Oysters and Tartare recipe by Boathouse Executive Chef James Morse in Traverse City, Michigan

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People either love or hate oysters, I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who was indifferent about them; there is just something so delightful about enjoying these briny little morsels of sweet tender flesh right out of their shells in their own natural broth. I never pass up a chance to have them, and although there are oyster bars in Chicago, my favorite place to enjoy them is up on Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City, Michigan where Executive Chef James Morse of The Boathouse serves up some of the tastiest oysters in the Midwest.

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On my last visit which was admittedly several months back, Chef Morse offered a tasting of some of his specialties; one which really stood out was the deep bay oysters on the half shell, which are topped with a finely diced ahi tartare, wasabi-avocado mousse, yuzu oyster glaze, jalapeno, and toasted sesame seeds, served on a bed of sea salt.

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After admiring the stellar presentation, I tasted one and was instantly in heaven. Combining the delicate briny oyster with tender ahi, rich avocado, and the sharp sweet/salty tang of yuzu oyster sauce followed by a hint of heat and fresh green flavor of jalapeno is a brilliant way to enhance their flavor with an array of textures and bright flavors. I loved the dish so much I wanted to share it with my readers, and I’m happy to say that Chef Morse has shared his recipe with me so that I could pass it along to all of you!

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When I recreated this dish in my kitchen, I followed Chef Morse’s notes carefully, including serving it with a chilled glass of Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine from L. Mawby. The crispness of chardonnay grapes shine through in this, their most delicate and traditional methode champenois wine.

Oysters & Tartare
recipe by Boathouse Executive Chef James Morse in Traverse City, Michigan
6 oysters serving

Ingredients
3 of each oysters (I used Olde Salt and Sandaka oysters (Atlantic) from Whole Foods (reasonably priced too!))
1 fresh yellow-fin tuna steak (Choose whichever size you’d like. Considering this is one of our favorite dishes from the Boathouse we bought twelve oysters and used our medium steak up)
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon mirin (found in your Asian food section of your local grocery store) SEE NOTES BELOW
1 sheet of nori (found in your Asian food section of your local grocery store)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 jalapeno, de-seeded and minced
1 teaspoon of wasabi avocado mousse (you can always add more to your liking)
1 teaspoon of oyster glaze

Wasabi Avocado Mousse
2 avocados
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons wasabi
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in food processor and blend until smooth, scraping bowl well. Store in plastic pastry bag until ready for use. Use rubber band to seal pastry bag and prevent oxidation.

Oyster Glaze
3 cups Oyster Sauce
1 cup Hoisin Sauce
1 cup May Ploy Chili Sauce
1/2 cup Yuzu Juice
1/2 cup Tamari Soy Sauce

Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl.

Preparation
First, if you’re making the homemade mirin and yuzu do this first and set aside. Next make the homemade wasabi mousse by adding all ingredients to the processor and blend until smooth. Prepare the oyster glaze, set aside. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat for 3-5 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Shave the radishes into thin rounds and slice them in vertical strips. You can either do this by using a mandolin or if you have good knife skills you can do this way as well. Take a sheet of the nori and break off small pieces and set aside.

Dice the tuna and before seasoning it you must shuck the oysters. Shucking oysters can be a bit challenging but rewarding. Please see my previous post here on how to shuck oysters. Season the tuna tartar with a dash of salt, yuzu juice, and mirin. After shucking the oysters top with a dollop of wasabi mousse, pile on the tuna tartar, then a dab of oyster glaze. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds, minced jalapeno, shaved radishes and nori. Serve immediately.

*Note*
If yuzu is added too soon to the tuna it will begin to cure and have an unappetizing color.

*Notes*

Mirin – Mirin is a sweet rice wine vinegar. If you are unable to find this ingredient in your grocery store you can substitute by taking 1/2 teaspoon sugar per tablespoon rice wine vinegar (which you can find at your supermarket).

Wanna get creative? You can easily make your own

Homemade Mirin
1/2 cup serving

Ingredients
4 tablespoons sugar, I tend to use organic cane sugar (which you can find at a great price at your local grocery stores)
1 cup sake (any sake will do but I used Gekkeikan Sake)
1 teaspoons pure cane syrup

Preparation
Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir ingredients to make sure they are dissolved. Remove from the heat and set aside to cook. Taste and add can syrup if you’d like it sweeter.

Yuzu Juice – Yuzu is a Japanesse citrus fruit. It’s often referred to as a sour mandarin and looks like a small grapefruit. If you have a hard time finding yuzu juice you can simply substitute it with 3 tablespoons of lime juice with 3 tablespoons of mandarin orange juice. See, not so intimidating!

Homemade Cinnamon Rolls

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I can’t seem to get into the holiday spirit this year; no matter how hard I try I can’t get into Christmas movies or even find the motivation to set up the tree, which usually goes up the day after Thanksgiving. Something’s just different this year and I can’t seem to put my finger on it, and several people I know seem to be experiencing the same thing. Maybe it’s the snow piling up, maybe its the long cold winter ahead, or maybe its just a lack of optimism.

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Today I decided to cheer us both up by filling our home with the aromas of holiday spices. Even as the furnace struggles against frosty winds and rattling window panes, my kitchen is made cozy by swirling cinnamon, sweet vanilla, and glorious nutmeg. Have you ever noticed that if you squint just right, the glow of an oven lamp looks a little bit like a fireplace? Or is it just me?

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As I pull the warm, buttery, cinnamon rolls out of the oven, I instantly feel a twinge of holiday cheer which only grows as I generously drizzle gooey spoonfuls of frosting over them, carefully covering every inch. Feeling a bit better now, I pull one apart and savor the chewy steamy center and sip a mug of hot dark roast coffee.

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This recipe is quick and simple, but it will satisfy anyone’s cravings, whether for breakfast, dessert, or in my case for both!  The usual cinnamon is wonderfully enhanced by nutmeg giving them a distinctive holiday flavor, though you will likely end up craving them all year round. They are best straight out of the oven, but keep well if tightly wrapped, and are perfect for heating up in the microwave or toaster oven.

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Homemade Cinnamon Rolls
yields 24 small or 12 large rolls

Ingredients
Dough

1 cup warm water (97’F)
3/4 cup room temperature milk, I used 1%
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter
3 pkgs of active-rise yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, whisked
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Filling
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup natural cane sugar
1 teaspoon nutmeg, I highly recommend freshly grating it yourself
3 tablespoons cinnamon

Frosting
3 tablespoons butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar
1/2 tablespoon vanilla
4 tablespoons milk (you may need a bit more, add in 1/2 tsp increments until it reaches the perfect consistency)

Preparation
For the dough, you can either mix ingredients by hand for a little workout or use a stand mixer with a dough hook. Pour the yeast into a large mixing bowl along with the sugar, milk and water. Let it sit for roughly 20 minutes to proof. You will know it’s ready when you see a dense layer of froth. Add the melted butter, eggs, flour and salt and combine. When the dough starts to form, transfer to a floured surface and fold gently as if making bread. Pull the far side of the dough up towards you, fold down and press with your palms. Repeat this until dough is smooth and elastic. Place back in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm room. In the winter I use the laundry room, making sure to turn up the thermostat a degree or two so the furnace kicks on. Allow to rise until doubled in size, 20-30 minutes depending on temperature.

While your dough is rising prepare the filling by combining the sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and melted butter then set aside. When the dough has risen, punch down and turn out onto a floured work surface. Roll out into a rectangle, about 18″x15″. Brush the the dough all over with melted butter then sprinkle the cinnamon and sugar mixture evenly, pressing down lightly. Gently roll the dough into a tight log then with a sharp knife cut into 3/4″ thick slices for 24 small rolls and 1-1/2″ thick for 12 larger rolls. Carefully arrange the slices in a lightly buttered ceramic baking dish, or a baking sheet if you don’t have one large enough. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place for another 15 minutes while the oven preheats to 375’F

While the rolls are rising, prepare the frosting. Place the softened butter into a medium bowl and add the powdered sugar. Gently stir to incorporate and once the frosting is thick, add vanilla and stir again. Start adding milk 1 teaspoon at a time until you have a semi thick, smooth frosting.

Bake cinnamon rolls for 15-20 minutes keeping a close eye on them so they don’t burn. Gently press down on one to test for doneness; if it springs back they are done. Allow to cool for 10 minutes then drizzle with the frosting, spooning it all over to cover the tops, then step back to admire your handiwork while licking the bowl. Okay stop licking the bowl now and serve them immediately! You can store any leftovers (no judgements!) tightly covered, for up to three days.

Roasted Winter Vegetables (Emile Henry Series)

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It is winter once again in Chicago. The harsh winds and short grey days call for comfort food and quiet reflection as we prepare ourselves for the chaos of the coming holiday season. This time of year will always make me think of the time we spent living in southern Germany; the winters there were not nearly as violent as they are in Chicago, but they were very long and soggy. The weekly markets that were our primary source of produce offered strictly local vegetables and it forced us to adapt to the seasonality of food.

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While we still keep this habit today, it is infinitely easier to push a shopping cart around a heated supermarket where hot house tomatoes and pineapples from central America compete for attention with the root vegetables I am craving. I load my basket with a rainbow of heirloom carrots, gold and ruby beets, lavender-hued turnips, ghostly parsnips, and thick bulbs of crisp fennel. Now armed with a bountiful supply of winter vegetables I head to my kitchen and get to work. Scrubbed and scraped clean, I prep them in rustic thick slices and then toss with olive oil and a generous splash of lovely fig vinegar from Maille, and finish with wet sea salt and crushed black peppercorns.

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As they roast in the oven my mind drifts back to our tiny German kitchen, the window facing the steps up to the house where my neighbors so often passed, waving politely, and probably wondering why I spent so much time cooking for just us two. Having only each other for comfort, it was a quiet existence and a big change from the busy life we had in Chicago. We’re still adjusting to being back, and though we have resumed parts of our busy lives, we cling to the quiet comfort of our home and each other.

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Roasted Winter Vegetables
6 servings

Ingredients
2 medium parsnips (sliced)
2 medium turnips (sliced)
2 bunches of rainbow carrots (or any carrots you prefer; thinner ones work better for roasting)
3 small/medium red beets (sliced)
3 small/medium gold beets (sliced)
1 bulb of fennel (sliced)
3 tablespoons of Maille Vinegar Infused with Fig Puree
2 tablespoons of olive oil
sea salt and cracked pepper

Preparation
Preheat oven to 350’F

Gently scrub and dry all your vegetables. Gently peel the turnips, slice off the top and bottom and cut them long ways and slice in half. When handling red beets, if you don’t want to walk around with pinkish hands the next day you should wear gloves. Cut off the top and bottoms of the beets and reserve the leaves. Did you know that beet leaves are edible and can be cooked in the same manner as chard? With a sharp vegetable peeler, peel the both golden and scarlet beets and slice them.

Toss the vegetables in the olive oil and vinegar, and season generously with sea salt and cracked pepper. Roast the vegetables for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Most recipes will tell you to place the roasted root vegetable on baking sheets in one layer and toss halfway through, however, I like to layer mine in a dish ratatouille style, so the flavors can mingle. You won’t have charred or crunchy bits of roasted vegetables but they will be dark and caramelized on top, crisp in the middle, and tender underneath. This succulent dish pairs nicely with a roast chicken and a dry riesling. When plating, dress vegetables with an extra drizzle of fig dressing and enjoy.

Products featured
Emile Henry
Revol small bowl pictured with Maille Fig Vinegar
Maille Vinegar with Fig Puree
All produce from Whole Foods Wheaton

Pommes de terre à la crème (Potatoes with Cream) Mauviel Series

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Over the last several months I have been rigorously testing some cookware from legendary French maker Mauviel, and it has totally changed the way I cook. From searing meats to simmering velvety sauces or baking perfectly golden desserts, nothing cooks like copper. Even a thick steak won’t chill a hot copper skillet, and perfectly even heat plus instant response reduces scorching in a copper saucepan.

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Since 1830, Mauviel has been making some of the world’s finest copper cookware in a small village outside Normandy called Villedieu-les-Poêles, which is known as ‘The City of Copper’ for it’s 800-year tradition of copper making. Mauviel craftsmen still make each piece by hand, and each piece will last several lifetimes.

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I’ve noticed how much faster these pans heat up than stainless steel and even faster than aluminum pans, without any hot or cold spots; as a result I can cook at lower settings and so I rarely burn anything anymore, its like these pans have made me a better cook!  A heavy copper skillet is the best choice for cooking any protein, from delicately seared sea scallops to putting a crust on a thick juicy steak. Because of this, professional chefs around the world choose copper, and those who demand the best choose Mauviel, including Paul Bocuse himself, who selected Mauviel as an official sponsor of the culinary equivalent of the Olympics, the Bocuse D’or.

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This same legendary performance and durability is available to home cooks who appreciate professional quality. Mine have beautiful traditional cast iron handles which develop a lovely patina over time, as does the copper which darkens with use, like a diary of my cooking adventures! When I can’t wait any longer, I reach for the copper polish and it’s amazing how quickly the gleaming copper finish returns. These pans truly do get more beautiful with time unlike other pans which slowly degrade over time until they end up hidden in a cabinet; not so with these pans, you will be proud to display your Mauviel for decades to come.

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Today I’m writing about Mauviel’s tarte tatin, a round baking pan with little copper handles designed for the traditional French version of apple pie, though I’ve used it to make the French bistro classic potatoes à la crème. Decadent with crème fraiche and gruyère, it makes an excellent brunch dish when topped with a few twists of freshly ground nutmeg and served with a  salad.

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Potatoes with Cream (Pommes de terre à la crème)
adapted from LaRousse Gastronomique

2 pounds medium sized, starchy potatoes (yellow and red potatoes are the creamiest, but russets work as well)
1 cup crème fraiche, or substitute heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon sea salt (I prefer Sel de Geurande for its rich minerally character!)
1 whole egg
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2-3 small shallots
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoon butter, divided

Choose firm, starchy yellow or russet potatoes. Using a sharp chef’s knife slice them as thinly as you can, or use a mandoline if you have one to make the job easier and more professional. After all, you never know when a Michelin inspector will be stopping by!

Slice the shallots thinly as well and set aside. In a medium bowl combine the crème fraiche and milk, then whisk in the eggs, sea salt, and a few twists of nutmeg; set aside. Generously butter the inside of a shallow round baking dish, then arrange the potato slices in a spiral working from the outside toward the center, like a flower. Sprinkle with shallots, gruyère, fresh thyme, and a twist of nutmeg before beginning the next layer; repeat layering until pan is nearly full leaving room for cream.

Carefully pour the cream mixture into the center and spiral outwards, being careful wet the entire top layer. Tap tap tap the pan sharply on the table to help the cream make its way down to the bottom layers. Top with dabs of butter and bake in a 400’F (200’C) oven for one hour or longer, until the top is golden. Rest for 10 minutes or so before slicing and serve with a crisp white wine or better yet a lovely champagne. Garnish with chives and a dollop of dijon mustard. I’ve chosen a delightful dijon flavored with olives and herbs de provence from Maille to bring summer flavors to the dish; the bright acidity and garden fresh taste provide the perfect balance to rich, creamy potatoes.

Products featured
Mauviel Copper Pan
Peugeot Wet Salt Grinder
John Boos Block Walnut End Grain Cutting Board
Maille Dijon Mustard with Olives and Fresh Herbs
Le Guerandais Sel de Geurande 
Piper-Heidsieck Champagne
Revol ARBORESCENCE Dessert Plate (Ivory)
Revol BASALT Bowl
Wüsthof 4″ Pairing Knife Classic IKON

Interview with Executive Pastry Chef Anna Young of Café des Architectes – Chicago, IL

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Pastry Chef Anna Young is inspired by seasonality and nostalgia. “I try to think about not just what I like, but what our guests respond to,” she says. “Some dishes begin with a simple childhood memory – a piece of candy or chocolate.” Young discovered her love of pastry arts while studying at the Culinary Academy in Pittsburg.

A short time after earning a degree in Specialized Technology/Pastry Arts, she found herself on the opposite coast working as a pastry supervisor at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa, a Waldorf Astoria Collection hotel. In 2007 Young landed at TRU restaurant in Chicago under James Beard award winning chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand. It was here that she developed a razor sharp eye for detail, learning and working among the very best. In 2014, Young joined Sofitel Chicago Water Tower where she put her knowledge of large scale banquet operations and fine dining prowess to work.

Young presents a wide range of show stopping desserts including traditional yet timeless Parisian mini desserts at Café des Architectes, an ever-present offering that allows guests to select from Opera Cake, Paris-Brest, Macarons and other marvels presented in a rolling cart. Young also creates the restaurant’s rotating Dessert Degustation, consisting of mini tastings of her top confections.

How did you get started making desserts, and when did you decide to make a career out of it?
I took culinary arts in high school. We went to a trade show and I saw a lot of pastry chefs doing demo’s there. That’s when I first saw that there was such a variety to pastry.

Who/what inspired you to become a pastry chef?
My friends and co-workers have inspired me to push myself to become a chef.

Describe your culinary philosophy and approach to pastry in three words.
Seasonal. Nostalgic. Technique.

Is there a process you go through to create a new dessert?
The internet is always a good tool. I find pictures/desserts that I like and build from there. Other than that I like to pull inspiration from traveling and dining out at different types of restaurants.

Talk about a current trend in pastry that interests you, and where would you like to see the industry go in the next couple of years?
Panning. I just took a class in it and loved it. I would like to see panning in different variety’s and maybe put a savory spin on it.

What are your most and least favorite ingredients to work with?
“New ingredients” has to be the answer for both. New ingredients are hard to work with. Sometimes you don’t know your boundaries when combining new flavors. New ingredients are also my favorite because you’ve opened up new opportunities and flavors.

What are your top three tips for success as a pastry chef?
Patience. Attention to detail. Respect.

What city would you most like to visit on a culinary adventure, and what tool, ingredient, or book would you take with you?
Anywhere in Spain, still haven’t made it yet. I might bring a spoon with me, but I would not bring an ingredient, I would be searching for more.

It seems like chefs often open their own restaurants but pastry chefs seldom do. Would you ever open your own place? I’ve been looking for a desserts first restaurant with a broad menu of sweets and only a limited selection of savory endings. Do you think Chicago is ready for that?
I have owned a company in the past and the only way I would do it again is if I worked with people I know I could trust and that shared the same passion as me. Yes, I think Chicago is ready for dessert first restaurant, something I often think of myself.

Where would one find you on your day off?
In the South Loop/Printers Row area. When it’s nice out of course a park or the lake.

The critics have their favorites, but I like to eat where the Chefs eat. Besides Café des
Architectes what restaurants do you like to eat at here in Chicago and/or elsewhere?
My two favorite spots in my neighborhood are Eleven City Diner and Flo and Santos. Nothing fancy, but I love it.

After a week of working long hours, what do you like to cook at home?
I don’t, the last thing I want to do is cook. You’ll find me on GrubHub.

Do you have a guilty pleasure; something that you prefer to eat when nobody is looking?
French Fries and Chicken Soup! Something I started when I was a little girl and I’m still addicted to it.

What advice would you offer young pastry chefs just starting?
Follow directions, have patience and keep clean/organized. Some great advice I was told once a long time ago, that may not sound appropriate is “Keep your head down, mouth shut and ears open”. I live to those 3 rules.

There are many aspiring cooks out there like myself who are not beginners but haven’t yet reached the professional level; what advice would you give us to take our pastry skills to the next level?
Stage, Stage and Stage. The best way to gain experience is to do it. Some classes would be good too, to understand the technical/scientific background to it.

Interview with Executive Chef Greg Biggers of Café des Architectes – Chicago, IL

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Chef Biggers hails from Alabama, where he grew up watching his mother prepare Chicken and Dumplins’, a Saturday favorite. While attending Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, Biggers worked at Blossom Café as a Pastry Cook, learning the art of baked breads and pastries. Later, he served as Private Dining Chef and then Sous Chef at McCrady’s, an inventive, farm-driven Charleston restaurant.

At Chicago’s 4-star restaurant, TRU, Biggers held the role of Chef de Partie under James Beard award-winning Chef Rick Tramonto, and then served as Executive Sous Chef at Morimoto in Philadelphia, developing his craftsmanship with seafood. Next, he rejoined Chef Tramonto as the Executive Chef of two 3-star restaurants, Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood and RT Lounge, before joining the team at Levy Restaurants’ Fulton’s on the River. In 2011, Chef Biggers came to Sofitel Chicago Water Tower to oversee all aspects of the hotel’s dining operations, including its restaurant, Café des Architectes.

Chef Biggers strives to build relationships with true artisans of the craft from all over the world. Biggers sources the best quality product available – from exotic fish flown in from Japan to game from Michigan’s Swan Creek Farm and small batch cheeses from France’s best creameries. He is proud to lead his team with a philosophy of incorporating both local and global inspirations.

Chef Biggers is the recent recipient of a StarChefs.com 2015 Rising Star Award.


How did you get started cooking, and when did you decide to make a career out of it?

I started as a dishwasher at a chain steakhouse when I was 15. I never was able to find my way out after that.

From 15-19 it was just a way to make money. At 19 I met a chef, Matthew Wood, in my hometown of Florence Alabama that showed me what being a professional cook was all about. From then on I was hooked on learning the craft.

Who/what inspired you to become a chef?
The pressure, the pirate lifestyle, the ability to create something new everyday and learn something new around every corner.

You were born, raised, and received your training in the south, what brought you to Chicago?
I was offered a job at the Acclaimed TRU restaurant back in its heyday by Chef Rick Tramonto.

Describe your culinary philosophy and approach in three words.
Love your Craft.

Who influences your style the most and why?
Everyone and everything… I think that everyone can be influence by anything… I take inspiration from other chefs, cooks, artists, artisan food producers, plate makers, knife foragers etc.

Is there a process you follow while creating new recipes and dishes?
Yes. I always start by getting ideas down on paper. Then I curtail them to what is in season. Once I have a good road map I start prepping from those notes. Once I get on a cutting board the plan always changes. 9 times out of 10 the dish is usually totally different by the time I get through than what I put on paper. But for me I always like to have some sort of organization to start with.

Name three dishes at Café des Architectes a first time guest shouldn’t miss.
Foie Gras Torchon
Chestnut Provisions tasting
Roasted Duck Breast

Tell me about Chestnut Provisions and how it came about?
Chestnut Provisons is the moniker of our in-house cheese, charcuterie, jams, and pickle operation. It all started with a Sofitel initiative for all the hotels to be HACCP certified which is a very high level of food safety certifications. Once we got that I wanted to push to see what all we could legally make in house so we started trying to get dairy license to make cheese, canning license to make jams and pickles and charcuterie certification to make all out own salamis.

Your authentic cheesemaking and charcuterie are unique in Chicago, and have made Café des Architectes a destination for those who appreciate this art form. How do your more casual guests respond when they learn that these delicacies are made right here on site?
Most people are very surprised. At first they may not realize how unique and time consuming it can be, but once we are able to share with them the process involved most people are very impressed.

What emerging trends do you see happening in the Chicago culinary scene in the next few years?
There is a lot of hard cider beer bars popping up lately with menus to match as well as dumpling houses.

What are your most and least favorite ingredients to work with?
I hate razor clams and fiddle head ferns.
Love about everything else.

What are your favorite unconventional flavor combinations?
Olive and condensed milk (olive dulche de leche).
Wasabi and grapefruit.
Miso and pineapple.

What cookbooks have you read lately? What are your old standby favorites?
Altier Cren and Benu are my two newest acquisitions.
Old standby: French Laundry, Morimoto, Culinary artistry.

What city would you most like to visit on a culinary adventure, and what tool, ingredient, or book would you take with you?
Tokyo. Chopsticks.

The critics have their favorites, but I like to eat where the Chefs eat. Besides Café des Architectes, what restaurants do you like to dine at here in Chicago (or elsewhere)?
Balena, kai zan, eleven city diner, Spacca Napoli, and En Hakkore.

Where would one find you on your day off?
Making dinner and doing homework with my 6 year old son Elliot…

After a week of working long hours, what do you like to cook at home?
Anything in a crock pot or anything on my son’s “approved” list—meatloaf, Chinese noodles, quesadillas.

Coming from Alabama, what dish takes you back to your roots?
Chicken and Dumplin’s. My Mom, who I love dearly but wasn’t the best cook, would cook them on Saturday mornings and it was the one dish she would nail. I would help her cook the dumplings.

Do you have a guilty pleasure; something that you prefer to eat when nobody is looking?
I am awful!!! I am a fast food tour de force kind of guy and am strong enough to admit it… Taco Bell, Arby’s, Chick-fil-A.

There are many aspiring cooks out there like myself who are not beginners but haven’t yet reached the professional level; what advice would you give us to take our cooking skills to the next level?
Don’t follow recipes to the letter.. Professional cooks got to where we are at by creating things based on preference and availability. Cook what you want! Switch out ingredients for things you prefer. It’s okay to change recipes. Trial and error….. Change the temperature of the oven on some things, change the protein or vegetables, add different spices etc…

Café des Architectes at Sofitel Chicago Water Tower Hotel.

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“Bonjour!” was the first thing I heard when I entered the luxurious lobby of the Sofitel Water Tower Hotel. The relaxed atmosphere and attentive staff are very welcoming and though I am tempted to linger awhile, my focus today is on the hotel’s crowning jewel, the restaurant Café des Architectes.

The dining room has an upscale European contemporary style, and is subtly sub-divided into smaller seating areas each offering a unique combination of colors and finishes, creating an impression of intimacy without physically dividing the airy, light-filled space. A clever row of pendant lights which are reminiscent of French chef’s toques convey the French theme in an understated and elegant way. To my eye they are an appetizer, and anticipation starts to build.

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Known for contemporary French cuisine with a twist, Café des Architectes’ Executive Chef Greg Biggers has created a stunning menu built upon fresh local ingredients, fine imported French cheeses, fresh seafood, and most impressively, an extensive array of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie made right here in-house!

To the casual restaurant guest, house-made meats and cheeses may sound simple, but it is important to note that Chef Biggers had first to acquire permits and licenses to certify and operate a creamery, not to mention constructing a humidity-controlled cave to age the charcuterie and cheeses!

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1st Course
Foie Gras Torchon with green onion puree, apple-cardamon jam, beet puree, brioche crisp

Perhaps the most delicate foie gras I’ve ever tasted, soft, buttery, and rich which is balanced by bright, aromatic spring onion and a wonderfully tart heirloom-style sweet apple cardamom jam and earthy-sweet beet puree. Apple and onion interact wonderfully together in this dish and together with the delicate foie gras, the combination is surprisingly delicious with the crisp, paper-thin slices of brioche offering textural contrast. While foie gras can sometimes come across as fatty, this particular preparation is light and creamy thanks to the long, delicate Torchon preparation.  

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2nd Course
Chestnut Provisions Tasting; Lomo, soppressatta, miso finnichionna, chevre, tomme, tellagio, brioche, sassparilla mustard, pickled cauliflower
An exquisitely presented array of delicious and authentic flavors, the individual selections vary by season; my tasting today consisted of soppressata, miso finocchiona, chevre, tomme, tellagio, sarsparilla mustard, pickled cauliflower, and toasted brioche. While several of these are familiar, a few are new to me and the sassparilla mustard is a unique twist on an essential condiment. Delicately sliced cured meats and cheeses with freshly baked bread is something most Europeans enjoy every morning, I would not hesitate to order this for breakfast with café au lait.

The quality and taste of Chestnut Provisions are quite remarkable, and will be featured in an upcoming piece that goes into further detail about the range offered and their preparation.

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3rd Course
Braised Pork Belly with artichoke puree, winter vegetable, roasted garlic jus
A classic combination of juicy and tender slow-braised pork belly with roasted vegetables. Blue potato, carrots, and brussel sprouts complement the deliciously deep meaty flavor of fork-tender pork belly; and are further enriched with a velvety artichoke puree and an umami boost of roasted garlic-infused jus. A rich and decadent combination, this is comfort food at its finest.

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4th Course
Poached Maine Lobster with butternut squash puree, truffle foam, baby vegetables
A generous portion of perfectly tender poached lobster with a natural briny flavor, rich squash puree and a delicately earthy truffle foam enhance the rich flavor of lobster without competing with it. Tender roasted baby vegetables, the parsnip was particularly good with seafood.

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When it comes to pastries and decadent desserts the kitchen is held up by Executive Pastry Chef Anna Young.

5th Course
Sticky Toffee Pudding with blood Orange, buttermilk, praline ice cream
The name of this delicious dish nearly says it all!  Rich, gooey, buttery, sticky toffee pudding served with a palate refreshing combination of creamy praline ice cream, sweet blood orange gelée and tart segments of fresh mandarin orange which are delicious with a dollop of light, creamy whipped buttermilk.

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6th Course
Chocolate Sphere with butter ice cream, caramelized cocoa nibs, salted caramel
An intriguing molded chocolate sphere reminds me of a birds nest with two “eggs” of buttery ice cream in a pool of rich salted caramel; an edible flowerbed of incredibly moist and rich chocolate cake studded with caramel cream and ice cream topped with edible flowers and crunchy cocoa nibs. Each element was executed perfectly and the result is a stunning plate that truly tastes as good as it looks.
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7th Course
Tower of Desserts
A striking architectural tower of delicate jewels perched dramatically on glass beams, an impressive presentation that literally elevates the art of dessert.

Dulce chocolate macaron
Macarons are by far my favorite French treat, and the timeless combination of rich dulce flavors and decadent chocolate ganache are at the top of my list. Perfectly smooth shells and just the right level of moisture gives them a delicate crunch and tender interior without being crumbly. Nothing beats a fresh macaron.
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Rubies Tea Truffle
A shining deep red chocolate shell tipped with gold accents and filled with a rich ganache infused with the flavors of black tea, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, and rose petals. These should come in boxes for valentines day!

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Apricot cherry nougat
There is something special about nougat that defies its simple appearance. Delicate, chewy, pillowy goodness studded with nuts and bits of dried fruit, I’m a sucker for this treat! Though it is mass produced (‘mandorlato’, with almonds) and sold in most shops across western Europe, the fresh-made version is something else entirely. My favorite source while living in Europe was a little Parisian candy shop in the 9th arrondissement called A l’Etoile d’Or; on this side of the pond, it’s Chef Young’s authentic version. Rich with floral honey notes, cherries, and apricots, this is something I’ve missed and look forward to enjoying again.
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Blueberry pâte de fruit
A traditional French favorite that can take on almost any flavor, this one highlights the deep flavor and delicately tart profile of blueberries in a sweet, sugary gelled confection with a tender yet dense consistency. Pectin gels are difficult to get right and can be gummy, these had just the right consistency; firm to the tooth yet tender and melting.

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An elegant menu, a passionate team of professionals, and an arsenal of artisanal pleasures make Café des Architectes a magnificent place to dine. Located in a modern architectural gem that is steps away from Chicago’s finest attractions yet conveniently situated on a calm street, the hotel and restaurant are easily accessible to locals and a magnet for visitors. The exquisite dining room is equally beautiful day and night, and make for a memorable dining experience all year round.

My sincere thanks to Chef Biggers and Chef Young for their hospitality and culinary expertise, and to their staff for the wonderfully attentive service.

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