Is Cooking a Magic Show? I Think Not….

I am new to this blogging thing, but I think it’s an excellent way for me to reach out to a global community of chefs, restauranteurs, culinary students and lovers of food, like myself. While I am not new to is cooking. I started as a child in my grandfather’s little kitchen on Chicago’s North side and I had the priviledge of of graduating many years ago from the Culinary Institute of  America in upstate New York (CIA). You can read the short version of my story in the About section of this blog.

I figure if I am going to take the time to work on this blog in the little spare time I have, I want it to be a conversation, one that continues to teach me and perhaps those who read it as well. So don’t be shy in giving me your thoughts. I want to hear your feedback. I do not care if you live a block from Restaurant Michael here in Winnetka, IL, or if you live half way around the world. In fact, I welcome everyone who loves anything and everything having to do with cooking to join in the conversation…which brings me to the first topic for this blog.

I recently had a chat with an old friend who is closely tied to the restaurant business  It went something like this:

ML:  After many years of cooking for others and owning my own restaurants for even longer, I am getting sick and tired of seeing young chefs cycle through restaurant “trends” which represent a certain area of expertise.

HG: That seems to be a big trend now, one minute they are experts in Spanish food, the next it’s French.

ML: AND THAT is when I get crazy!  These guys have the audacity to fuck with my wheelhouse? I have spent my whole life specializing in classic French cuisine and they think because they can get a lot of investor money and open a place they suddenl become experts in French cuisine. Give me a break! These chefs need to tread lightly!

HG:Yeah, there was this article quoting a chef saying he had to fly to New York to get a certain kind of fish because no one served it locally. I got so incensed I wrote a letter to the editor because there were at least 10 places that served it in Chicago and the suburbs. It was ridiculous. He needed to be called out on that and there were many other comments just like mine.

ML: I know what you are talking about and I think that is part of the problem especially then chefs mislead the public about what is or is not available. It makes readers think he’ll be the only serving a certain dish or featuring a certain product – that is bullshit especially when someone like ME has been doing it all these years.  When Jean Banchet closed Le Francais, I was the only one left doing classic French cuisine. There are other fabulous French restaurants, but I am talking strictly classic French. AND we do it with all the bells and whistles–3 courses for a $49.50!  Unheard of!

HG: I think that with the advent of The Food Network shows, people think that cooking is akin to a magic show.

ML: That is exactly what I talking about. It’s should NOT be a magic show!  I liken it to a surgeon who studies one thing his whole life and does it to the best of his ability. I’m taking issue with chefs who think food is simply theater and cook whatever they deem the “trend du jour.” It took me 5-6 years after I graduated culinary school to even appreciate all the many nuances and stylings of French cuisine. I am still learning today for God’s sake! Every day spent in my kitchen I learn something new and hopefully those I hire to work in my kitchen are as well.

HG: Well I have personally spoken to many people who have worked for you Michael and although they say you are a tough boss in there, several have told me that they are better chefs for it today. You know, all we are really talking about is food!

ML: RIGHT! Restaurants are getting away from the fact that this is about cooking and simply that.  Food is not a damn science experiment. The fact that people want to be entertained while you dine is wrong. I simply want to feed people. I am happy when I feed people, can you tell by my size?  I love food and I want to share those tastes with those that walk through my doors . I am so passionate about this!

HG: Without a doubt you are! The funny thing is that in these trendy restaurants the food takes a backstage to the scene you know? I personally am so tired of every new place being about pigs, bacon and pork products! Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to eat cheeks, asses, tails, goat butt, who knows what this shit is anymore? It sounds disgusting!  If you look at all the best chefs in recent history, their food was simple and it still stands up today; people like Alice Waters, Julia Child, Jacques Pepin – even Emerill – it’s not all scientific and complicated. It’s classic and darn it, it tastes amazing!

ML: I think the trend will morph back my way. We are busier then we have ever been since we opened and now I am expanding the restaurant by a third because of it, so something I am doing must be right! At the end of the day I believe that people who pay you good money to feed them, want food that tastes good and maybe they like the fact that I come into the dining room night after night to see how everyone is enjoying the food. I am thinking that that will always be an important part of fine dining.

HG: I think others would agree with you on that one! I know it is important to me. I love when a chef comes out of the kitchen to chat with his/her guests. It makes it very personal. As you always have said, you touch every plate that leaves the kitchen and I think when you come out and put a hand on someone’s shoulder and ask how they enjoying their meal – that goes a long way. Do you feel that from your guests?

ML: I sure do and I would love to hear from others on how that affects where they dine. Is it important? I sure hope so because I am going to continue being me and I am doing what comes natural!


17 thoughts on “Is Cooking a Magic Show? I Think Not….

  1. As a lay person, but fan of classical french cuisine in general, and your food in particular, I am glad to see your new blog is up and hope it will provide a verbal outlet for your passion for food! I look forward to following it! In response to your specific point, from the perspective of the diner, it does mean a lot when a chef comes out to check on service and make that personal connection with the diners. To people who love food, it is great to see that it is appreciated by the chef, and not just presumed since you are there, you will be back.

  2. Great Blog- Looking forward to more well-considered comments from such a broad perspective… Thanks.
    Couldn’t agree more on the perils of “cuisine du jour”, and some of my previous favorite restaurants have failed due to a ‘trendy’ shift. More often than not that has meant a move from classic French or Italian to “comfort food”!!?? Did they really think they would maintain my loyalty with fried chicken and ‘the world’s greatest cole slaw’? And France now includes such diverse influences from the East and Magreb, why not just incorporate some subtle touches with finesse instead of shifting to an entire different cuisine?
    One tip though… use euphemisms for the ‘colorful’ language, as there are some who will be offended. As the owner of such a classy place, I am sure people will get the point if you use ‘screw’ instead of f@#k; etc., etc.
    Look forward to seeing more soon.

  3. Both my husband and I are long time fans of your Michael. Eating at your restaurant is always a pleasure. The food a delight, the waitstaff, the visits from the chef make the whole dining experience extraordinary. As you know Brian and I travel from Aurora to eat at your restaurant. I loved reading your blog! Keep up the good work, future chefs can learn a great deal from you! Brian misses your cooking classes. Hopefully, you will reinstate those. Wishing you all the best!
    Marcy & Brian

    • Thank you so much for the feedback! I love that you travel so far to eat my cooking. In fact, I am honored everytime I see you guys on the reservation list.
      We also love the Chateau Gravenhorst”!!!!!!! See you soon.

  4. p.s. Make the replies function more prominent on your blog, as it was not exactly clear where I could leave a ‘comment’ (which is what it should be called.) And also add a blog link to the main page of your website; a great way to engage 1st time visitors with insight beyond the menus and gen’l background. Hope you find that useful.

  5. Like the blog, ummm but you may want to be a little less candid … “f*** with my wheelhouse”.. asterisks are a wonderful thing!!!
    See you soon!! 🙂

    • I call’s em like I see’s them my friend……FYI as I get more comfortable with the process I will likely become a bit more “blue” as they say. I do however respect what you are saying.
      Thanks for the comment Kevin!

  6. An interesting and very passionate perspective. I’ve appreciated your cooking for several years. I’m very glad your restaurant is doing better than ever. Was in a couple weeks ago and the place was packed. I’ve told you this before but it warrants repeating: your foie gras dish is my favorite dish at any restaurant I’ve ever eaten in my life. I look forward to reading more.

  7. I agree with most of what you say, but I will add that with the push towards more sustainable food and care of the animals we eat there’s nothing wrong with preparing hoofs, snouts, fries, etc. Some of these dishes are great and certainly nouroshing. There are soem very good restaurants preparing these dishes, though I will agree that the trend is a bit overdone. Keep doing what you are doing. There’s room for both sides of the debate.

    • Hi Matt. Yes, agree. Many fine restaurants are cooking with less desireable cuts from the animals we consume. Your point is fantastic! Please understand, I support that movement as well with dishes that feature cheeks, sweetbreads, kidney etc…….My only problem with this whole trend is the media spins that are applied. Those of us that are well versed in classic cuisine were taught to apply total utilization of every animal as a form of respect for the actual animal, not simply to ride a trend. What I would love to see is more formal training and structure in the cooking of the upcoming Chefs. From there the sky’s the limit. Creativity should stem from a strong foundation so it is actually sustainable. This, I believe applies to all types of cooking not just French.
      Thank you so much for your comments, I really love the passion in your response…………………..more to come……

  8. While no one has ever been correct underestimating the value of a good pig’s ass, I suggest that most of those chefs dont serve a horse’s ass because it would strike too close to home. My wife and I love Restaurant Michael because the food is always first rate, the dining is elegant, the waitstaff impeccable and the value is unsurpassed. Be as “blue” as you want and keep doing what you’re doing. Nobody does it better.

  9. Michael–

    Don’t worry about the language. I think that is more important to be true to your own voice than to worry about expletives. I would agree that FoodTV is much more interested in “showmanship” than substance, and all of us who are serious about food and its preparation know this. Reality TV shows like Top Chef do not reflect any care in thoughtful and creative innovation in food service. The current fashion of molecular gastronomy I hope is a soon to be forgotten episode. Form and substance need to go together, not wispy foams and mini-bites.

    I am a serious and well trained amateur chef, which is why I can place such value on the dining experience you provide. Keep up the great work,

  10. My wife and I had an outstanding experience during your Truffle Tasting last month. While we’re not of the 1%, your pricing is in our “special occasion” wheelhouse! Service was excellent, and even accommodated our request to be reseated further away from an overperfumed diner (sometimes…ah, don’t get me started), promptly and without complaint. My wife Lisa also indulged in the wine pairings, and was happily surprised by choices she herself would never have tried. The only thing we’d have changed would be to substitute the “chocolate” kind of truffle for the “fungal” in the dessert, although we had a great laugh at this whimsical dish, and will probably remember it longer than the more traditional courses! Such philistines…

    We ran the 8 courses, and were impressed by both the logical progression of ingredients/preparation and the perfect portion control. We’ll be back next year for more truffle, and a couple times in between.

    • Came in Friday (6/15/12) for the 5 course Lobster Tasting. Thanks for NOT using lobster for the dessert, chef! (We’re still chuckling remembering truffle ice cream!). 5 stars (out of 5). And Umberto was on his game as usual. How about an “Heirloom Tomato Festival” next? Season is coming up…

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