Hanging Out in Rockford: Keeping it simple

By Mike Leifheit

The time has come for the mayor’s annual “Round the World” fund-raiser. This year, I decide to return to preparing scallops for the event. I want to show something from our regular menu since people will then be able to come to the restaurant and order what we serve at the function. This year, I decide to use the same size of scallop that we use at the restaurant rather than step down one size. I think the bigger scallops taste better. I write a memo to my people saying we need to keep it simple and that we are just going to do the scallops and not try to do any kind of accompaniments. I want to pick them up at Wabash Seafood in Chicago the morning of the event so they will be the freshest possible.

When I went to Ireland at the age of 11, I was impressed by the difference in the quality of the food there. I think it was the beginning of my awareness of food. The bread was wholesome, the cream tasted better, and the bacon was real. I started cooking at the age of 16 at the Gill’s Diner in North Park just up and across the street from the little house where my mom and I lived. Later in life, when I lived in California, I was highly influenced by the work of Alice Waters (who interestingly has the same name as my mom), the only woman to serve on the board of the French Culinary Institute.

I have now been in the restaurant business for myself for 28 years. Twenty-eight years of being downtown—it has been full of fits and starts. From the beginning, I emphasized natural food, favoring fresh ingredients over frozen. At the Old Rock River Café, we used to cook whole turkeys for our turkey sandwiches and then turn the carcasses into soup. Even in the very early days, we roasted our own beef for sandwiches and made all our own salad dressings.

When I moved to the present location 20 years ago, Philippe’s father-in-law, Jack Luchese, taught my mom how to make the bread that we make to this very day, although some would argue it tasted better when my mom made it. It tastes just like the bread from Nagel’s bakery just down the street from our family home in Kilrush, County Clare, Ireland. Through all that time, I stuck to the same ideal of taking the finest product and not doing too much to it.

Lately, I have been influenced by Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali. I only recently learned from an article in the Chicago Reader that they both trained under Marco Pierre White, an obsessive-compulsive nut who, in addition to being the youngest chef ever to win three Michelin stars, has had three extraordinarily beautiful wives. But the procedure is always the same: simple recipes using the finest ingredients. Let the food speak for itself.

It is in this spirit that José, Jonathon, Elise and I drive up to Cliffbreakers with our sauté pans and turkey fryers and the scallops I have brought from Chicago this morning. After finding our spot (in the farthest back corner of the banquet hall), we do a trial run. It’s always different when you set up on the road. This year, we are using a larger scallop and, therefore, the recipe needs to change a little. You would think that because we are using the same size scallop we use at the Irish Rose, it would be simple, but the turkey fryers are 150,000 BTU whereas the burners on the American range at the Rose are only about 18,000, so controlling the heat is a major consideration.

José starts the first pan with too much oil, and while the scallops look good, I don’t want spatter in the Cliffbreakers hall, so we cut back on the olive oil. Then, for a couple of pans, we have the heat too high, and we have to throw some scallops away (at $12 a pound). Then, I discover that instead of opening the valve to the propane tanks wide open and using the regulator to control the amount of gas, the guys are doing the reverse. Once this is corrected, the flame thing levels out, and we are able to reduce the heat in the pans to restaurant level, and we are on our way.

From that point on, pan after pan of beautiful scallops start arriving on the little serving plates accompanied by a tahini-based sauce that was the brainchild of my old cook, Troy. Suddenly, people are standing in line waiting for our scallops. They say the word is out, and I guess it is, for we go through two containers of the tasty buggers, even though we are in the back-back part of the hall. Later, Elise and I are chatting with Anthony, the owner of DiTullio’s. Elise is holding a drink almost as big as she is. She announces this is her favorite event every year, and I guess it is mine, too. I’m glad we kept it simple.

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 the Mar. 3-9, 2010 issue

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