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Every chef has a few secrets. Perhaps it’s a particular ingredient in a sauce, or a slightly different take on how to cook pasta, or a special way to hold the fresh flavor of seafood. Detroit — and, for that matter, much of Michigan — is a hotbed of chefs who have their own ideas about what makes a dish unforgettable. They’re dedicated to understanding how flavors and textures interact to bring out the best in what they present. In this section, Hour Detroit introduces you to many of the area’s top chefs and lets you in on some of their secrets. These tried-and-true tips and techniques have been kitchen-tested and are used every day at restaurants and fine establishments throughout Michigan. It’s no surprise that chefs are willing to share what they know about cooking, because their true key to success is always in their ability to satisfy others.
Norman Fenton, Executive Sous Chef
Q: Is there a particular procedure to properly store fresh fish?
A: The most common mistake people make when storing fish is taking it from their purveyor’s packaging, putting it right into their fridge or walk-in, and letting it sit in melting ice water. When fresh fish arrives at Bistro 82, we immediately inspect the quality to ensure it meets our standards. We then take the whole sides of the fish and lay them down on a linen-like paper towel, with the flesh of each filet touching the other (it’s as if we’re “putting the fish back together,” as if it were whole). The fish is then wrapped in plastic wrap, making sure all sides are enclosed and there is no room for air or water to seep in or out. Next we bury it in ice — and I mean bury it, like at least 6 to 12 inches of ice above and below the fish. The most important thing to remember when storing fish is that it needs to be properly wrapped and submerged in ice to ensure the best quality from what is generally a high-cost food item for a restaurant.
Lee Ulrich, Executive Chef
Joe’s Produce Gourmet Market
Q: What do you do when trying out a new recipe?
A: When asked to prepare a dish from a recipe, the first thing I like to do is compare three or four other recipes for the same dish. I look closely at what ingredients are present and in what amount, and the similarities give a sense of where to start. With experience and practice combining flavors, you develop an instinct for what works well together. Until then, don’t be afraid of trial-and-error. To get the best flavors possible, I strive to use fresh ingredients when they’re available, which is part of what I love about working at Joe’s Produce. There’s always an abundance of fresh, high quality produce, herbs, meat, and seafood. One last tip: never over-salt. I find that many recipe sources will call for more salt than is needed. I start with half the amount of salt the recipe calls for, and then salt to taste before serving.
Brian Kanak, Executive Chef
Toasted Oak Grill & Market
Q: What’s your most important ingredient?
A: You would think it would be a food product, but actually it’s our associates. In my opinion, the key to a restaurant’s success is the team members. Skilled, passionate, and creative teams make an exciting and memorable dining experience.
We love it when our associates want to bring ideas to the kitchen. In fact, that was the inspiration for our local menu. One of the more rewarding aspects of my job is when an associate has the start of an idea, but doesn’t know how to make it a reality — for instance, utilizing rabbit in a dish or a finding a better way to minimize any waste of a food product. Together, as a team, we can turn that one idea into a reality — and, hopefully, a memorable experience for both associate and guest.
Antonio Rugiero, President & Chief Executive Officer
Antonio’s Cucina Italiana
Q: How do I reduce the acid when cooking a tomato-based sauce, and eliminate adding sugar to a sauce?
A: The natural acids of a tomato often compromise a fresh tomato sauce. Some recipes call for sugar to cover the acidity, but there are natural ways to avoid adding sugar to reduce the acid. When sautéeing the onions and garlic as you prepare to make the sauce, include a chopped stalk of celery and shredded carrots, and cook until they liquefy. This will bring out the natural sweetness of the tomato and reduce the acid, all without adding any extra sugar.
Zharko Palushaj, General Manager
Tre Monti Ristorante
Q: What are your best tips and tricks for making the perfect fresh pasta?
A: We’re very particular about our fresh pasta at Tre Monti, so it’s important to pay attention to the details. I recommend that the room where you’ll be making the pasta be around 60 degrees and have well-balanced humidity levels. I also recommend that you always use fresh eggs that have been brought up to room temperature before using. If you use water instead of eggs, you’ll have a lower yield. Once your pasta is done, it will keep for a couple of days if covered by plastic wrap and placed in the refrigerator. If you plan to keep the pasta any longer than that, it will need to be dried out completely. For a delicious and unique pasta dessert, add one tablespoon of cocoa powder when making your pasta and drain with sauce made from melted butter and almond slices.
Joe Koniski, Executive Chef
Q: What is Maldon salt and how is it best used?
A: Maldon salt from Essex, England, is pure and natural and has a fresher, cleaner finish on the palate than iodized table salt. Table salt is really processed and isn’t as natural as it should be. Maldon salt is made from purified sea water that’s evaporated and heated until the salt in the water crystalizes.
The stigma that salt is bad for you isn’t true. Salt is necessary for a healthy human body. Like anything else, it needs to be consumed in moderation.
I’ve found that some of the best uses for Maldon salt are to finish an item after it’s cooked. When you’re done cooking a steak or any piece of meat, for example, sprinkle a small amount of Maldon salt on the finished product and the flavors will really pop.
Kevin Green, Regional Executive Chef
Coach Insignia: A Member of The Epicurean Group
Q: Where do you get ideas and inspiration for your menu?
A: Two main factors in creating a menu are the idea and the execution of each dish. The idea can come in several forms: spontaneously thought out, inspiration from a single ingredient, or simply taking a certain flavor and recreating it in a different way. I prefer the single ingredient idea and move into flavors from there. Going to the market and seeing a certain ingredient can provoke a spontaneous thought. Once the idea is set, I move into the execution of each item. This involves cooking it several times, tasting it, and seeking feedback from the team. I like to get the involvement of the staff, as well, for their insight. This may mean a complete change or a quick tweak of certain components. I also seek out advice from my front-of-house staff, who can provide the perspective from the guests’ point of view. The plate-up is very important since, as much as we focus on the taste of a dish, guests eat with their eyes, too. So (everything) has to look phenomenal, as well. The color, style, and layout — down to a particular plate — can play a factor.
Andrew Alcid, Chef de Cuisine
Q: Since cooking seasonally is so important, is it wrong to use frozen or canned items that aren’t necessarily in season?
A: I like to use whatever tastes best. I prefer to cook seasonally, as most chefs do, but I don’t let myself get limited to where I live and what’s available fresh. English peas are a great example of a seasonal product that’s also great when frozen. At the beginning of the season, fresh peas can be very sweet and tender, but they often become more metallic-tasting as the season progresses. However, peas that are used for freezing are always picked at the height of the season, which means frozen peas are almost always sweet and tender. Another example is canned peppers. Canned piquillo peppers are a staple in my pantry. These Spanish peppers find their way into my dishes throughout the year. They add vibrancy to sauces, authenticity to Spanish cuisine, and have a much bolder flavor than roasted red peppers. As far as I know, these peppers are grown only in Spain (at least commercially), so I can’t get them just anywhere. But I go out of my way to find them no matter the season, because their flavor can’t be beat. Every year I look forward to a new crop of seasonal products, but flavor is more important. It’s all about showing respect for our food; seasonality is just one component of that.
Andre Neimanis, Executive Chef
Dirty Dog Jazz Café
Q: Why smell your food?
A: Sensory evaluation through smells can tell you many things about your ingredients and the food you’re about to eat. In the kitchen, we do it all the time. Whether it’s fresh produce, herbs, spices, or meat and fish, normally to smell is the first step. We do this to ensure the utmost quality and freshness, and you should do the same. When purchasing meats and seafood from a butcher counter, don’t be afraid to ask to smell the product. This shouldn’t offend butchers and fishmongers; rather, they should consider you a connoisseur. Smell your food.
Art Blackmer, Evening Chef
Holiday Inn Grand Haven & Spring Lake
Q: How do you develop a successful menu?
A: A new menu launch is a very exciting and stressful time for a chef and staff. What most people don’t realize is planning for a new menu has to start months in advance. A chef ’s first attempt at a dish isn’t always successful, and particular recipes may require tweaking of ingredients and procedures. Successful menu development requires impeccable organization, planning, testing of recipes, and patience. Not only should a menu be pleasing to the guest, it also needs to be profitable, cost-effective, and seasonally appropriate, and items have to be prepared in a timely manner to meet guest expectations.
Eric Ward, Chef
Joe Muer Seafood Restaurant
Q: What should I look for when buying fresh seafood?
A: Using your senses is key to choosing fish and other seafood. Ask to see the fish so you can touch, smell, and look at it. To your eye, your fish should look bright and firm, with opaque, shiny flesh and clear eyes. To the nose, your fish should smell of the ocean or lake. Fresh fish doesn’t have a “fishy” smell; that’s an “old” odor, and it’s not a fish you want to buy. To the touch, a fish shouldn’t feel sticky. You want smooth flesh and slippery skin.
As for clams and mussels, they may be open, and that’s fine, but if you close them by squeezing with your fingers, they should close tight. If they don’t, disregard them. Oyster shells always need to be closed. Never buy open oyster shells. Also, never buy a fish “in the round.” A fish should always be dressed and the cavity well-cleaned. If you buy a larger whole fish, carry it from the body or head. Carrying from the tail will pull and stretch, leaving undesirable spaces on the filets.
Using your senses, and a little common sense, will help you select a fish that you can prepare, cook, and savor.
Vincenso Samueli Sencich, Owner
Q: How do you add richness to your dishes without all the fat?
A: In our kitchens we keep these tips close at hand to create mouthwatering dishes without compromising health: First, turn up the heat. Sear, toast, de-glaze, caramelize, sweat, and reduce, and your taste buds will soar. Sear your sea bass. Toast your spices. Explore the flame. Second, get fresh. Fresh herbs, that is. Nothing compares to fresh dill in potato salad, tarragon with seafood, and basil with anything. Third, zest it. Juice is good, but the zest is where the essential oil is. Buy a microblade and try lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange, and more. Combine juice and zest — you’ll be surprised how different they taste. And finally, remember layer, complexity, and depth. Great food builds layers of flavor with each added ingredient and cooking technique. A dish to remember will touch multiple taste buds, and its textures will create an experience that’s bound to be simply delicious!
David Gilbert, Owner and Executive Chef
Q: How do I make healthy food choices at home?
A: Whether you’re cooking at a fine-dining restaurant like I do each day at Marais, or for your family at home, you don’t have to sacrifice taste in order to make healthy choices.
It can be as simple as changing core ingredients to end up with a healthier dish. If a recipe calls for butter, try heart-healthy coconut oil or olive oil instead. You can also use natural sweetener, like honey or agave, as a substitute for refined sugar.
Buying and cooking foods in season is the best way to avoid preservative-laden foods, and it offers the freshest and most flavorful options for a healthy meal. Fresh fruits and vegetables are simply delicious, and with very little cooking required, it makes them a very healthy option. In my cooking classes, I stress that changing techniques of preparing food will produce healthier options. Grilling, poaching, and steaming are healthier ways to prepare meats and seafood that are flavorful and delicious. Simply add a selection of fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit for a wonderfully delicious meal. Healthy food, by definition, is full of flavors, vivid on your palate, energizing, and beautiful.
Randy Truant, Chef/Owner
Q: How can you elevate your lasagna from ordinary to extraordinary?
A: Lasagna is a family comfort food! Who doesn’t like a big piece of gooey, multi-layered pasta with sauce and cheese melted in between? Here are a few tips for elevating your family recipe from ordinary to extraordinary. First, throw out the boxes. With all the wonderful specialty markets and homemade pasta recipes, there’s no need to use that box of pasta that has probably been in the pantry way too long. Buy some sheets of fresh pasta or learn how to make it yourself. Second, skip the ricotta. Try making a creamy béchamel sauce instead, to add creaminess and complexity to your lasagna. Third, no meat, no problem. Whether you’re a vegetarian or just haven’t been to the market, veggies are a great way to add freshness and texture to your lasagna. Try using spinach, eggplant, or mushrooms in place of meat. It’s very satisfying and delicious! Finally, cheese it up. Don’t skimp on your cheese selection! Use a blend of high-quality provolone, mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. You can even use pecorino or asiago cheese for extra flavor.
When making lasagna, remember the only limit is your imagination. Our favorite ingredients to elevate the family recipe include flavored pastas like spinach or porcini mushrooms, roasted red tomatoes to enhance the béchamel sauce, or some red pepper flakes or spicy Italian sausage to kick it up a notch!
Jim Leonardo, Executive Chef
Q: How can I make my vegetables at home as tasty as they are when I eat out?
A: Be courageous! Vegetables have the ability to become interestingly different depending on how you prepare them. The less you mess with vegetables, the more natural flavor will remain. Try taking beautiful fresh carrots and roasting them in a 300-degree oven with whole cloves of garlic and rosemary, instead of slicing and boiling them. This method also works great for whole heads of cauliflower.
Boiling tip: Keep the water as close to boiling throughout the whole process, and cook smaller batches for better results. Flavor with fresh herbs, spices, olive oil, or butter — or anything you like. You’re in control now!
Chad Harbin, Executive Chef
Fin’s Eatery & Spirits
Q: What are the keys to successful party planning?
A: The short answer is checklists — but beyond that, you start with the type of party. Does it have a theme? Is it a birthday or a small shower at your house? Once that’s been decided, let the list making begin! Start with the décor. Will you be decorating the space? Do you have the plateware and serving dishes you need? Then move on to the food. If you’re trying a new recipe, I recommend you practice first — don’t go in blind. Know your sources. Have a plan as to where you will be purchasing your food items and try, if you can, to purchase as many things ahead of time as possible.
Also, it’s a good idea to prepare as many items as you can ahead of time. Try to prep cold foods at least a day ahead. You want the amount of time spent cooking on the day of the event to be kept to a minimum. Make a list of approximate cooking times for the items you plan to serve. This way you can be sure to have all of your hot food hot at the same time.