Hanging Out in Rockford: Special food for special people

It all starts when Peter Kronos brings a couple to my restaurant to eat. The man looks vaguely Jamaican or West Indian. His girlfriend is pretty and blonde. We have a good time, and hang out. I hear he is a chef. Troy goes out of his way to make a few special dishes. He seems to like our place. They come back several times, mostly on the weekend or on Mondays.

After some time, we get to know each other a little better. I take them to look at my restaurant in Rockton. I am hoping to sell it one of these days. But it doesn’t seem to suit their needs. I learn their names. They are Jean and Darcy Tippenhauer. They bring another chef along for dinner. They say he works at an even more expensive restaurant than the one Jean cooks for. He has moved in next door to Peter’s place on Second Avenue. But I still don’t know the name of that restaurant, or the one Jean works at, and I don’t feel like prying.

On a Sunday, they show up looking for Peter. Jean wants to ask me what I think of the idea of a culinary school in Rockford. He is thinking about starting one. I tell him he has come to the right person. My friend Kerry Knodle, who runs Comprehensive Community Solutions (YouthBuild Rockford), has been talking about just that exact thing. He has a large building with plenty of space on South Main Street. He and I have had a number of conversations about the possibility of a school. I have offered to sit on his board if he does.

I get right on my cell phone and call Kerry. We set the following Sunday for our get-together. As I see Jean and Darcy to the door, I have a splash of inspiration and invite them to dinner. Later, I tell Kerry the same thing.

The next day or so, Peter comes in. I am telling him about the plans when he suddenly says, “Well, you know where Jean was a chef, don’t you?” I say, “No,” truthfully. “Coco Pazzo,” he answers. I am knocked out. A few years back, when I was visiting a woman I was dating at her apartment in Chicago, we had wandered into this restaurant by chance. It’s on Hubbard, just a few blocks from her place on Clark. I wrote about it in The Rock River Times. It was one of the best restaurant experiences I had ever had in my life. Now, I am really excited.

On Wednesday, I attend a candidate forum at Patriots’ Gateway for my friend Karen Elyea, who is running for County Board. My phone goes off—I had forgotten to put it on vibrate. Then, the message sound makes me escape to the hallway. The call is from Jennifer, the mayor’s secretary, wondering if Troy can fill in to cook dinner for the mayor on a Sunday. I call Troy to confirm the date, and then call Jennifer’s number and leave a message that, of course, he will.

The next day, I am on my way to the market when Jennifer returns my call. I tell her that because it is in a home environment, we will have to design the dishes so they can be cooked using the kind of kitchen people have in their homes. In other words, no sauté dishes because home ranges just don’t have the kind of BTUs you need to do them right. I suggest rack of lamb and veal chops as possible items. I have two really good sources for these items. I also consider venison Osso Bucco, but since I am going to Economy Packing anyway, I buy some veal chops. We need to practice. We want to do a good job for the mayor, and our dinner for Jean, Darcy and Kerry will provide a chance to do just that.

I have a flash of inspiration. I call Jennifer, and leave a message to invite the mayor and his girlfriend Stacy. That way, they can experience our choices firsthand. But Jennifer e-mails me later that the mayor has another engagement. On St. Patrick’s Day, the mayor is in my place, and I push him really hard to come. But I understand how busy his schedule is.

So I invite Jim Thacker, the mayor’s campaign manager, and Elizabeth. They are bringing a couple of bottles of Stag’s Leap cabernét. I invite Karen Elyea. I invite Jim and Gayle Hughes. The possibility of a world-class culinary school in the downtown looms. Troy is showing up on his day off to whip up something special. I am going to do a couple of dishes, and he is in charge of the rest. I’ll let you know how everything comes out. We are going to work very hard to please our very special guests.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the March 22-28, 2006, issue

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