Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Life, Liberty, and the Prosciutto of Happiness: Making it in the Michigan Restaurant Business FINAL

Nationally acclaimed practitioner of Charcuterie (char coot er ee), restaurant owner, author, and teacher, Brian Polcyn, stands at a table in front of a small cooking class at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. He raises a spoonful of risotto to his mouth, slurps a small taste and rolls his eyes back in his head. His face melting, he tosses the spoon on the counter and steps back with his hands in the air saying “I don’t know how I do it.”

A few weeks later, I stood with him in front of his classroom at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan, sampling and critiquing the work of his students, and he told me about how he became Chef Polcyn.

His gruff low voice booms from the gut of his meat belly out over the classroom of culinary arts students in the unmistakable accent of a Detroit native. Students come up periodically to present their work. He cuts off a piece of sausage and hastily puts it in his mouth, tossing the hot meat roughly with each chewing motion.

Meanwhile students slide around the kitchen, turning sideways to fit through small spaces, and lifting raw meat concoctions overhead to avoid colliding with one another. The classroom smells of salt and cured meats, slabs of raw cuts laying all over the place, being dressed and stuffed and flavored by the students: chicken breasts, jerky, fish, pork chops and sausages of cow and pig piled in coils, or in long strings draped over pieces of equipment. There was nowhere I could stand and feel like I wasn’t in the way. In an environment where it was easy to feel like a burden, Chef Polcyn made me feel like a guest, including me in the chaos that was culinary school finals week.

Student Brian lands a smoked trout on the altar of critiquing.
“Smoked fish? Ok, watch this, she’s going to grade you. Whatever she says goes, and do not be nice. I want you to ask yourself, is it pleasant to eat, first and foremost?”
It was.
“Ok, is it too salty?”
No, it wasn’t.
“Is it moist?”
Ehhh it was a little dry.
“Ok, so here’s someone who doesn’t know a lot about food, but this is our customer, right? So we have to listen to her. So for a score of 1 out of 25 what would you give him?”
I gave him a 24, but Polcyn is cheeky.
“If I liked him I would do 24, but I don’t like him, so I’m gonna go 23.9.”

When he’s not grading, Polcyn barks his way around the kitchen, critiquing sanitation practices, fixing broken equipment, and cutting cured meats for sampling from the transformation room, where salted meats have been hanging, aging for years.

“I’m taking you in my transitional room where I take no one. Not even my students," he says, "They’re all like ‘Who is this girl?’”

At first, it looked like a bunch of dry, hanging, moldy ham. But this is Charcuterie. Charcuterie is the art of curing and preserving meat without cooking it.

Polcyn speaks of Charcuterie as common sense. Refrigeration has only been around for about 100 years, but people have been eating meat forever. Polcyn doesn’t just worship meat, but also the fat, which Polcyn learned in Italy, is where the flavor truly lies. He has the fat-o-phobics chanting “Fat is flavor, Fat is our friend, We love fat!”

In a review in the Atlantic monthly magazine, Food critic Corby Kummer wrote:
“Polcyn knows how to get true flavors. His forte is meat, appropriately enough in the Midwest. The pork and the duck were the best I've had in years—anywhere, even in southwestern France, where every house is a farm and every farm fattens a few ducks. Specifically, Polcyn's forte is charcuterie, the art of sausage-making. Every day a different pâté or terrine is offered, and the peppery duck pâté I tasted was a tour de force… Even better, both meats, with their full marbling of fat, tasted the way they used to, before Long Island ducklings were raised in quarters closer than a Manhattan apartment and Iowa hogs were bred to be slim.”

How does this carnivore reconcile the vegetarianism of so many of his customers?

“I don’t have a problem with it… I don’t see the importance of it," he says, "I mean you need a certain amount of fat in your diet, and I think animal fat is the best.”

He recognizes vegetarianism as an important value to some of his customers, using some of the methods with vegetables. For example, a terrine is typically a meatloaf style casserole wrapped in additional meat such as bacon but can be made with vegetables.
“I adapt the principle of the ancient craft of Charcuterie and apply it to the modern American menu. In my mind, I’m honoring the tradition, but I’m also thinking about the contemporary palate of my customers. Yeah, I know it sucks. It’s an oxymoron. It’s like saying jumbo shrimp… vegetable terrine,” he says.

Ironically, he shares his office with a vegan, and they seem to have agreed to disagree.
His space-mate made two good cases for veganism: most illnesses stem from meat consumption, doctors advising their patients to stop eating meat, so why wait until you get to that?
Polcyn has an ego, but he knows a good argument.
“He makes a good point. I hate it when he’s right.”
The second reason being the land used to feed animals could feed people instead.
“Oh shit, I hate it when he’s right.”

Co-author of Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, Michael Ruhlman, wrote about a conversation he had with Polcyn told him about the beginning of his love for Charcuterie:
“My Polish Grandma, my father's mother, made Kielbasa every Christmas and Easter. Then my mom took over the job. We didn’t have any money so everything we used and used well. We’d grind the meat and season it. The next day we’d stuff it, tie it into big rings, hang the rings over a broom handle on chairs, put the dog out, and set the kielbasa in front of the fire overnight.

“But this romance with Charcuterie didn’t start until my early twenties, when I went to work at the Golden Mushroom, outside Detroit, for Milos Cihelka, a Czech immigrant, my mentor and one of Michigan’s great Chefs. I’d been cooking for five or six years and thought I knew something. But when I started grinding meat and smoking sausages for Chef Milos, I realized how little I knew. I was also fascinated by the process. I got to work early and left late. I took notes like crazy.”

Now Polcyn has an army of his own students learning from him. He describes the culinary world of apprenticeship as a responsibility to teach the next generation everything he knows.
“I expect my students to go out and teach the same, just like I do.”

Even though Charcuterie is a required class for a culinary degree at Schoolcraft, the students enjoy Polcyn.
“He makes it so much fun,” said student Joline, a middle aged DJ on the radio, who really hates meat, but is taking the class to graduate.

Polcyn returned to teach at his Alma Mater after opening and closing two restaurants, and opening a third which he still owns: Forest Grill in Birmingham, MI. His other restaurants included Five Lakes Grill in Milford, which he turned into Cinco Lagos, a Mexican restaurant, when Five Lakes was starting to fail. But he sees these openings and closings as normal fluctuations in the restaurant business that have contributed to his success.

Not only has Polcyn succeeded in one of the toughest professions, he has done it all in the state of Michigan, independent of cities with established taste and demand for his skills.

His son, Dylan, a student at Kalamazoo College, was equally charismatic and vibrant, eager to talk about his Dad. Dylan attested that if his Dad had hauled the kids out to New York or Chicago, he would be a star on the food network right now. But instead he prioritized the values that distinguished Polcyn from other chefs and the sacrifices he has made throughout his life for his family.

Though he attempted to cut back on complexity of menu items in order to have more time with his family, his restaurant gained credentials that ultimately had him written up in the New York Times and Atlantic Monthly, as well as nominated for a James Beard Award and Restaurant of the Year in Michigan, all of which showcased his talent amid his natural and feasible habitat.
“I got nationally recognized as a chef in that little community where I could raise my family and just be open for dinner. I could go coach soccer practice at four o’clock and be back at the restaurant for dinner service because it was only five minutes away. I’m a very successful business man, very successful chef, Nationally acclaimed, financially stable, I make a lot of money for being a cook. That’s not bragging, that’s fact.”

Polcyn’s accomplishments are a testament to his skill and acclaim he has built in the field, all while being a father.

“For me, being a chef and married to the same woman for over 30 years, and raising five children, in this profession is more of a challenge than cooking in Michigan because the business that I’ve chosen is very demanding. What time of day do people eat dinner? Oh, in the evening… so what time of day do I work normally? Oh, yeah… see, I work when everyone else plays.”

Dylan is impressed with his father’s dedication to their family. “Every Chef is divorced. I mean every chef. The fact that they’ve made it for so long is crazy,” he says of his parents. Dylan also recalled the absence of his father through the childhoods of his older siblings during the closing of Five Lakes and Cinco Lagos. They had a weekly ritual of watching Saturday Night Live and making grilled cheese at midnight, because that was the only time he was home. Once he opened Forest Grill, though, he was able to spend more time with his two younger kids.

Chef Polcyn packed up some sausage, corned beef and desserts from the pastry class for me to take home. A week later Dylan and I cooked up the sausages for dinner, consulting his dad over the phone about how exactly to cook them, and hoping that his new line of pre-packaged meats and meals would make it onto our campus someday.
As we sat down to eat, in honor of Chef Polcyn and of the meat we were eating, Dylan and I shared a Chef Polcyn-ism: “Praise the Lard!”

Word Count: 1927
Intended Publication: New York Times Diner’s Journal

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