Chef Michael Walsh has worked at a number of Cleveland area restaurants, including Blue Point, Fahrenheit and Baricelli Inn. You can now find him at the newest addition to E 4th street, the swanky jazz spot Wonder Bar, serving up small plates and appetizers. Thanks for participating, Michael. You can tell a lot of time went into this.
1. the top 5 spices that are a must in every kitchen: Coriander is such a cross cultural spice, you would be limited without it. I tend to use it often as a base layer of flavor that adds a wholesomeness to a dish. Cayenne has a nice clean spicy flavor that is predictable. I use Cayenne instead of black pepper for visual aesthetics. I think a piece of white fish with black pepper on it looks like it was dropped on the floor, and I don’t like that. Clove is a very powerful spice that can be easily overused. Cloves provide both a smooth background flavor, as well as a punch of flavor. A few small cloves go a long way in any braise or pickling recipe, two of my favorite techniques. Cinnamon is such a useful spice in both sweet and savory dishes; it’s essential to any spice rack. Apples and cinnamon are a match made in heaven. Cinnamon also works well with braised red cabbage, or in chili. Both clove and cinnamon are best used in my opinion, in amounts that don’t overpower a dish, rather add a aroma in which people ask, “what spices where in that.” Dukkah is my new favorite spice blend. It’s an Egyptian recipe that might be difficult to find in Ohio, but is sold pre-mixed in other parts of the world. I was introduced to it by way of a friend in Australia. Dukkah consists of hazelnuts, sesame seeds, cumin, Coriander, thyme, black pepper, and salt. This mixture is traditionally pureed smooth, then mixed with olive oil and used like a dip, but makes a nice dressing for salad greens, and flavors sauteed carrots very well.
2. what is your favorite and least favorite thing to make: As a professional I can’t really think in terms of favorite to make. It is my job to cook whatever it is the customer wants, but there are things that are very rewarding in terms of cooking in a professional kitchen. Spontaneous creativity is the most rewarding thing I’ve come across for me personally in the kitchen. Finding recipes and planning specials or menu changes is methodical, and organized. When a customer asks for you, as a chef, to create something unique, and they pop this question to you in the middle of a dinner rush, this is exciting! You just go with your gut, start piling useful ingredients up in your head, thinking on your feet, adapting to the ever changing mood of the kitchen. In the past I’ve had a few loyal customers who I grew to know, and they didn’t even have to ask, I just whipped something up for them. There is a lot of trust there, so I was respectful to never let them down. I’ll go ahead and pick a dish that I least enjoy preparing, mashed potatoes. I went through a faze a long time ago where I flavored mashed potatoes with everything imaginable, tasted it, and moved on. The best mashed potatoes are from locally grown Yukon gold potatoes, boiled, then mashed with salt, and butter, that is it. I understand that my customer base just loves mashed potatoes, and will eat them every day over and over, and create a profit for me….and as I sit here shaking my head I’m left at a loss for words about mashed potatoes. It’s simple at home – I love cooking eggs, and have anything boiled. A watched pot never boils, especially on a wee-home style stove top.
3. if you could cook for one person, real or dead, who would it be: There is a very interesting movie from 1995 which most people missed, The Last Supper, starring most notably Cameron Diaz. The plot of the movie is that a group of graduate students invite people of differing view points over for dinner. If they decide they don’t like this persons view, they are given a drink from a poisonous bottle of wine. Not to spoil it, but they find everyone’s view offensive, kill them, and grow wonderfully plump tomatoes from the dead body fertilized soil. I would like to cook dinner for this crew, featuring of course a tasting of tomatoes, and centering around a stew of tomatoes and wine. When dinner was over, I suppose I would come out of the kitchen for a toast. Then it would be clear if they like to food or not.
4. you’re having a dinner party, what are the top 5 songs on your play list: My favorite band is Spiritualized, but I don’t think that would make very good dinner music. I think something along the lines of RJD2, or the Beastie Boys instrumental disc, even straight Miles Davis would provide a good atmosphere for a dinner party. Being in restaurants so much, basically anything that isn’t annoying is good.
5. favorite restaurant in Cleveland: I don’t have a single favorite…I have an affinity towards Angelo’s Pizza most late Saturday nights. I also really like the western burger at The Drink. Lolita is never a let down as I enjoy the cured meats and smelt at happy hour. I don’t go out nearly as much as I should.
6. what restaurant do you miss: I miss Mise on Clifton. My girlfriend, Kari, and I would always enjoy the food. I remember the bar tender being very friendly. The best part, a tasty bottle of Chimney Rock Cab was still in my price range. They also had the dark side room where you could escape for cigars and Frangelico.
7. what is your favorite thing about Cleveland and what drives you nuts:
I find the variety of ethnic groups to be very rewarding in terms of people being able to retain their ethnic customs, and foods. As a customer we know exactly where to go for Italian, Asian, eastern European, Latin, Mexican, soul food, or modern American. Likewise as a chef I know I can find anything from kielbasa to wasabi if I look in the right places. The overall economics of the city are somewhat dismal, and out of my hands which drives me nuts. Also, the division of eastside and westside is both a curse and a grace. As a business person I want to draw in the fickle cross town traffic. As a resident westsider, I can drive 40 minutes east and feel like I’m in a different city.
8. most famous person you have cooked for: A long time ago when I was cooking at Baracelli Inn, John Glenn had dinner. The man was on the moon, that has to top anyone else! As for high reaching people when I was a Blue Point, Michael Jordan came in for a nice dinner of chicken breast and french fries. I can remember the GM scolding us, “stop staring at his table, nobody like to be stared at.” I mean, personally, I was only so impressed that it was Michael Jordan, but he was taller than most people even after he sat down. Not long after that I got to shake Lebron’s hand after he had a lunch consisting of three pounds of king crab meat. Note: we did not shake hands; I shook his hand, while he shook my forearm.
9. most unusual food you have ever tried: I tried a baby duck egg from the Asian market. It was rather heavy, and larger than a chicken egg. Little did I understand that there was a pretty well formed duck fetus inside. After boiling for 45 minutes as instructed, I was quite surprised when I cracked it open. If I remember correctly I had cooked for my mother on this night, and this scene brought tears to her eyes. It was somewhat disturbing, but seeing I had come so far I took a nibble of the leg. Tasted like duck. I wouldn’t do it again though. I want to try Fugu, but Kari won’t let me.
10. if you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing: Since I spent four years at Ohio Wesleyan University studying micro-biology I guess lab work is my fall back career choice. I loved to study the sciences, but career opportunities are rather dull and boring. Kitchens are exciting and challenging. If things go right it would be great to parlay my experiences cooking in professional kitchens into a more mature career, writing, or designing kitchens.
11. what café/restaurant have people in Cleveland yet to discover:
The Cleveland restaurant community does a very good job promoting itself, it’s hard to unearth somewhere unique. I had a great meal at Henry’s at the Barn a few months ago. I’m looking forward to going back. I’m surprised they have not received the press they deserve.