When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. You don't have to be a chef to have heard that bit of cliché advice, but for Sedgwick chef and restaurant owner Courtney Holt it applies aptly to how she got into the culinary world.
Originally going to school to be a teacher, Holt soured on those prospects once she began student teaching. She admitted feeling it wasn't something she was going to be passionate about. Seeking a new professional pursuit, a friend (one she had grown up with and went to college with) pointed out her passion for food and bringing people together — and a career was born.
"I did cook all the time when I was growing up. I always cooked for my dad and my mom and had friends come over all the time, but as far as cooking as a career a friend of mine pointed it out and was like, 'you always cook all the time and have parties and have people come over,'" Holt said. "I was always entertaining and I was cooking for everybody. That's just something I'd always done and I thought, well heck, I'm really passionate about that. I'm really good at feeding people; I love feeding people, so I looked into it in the culinary world."
Holt has now been in the restaurant industry for nearly two decades, training and working in various realms of the business (i.e. fine dining, corporate dining, etc.) in Kansas City before returning to her roots a couple of years ago — when she purchased and took over Syl's Restaurant in Colwich.
Entering the industry, Holt noted her eyes were opened to the many forks of the career path that could be taken in the restaurant business. It was her last stop in Kansas City, helping open up the Cosentino's Market downtown, that really solidified her interests and led to her current endeavor.
"My passion was having the small town feel inside of the big city, because I'd always been a small-town girl. I come from a small town and just like that comfort of it, and I think that's what we're missing right now," Holt said. "People aren't as personal any more when you go; everybody's so fast and high speed and high tech."
Big as the store may have been, Holt said it still had its regulars and the feel of a small community — like families stopping to get donuts on the first day of school. However, being on board from the beginning, she also saw the work that went into opening the business — work that is routinely not thought of, which is why taking over Syl's was the perfect opportunity.
Growing up in Colwich, Holt was familiar with the Syl's name (having been established for more than 40 years now). When she heard the owners were thinking of retirement and closing the restaurant's doors for good, she had to step in.
"I thought, 'oh my gosh, no, you can't leave.' It's been such a part of the community for so long, I just couldn't imagine not having it be here," Holt said.
Holt purchased the restaurant and officially took ownership in July 2016, grateful to get the chance to work under the old owners for a month during that transition, as carrying on the restaurant's legacy became another passion for her.
Taking over the restaurant was an experience Holt called a "terrifying leap of faith," but owning her own restaurant was something she always felt she would enjoy. Keeping a tradition going was a bonus.
Part of maintaining that tradition means there were certain expectations when Holt took over. While there wasn't much that Holt had to change when coming on board, there were some things (i.e. serving fried chicken) that absolutely had to stay.
Recalling her first experimentation with the Syl's menu, introducing a wild rice, chicken, spinach and artichoke casserole, Holt said it did not go over well with diners. She learned her lesson, and maintained the spirit of Syl's food in the rest of her additions (meatloaf, tacos, bierocks, etc.), something she admitted is very much in her wheelhouse as a chef.
"My thing, my mom likes to say, is to make something out of nothing. She'll say she doesn't have anything in her cabinets or refrigerator. Then, I'm like, 'ma, we've got all this,' and I'll make a meal and she's like 'where did that even come from?' It's just utilizing the stuff you have readily available, that's basically what it is, and using it to its fullest potential," Holt said. "Coming from a farm community, and knowing what it takes for the farmer to get something from the field to the plate and how much work goes into it, I want to make sure that I give that product 100 percent."
For example, Holt worked closely with the mother of her college/high school friend during the transition to recreate her bierock recipe for the Syl's menu, putting a lot of heart into that dish. It is that heart for the restaurant Holt hopes to pass on to her employees to keep the restaurant's legacy going.
"It's amazing driving to work every morning being happy for your destination," Holt said. "Not everybody gets that luxury, so I hope that I'm able to fold that into my staff and my staff feels the same way when they come in."
Syl's Restaurant (205 W. Wichita Ave, Colwich) is open from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call 316-796-1044 or visit www.sylsks.com.