a dark time.

“I’m really excited because it’s a veteran edition of the show,” Simmons, who is a military wife, said. “And I’m really excited to be representing central Kansas for seafood— it’s something that just you don’t hear very much. This is a little bit of hope.”

Among other accomplishments in her year since opening her seafood restaurant on Washington Street, Simmons has also won third place at the Kansas City Mac and Cheese festival.

“I honestly feel like we would have won first place, but we ran out of mac and cheese before everyone could vote,” she said.

She and her crew had an extensive line, she said, of people wanting to sample their product. There was about an hour wait time for two ounce cups of her macaroni and cheese.

Most of the things she’s proud of in her year of being in business is helping out the community, however.

She, her restaurant staff, and several other businesses teamed up and handed out food to the community during the COVID-19 crisis. They handed out “family packs” to community members in need when COVID-19 hit, bags filled with essential items such as tissues, beans, pasta, rice, vegetables, bread, cheese, milk and eggs.

With help from other business owners, Simmons and her team prepared food and distributed meals to those in need.

Though Simmons has given back to the community, COVID-19 has taken a toll on her and her business as well.

The Chef and I switched from its normal business practices to only allowing delivery and drive-in service. She has had to cut her staff down from 22 to about four.

“I want to give people the opportunity to earn money, I want to create jobs, but you can’t create jobs that don’t exist during this time,” she said.

She has had to narrow the menu down.

Restaurants and businesses around the country are suffering because of COVID-19, with many small businesses closing their doors even locally in Junction City and Manhattan.

The community’s support has been welcome at this time, she said.

“I mean, it was two hours for the line to get to the drive thru to pick up dinner,” Simmons said. “So the community has really been supportive in coming to eat partly because of the food, I think mainly because they want to support small businesses and eating local.”

Simmons continues to take protective measures for herself and her staff.

Employees wear masks and gloves when dealing with customers and they wash their hands often.

“I try not to worry about it too much because it’ll just stress me out,” Simmons said. “I was worried more about not being able to open back up. That was more frightening than the thought of if I might touch someone’s hand. And I don’t know, maybe that’s backwards, but I was really worried because we still have more months at least that we have to pay more utility bills.”

Simmons has also gone online during COVID-19. She routinely posts videos on social media of herself and her staff cooking meals, which has increased interest in the restaurant.

“Immediately right then whatever I’ve shared, it’s gone — it’s sold out,” Simmons said.

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