Twists and turns take former apprentice Matt Phillips to top of the culinary world

By Diane Carroll for Johnson County Community College/ACF Greater Kansas City Chefs Association

• Editor’s note: This story was originally published in November 2015. It has been updated for accuracy. •

Matt Phillips, CSC, graduated from ACF Greater Kansas City Chefs Association/Johnson County Community College apprenticeship program and continues to shine as one of the best young chefs in the world.

The 23-year-old took first place in the National Chaine Des Rôtisseurs young chef competition in Las Vegas, Nevada in summer 2015. That win propelled him to the prestigious international competition in Budapest, Hungary, held in September of that year.

Phillips, who was accompanied to Budapest by Felix Sturmer, JCCC professor of hospitality management, competed against 21 young professional chefs from 21 countries. Phillips was the first JCCC student to participate in that particular international event.

Matt Phillips

“Based on my observation,” Sturmer said, “he placed in the top third but only the top three were announced.”

Phillips participated in many competitions while at JCCC, including two other international competitions — one in Hong Kong and the other in South Korea. He also was a member of the JCCC culinary team that won first place in the America Culinary Federation Student Team National Championship in 2014. In 2016, Phillips won two silver medals at the IKA Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany.

“The contacts he has made will help him to find a job about anywhere in the world,” Sturmer said. “He is one of the most talented, hardest working, best organized and detail-oriented young chefs I have seen at JCCC.”

Phillips’ path to the competitions was an unlikely one. He liked cooking with his grandmother while growing up but never thought of becoming a chef. While in high school, he followed his siblings to the United States, where they were attending various colleges. He settled in Hillsboro, Kansas, where one of his brothers was enrolled at Tabor College.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Phillips said. “I didn’t like school at all; that’s why I did the last two years of high school online.”

While finishing his online studies, Phillips took a job in the cafeteria at Tabor College.

“I started out mopping floors in the kitchen and then I did dishes and then one day the manager came up and asked if I wanted to do prep — cutting vegetables and things like that,” he said.

From there, he moved to the stove. The manager soon told him that he had a knack for cooking and that he should check out a culinary school. Phillips had been thinking of going into the military. But he did some research and learned about the chef apprentice program at JCCC.

“It said you could go to class one day a week and work the rest of the time in a restaurant. I thought, ‘OK, I can do that.’”

Phillips finished the apprenticeship program at JCCC and continued to work at the Blue Hills Country Club, where he worked as part of his apprenticeship. Today, he is a sous chef at The River Club Kansas City.

Despite his distaste for school, he decided — on the advice of a professor — to stay in school to get a bachelor’s in business. He completed that program in 2019.

“It’s one of those things you don’t want to do,” he said, “but you can’t shake it. I decided that I’m already taking classes so it’s just easier to keep taking classes than have to come back later if there’s a job that requires a bachelor’s degree.”

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Click here to learn more about JCCC’s chef apprenticeship program.

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