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Chef’s Dish, Chef Daniel Kuebelbeck at Kay’s Kitchen

Daniel Kuebelbeck, left, and another cook from Kay’s competing in Reinhart’s Culinary Fight Club event. Kuebelbeck’s shrimp tacos took top honors.

Daniel Kuebelbeck likes to cook. But, “I wouldn’t call myself a chef,” Kuebelbeck says. “I have no formal training.”

And yet he not only cooks food people like to eat, he was the winner of the Culinary Fight Club event Reinhart hosted at its April food show. His shrimp tacos in an egg roll wrapper with a mango Thai chili sauce beat out the competition.

Kuebelbeck has been in the industry since age 16, getting his start washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant. “I was kind of a deviant,” Kuebelbeck says. “I went into the industry, and that was a trend for a lot of folks.” 

Today he’s cooking at Kay’s Kitchen, a staple of the St. Joseph community since Kay and “Dirk” Dierkhising opened the spot in 1972. 

“It’s simple, traditional. A lot of comfort food,” says Kuebelbeck, who’s the kitchen manager. “It’s standard greasy spoon fare with a modern twist.” So much so that Kuebelbeck estimates that half of the menu hasn’t changed since the place opened more than 45 years ago. 

His favorite part of the gig is the guests he serves, “the more blue collar workers, my kind of people.”

 “It’s a small town” says Kuebelbeck. “I grew up here. You know everybody, but you don’t really know them until they talk to you. There’s always a connection.”

When asked about the moment he knew cooking was right for him, Kuebelbeck isn’t sure. “Not really, specifically,” Kuebelbeck muses. “I’ll be putting my two weeks in and I’ll take a month or two hiatus [for the summer] and then come back.”

Kuebelbeck’s specialty is wild game. While it’s not on Kay’s menu, game offers a lot of opportunities for innovation. “Last year I spent time in Peru and they made a trout ceviche and I just thought, ‘Why haven’t I been making this at home?'” Kuebelbeck says. There’s plenty of exotic dishes he does make at home, however, including squirrel pot pie, goose stroganoff and a variety of lake fish. “I don’t buy any meat from the grocery store,” he adds.

Kuebelbeck still finds ways to use his well culled skills at Kay’s every day. “That’s what I enjoy about cooking. Everything has a design to it,” he says. 

The dish they’re known for? The Dirk Burger, named after one of the founders. “It’s been on the menu as long as the place has been open,” says Kuebelbeck. “Kay’s has been a staple here for a long time. The name is really important.”

It was one of the first real eateries in the area, according to Kuebelbeck. And sure enough, there’s still a line out the door every weekend morning. 

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