Madison-born chef Riah Kuenzi with his fiancee, Gina Wellner, her daughter Ella Crew, cat Valentine and dog Noelle stand outside Kuenzi's parents home on the near west side of Madison, on Tuesday, August 20, 2019. The family came to Kuenzi's hometown in 2017 after hurricanes devastated St. John island. "It's been a blessing," says Kuenzi of their time in Madison. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Riah Kuenzi and his family arrived in Madison in a hurry, and unprepared.

“We evacuated St. John with flip flops and sundresses, whatever we grabbed, and we were out of there,” Kuenzi said. 

Kuenzi, a Madison-born chef, had spent the last five years living on St. John in the Virgin Islands, where he was executive chef for Waterfront Bistro. When Hurricane Irma hit the island on September 6, 2017, Kuenzi, his fiancee Gina Wellner and her daughter Ella Crew rode out the storm in Wellner’s home on the Coral Bay side of the island. 

The Category 5 hurricane devastated the island, ripping the roof off of Kuenzi’s home and destroying the couple’s workplaces. But Wellner’s concrete home was surprising undamaged, and the three weren’t yet planning to leave.

It wasn’t until they learned the schools weren’t reopening, and they wouldn’t have water or power for at least eight months, that they decided to get out. Friends and family “all over the planet” offered to take them in, but 12-year-old Ella had already made up her mind. 

“Immediately, Ella was like, ‘We’re going to Madison,’” Kuenzi said.

They had visited Madison just weeks before, and Ella was eager to spend time with her grandmother. “We sort of shrugged our shoulders and thought that was a good idea.” They knew Madison’s schools were good, and they like the idea of connecting with Kuenzi’s big close-knit family. The three — plus cat Valentine and dog Noelle — moved into Kuenzi’s childhood home on Madison’s near west side.

Two years later, the family is packing their bags again, this time to return to the island they love. "We’re ready to go home, but it’s bittersweet," said Kuenzi, who counts the time in Madison as a blessing.

Home is St. John, he said, but “home very much is still here as well, and now more than ever, now that all of us have been here.” 

Opportunity calls

Kuenzi had said goodbye to Madison in 1999 as his culinary career took him to kitchens around the country. He was working as a chef and general manager in Austin in late 2012 when he got a call from a friend who was running a restaurant on St. John. The restaurant’s sous chef had fallen from a balcony and broken his neck, and Kuenzi’s friend needed a replacement fast. But on an island of 4,000, it’s hard to find a chef who doesn’t already have a job.

“They had no options, so over a bottle of wine, they were discussing... ‘Who’s crazy enough, and who has the skill set?’ And in a moment they were like, ‘We should call Riah!’”

Six days later, Kuenzi was on a plane to St. John. “It was the best move I ever made,” Kuenzi said. 

“I’ve been a chef working the grind for 20 years,” he said, and the island offered a peaceful and meditative reprieve from the hectic life of the restaurant industry. A year later, he met Wellner, whom he calls “the love of my life,” on the island nicknamed Love City.

Becoming a neighborhood chef

Kuenzi returned to Madison 18 years and two hurricanes later — they stopped for several days in Puerto Rico and left on one of the last flights before Hurricane Maria tore through both islands.

The Midwest stint they thought might last a couple months stretched into two years. Madison life was easy to get used to, Kuenzi said. 

“The first time Ella went trick-or-treating here, that was a wild adventure,” Kuenzi said. Growing up on St. John, the only trick-or-treating was at an open-air mall. Madison was full of costumed kids and homes giving away full-size candy bars. “She’d never seen anything quite like this.”

She’d also never seen snow, and her first snowball fight was “kind of magic,” Kuenzi said. 

Not knowing how long they’d be in town, Kuenzi wasn’t sure whether to look for a job as a chef in Madison. But Wellner took a server job at Everly, a new restaurant on Monroe Street just half a mile from the house, and when bosses mentioned they were seeking a new chef, she told them she had someone in mind.

Kuenzi became executive chef for Everly and Miko Poke, which share a prep kitchen, overhauling the back-of-house operations and leading the kitchen through the Monroe Street construction. 

Each day, Kuenzi would bike down the hill from the home where he, Wellner and Ella still live with his parents. “It’s been always a dream of mine and of my mom’s to be a chef in the neighborhood,” Kuenzi said. “It was a kind of cool family experience.”

Kuenzi knows that others might not think of his return to his parents’ home the same way he does.

“Every time I tell somebody that, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s terrible!’ They think it’s some tragic event, but it’s been a blessing,” Kuenzi said. “It’s really neat to meet the neighborhood again… and I appreciate Madison for different reasons now.” 

'We're ready to go home'

But on Monday, Aug. 26, the family’s time in Madison will draw to a close, at least for now. In July, Kuenzi was offered a job as executive chef of the soon-to-open Dave and Jerry’s Island Steakhouse on St. John. They’re hoping to open mid-October, though “island time” could make that later, Kuenzi said.

Kuenzi hopes it won't be long before he's back in Madison, even if just for a visit. “We need to come back here more often,” he said as he prepared for a day of packing. “I’ve been kind of a ghost for the last 20 years.”

Kuenzi and Wellner plan to spend at least two more years on St. John, but beyond that, they’re not sure. They wonder whether Ella might benefit from schools and opportunities elsewhere, and they know the next hurricane is never far off. 

“Globally, with climate change… it’s a very real thing,” Kuenzi said. “The storms are getting stronger and it’s a high likelihood that it’ll happen again.”

If another hurricane strikes, “I think we would board up the house and stay,” Kuenzi said. “But if and when we would need to leave, I think we would come back to Madison without question.”

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