Local cook and his family like to mix it up, on and off the job

By Bethany Knipp

Whether they know him or not, Manhattanites probably have seen the face of Frank Willis.

Willis’ face, complemented by his distinctive afro and beard, was featured on stickers and T-shirts for Bluestem Bistro a few years ago — since he used to co-own the place.

But even if they’ve never seen the bistro memorabilia, folks still might have seen Frank walking around City Park or Aggieville.

And still, if no one has seen Willis on a T-shirt or around town, they may have seen him on YouTube.

Willis and his wife, Jenny, made a video about things Manhattanites commonly say, and the funny little thing has drawn nearly 38,000 views.

But the reason Willis is frequently out and about is simple. He just doesn’t like to be idle.

“It’s hard for me to be at home sitting down and doing nothing,” he said. 

He also feels that way about work.  He doesn’t like to sit around, so desk jobs aren’t for him.

“I’m not the type to want to wear a suit and tie every day,” he said.

That’s part of the reason why the 30-year-old Overland Park native has worked in the food industry for years.

Though he’s worked at many restaurants in Manhattan since he first came here in 2004, he’s currently in charge of the kitchen for Kansas State University’s Delta Upsilon fraternity, which contracts with Bluestem Bistro for its food.

Willis, who has a culinary certificate, said he started working with food from with his dad (who was a chef) ever since he was old enough to function safely in the kitchen.

“My dad taught me how to cook and bake, so it’s always funny for me to hear, ‘Yeah, my mom and my grandma do the Thanksgiving meal.’ I’m, like, what do you mean?”

Frank said his dad taught him how to make cheesecake, Willis’ favorite thing to bake. Willis said he uses his secret family recipe to make the tasty desert.

Even though Willis loves to bake, cook and try new foods, he wouldn’t call himself a “foodie,” or someone who spends a good portion of time finding the latest and greatest dishes, then posting the finds on social media.

“I think that’s kind of a negative term for me, personally,” he said. “I think it comes with a lot of arrogance, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a hamburger from a greasy-spoon type place,” he said.

Though he is nonjudgmental about food, Willis admits it’s a big part of his life — even his family life.

Willis’ wife, Jenny, said when the couple head out on vacation with their 1-year-old daughter, it’s about going to restaurants and coffee shops they’ve never sampled.

“It’s not like, ‘Let’s go see the Statue of Liberty.’ It’s more like, ‘What’s the biggest bakery we can find?’ ” Jenny Willis said.

And whether the love for food will be passed on to 1-year-old Mable, Frank and Jenny believe their daughter is headed in the right direction.

“We make sweet potatoes and other vegetables, and she puts handfuls at a time in her mouth,” Frank said.

In a true food family, it’s a start.

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