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Chef Josh Lanning is Cooking Where He’s Most Comfortable

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Mike Rundle
The interior of Woolly Bugger at Sankoty Lakes features a large bar, fireplace, and lounge seating area.

From reading cookbooks on the shelves at Barnes & Noble to some of the best restaurants in the world, Chef Josh Lanning has had a unique path to an acclaimed career in food.

Now General Manager and Executive Chef of Woolly Bugger at Sankoty Lakes, Lanning was born in Keokuk, Iowa, and attended Richwoods High School after moving to Peoria early in childhood. He describes himself as a “hands-on” person, playing sports and taking interest in the arts—but a future in the kitchen was never at the forefront of his mind.

“I used to be one of those Barnes & Noble nerds who’d go and have a coffee and pull books off the shelf and read,” said Lanning. “Next thing you know, it’s all cookbooks, and I just got infatuated.”

With a newfound interest in cooking, Lanning set off for the International Culinary Center in New York, and there, a career was set in motion.

Lanning would go on to work for Chef Kyle Connaughton at Michelin three-star SingleThread Farms in Healdsburg, California, and eventually returned to the Peoria area as Sous Chef for Chef Josh Adams at June in Peoria Heights. Still adapting to a leadership role in the kitchen, Lanning says his time at June made him question his ability.

“By the end of my time at June, I felt pretty beat up because I was so hard on myself,” said Lanning. “So what did I do? I was like, ‘If I can go to the best restaurant in the world and do well, then I can do this.’”

A few drinks and one typo-laden email later, Lanning had a spot in the kitchen at Noma, a four-time “World’s Best Restaurant” winner led by Chef René Redzepi.

“I had no idea what to expect, but I was in an environment [where] I thrived,” said Lanning. “A really intense, high-energy environment, and I found that I could keep up with the best of them, and I felt really good about that. My confidence went up.”

Lanning was running with the masters overseas and in the states, having a daughter and getting married along the way—but the death of his father caused an abrupt shift in perspective.

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Mike Rundle
Lanning has a tattoo reading "Thomas Dale" on his left arm in memory of his father.

“I was in a three-Michelin star restaurant working 75 hours a week,” said Lanning. “Now I have this family of my own...I [needed] to start getting control over my life and not work so much so I can spend time doing things with people I love.”

In March 2020, Lanning and his family moved to Nashville where he began working on three new restaurants with the decorated Chef Sean Brock. Once again in a management position, Lanning was able to hone his skills as a leader, setting him up for the star role at Woolly Bugger when he and his family decided to make the move.

“He made a visit up here and saw the facility, and I think he fell in love pretty quickly,” said Greg Birkland, President and CEO of KDB Group.

Being able to form Woolly Bugger from the ground up, Lanning is putting all of his experience to work establishing an environment where employees feel valued and can expect to learn something new every day. Having worked in a variety of renowned kitchens across the world, Lanning knows what it feels like to be exposed to the pressure of high stakes cooking with no margin for error.

“I get really excited building a team [and] building a culture more than anything. There’s a big shift in the restaurant industry, people are finally speaking up when they’re not treated well, and they should,” said Lanning. “[Woolly Bugger] is a place of education, it’s a place of empowerment and respect.”

Thus far, Lanning has worked to build a dream team of regional talent, including Sous Chef Chris Stolfa who most recently worked with Chef Dustin Allen at Edge and The 12 Bar Lounge.

Born into a restaurant family, Stolfa has been around food his entire life, and connected with Lanning over social media when he heard the news of his return to the Peoria area.

“We seemed to hit it off on the same foot pretty much from the start,” said Stolfa.

Stolfa highlights that, since his start at Woolly Bugger, Lanning and the team as a whole have worked to get on the same page and synchronize a lot of “moving parts.”

“It’s always interesting to see how anybody works together in any setting because you’re taking various backgrounds and different personalities,” said Stolfa. “Leadership is the key there, and Chef Josh is a great leader.”

If there is one thing Lanning and Stolfa will always agree on, it is the necessity of fresh ingredients.

“That’s part of how I cook, and I can’t really do it any other way,” said Lanning. “I’m not a can opener kind of guy. If I were, I couldn’t do it because it’s not too engaging for me.”

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Mike Rundle
Fresh produce is an integral part of the menu at Woolly Bugger, and Lanning has made multiple partnerships with local farms.

Through partnerships with a number of local farms, Lanning is able to get his hands on some of the freshest meat and vegetables available in Illinois. From hyper-local produce at Down River Farm in East Peoria, to regional leaders in beef like Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury, the menu at Woolly Bugger is peppered with fresh Midwestern staples.

With offerings ranging from roasted chicken to cornmeal gnocchi, Lanning says that the menu is made for people like his parents.

“They’re two Midwesterners, through and through, and they could be as critical as the worst of them,” said Lanning. “Cooking [in the Midwest] is probably the most comfortable place I could cook in because I know the culture, I know the old church cookbook tricks. There’s a couple dishes on the menu based off of something your aunt would bring to a family reunion.”

Now, Lanning and his family feel a renewed sense of belonging in the town they call home. With a new role under the ever-expanding umbrella of KDB Group, he is looking forward to what the future might bring.

“They took a leap of faith with me, and I took a leap of faith with this project,” said Lanning. “It puts me at peace knowing that I’m back here to really contribute to the community that I’ve always been connected with.”

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Mike Rundle is a correspondent at WCBU. He joined the station in 2020.