q & a with michael herschman

Clevelanders have seen a lot of good restaurants come and go through the years. Mention any one of these, like the Silver Grille or Battuto, and it automatically conjures up a favorite memory or emotion for many. This is why I always pose this question during my interviews. For me, Battuto is one of those restaurants I miss, along with Mojo’s. I spent a lot of time in my early 20s at that restaurant, both at the bar and on the patio. While I still miss Mojo’s, you don’t have to look too far from Tremont to find the chef. Michael Herschman has worked in several kitchens since closing Mojo’s, and right now, he can be found at Metropolitan Cafe. In fact, he is the only reason why we have returned to Metropolitan since leaving downtown.

1. What are the top 5 spices every home chef should have? Kosher salt (but that can’t count, c’mon), good black peppercorns in a good mill, cumin, fennel seed (my favorite spice), cinnamon, and most importantly, Old Bay.

2. What is your philosophy in the kitchen? Know your basics, keep it simple and evolve from there. It is easy to have successful dishes by not trying to be so complex. By combining a few simple well-prepared items together, a balanced, composed dish will result.

3. What is your favorite thing about Cleveland and what drives you nuts? My favorite thing about Cleveland is it is home. My family is from here and most still remain, or like myself, have returned. Home is home. Accessibility is Cleveland’s biggest asset. What drives me nuts is this perpetual inferiority complex and lack of leadership. Culpability, accountability and credit where credit is due because there is so much out there, yet so few, “go for it”.

4. If you could cook for one person, real or dead, who would it be? My wife, Marilyn. She has the best palate in town, and is not biased by bs. Either she loves it, it is ‘whatever’ or here comes the frown. Oh yeah, Jerry Garcia or John Lennon, too!

5. You’re having a dinner party, top 5 songs on your play list? Unfortunately, I only go albums (old school) but definitely 1) Tomorrow Never Knows – Beatles (get this room bumpin’ and open up some bubbly), 2) Naima – John Coltrane (loosen up folks and mingle), 3) 70’s Bowie goes great with food and company (cheeky and a little lusty so I would have a small set from Heroes or Hunky Dory), 4) anything of Mars Audiac Quintet by Stereolab (not so pulsy but circulatingly applicable background that is mostly French so people can’t necessarily sing a long, though the tunes are still catchy and make great wallpaper) and 5) any solid loud Paul Weller blast of “There is No Drinking after You’re Dead” off of Heliocentric (completely suggestive for the remainder of the evening after food, libations, discussion and the transition to keep the evening alive).

6. Favorite restaurant in Cleveland? Unquestionably, Siam Café. Haven’t had a bad meal since it transformed from a dilapidated Red Barn (miss my Barney Buster). Service is very hospitable, great to my family, able to knock out large parties and take out is never messed up. The beer is always ice cold and the Tod Mun is always hot. Plus, where else can you go immediately when you are in the mood for Frog?

7. What restaurant do you miss? Little Vietnamese takeout joint on Euclid Heights and Lee Road in Cleveland Heights which was only around for two years, but man, was it awesome.

8. What place(s) have Clevelanders yet to discover? I am looking forward to Jonathon Sawyer’s new place on 4th [The Greenhouse Tavern] and would like to check out Chrissie Hynde’s place in Akron [The Vegiterranean].

9. What’s your last meal on Earth? Sushi from Ebisu in San Francisco, Duck at Chinois on Main and my mom’s Matzoh Ball soup, but will she be pissed when she finds out it’s my last meal (am I dying or is there a death penalty situation here, because that changes everything!).

10. Most unusual food you have ever tried? Chocolate covered salted crickets from Japan. Take hair, salt and shrimp legs, fry them up and then coat with melted bittersweet chocolate. Echhh, then you eat another!

11. Most famous person you have cooked for? Phil Lesch and Bobby Weir – dinner for Vogues 50th Anniversary (everybody who is anybody amongst a few hundred folk).

12. If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing? Who knows? Maybe producing music or playing it, or most probably teaching… even though school and I didn’t always get along.

13. Do you cook at home? Yep! Most requested meal from your kids? BBQ, BBQ, BBQ

14. What do you miss most about Mojo’s? The awesome crowd and late night hit. All the folks in the business would come in late for a nosh and the music. Will it ever be back? You can make that check out for……..

15. If you could be any other chef for one day, who would it be? Jean Louis Pallidin, RIP. Cooked for everybody – traditionalist and innovative, a total individual yet so disciplined and knocked over walls at the right time.

16. If you could visit any restaurant in the world, which one would it be? I want to go back to San Francisco and spend the entire day sitting out front of Zuni and start with oysters, work my way to a burger, a couple salads, the ricotta gnocchi and then a couple desserts later and a few bottles of anything Helen Turley has on the list and have a perfect espresso and be kindly asked to leave because they have to lock the doors.

17. What book are you currently reading? Some old David Morrell novel. I need to escape to where people get shot up and spy and stuff. Nothing you would find in the Oprah’s list.

18. Favorite TV show? Simpsons!

19. What kitchen gadget can you not live without? 12-inch tongs.

20. What is the best plate of food you have ever had? Lunch at Rastfali in Amsterdam and Sushi in Toronto (the uni melted and melted and melted).

21. Favorite meal from your childhood? Deli to go on Sundays…how can you not stick your tongue out at the tongue in the glass case?

22. What local farmers and vendors do you rely on most? Honestly, I have to rediscover local agriculture, but truly will always count on Tom and Wendy from Killbuck.

23. What’s your signature dish? Calamari, I guess.

24. And current food-related trends happening right now? I want the French Asian thing back! It tasted good, wasn’t expensive and was a great creative outlet with the discipline. I do not need to hear the biography of every ingredient on a menu or eat every part of the animal. Good restaurant equals good ingredients. I do not need to know that the Lah Dee Dah Farms chicken was spoon fed from the manna of the cherubs, died of natural causes with its entire family present and then had a burial at sea…oy.

25. You have owned a restaurant and been the head chef at many restaurants in Cleveland. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from these experiences that others starting out could learn from? Listen to everybody but go with your gut. Do not hurry; life is not a credit card (you cannot borrow time and pay for it later). Set reasonable standards – help the team reach them, then reach higher. Cut labor when necessary but do not try to disguise shotty work or use crappy ingredients. The customer is always right…because they pay your rent. If you are a talented chef then you are also the best pushover. Just make the frickin’ Caesar with chicken at 10 pm… it will afford your foie gras, dumass!

2 Comments

  1. Bridget Callahan
    Posted April 16, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I agree, the French Asian thing should come back.

  2. Dave
    Posted May 4, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I loved this interview. MH is honest, smart and, best of all, an admirer of Jean-Louis. I loved Jean-Louis’ food, esp scallops and fois gras in foil. It was a nice reminder of the late chef. Thanks Michael.

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