Interview with Executive Chef Rick Gresh of David Burke’s Primehouse, Chicago

Rick 1

A Cleveland native, Rick Gresh earned his Associate Degree in Culinary Arts at the nationally renowned Culinary Institute of America. While in school he landed an impressive externship at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and after graduation scored a spot on the line at Trio in Evanston. He then moved on to the Celebrity Café at the Hotel Nikko in Chicago before becoming consulting chef de cuisine at Tsunami, a contemporary Japanese restaurant located in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

At just 23, Gresh accepted the executive chef position at Chicago’s hip jazz club, Green Dolphin Street. The restaurant thrived under his leadership and won a three-star review from theChicago Tribune. Pat Bruno of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “This is serious food.” Gresh’s next move was to The Wyndham Hotel Chicago and the award winning Caliterra Restaurant, where he proved himself once again and was quickly promoted to regional corporate chef. In 2006 Gresh became the executive chef at the prestigious private Saddle & Cycle Club where he oversaw the entire culinary operations.

In 2001 Rick Gresh was invited to host his first dinner at the James Beard House and was named a “Rising Star of American Cuisine”. In 2004 and 2006 he was a USA competition finalist in the world’s premier culinary competition, the Bocuse D’Or.

Over the last two years Rick has earned AOL’s “Best Fine Dining Restaurant in Chicago,”Chicago Reader’s “Best steakhouse,” Chicago Magazine’s “Best Dry Aged Steak” and “Best Bread,” “Top 10 Steakhouses in America” from Gayot. Most recently he has been named one of five “Men to Watch” by Chicago Magazine and Plate Magazine’s “Chef Humanitarian of the Year 2011.”

During my recent visit to Primehouse, I had a chance to interview Chef Gresh about his personal style and cooking philosophy, and about the culinary scene in Chicago; here is what he had to say.

Describe your cooking style in 3 words.
Clean, crisp, and refreshing.

Who are your biggest culinary influences?
Andre Soltner, Sean McClain, & my mom and dad

Is there a particular process you like to follow while creating new recipes?
I like to draw my ideas/plating first using mostly pencil and blue ink. When I look at the drawing it feels like I’m looking at in 3D. I also write down ideas, or if I see something that may be inspiring, that also plays into my process. Then I test with trial and error and play with flavors.

What are the top three dishes at Primehouse that are not to be missed?
Wow. There’s so much good food to try here! I would say the 35 Day Dry Aged Kansas City Strip Steak, Tableside Caesar Salad, Arugula Salad, the Popovers, the asparagus with pickled cranberries, and our new Mac and Cheese with Chorizo, cheddar cheese, jalapeños and crispy tortilla chips.

What are your least and most favorite ingredients to work with?
Most, I would say seafood and vegetables. Least favorite is pig bladder.

What is your favorite grilling trick?
Dry the meat before you grill, brush with herbs and oil.

What are the biggest mistakes most home grillers make?
First, not drying the meat, and then having the grill not hot enough or too hot. Next, not picking the skinniest, wimpiest meat out there. You need a nice, thick cut steak, large enough for 2-3 people to achieve a better char and beautiful browning. Remember that cooking breaks down the meat and fat, and always let your steak rest before slicing it to avoid the juices escaping.

Steaks and beef burgers are pretty common. Are there any foods that are really underrated for grilling?
Cow (skirt, flanks, briskets), veal in the summer on top of a salad, Quail are super easy to grill and cook fast with a crispy skin. I also like to take a pan of chocolate and place it in the grill after I’m done grilling to melt and pick up that “grill flavor”. It’s great for dipping fruit and little cookies/cakes in.

Gas or charcoal?
Charcoal at home!

What is something you personally wish you knew about grilling that you didn’t know when you started cooking?
Temping meat without using thermometers.

Briefly describe a typical day.
Around 7:30 a.m. I lay in bed checking emails from last night. Shortly after I get up and come to work checking in with the sous chefs and line cooks. Next, I go through projects and what-not through the day. I’m typically glued to my phone.

Normally I have 2-6 meetings every day to go over interviews, parties or charity events. I walk around to all restaurants and hotel, Burke’s Bacon Bar, Primehouse, JIMMY and James Hotel (banquets and catering venue upstairs), to make sure all is going well.

Then I sit down and make sure the lists are on point with PR initiatives, events, and travel plans. Between 1-3 p.m. I go through all of our email reports, sales, food costs, labor, etc. At 3 p.m., I meet with the PM sous chefs and go over the night functions. 5 p.m. is pre-shift and we go over that evening’s specials and I fill the crew in on the details. Then we begin dinner service. I’m lucky that every day is different and brings a new challenge.

After a week of working long hours, what do you like to cook at home?
I bake bread every week. My sourdough starter is made from pinot noir grapes. I make a lot of French style baguettes. Also, we are major sports fans in our house, so every Sunday for game day I cook something. Recently, while in Austin, TX, I visited Stubb’s Smokehouse. I spent time talking to them and watching them make their brisket in the smokehouse. I like trying new things, so I experimented at home trying to replicate their brisket recipe.

Besides Primehouse, where do you like to eat in Chicago?
I like to give a restaurant a year after they open before trying it. I find it unfair to judge right off the bat. That is, unless it’s a good friend and they want criticism. I love eating out and trying different things. Recently, I dined at Storefront Company and Azzurra EnoTavola in the same night. Tonight I’m off to Grace, and Embeya is on the list to eat at soon.

What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
Meat will be big, most importantly smaller cuts done properly. Middle Eastern and African food will also be a big emerging trend. Also, I think the European Eastern Bloc will also have a new impact on food culture. I think someone will dress it up some, put it in a fun atmosphere and make it more approachable.

Do you have a guilty pleasure you eat when nobody is looking?
Sour patch kids, Zingers (Those are delicious, I love coconut!) and Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream.

There are many home cooks out there like myself who are not beginners, but nowhere Near professional ability, so I’m wondering what advice you would give us to take our cooking to the next level?
Basics you have to do well. A pan must be hot before searing. Then you can start to experiment with this ingredient vs. that ingredient. Now that’s when the fun happens. Get creative! What’s the worst that can happen? You end up ordering a pizza for the dinner? Not the end of the world. Let go of your fears, make mistakes and make it better! Play with your food; take notes of your success and failures in your recipes. Remember just because you made it doesn’t mean you have to eat it!



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