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

You had me at service

What is it that makes us return to a restaurant?  Is it the comfortable chairs, as our Executive Chef recently wrote about?  Is it the astonishing mouth watering dish that you find yourself dreaming about when pondering where to stop for dinner?  Or is it the amazing service?

VellumAnn Arbor, MI

Ann Arbor, MI

For me, it has always been about the service.  Anywhere from the greasy spoon where the ma and pa behind the counter engage you in friendly conversation, to the six course fine dining back server and front server experience, it has to have great service for me to return.  Not perfect service, no no, I never strive for the perfect dining experience, just something that takes the dining experience from average to extraordinary.  I understand that mistakes happen, and servers get busy, but it is how they conduct themselves in a professional and welcoming manner that keeps me interested.

We’ve all been there, the situations where you try a new place for the first time and you swear you will never be back.  Once a place has a black mark for me, I swear I won’t go back for years!  I don’t even realize how much time goes by…I almost forget the reason why I didn’t like it in the first place…but I won’t choose to give them a second chance unless someone else suggests that we go.

I have to say that my friends and I are a tough crowd, not because we aren’t easily pleased but because we expect great service.  It’s the expectation where we come from.  Most of us are chefs, restaurant managers, servers, bartenders, event coordinators, hostesses, dining room assistants, and just plain foodies!

My foodie friends and I recently met in Ann Arbor for dinner, a mecca of great places to dine!  How can one from out of town even chose where to go?  Well for us, Vellum had us from the get go.  Their website was top notch, and their Chef de Cuisine was from Kalamazoo and a WMU graduate!  We had to check it out once we had read that, and we were not disappointed.

Beer Vellum

For me the experience started with (if you’ve read my past blogs…you could probably guess) that’s right, an ice cold beer.  I was pleased that they had Final Absolution from Dragonmead (one of my favorites) and Dragon’s Milk from New Holland on draft.  They also had my favorite bourbon, Basil Hayden’s in which I enjoyed after my dinner.

But it wasn’t the great beer, bourbon, or even the modern American chow that blew my socks off, it was their attention to providing wonderful service.  We were first greeted by a nice amuse bouche from the chef, they removed all dirt y silverware throughout the meal, and when our entrees arrived they presented us each with a complimentary sample of wine that paired nicely with our entrée selection.  After dinner they surprised my boyfriend with a complimentary upgrade from his VSOP cognac to an XO cognac.  We never wanted for anything, the food was great, and the Director of Operations, Ric Jewell was a real pleasure to meet.  Ric Jewell and our server created the ultimate dining experience for us.  We felt like royalty, and will return because of the service in the near future for sure.

The food at Vellum was a bit too modern for my taste; I like a more classical approach.  Not moth balls classical, but just you know, somewhere in the middle.  While their food was tasty, when I ordered the bone marrow, I expected a bone on a plate with a little demitasse spoon.  Instead we received bone marrow custard, with braised short ribs and cute little root vegetables.  Tasty, but not what I expected.  So while it may not be the food that pulls me back to this modern year old establishment it will be their attention to providing excellent service.Bone Marrow Vellum

So what is it that you look for in a restaurant?  Comfortable chairs?  Great food, modern food?  Or outstanding service?  We want to know!

Alana Fisher
Event Coordinator
Allie and I

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