One of the pleasant surprises of this little blogging enterprise that we started about a year and a half ago is that it leads to all sorts of adventures. We’ve met new people, learned a lot about the challenges and rewards of owning an independent food business, and eaten better than ever before in our lives. Some of that eating better comes from exchanging ideas among the three of us, some of it from learning from other food friends, and some from the healthy pressure we out on ourselves to develop our skills and our repertoire so we can share it with our readers.
Last week, we had a very special opportunity to socialize, learn and eat all at once due to the generosity of Scott MacInnis, a talented and aspiring local chef.
Two of the three of us are Old West Side residents. When we spotted a story in the OWS Newsletter a few months backabout Scott and Jessica (his fiancée) and his search for a restaurant location, we thought that it might be interesting to interview him for our blog. I emailed. Scott emailed back. We were all willing, but we were all busy. Somewhere in the exchange Scott said that if we were going to be talking about food, we should be eating while we did it. He knows the way to a food blogger’s heart! At first I was thinking we would go out of coffee and a croissant while talking, but slowly it dawned on me that Scott was offering to cook for us. And then we got down to brass tacks.
So late one Sunday afternoon, Scott arrived on my doorstep with shopping bags and a cooler (although, sadly, not his fiancée who was studying for a final and resisted all our attempts to lead her astray), laid out his mise en place and got cooking. He had given us a shopping list that we divided among our three domestic units, and we all made sure there was a good supply of wine. I turned over the kitchen to him, hovered around to offer pots and pans and run out to cut herbs from the garden and watched the show.
And what a show it was! It was like an episode of Iron Chef was happening right in my kitchen! Scott whirled around like a chef-dervish, managing the creation of a wonderful five course meal, finding time to sit down himself to eat, and engaging us all in an impassioned and entertaining dialogue about food, cooking, great chefs, restaurant work and life in general. Now and then, the conversation was punctuated by a great cackle of glee occasioned by his pure pleasure in cooking or a particular flavor. The rest of us were pretty gleeful too. You can see why:
A Sunday Supper by Scott MacInnis
Asparagus Green Leek Soup
– flavored with curry and coconut milk
Mixed greens with Charred Tomato vinaigrette and Parmesan-Reggiano
Handmade Morel Agnolotti with (Tantre farms best) Chantrelles and cream sauce
Crispy Duck Breast with Fingerling potatoes, braised cipollini onions, lardon, with a tamarind / mushroom infused stock reduction and brunoise vegetables.
Vanilla, cardamon and cinnamon ice cream with apricots and a white wine apricot glaze.
(Those who want the complete record can check out the flickr set).
All the courses were delicious. The duck breast probably solicited the biggest collective moan, but it was the ice cream that I thought about at my desk the whole next day. Nick got a bowl before going to bed and has been peering into the freezer ever since, hoping that more will magically appear.
The others might have thought that I was being a selfless hostess, hanging out in the kitchen washing pots for Scott (there were rather a lot of pots — all due credit to John who jumped in part of the way through), but I was actually relentlessly picking his brains on all manner of things, from the uses of duck fat (myriad and delicious), his recent stint at Logan (of which he speaks with with respect and affection), the optimum number of egg yolks in ice cream (twelve! Good God!) and especially about his aspirations to open his own place in the Ann Arbor area. Below are some the things I learned in that last part of the conversation. My notes and memory got a little fuzzy somewhere in the third course (and probably third wine pairing) so Scott was kind enough to fill in on email.
The general question that we started with was “what are the challenges of getting a restaurant business going, particularly in the Ann Arbor area.?”
He began by talking about how consumers need to think more critically and clearly about the food their choosing. He pointed out that food choices become so clouded by the “commercialization of food service, mass production and price, that quality often is an afterthought. What’s easy and fast (not to mention familiar) usually beats out what is artisan, or moreover, what is good (not to mention good for you!).”
When I asked him to talk more about the Ann Arbor-specific challenges, he, as the G3 have before him, noted it’s surprising that “a town with such a well rounded and smart population was so lacking in the food department. ” Scott was anxious not to offend all the hard-working people that are working in the AA restaurant industry but stressed ” there’s really little out there that piques interest.” He does see this as a great opportunity though; there’s a lot of possibility for change.
We also talked a lot during dinner about the problem of finding the right location and about how daunting downtown Ann Arbor real estate is at the moment. “Between the prices for space and availability, it’s not easy to find a good fit.”
Scott sees the next big challenge as finding the right people to work with. He says this is a problem for food professionals in general because “we mainly like to be in the kitchen, not running around into other kitchens looking for people like us.”
And the final big challenges is, of course, money. When I followed up with him later, her wrote “I’ve spoken with a number of business owners about how they got their start, what were the biggest hurdles and what the hell I should be doing. Their responses? Stay focused and organized, make sure your plans are air-tight and the resources will come (from a surprising array of means). Some were financed outright, by a wealthy interested party, relative, etc; but some were financed through creative mortgaging and passing around the hat.”
One of Scott’s comments in email summed up for me his delight in bringing people together around food, and his excitement about the role he can play: “The other impetus for me to open is because we (together) can make our community better. Sound a little overzealous? Probably is, but it does help make me want to do this all the more.”
Let’s hope that Scott puts together the pieces soon. If he can realize his vision for a comfortable and innovative bistro, the local food scene will be much livelier and more interesting.
It’s typical of Scott’s generosity and desire to share his passion that he actually offered to write up all his recipes for the blog. I sense the man has some trouble knowing his limits (he said he had to pull himself back from creating a twelve course tasting menu for our “simple supper”), and he wrote the other day to confess that the hectic pace set by his impending wedding was keeping him from writing the dishes up. I let him off the hook. But he was nice enough to share this one. The picture doesn’t quite do the soup justice. The flavor was bright and elegant, and it was a great way to start the meal. Those are chives from my backyard floating on top. I’m so proud.
Asparagus, Green Leek Soup
1 Bunch Michigan Asparagus
1 Bunch Leeks
2 quarts unsalted chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
1 bouquet garni (wrap one green leek end around parsley, thyme, bay leaf, 4 crushed garlic cloves and 8 peppercorns)
2 T unsalted butter (prefer Plugra or other 83%+ butter fat)
1 cup Heavy cream
2 T curry powder
6 Oz coconut milk
1 Oz lime juice
Salt and pepper to taste
4 Oz creme fraiche
Wash and chop leek and combine with butter in heavy bottom stockpot on medium-low heat.
Sweat slowly until tender
Add asparagus, de-stemmed and chopped.
Add chicken stock and boquet garni and increase heat to medium.
Bring to simmer and continue to cook at simmer for 1 hour.
Puree with immersion blender and strain.
Return to heat at medium and add cream, curry powder and coconut milk.
Season to taste with lime juice, salt and pepper.
Finely chopped chive and creme fraiche to finish
Finally, let me just add that the reward of being a a good hostess is getting to keep the left-overs. We were eating well for almost a week off the odds and ends left in the fridge. Baguette sandwiches with duck breast and arugula pesto anyone?
Scott is happy to talk more with any of you about food, cooking and the local restaurant business. You can always find him through us, but you can also reach him directly via scottmacinnisATgmail.com