Hanging Out in Rockford: ‘A Cook’s Tour of Downtown’

The first time I heard about Anthony Bourdain was via e-mail from my son in Hungary. He told me to go to a Web site and listen to this crazy guy. He thought I would like him. I did. He told things the way they were in his first book, Kitchen Confidential. That is what made it so popular among the restaurant contingent, the fact that the soft underbelly of the business was exposed.

Restaurant people are an interesting lot. Why they do what they do, exposed to all sorts of conditions of extreme heat, impossible deadlines, and rude and demanding customers is anybody’s guess. It certainly isn’t for the incredible pay. It isn’t for the great benefits, either. Maybe it is one of those things you do because it’s there, like climbing a mountain. But anybody who has worked in a restaurant will remember it fondly, and regale you with tales of their restaurant adventures.

Anthony Bourdain is coming to Rockford. He is the subject of a Rockford Public Library promotion. Amy Pfeifer sends me an e-mail asking if I would like to participate in an event called “A Cook’s Tour of Downtown” (referring to Bourdain’s book, A Cook’s Tour). I sign on with seven other restaurants in the downtown area. It is warming up to be a very interesting evening. My biggest concern is that with many people attending who probably never come downtown, I want to put on a really good show. I want them to come back to the Irish Rose.

I search my mind for an item to present—one that will set us apart and one that will show off our style of cooking, that of using totally fresh ingredients from the Chicago market and natural cooking methods. I decide to go with shellfish cakes. I want to set the cooking station up in the front of the house, and let everyone see us cooking the cakes to order. In addition, this will serve to slow the delivery and smooth out the distribution. Not too many people mind standing in line while they watch you cook their crab and shrimp cake fresh. It turns out to be a masterful stroke.

Our cakes are based on combining the crab meat, which is always cooked (you cannot remove it from the shell without cooking it) with the raw shrimp. This gives the illusion of the whole product having been cooked for the first time. I also use the stronger-tasting claw meat, giving the final product more crab flavor. This is an idea of my own. Judging from the response we get, it is a really good one.

I want some color on the plate, and first I think about a couple of spears of baby Peruvian mountain asparagus, but then the staff does something wrong and forgets to prep the case of green beans I bought at the market to use as a side for the weekend special. I am lying in bed early before going to the market when I have another idea. I call Jose, who is still cooking (we are open until midnight), and tell him to save the green beans for a salad to use in the Cook’s Tour.

The next day, I am discussing the tour with Nick Garrie, who cooks for me part time, and I bounce an idea off him. I want to put a slice of our pork tenderloin drizzled with truffle oil next to the crab cake. Nick jumps on the idea. He will prepare the pork tenders; he is the best in the house at this. He can cook several at a time. Then, we will just slice them off and plate them. I get up at 5 a.m., Tuesday, to go to the market early to be sure to be back in time with the tenderloins for the event from Amity Packing.

I hire Rainer Wulf and Michael McKillips to man the sauté station. They do a fantastic job. People are only waiting a short time. We have three portable ranges, and Mike can cook 12 cakes at a time. We put a small amount of béarnaise on each cake. The acceptance of our idea is evident by the wonderful comments we receive.

Paul, my neighbor who runs Brio and Cru, sits at my bar trying the crab cakes and tenderloin. Inspired by his visit, I want to see how others are doing, and I step out in the neighborhood for a minute. Paul is serving some beautiful-looking rare tuna at Brio. Down at Cru, they have their Louisiana Poor Boy. Both places are packed with people having a good time.

After all the craziness, I sit with Amy Pfeifer and Emily Kicklighter while Rainer and Mike cook them some crab cakes. We talk about what a wonderful success the event is, and discuss ideas for future events of this kind. But I am tired, having been up since 5, and before long, I am closing the hatch to my little loft above the Rose. Another day of playing restaurant is over.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

from May 23-29, 2007, issue

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