Hello … is it cheese you’re looking for? (My new found love for all things cheese.)

It was nearly seven years ago that I was elbow deep in a three bay sink of suds, washing pots and pans for the esteemed and successful banquet department of the Radisson, Kalamazoo. Since my ‘days of detergent’ with Lionel Richie on repeat, I’ve worked hard and have learned from experiences and other people to shape the cook I’ve become. In January of 2014, I was offered a chance to attend the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria, Italy, and had the opportunity to shape the chef I wanted to be. With many long-winded arrangements, months of espresso driven planning, fun with obtaining visas and several successful months at Webster’s, my wife and I were ready to fly out a short week after our wedding.

This blog could go in any direction at this point. I could talk about my amazing mother, whom none of this would happen without. I should acknowledge the support of our chef and team, who all had to work harder to make this experience even possible. I want to shine light on our closest friend and the ‘goddess’ of our lives, whom put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into our happiness. I might transition into the incredible tutelage of Chef John Nocita, and how the hardest thing to leave was all of the friends we made in school from around the world. I could write for hours on charcuterie, conserves and pasta making. Instead I am going to focus on my favorite technique I learned in Italy: cheese making.

Chef John Nocita - A true master of Italian Regional Cuisine, with an art for sharing his knowledge.

Chef John Nocita – A true master of Italian Regional Cuisine, with an art for sharing his knowledge.*

Every Friday morning we went to the market, and stands like these were everywhere.

Every Friday morning we went to the market, and stands like these were everywhere.

I was never a cheese addict. I’m not the guy at the party who jumps in excitement when somebody pulls out the Colby Jack cubes. I’m not sure why I latched onto cheese so much, maybe it was foreign, different and something I had never pursued to learn how to make before. It could have been arriving at the sheep farm far before dawn, and tasting the warm ricotta made from the whey of the pecorino only a couple hours after the sheep were milked. It could have been eating loads of grilled camoscio, a soft cheese like brie, with fresh honey, black truffles and valeriana greens. Whatever it was that turned on my formaggio ‘switch’, I am forever a lover of all things cheese.

Lunch at ICI: cheese was a way of life and we loved living it.

Lunch at the Italian Culinary Institute (ICI): Cheese was a way of life and we loved living it.

The sun rising at a local sheep farm in Calabria.

                                                 The sun rising at a local sheep farm in Calabria.

The farmer preparing fresh rennet to make pecorino and ricotta.

The farmer preparing fresh rennet to make pecorino and ricotta.

Breakfast of Champions - fresh, warm ricotta from that morning's milking.

Breakfast of Champions – fresh, warm ricotta from that morning’s milking.

Fresh sheep's milk pecorino

                                Fresh sheep’s milk pecorino

In school, we had the privilege of learning how to make several types of cheese. Our chef didn’t hold back when it came to beautiful ingredients, as we got to work with fresh milks, rennet, and cultures that were created by the chef himself from years of his own cheese making. Most of the cheese we made was not ready for consumption by the time the program was over, so we had the honor of tasting the cheese made from graduating classes before us. These weren’t your average blocks of cheese. We made curds that were pulled into mozzarella, pasteurized sheep milk that were cut into large curds to age pecorino with black truffles and saffron, and even extracted culture from gorgonzola to create our own. I ran to the closest internet connection we could find after class that day to email Stefan about finding sheep milk in Michigan. My wife and I started planning how we could turn our wine cooler at home into a cheese aging case. I was online ready to start filling up my cart on Amazon with cheese baskets and equipment we would need. This was an inspiring lesson and I was hungry for more.

Aged cheeses prepared by previous ICI classes.

Aged cheeses prepared by previous ICI classes. *

Freshly made pecorino al tartufo.

Freshly made pecorino al tartufo. *

Curds being removed from whey.

Curds being removed from whey. *

The class continued with several new types of artisanal cheese like caciotta, ricotta salata, taleggio, pecorino con peperoncino, provola, caciocavallo, camoscio, robiola: just to name a few. We even had a day of learning techniques and recipes that utilize leftover whey, milk and other ingredients from cheese making, our favorite being sheep milk gelato. I highly encourage looking up the Italian Culinary Institute and Chef Nocita’s work, a true master of his craft. They even hold small sessions throughout the year for a quick but full immersion into regional Italian cuisine.

Ricotta Salata

Ricotta Salata *

Toma marinated in black truffles and extra virgin olive oil.

Toma marinated in black truffles and extra virgin olive oil. *

I hope to not only be making cheese at home, but to feature some house made cheese on Webster’s menu one day. Until then, we are going to keep sourcing some of the best cheese we can find from not only Italy, but all around the world. The mozzarella di bufala from Campania we are featuring right now is delicious, and impossible to find at any store in Kalamazoo. Cheese making was just one small part of our amazing journey to Calabria, Italy. I look forward to sharing more of our experiences at the Italian Culinary Institute in future blogs. Check back soon for my newfound knowledge and appreciation of conserves, and what we are conserving at Webster’s right now.

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Want to see what we’re up to in the kitchen? Follow me on Instagram @nate_is_cooking and follow our restaurant @webstersprime

*Special thanks to ICI alumni and friend Michael Reale for sharing his ‘Cheese Week’ photos with us.

All other photos taken by my beautiful wife!

Nathan Shaw

Webster’s Prime – Sous Chef

Wedding Bells, Restaurant News and Italian Adventures … What’s up with Webster’s?

The past eight and a half months have been quite the ride here at Webster’s. The madness began last December when I married the love of my life, and coincidentally our Sous Chef, Nate. We had our dream winter wedding at the restaurant, and took off for Calabria, Italy a few short days later to attend the Italian Culinary Institute for the next four months. We made it back to K-Zoo, reunited with our Webster’s family in May and we couldn’t be happier to be home.

There is nothing like a beautiful sunset in Southern Italy, I miss these a lot.

There is nothing like a beautiful sunset in Southern Italy. We saw this nearly every night outside of the Italian Culinary Institute.

My favorite part of Italy?  THE WINE!

My favorite part of Italy? THE WINE!

Attending culinary school was a dream, and I was so lucky to experience this with my husband.

Attending culinary school was a dream, and I was so lucky to experience this with my husband.

Things have been busy, busy in the world of Webster’s Prime and everyone on the crew is excited and ready for the direction were heading. Nate has recently accepted the Sous Chef position and we all look forward to his continued leadership of our team … and his delicious snacks, WE WANT MORE RAMEN! Our bar team was thrilled to be given an Award of Excellence this year from Wine Spectator, recognizing outstanding wine lists from across the globe. Speaking of wine, I recently passed my Level 1 Sommelier Exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers, and have plans to pursue the Level 2 certification in the coming year. Our prep cook/steward Kenny was married to his beautiful bride earlier this month, and they had a gorgeous reception in the restaurant. Keep your eyes on Facebook or follow us on Instagram to check out some of the awesome shots from that day, it was unreal! So much more is happening in our world, from developing a brand new website, to our own cook Amy winning Salsa Cook-Off, to creating and executing fun and creative

Tasting Menus for you (seriously, follow us on Instagram!) and the list goes on.

Follow us on Instagram @websterprime to see what we're up to in the kitchen.

Follow us on Instagram @websterprime to see what we’re up to in the kitchen.

We love putting together Tasting Menus for our guests, and would love to put one together for you!

We love putting together Tasting Menus for our guests, and would love to put one together for you!

I was going to give you all of the details of our Italy trip this time around, but I think I will save that story for Nate to tell in his next post. Check back soon for Nate’s Culinary Adventure – Italian Style, but not until you check out the story and sneak peak of our fairytale winter wedding at Webster’s Prime.

The Wedding – Mr. and Mrs Shaw – 12.27.14

The Tasting Room was the perfect setting for our intimate ceremony.

The Tasting Room was the perfect setting for our intimate ceremony.

These days everyone is on the hunt for the most unique wedding venue and location. Rustic barns and farmhouses, shoreline ceremonies and receptions or a chic downtown loft are usually at the top of every bride’s wish-list. My mind wandered in those directions as we started the long, crazy, exhausting but still somewhat enjoyable process of planning a wedding, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that our location was right under our nose.

The festivities took place on December 27th, just two days after Christmas, which meant downtown Kalamazoo was still dripping with lights and the spirit of the season. We decided to go with a small, more intimate celebration and invited 36 of our closest family and friends to join us at Webster’s for our ceremony, dinner and reception.

I designed and printed all of our paper materials for the wedding, and our guests used a vintage typewriter to sign in!

I designed and printed all of our paper materials for the wedding, and our guests used a vintage typewriter to sign in!

Customized beverage menus and appetizers to keep the party going.

Customized beverage menus and appetizers to keep the party going.

The ceremony was beautiful and held in the Tasting Room, also known as are our bar area of the restaurant. We we’re married in front of the fireplace by a close friend and Webster’s alumni, and a favorite previous house piano player performed throughout the ceremony. Once we were hitched, everyone stepped over to the other side of the room, scarfed down some delicious apps and jammed with Webster’s favorite and Wine Down Wednesday regular, Steve Kamerling. He covered everything from Vanilla Ice’s, Ice Ice Baby to one of our favorite jams, This Must be the Place by the Talking Heads.

Dinner was in the main dining room, and I may have went a little nuts with the amount of evergreen and candles in the room, but it was so worth it! Pat Kirklin from Kirklin Farms in Kalamazoo is an absolutely wonderful woman, and provides our restaurant with farm fresh flowers throughout the year. She spent hours cutting me evergreen for the big day, and I couldn’t wait to show her what I’d done with her hard work, it was beautiful. Since Nate and I are total restaurant junkies, we of course fed everyone way too much food. Dinner was 3 courses, with each course named after something fun or quirky about us … and Nate even hand stamped the menu headings for me! (I had A LOT of late nights on Pinterest, which resulted in A LOT of DIY projects.)

We didn't hold anything back when it came to decorating the space!

We didn’t hold anything back when it came to decorating the space!

Handmade coloring books for the little ones.

Handmade coloring books for the little ones.

We customized our menu to reflect who we are as a couple, and featured some quirky details about ourselves.

We customized our menu to reflect who we are as a couple, and featured some quirky details about ourselves.

I'm the resident Cat Lady around here, so it made sense to have Cupcake Zoo make Cat Cupcakes for the occasion.

I’m the resident Cat Lady around here, so it made sense to have Cupcake Zoo make Cat Cupcakes for the occasion.

After dinner we were back in the Tasting Room and welcomed more friends for cocktails and dancing … and yes, more food. Our small private room in the middle of the restaurant (Diamond Room) was used as a dessert buffet and late night snack service of pulled pork sandwiches. Our DJ spun our favorite vinyls all night, Nate surprised me with a live rendition of our wedding song performed by Steve Kamerling and everyone danced … and ate the night away.

The dancing portion of the reception was held in the Tasting Room, and having our first dance in front of the fireplace was perfect.

The dancing portion of the reception was held in the Tasting Room, and having our first dance in front of the fireplace was perfect.

Steve plays live at Webster's every Wednesday in the Tasting Room and he is fantastic!

Steve plays live at Webster’s every Wednesday in the Tasting Room and he is fantastic!

Everything was absolutely perfect that day, and we owe all of that to our amazing staff. I planned every detail of this day down to a tee, and not only did they execute everything perfectly, they made me feel at ease and made both Nate and I feel special and loved.

Couldn't have pulled this day off without our #webcrew

Couldn’t have pulled this day off without our #webcrew

Some might think that being the Event Planner for your own wedding could be exhausting, but you want to know what? THEY ARE TOTALLY RIGHT! Our wedding day was perfect, amazing, over the top and exactly what I wanted, but I was so tired! With that being said, have your wedding, rehearsal dinner, engagement party, bridal shower or any special event for that matter at Webster’s and let me be the exhausted one. It’s your special day, you deserve to feel relaxed and let someone else take care of the details, and we are more than happy to take that burden from you.

Feel free to call or e-mail me anytime with questions, or set up a time to stop in so I can give you a tour of the space. The restaurant is available in many different capacities for special events. You can rent our Tasting Room, choose a private room or our main dining room, or rent the restaurant in it’s entirety and utilize all of the space for your special day. We are a unique, upscale yet still cozy and rustic venue and conveniently located in the Radisson Plaza Hotel in Downtown Kalamazoo. Your guests can stay in the hotel, explore downtown at their leisure, enjoy our other hotel restaurants, visit local breweries and attend your event at Webster’s without every having to get back into their car.

Every event that is special to you, is special to us and we look forward to helping your create that perfect moment.

Now hurry up and call me!

Alexa Shaw-Tipton

Event Coordinator

269.226.3144

atipton@webstersprime.com

  • Wedding Photography by Stephanie Karen

“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

Richard

The Cons of Culinary School

From my previous blog entry, culinary school definitely can be a beneficial experience. Sadly, with the pros come the cons. Although some of these cons may not apply to each person, I feel that these are a few issues people in school have dealt with.

Financial Burden:

Le Cordon Bleu was not cheap whatsoever. However, there are community colleges that offer less expensive classes. I was thankful to have a wonderful mother who helped support me through school. If a person considers going into the culinary industry, I would suggest researching the different schools out there, and compare them financially as well. Keep in mind though, cheaper is not always better! If you want the full experience, shoot for it! I know that I was able to eat, study, and cook many foods that some schools would not be able to offer due to funding. On the other hand, the extra money spent on tuition could be used to further enhance your career, like traveling to culinary hotspots such as Chicago or New York.

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Information Overload!!:

You’d be amazed how much information you can learn within a year’s time. I feel that this can be a huge downfall. Rather than gaining confidence by practicing a Mother sauce on a frequent basis, it was very unlikely you’d make one of the Mother sauces more than twice in that entire year. You are given so many terms, recipes, and methods that it’s hard to remember and keep track of them all at once. Each semester (every six weeks) we had a new topic to discuss, and each semester I had studied diligently (usually). Within a few months after that semester I could not remember half of the information I had learned. Places like Le Cordon Bleu focus on cramming as much knowledge as they can within that small period of time. Working in a kitchen for a few years I feel could help someone gradually learn all of the knowledge that we crammed within that year. When you think about it, one year isn’t long at all!

Low Expectations:

Before I dive into this con, let me first explain one thing. When I was a student, I worked hard, and wanted nothing but to consistently exceed the goals given. Each semester the Chef would have high expectations of me because of this mentality. If I made a mistake, I was scolded more severely than the person next to me who could seem to care less. I appreciated the challenge, and always wanted to find ways to improve. On the other hand, there were many students who considered culinary school as some sort of joke. They did not care about their career, and did not care about the class as a whole. Most would drop out within a few semesters due to lack of attendance or carelessness. My first semester we started out with almost thirty students. By my final semester, we were down to six. It was frustrating to watch these students who didn’t care. They would bring our team down and would be able to advance onto the next class when they typically failed most of the exams. There were a few students in the final semester that still had that careless attitude, and it amazed me that they were able to graduate as well. Part of me felt that the Chef’s gave up on those sorts of students and just let them slide through the classes at the bare minimum.

Self-Taught Vs. School:

The more I worked in a real kitchen, the more I realized that if I had started working in a restaurant at a younger age where I knew exactly where I wanted to be, that I wouldn’t need to go to culinary school. I know a number of amazing, creative and inspiring chefs that never attended school. I have just as much, if not more, respect for them. I have learned all sorts of tricks and knowledge from Chefs who have never stepped foot in culinary school. I believe that passion, creativity and the drive to be the best you can be, is what makes a great Chef. No matter how much knowledge someone gains from school, the love for your career is one of the most important things!photo 3 (1)

Real World Experience:

The last three months of my school, I was required to be an intern at a restaurant of my choice. I knew within the first week of the restaurant I worked at, that I lacked experience, knowledge, and confidence. Although I appreciated my classes, I felt as though they sugar-coated the real world experience. I was a very confident, talkative student during class while we cooked, and during my internship I was timid, quiet and nervous. I was given the reigns and sometimes I felt it was too much to handle.

After my internship, the real world felt extremely overwhelming. I worked in a seasonal job where negativity and tension consumed the atmosphere. Rather than enjoying my career like I had hoped, I grew fearful that every kitchen I worked in would have this unwelcoming cloud looming over the work place. I had accepted the stress that I knew would come with being a cook, but I did not anticipate the emotional stress I experienced at that job. For the first time, I had questioned my career along with who I was as a person. No career advisor or instructor could have prepared me for that unfortunate experience.

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So was culinary school worth it? For me, definitely. If it weren’t for that first step to make that phone call to Le Cordon Bleu, I would not be where I am today. Through all of the ups and downs, I can say that I am very grateful for each experience. If it weren’t for the negatives, I wouldn’t appreciate all of the positives! I would advise to anyone interested in culinary school that they should work in a kitchen for a few months just to gain a little experience. Cooking at home is extremely different than cooking in a professional kitchen.

Joining Webster’s family was like a breath of fresh air. Before I realized it, I was part of the team. For the first time since graduation, I finally felt as though I belonged in a kitchen. The talkative and confident person I once was during school has returned. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by where I haven’t felt appreciated. Each day I want to exceed my expectations and find every way to become a better cook.

Webster’s isn’t just a destination for great food. It’s the place where we invite you to our home. From the friendly front of house service, to the hard working back of house, I can truly tell that my co-workers enjoy their job just as much as I do. We put love and care in our service towards each person that walks through that door to make their experience unforgettable. Although there are moments where I feel challenged and stressed, at the end of the day I know that I am part of a great team.

Amy Spalsbury
Line Cook
Beer VS Wine Dinner 037

The Pros of Culinary School

photo 1Having just graduating from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts back in March, I often replay in my head the time I spent there and whether or not I feel it was truly beneficial. Without a doubt, I feel culinary school is not for everyone. Personally for me, I am very thankful for my time in Minneapolis and the experience I gained. It helped me get that jump start into my career path. Are you, or someone you know interested in joining the culinary profession? It’s a very difficult and life changing decision to make.  This week I’ll list some of the pros I believe culinary school has to offer. photo 4

Lack of Knowledge:

When I finally made the decision to attend culinary school, I had very little knowledge about the restaurant industry, let alone what it was like to work in a kitchen. I had worked in retail, and my only experience handling food was minimal prepping at a deli. From football shaped potatoes AKA Tourne’s (I made so many Tourne’s that I dreamt about them!), to converting 25 teaspoons into cups, culinary school taught me various basics. A lot of the knowledge I gained I still use on a daily basis. For someone who was inexperienced like myself, I found school to be extremely useful. Probably the most beneficial skill I took with me was how to handle a knife. I had an entire six week class that was primarily based on how to cut with a knife properly.

Reputation:

Granted, culinary schools sometimes are considered a con, but I believe that most employers would view culinary school as a positive. When I briefly searched for jobs in Minneapolis after I graduated, I know that most of the people I had interviews with or talked to, positively acknowledged that I attended Le Cordon Bleu. School taught me the importance of an organized and clean kitchen. This is a trait that some people who never attended school may lack. Going to school also gave me a better understanding of respect as well. Although I still love to have fun while in the kitchen, school helped me become more disciplined.

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Friendships:

In a trade school like Le Cordon Bleu, you are most likely with the same students for the entire year. This could be a good or bad thing. If you get in a large class, it’s more likely you’ll form friendships. Unfortunately for me, I had a very small class and none of us grew very close. Part of it may have been due to us not being too talkative at 6am! However, I still keep in touch with a couple of the students. Forming friendships during school I know has really helped out a lot of people in their career. If you impressed one of your peers in school, the more likely they’ll want you to work in the kitchen with them in the future. Connections are a very beneficial thing!

Resources:

The Chefs at my school were wonderful teachers and the majority of them were willing to write letters of recommendations or be used as references. Having solid references is a great thing to have when being considered for a job. In addition, the representatives at Le Cordon Bleu were great. During school they helped each student edit their resumes, and discussed the key components in what an employer looked for. They also checked up on me after graduation to see if there was anything they could do to help further advance my career. I had actually contacted one of them for advice about a seasonal job I had been hired at and she was very helpful. Throughout school they told us that even many years from now, if we were struggling to find a job,they would assist us. It was a comfort to know that I had that resource.

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Rabbit with Tournes

Recipes:

I was excited at how many recipes I was given throughout the year. I have an entire binder full of recipes just from culinary school, not to mention the two books I was given that discussed the basics of French Cuisine. I was also given numerous packets that had information about things like different meat cuts, the science behind baking, and spices. I felt all of the recipes will be very useful throughout my career.

Testing Your Future:

My dreams and goals have been one big rollercoaster ride ever since I was a child. At one point I wanted to work at Sea World and ride Shamu! However, one day I wanted a drastic change. I always enjoyed cooking for friends and family, and it was the one skill I felt I could rely on. To be honest though, it wasn’t until after the second semester of school that I realized this was my dream career. I wanted to be a Chef! I remember calling home one afternoon, ecstatic that I made gnocchi with tomato sauce and brown butter. School was the reason why I pushed forward to become a chef. That alone, is the biggest reason why I’m so thankful I attended school.

These are the key pros that I experienced myself through school. With the pros, also comes the cons. Please check back next week to see what I feel some of the cons about culinary school are! Have a wonderful week!

Amy Spalsbury
Line Cook
Beer VS Wine Dinner 037

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