If I told you I knew a chef who has created the most decadent and exquisite porridge from locally sourced ingredients, full of sublime flavors and textures, would you think that this chef:
A) Trained for years at Le Cordon Bleu in France, is probably named 'Jean-Michel' and might be a little snooty OR
B) Trained at a flapjack house in Ada, Oklahoma, dropped acid "a lot," was stabbed at a Van Halen concert, likes to "blow fire just for kicks," owns a herd of buffalo, and has a tattoo that was hand-drawn by Hunter S. Thompson's illustrator.
If you answered 'B,' then you must know Mitch Omer, co-owner and executive chef at Hell's Kitchen, who has been following his mischievous (and sometimes destructive) muse for thirty-five years. We sat down to chat in a booth toward the back of his restaurant, and when our server came by, I couldn't help but thinking, "That's gotta suck to have your boss seated in your section.
A few things on the menu jumped out at me, and most of those involved bison. There's bison sausage...there's even a bison 'Sausage Bread,' which I guess is for people who just don't have the time to eat their sausage and bread separately. Anyway, I ordered the Bison Benedict and a Bloody Mary. And I hate to say this, Wheaties people, but that's your 'breakfast of champions'.
Yep, there's nothing like biting into a hunk of majestic buffalo to give you that 'top-of -the-food-chain' feeling. Meat is a big part of the menu here, and a fairly generic question about fois gras (which he keeps at home but doesn't serve in the restaurant) led to this --
"I’m sorry—I don’t give a fuck—its great! They been doin this for what –centuries? Look…if we can get free range, great, but—they're bred to be killed…" (My vegan readers will probably be quite upset by all of this, but thankfully, due to their meat-free diet, they won't have the strength to write me an angry letter.)
The first thing you notice when you enter the basement restuarant / bar / music venue known as Hell's Kitchen is the decor. Thankfully, unlike a lot of basement restaurant / bar / music venues, the decor isn't just a tease--the food is as good (and as interesting) as the art.
Specifically, the art of Ralph Steadman, who has drawn iconic caricatures since the days when Rolling Stone was actually counter-culture, and is best known for illustrating the drug and booze-fueled narratives of 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.' The walls at Hell's are covered in Steadman's dark, bold lines, including an original called 'Big Head #5.'
And Mitch Omer has two Steadmans inked on his right arm, one of them autographed. Now, I don't think I was ever such a big fan of someone that I would have had their work burned into my flesh. Probably just as well, because my tastes in music weren't very adventurous when I was younger, and I wouldn't want to have to explain a tattoo of Barry Manilow.
Talking about Steadman naturally led us to Hunter S. Thompson ("his stuff was a Bible for me in the seventies"), so I asked Mitch to improvise a sandwich in Hunter's name that would be suitably 'gonzo' --
"You gotta start with a decent bread, you gotta look at a foccaccia, or something like that…and then I suppose I’d just put some mayonaise and vicodin in there and wash it down with some scotch—make it like a french dip—and...you dip the fucker in scotch. So there you go, you got the Thompson Dip."
Mitch spent some time working concert security (hence the aforementioned stabbing), but instead of making him jaded, he seems wistfully nostalgic about his ass-kicking past. That same past, and a concerned roommate, led him, oddly enough, to try LSD --
"I was working as a bouncer during this time, and I started working third shift as a baker. I'd kick the shit out of bikers through the night, and roll in dough until the morning. I was fighting every night, and absolutely loving it. My roommate told me one night that he was afraid I was going to kill one of these bastards, and well, 'this might mellow you out a little bit.'
"I was still tripping on acid one day before work. It was wild; the dough was convulsing, the colors on the walls were running, and I had to take very slow, deep breaths to keep it under control. It was cool, but I would never let that happen again. I wasn’t giving my employer my best work, and I’m all about quality. I’ll just stick to pot." (Of course, as any aspiring pastry chef knows, you have to knead the dough until it completely stops 'convulsing.')
Since I knew that Mitch wasn't exactly a fan of celebrity-chef culture, and since he brought up fighting, I asked who would win if he fought celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who has fashioned something of a bad-ass image for himself (of course, how much of a bad-ass can you be when you're featured on the Travel Channel?) --
"That's actually a good question. I've met Bourdain -- he's 6'5", and I'm 6'4" , and he's younger than me by a ways, so he's got that going for him -- what I've got going for me is a history of fighting..."
In addition to fighting random goons at rock shows, Mitch Omer has had to battle himself. He talks (almost proudly) about 'finally' being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and seems at peace with who he is now. And if obsessive-compulsive disorder ever had a telethon, Mitch could be its spokesman.
He actually sent his book, "Damn Good Food--157 Recipes From Hell's Kitchen back to the publisher because on first printing, it had 156 recipes, and he doesn't like even numbers (readers with OCD will appreciate this, once they're done counting the number of words in the preceding paragraph). He also acknowledged that his OCD can be an asset in the kitchen --
"Oh, God yes! When I'm cooking, I'm dialed in. And if I go into the walk-in cooler, and that shit isn't the way I want it, with the handles turned that way, or if anything's not facing forward, with labels and dated...I've actually had the health department take photographs, for their training..."
I decided it was time for the lightning round. A bunch of odd questions I like to ask every chef, looking for 'off-the-top-of-your-head' answers...
Meatloaf Muffins: What was the first meal you cooked for someone important to you?
Mitch Omer: A chateaubriand I made for my mom and dad.
MM: What music do you listen to when you're cooking?
MO: It's gotta be movin'...Led Zeppelin, or Allman Brothers off the first two albums, because you lose Berry Oakley and Duane Allman it's not the Allman Brothers...or blues -- electric slide blues, someone like Sonny Boy Williamson...
MM: What's your favorite utensil?
MO: Fuckin' knives! I've got a couple of gems in my office, and I've got some surgical tools (which included a bizarre finger-amputation doohickey that looked like a cross between a cigar-clipper and a gun...it was comforting to remind myself that he doesn't drop acid anymore).
MM: If you had a time machine, where and when would you like to have cooked?
MO: Fifteenth century Italy…When Catherine De' Medici left Italy to go to France, she took her whole retinue with her, including her retinue of cooks. They felt the French were coarse, backward people, and she was NOT gonna eat that food. So the Italians came with all their talents, and they trained the French chefs --
Now France is known as this gastronomic capital…they owe every fuckin' bit of that to Catherine De' Medici…She invented high heels—Jesus Christ, she did everything! She was a great chick—she took a bunch of knuckle-dragging neanderthals and taught 'em how to cook. (Author's note: She was also a tyrant who was responsible for the massacre of thousands of Hugueots. I'm just sayin'...).
MM: Would you put a gourmet spin on the classic Minnesota 'hotdish?'
MO: Fuck that! These guys do that, take classic food and 'deconstruct' it -- "Oh, we're doing it with some different cheese or we're doing it with homemade this and this or whatever, and I’m like, that isnt it! Wanna talk comfort food? Go down to Winona and talk to the women there that do the funerals. Everytime somebody dies, they get the call….they bring hot dish—that’s what they do! And they're not using venison,or, my God, heirloom tomatoes. Fuck that.
I mentioned the porridge, and I'm not alone--Senator Al Franken's a fan, and Nora Ephron. It's a concoction of maple syrup, blueberries, craisins, hazelnuts, heavy cream and Native American hand-parched wild rice, and it's also a great lesson in committment.
When Hell's Kitchen opened almost a decade ago (that's three hundred years in restaurant time), people weren't buying the porridge. They also weren't buying his shrimp and grits ("NOBODY fuckin' bought it--I mean NOBODY!"), which might have been because, as Mitch puts it, "It's the Midwest -- nobody knows what a grit is."He eventually gave up on the grits, but he believed in the porridge--and at one point he started giving it away to get people to try it. Now, thanks to the same business model my pot dealer uses, the porridge "has taken on a life of its own."
I learned a lot in the hour I spent with Mitch. For instance, if you want pecans in your cinnamon rolls, you should sautee them in a pan with salt and butter and add them to the dough after it rises, or your nuts will be mealy (and how many meals have we all had that were ruined by mealy nuts). Oh, and I learned that bear meat is "stupid lean" and "sweeter than venison."
I also learned about a chef's creative process. I mentioned to him that it seems every time I 'create' something, I discover that a hundred thousand amateur chef's with internet connections came up with the same idea, he told me
"Look, it's like our lemon ricotta pancakes--I don't remember ever hearing about lemon ricotta pancakes, I just remember thinking 'I want to put some lemon and ricotta in a goddam pancake!' Bottom line is we did create these things, and if a million other people created the same thing, big deal!"
I also told him about my accidental turkey burgers with maple syrup in the middle of the patty, at which point he made my week by saying "I would have never thought of doing that."
That led to his homemade maple-bison sausage, and the smells that come off the grill from the sugars breaking down, and suddenly-- for just a moment -- I was no longer an unpublished writer interviewing a big-time chef. We were just a couple of cooks, swappin' stories and talkin' about caramelization.