From trapping wild boar in Texas to preparing tapas in a Spanish mountain town, Bill Crites has seen a bit of the culinary world outside the typical kitchen.
The new executive chef at YaYa’s hopes to use some of that background without upsetting the dessert cart, so to speak, at what’s already one of the city’s most popular restaurants.
“I’m not going to overhaul the menu by any means,” he said. “I just want to inject some new life into it.” Crites is an Ohio native and military veteran who looks even younger than his 31 years. By his account, he got into the profession “very late,” entering a culinary school in Austin at the age of 23. “The great French chefs start when they’re like 15 or 16. I thought, ‘I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.’”
To do it, he set and achieved a couple goals for himself—perfect attendance and a 4.0 GPA. He also worked—for free—in any restaurant where he thought he could learn something.
His culinary mecca was an Austin restaurant called Olivia, named one the nation’s top 10 best new restaurants in 2009 by Bon Appetit. Crites worked his way into a paying job and an offer to become sous chef, but instead took a mentor’s advice to expand his culinary horizons through travel.
Crites picked Spain as his destination, eating his way from Barcelona to Andulasia. A chance meeting with the owners of a cafe in the mountain town of Lanjaron led to a job offer. Crites spent a year and a half there, playing music on the side and earning just enough to make ends meet. “I just wanted to cook in Spain,” he said.
Back in Austin, Crites’ connections in the restaurant business led to a job with a supplier—a small farm that raised chickens, geese, guinea hens and pigeons for the city’s booming dining scene. The place also processed wild boar. Crites learned to build and bait pens to catch the creatures, sometimes returning the next day to find 18 or 20 inside, the biggest weighing over 200 pounds. “Then you’ve got to get these crazy wild pigs into the truck,” he said.
Crites soon returned to the restaurant business to help open a restaurant called Mettle, which is where he met his fiance, Wichita native Lee Oxley.
He also took that job as sous chef at Olivia, earning a special mention in a Zagat piece on “30 Under 30” movers and shakers in the Austin restaurant scene (he turned 30 days before the list came out).
Crites and Oxley moved to Wichita last year to be closer to her family. Crites worked for a time feeding the employees of Koch Industries before joining owner Ty Issa’s staff at YaYa’s in February.
His assessment of the local restaurant scene, no doubt accurate, is that diners want good food but aren’t exactly balanced on the cutting edge of the new foodie culture. So far, Crites says he has focused on making sure the restaurant’s daily specials live up to the name. He’s dished up rabbit pate and coffee creme brulee for wine dinners.
In the future, Crites says he plans on making the restaurant’s best sellers even better and perhaps replacing some underperforming dishes with creations of his own. He’s all for giving diners what they want—“You’d be an idiot not to”—but the chef in him hopes to get them wanting more.
Pan Roasted Quail with Smoked Gouda Grits
8 quail, or other small bird
1 cup coarse stone-ground grits
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups milk
2 cups smoked gouda, grated (or other cheese of choice... cheddar, swiss, parm, etc)
4 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons canola oil
Green onions, sliced
Salt and pepper
1. Season the quail on both sides with salt and pepper.
2. Heat a large saute pan over medium high heat and add 1 tablespoon of oil.
3. Add 4 of the quail, cook for 3 minutes on one side, and then flip, cooking an additional 3 minutes on the second side. Add 2 tables spoons of butter to the pan and baste the quail to help achieve an even golden brown color. Wipe out the pan and repeat for the remaining quail.
4. Meanwhile in a 2 quart pot, heat up the chicken stock and milk to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper, and then slowly sprinkle in the grits while whisking continuously. The mixture will thicken up considerably in the next few minutes, just continue stirring to avoid scorching the bottom. Stir in the cheese and adjust the seasoning if neccesary. Serve 8 oz of grits per person, and place two quail on each plate. Sprinkle with green onions and serve.