Chef’s Holiday Fun

There was a point in my culinary career where I feared the Holiday Season, having all the family gather and consume enormous amounts of food that I prepared, hoping everyone enjoyed every bite and they all had their favorites represented with panache and taste.  There were standards, green bean casserole with fried onions and sweet potatoes with mini marshmallows; there were also the unique, torta di ricotta & polenta ribollita.  Lots of worrying, stress, and effort went into those meals, much like having a busy dinner service in the restaurant.

future chefs

Erin not licking knife & Destiny licking knife making reindeer treats.

I’m happy to say that those days are over.  My lovely wife Amy and I have adopted a new strategy for the Holidays; we’re inviting our three grand-daughters to assist with the Turkey and Spiral sliced ham this year!

Destiny is 9 and newly rooted in Kalamazoo from Kansas City, she is the task master and preparation expert of the three, loving the planning and making lists and often telling everyone what they need to get done.  We knew she would be a natural fit for our Holiday food extravaganza when she came over one day with her folks and asked what was for dinner.  I had some great Angus filets I was going to grill and showed her the platter of beautiful beef.  Her next question made us smile; she asked ‘What are the sides?’  Seriously?  Sides?  I proceeded to ask her what she would like to prepare.  Thus we ventured on the everything is hot and everything is sharp and be safe in the kitchen speech.  She of course prepared nothing, she made requests and then ventured back to the Taylor Swift YouTube videos she was watching and dancing to leaving me with a list of things that would work with steak.  If I remember right mushrooms were at the top of the list.

makin eggs

Erin making eggs.

Erin is 6, she’s the baker and the doer and the ‘I’ll get the stool and help Papa’ girl.  She isn’t afraid of the mess, knows how to clean up (but doesn’t do it very often), actually enjoyed loading the dishwasher at an earlier age, and used to try anything.  Her palate has ‘matured’ over her young life to include not eating mashed potatoes (she prefers mac & cheese as her starch), loving yogurt and fruit (but not peanut butter, except for when she has the hiccups), and her late night snack of choice is cheese.  Cheese?  I used to beg for Archway sugar cookies as a kid, she wants cheese.  I distinctly remember carrying her at age 2 up and down the line at the restaurant, she’d point at things and say ‘What’s that Papa?’  The only thing she wanted to try that day was freshly pulled Mozzarella, pure and beautifully pristine white, I remember her saying as only a 2 year old can sound out ‘monsterella’ with a smile.  Happy times.  Erin has ‘matured’ into the girl who wants to bake a cake at 9 in the  morning so we can have a ‘lovely’ dessert with lunch.  Not happening, but a nice thought.

Bailey is 2, she puts stuff in the trash.  She’s our culinary police person.  She tells everyone that everything is hot.  She tastes everything, being most fond of chocolate, but also a huge fan of beets.  Right now her palate leans toward Princess Gummies and fresh apples, though I’ve never seen her consume an entire apple.  She has the most polite way of saying ‘No thank you’, very matter of fact.  She passed on something we offered for her to try once and went into the kitchen.  We found her sitting on the floor in front of the pantry, items strewn on the floor, diligently looking for something.  She came across a bag of chocolate chips, spun on her rear end and quietly said ‘Oh…..chocolate.’  The chips then took position at the front of the pantry with the canned soups and tomatoes, peanut butter and powdered sugar being thrown in the back.  It was adorable.  Bailey is still mastering the art of fork and/or spoon, only a short time ago growing out of the stage that food went on the floor when she was finished.  If I was quicker with the camera feature on my cell, I would have included the truffled pasta hanging from our dining room light fixture, Bailey’s simple way of saying she’d had enough.

This year we’ve decided to do both turkey (thanks Gary Otto) and spiral sliced ham (thanks Honeybaked).  For the second Holiday meal in December, we’ll do beef.  We always make cauliflower potato puree and jus, either green bean casserole or a seven layer thing that my wife makes that is amazing.  I asked once what was in it, while being polite and listening to her answer I noticed it disappearing on other plates so I tuned out (sorry Honey) to grab my portion before it was gone.  Amy will make a pie or a cake or something sweet.  Sweet potatoes will be brought this year by our eldest and her family (thanks Lindsey) having been advised not to bring canned yams.  Stuffing will be on our youngest, he’s a huge Stove Top fan so he will learn to make his own.

Papa & Bailey

Bailey the youngest in the kitchen.

The rest of the meal will consist of all the great things the grand-daughters will make for us.  On the docket are chocolate covered pretzels, chocolate chip cookies, and these wonderfully easy chocolate chip cookie things with a mini peanut butter cup stuck inside (great with Chai tea).  All three will help prepare the main dishes, but they’ll be responsible for serving the sweet snacks.  I think they are excited but I’m also a realist and know that YouTube will be on a computer and Matty B. will be rapping and something else will have some game called Temple Run, and we can’t forget the Barney video for Bailey.  Maybe there’ll be a media device for some football (or HGTV if Amy has a say) so we can relax and digest.

So my perspective has changed.  No more stress at Holiday meal time, only giggles and crazy requests and way too much food and not enough family time.  They have grown up so fast, we’ll choose to cherish the flour on the floor and the massive amounts of dirty dishes and the loud music videos to know that the kids and grandkids ate very well, had too much fun, and are healthy and happy.  Here’s to a successful Holiday meal for you and yours.  I’ll let you each define successful on your own terms.

Happy November/December from your friends and family at Webster’s Prime.


Tending garden with Erin.

Stefan Johnson
Food and Beverage Operations Manager

“Allez Cuisine!” Culinary Competition

          We have seen or heard about those fascinating and exciting culinary competitions on television from Top Chef to Chopped to Iron Chef.  There seem to be more popping up every new television season, maybe all hosted by Padma or Ramsey.  But this comes from a more personal experience.  When I was in culinary school at The Art Institute of Michigan, I was part of two culinary competition teams.  These competitions are sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation (ACF).  The competitions take place at the state level, then proceed onto the regional level, and the final competition finishes at the ACF’s National Convention.

Michigan Salad

Michigan Salad

          There are strict guidelines and rules to follow when a team takes part in the culinary cook-off.  The competition team is made up of four members who participate in the cook-off.  In addition, each team may have two alternates who may participate in the skills part of the competition.  The first part of competition day is the skills portion, which consists of butchery and handling of a whole chicken, filleting of a round or flat fish, knife skills, making a pastry cream, and how to supreme an orange.  The key to score a few extra points with the judges is to use some or most of the items from the skills portion.  The order is predetermined by the judges as well, as which team member does what section of the skills.

Paupiette of Sole

Paupiette of Sole

          After the skills, teams have 30 minutes to set-up for the cooking phase of the day.  The cook phase has four courses with one that will be a ‘classical’ dish, which is usually a chicken dish recipe taken from Escoffier.  The other three courses would be a salad, fish, and dessert course.  All three dishes will be portioned four ways; three to be judged, and one for photographs and critique.  The skills section is a relay-style and must be completed in 80 minutes.  The cook-off portion is 75 minutes with a 15 minute plating window for all four courses.

          Wow!  I think I just made that sound very simple and straight forward.  That is not always the truth.  We practiced at least once a week and sometimes more to hone our skills to fit within the allotted time.  In my first year (or first few months) of culinary school, I auditioned for the team at the urging of my introduction to culinary skill chef.  That might have the most nervous I have been in the kitchen up to that time.  Approximately 25 students auditioned my first year for the salon team in a kitchen where space was a premium.  I worked cleanly and efficiently in the skills part, then plated a simple dish for the cooking portion.  I was pleasantly surprised that I was chosen as an alternate for the team.  As the alternate, I got to take part in the skills part of the day, then aided the team during the cook-off section by keeping them on time and clearing dishes.  The next year I was a full member of the team and participated in both sections of the competition.  We received a silver medal my first year as a team, then the next year we brought home a bronze medal.

Team Richard

2011 The Art Institute Culinary Salon Team

Being a member of a team whether it is sports, business, or culinary, makes a person better.  It helps them to handle the changes and challenges of life.  In the kitchen, and by being a culinary competition team member, the experience has taught me to work clean and efficiently as well as honing my knife skills.  I like to thank my former team members and coaches (and judges) for the opportunity to be an integral member of a wonderful experience.

Richard J. Steward
Line Cook


An Open Door

It was a bright morning as my fiancée Alexa and I packed our sedan with a completely full suitcase, a new camera and our fanatically prepared selves.  We were visiting my oldest sister, her husband and their dog Lily in California.  Food obsessed as all four of us are, my sister had carefully planned lunch and dinner for all of our days together. It was common knowledge that we would be spoiled by an expertise in good restaurants, food secrets and an unmatched generosity from my family.  California is a culinary kingdom, spanning styles and ingredients all along its vast coast.  We were in for the trip of our lives, and a food coma.  I should state that this isn’t the first “food-enhanced” trip I’ve been on.  I have greedily shared sukiyaki in Nara, Japan. I have dirtied more than one bib devouring blue crab in Baltimore.  I became a master of dissecting good and bad pollo pibil in the Yucatan.  I’ve eaten my way up and down California more than once.  None of these meals though, were going to be as memorable as the delights we had coming our way.

Stag's Leap Winery

Stag’s Leap Winery

We started in Los Angeles, a gigantic and immensely spread out place, with more identities and characters than can be explained in one work of writing.  The restaurants feel different there.  The first place we walked into surprised us culturally and gastronomically; serving Kampachi tostadas in a dim and square shaped dining room by a middle-aged hipster in a tightly fixed bistro apron, who could probably hold his own in any food-related discussion with the likes of Harold Mcgee or Escoffier.  Or who wouldn’t want to go to a lunch spot called “Oinkster” the next day?  With a cozy diner themed patio of red and white, home to the best chili cheese fries I’ve ever had, and a draft beer selection that any Michigan craft beer advocate would respect.  The sushi is made correctly.  Not just the process, but the fact that they are actually close the ocean, so that seafood only has to travel minimally.  Even the Thai delivery was exceptional and cured our jetlag.  We were heading to northern California next, stopping in Los Olivos and Solvang; two towns that serve as a beautiful wine country destination, as well as home to friendly and humble people, Ostrich Land and the setting of the infamous movie, “Sideways.”  Wine was great, but the stories were better. The award-winning bacon at Sides Hardware was truly worth it, as well as being from the most interesting restaurant we had been to yet.  All in all, good preparation for what was to come next, Napa Valley, where even cooks are bewildered and intimidated by the food.



The air is amazing in Napa.  It’s a surreal feeling to be surrounded by so many artisans and kings of the world you know and hold so dear.  It was a shame we stuffed dozens of oysters and rich clam chowder down our throats on the day of our French Laundry reservation, but I don’t regret a bite.  Our dinner reservation was at 9:15, which was much more than a “bucket list item” or a “last meal” for me.  It was a dream coming true.  The kind of dream you take for granted, because you can’t fathom it actually being real.  Keller’s French Laundry, is arguably one of the best restaurants in the world, and could be the best meal of my life.  I will keep it short and sweet, as it would take pages to explain my experience there, and I can’t bear leaving any piece out.  The next day we enjoyed rock shrimp tempura at Morimoto’s that bent my brain on Japanese fusion like never before, and I live Japanese fusion.  If you don’t get a burger from Gott’s while in northern California, then you’ve missed a landmark.  Our last meal with our gracious hosts was at Yank Sing Dim Sum, in San Francisco.  A meal of mixed emotions; incredibly sad of parting ways with two people that mean so much to us, yet drooling over soup dumplings that I have fantasized about since I last ate them, three years prior.  Later that day, Alexa and I shared cold Anchor Steams and a buttery Dungeness crab on a wharf sidewalk, staring out into the ocean alongside fat and domesticated seagulls.  I proposed to my fiancée that night, as we watched the sunset from a sailboat.

So why glorify California and its institutions so much?  I believe the food culture has been established there, at or past its prime if you will.  They have a strong stance and have set a standard, holding up to any trends in a culinary enlightened society.

Sunset in San Francisco

Sunset in San Francisco

Their door has been closed though, and ours is wide open.

We are at the brink of an extremely exciting time for food and drink in southwest Michigan, as my peers and I are at the forefront of an economic up-turn.  We are creating the trend, painting the canvas and landscaping the map for a food culture.  A gentleman who used to work at Webster’s, has since become sous chef for a very well renowned restaurant in California, still claims to this day, “nobody does beef like you guys.”  Webster’s is proud to be a part of this movement, and will keep pushing our theory and beliefs in sourcing the best ingredients locally and regionally, supporting Michigan wine and beer, helping the community in any way we can, treating our product with respect, and maintaining restraint and originality in this exciting time for food.  So come enjoy a pastrami sandwich or high quality steak here at Webster’s Prime, and be a part of putting Michigan in a well deserved spot in the growing gastronomic world.

Nate Shaw
Kitchen Supervisor

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