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Chez chef

Their days are full of chopping, stirring, seasoning, saucing, but do professional cooks take their culinary standards home?
Saturday, April 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:29 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
In his home kitchen, Sycamore’s chef Mike Odette prefers to make simple foods like potato gnocchi. His daughter, Elizabeth, supervises when allowed to do so.

As a chef and co-owner of Sycamore in Columbia’s District, Mike Odette spends a large portion of his day preparing meals for customers, making sure everyone leaves the restaurant happy and well-fed. Naturally, when he gets home, he opts for a change of pace: He cooks dinner.

Cooking is something he loves to do, whatever the context. And cooking at home offers a different environment. “It’s not something production-oriented,” he says. “It’s actually kind of a treat.”

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The dishes he prepares for his wife and business partner, Amy Barrett, and their 7-month-old daughter Elizabeth are certainly a change from his usual restaurant fare. At Sycamore, the menu is much more complex, but for his family, Mike prepares simple foods like potato gnocchi, a typical entrée at the Odette house. Fresh pasta may not sound easy, but the limited number of ingredients — potatoes, flour, egg yolks and salt ­— make it appealing.

“It’s cheap, healthy and easy to make,” Mike says. “We have it at home a lot.”

Healthy and easy are the main requirements for Mike’s home cooking. At Amy’s insistence, there is always a vegetable or salad with the meal. When the weather is nice, the couple likes to make use of their Big Green Egg grill. On days that Amy, a firefighter who works 24-hour shifts, is at the station, Mike makes himself a steak, grilled rare over high heat.

“I’ll cook for myself as often as three or four times a week,” he says.

The amount of cooking Mike does at home is even more impressive given that there isn’t much to work with in his fridge. Other than basics such as tortillas, beans and cheese, most of the food is purchased each morning during Mike’s daily trip to Schnucks.

“Our fridge is mostly all condiments,” Mike says. “In a sense, it’s the worst way to shop, but the food’s always fresh.”

Though he shops with an idea in mind, inspiration strikes at random, whether in the form of an unusual ingredient on hand, like fava beans, or a sale on an old favorite. As summer approaches, for example, the asparagus selection improves and the price drops. For the restaurant, he buys many ingredients from local vendors. The scallops he enjoys so much come from Morey’s in St. Louis, along with most of the seafood served at Sycamore.

That sort of laid-back attitude is a good description of Mike’s approach to home cooking. On sunny days, he goes for a bike ride before dinner. He’s still in a T-shirt and khaki shorts when he later hits his kitchen, but even without the white chef’s jacket, he grates, sautés and seasons like a true professional. He pushes a big potato against the grater so efficiently that it disappears almost instantly and emerges in tiny pieces ready for the gnocchi.

When Sycamore opened a year and a half ago, Mike rarely had the time to cook at home, and that was just fine; most of his kitchen gear went to the restaurant, even the food processor and his mixer. Now that the couple can take days off, they’ve started cooking for themselves again — and the home kitchen is getting attention.

“I’m starting to replace tools for the restaurant, so I can bring them home,” Mike says.

The rack of copper pots hanging over the stove are shiny but clearly well-used. Cabinet windows reveal neat piles of white dishes. Brown concrete countertops reflect the calm, understated color scheme.

Among the myriad gadgets and utensils are a few sentimental favorites. A wooden spoon Mike carved himself looks pretty much like any store-bought one, but the homemade spoon gets used much more frequently. A beat-up 8-by-10 baking pan has earned the same preferential treatment.

“I’ll always have this pan, for some reason,” Mike says. “It’s just the perfect size. It goes in the oven, or it goes in the grill.”

Good chefs, of course, do tend to merge their own originality, the best new ideas and traditions like those not-quite-perfect wooden spoons and pans.

Sycamore, at 800 East Broadway, offers seasonal local tastes on its menu. Chef Mike Odette draws inspiration from all styles, a range some have described as Asian to Italian, he says. His recommendation if you visit? Jumbo natural scallops skillet-seared and served alongside steamed broccoli and lo mein noodles with shiitake mushrooms and Chinese black beans.

Paul Blackwell is a popular Columbia chef, but you wouldn’t know it from the food that comes out of his home kitchen.

“The only thing I cook at home is coffee,” he says. “There’s a kitchen at home, but it hasn’t been used hardly ever. I can count on one hand the number of times it’s been used in the three and a half years that we’ve had the restaurant.”

The coffee is top-notch, the same custom roast he serves to his customers. The brew comes from Z-Best Coffee Company in Boone County.

His kitchen is pretty standard, with a dishwasher, an electric stove, even pots and pans. All that’s missing is a microwave and someone to use it.

One of two owners at Classy’s Restaurant, Paul puts in more than 100 hours a week. With his partner and girlfriend Leta Harvey, he handles everything at the restaurant. When he finally gets home around midnight, he lacks the time and energy to turn on the stove.

He usually feeds himself by throwing something together in the restaurant kitchen. Multiple food allergies prevent him from eating shellfish or anything containing gluten, meaning he can’t have pasta or beer. Because of his allergies, he can’t eat many of the foods he serves.

Classy’s menu includes shrimp, mussels, scallops and crab cakes, all potentially life-threatening to Paul.

“I have to make sure to wash my hands or wear gloves” when handling those ingredients, he says.

Although he can’t taste-test the shellfish or gluten-based dishes as he prepares them, his memory guides him. And Leta is there to sample the sauces and determine if anything needs work.

Paul keeps foods he can eat on hand. Corn chips and salsa make a quick snack. If he has a few minutes, he might make himself a salad, or fish tacos made with corn tortillas.

If there’s no time to make something, the pair gets someone else to make it for them. “If it’s been a particularly rough day, we’ll run across the street to El Rancho and grab some tacos,” Paul says.

Even on Sundays, when the restaurant is closed, Paul still puts in eight or nine hours. He takes advantage of the shortened day to enjoy one of Columbia’s other restaurants.

“I usually go to Osaka; that’s my preferred place,” he says. “On Sunday mornings, we go to Café Berlin for breakfast.”

Café Berlin recently opened on Providence and serves classic or international breakfast and lunch foods. Osaka, a Japanese restaurant off Nifong, offers sushi and hibachi-style meats and vegetables. In the past, Paul had sampled just about every item on its menu. Now, his allergy limits him to a few varieties of sushi.

His current favorite, he says, essentially amounts to a bowl of rice topped with sliced raw tuna.

When Paul does cook at home, he likes good cuts of meat — a juicy steak or a rack of lamb, for example. Vegetables are equally likely to appear on his plate.

“Without vegetables, a meal isn’t a meal,” he says. “The difference between types of fish is maybe a textural difference or a slight taste variation, but vegetables are a whole rainbow of colors and flavors. They’re much more versatile.”

He often blanches them in boiling water. After he takes them out, they’re tossed with butter and salt and are ready to eat.

Which vegetable he’s cooking doesn’t make a difference. He likes them all. In fact, he likes almost every food he’s tried. But when he has a choice, there’s no question in his mind.

“My favorite flavor in the world is black truffles,” he says, referring to the rare underground mushroom.

So far, his allergies haven’t objected.

The menu at Classy’s Restaurant, 1013 E. Broadway, features classic foods and flavors, such as the coconut-curry cod that’s a signature dish and the best-selling entrée. Chef Paul Blackwell tries to use techniques that “represent the historical nature of food.” Classy’s also hosts special dinners like a seven-course meal incorporating dishes from a favorite French chef.

Tim Payne and his fiancée are a restaurant couple. He’s the head chef at Sophia’s. She’s a waitress at Sycamore. On their nights off, they cook together.

On weeknights, Tim does most of the cooking. His fiancée, Melissa Newell, is a nutrition and dietetic senior at MU, so she does homework before dinner. She cleans up afterward. A vegetarian, she’s teaching Tim to be more health conscious.

“I’m an 80-percent vegetarian,” Tim says. “If it’s just me, and I’m cooking, I might grill some meat, but she’s clued me in to portion control, so I’ve stopped eating big chunks of beef.”

Their jobs demand they both work weekends, but when the Columbia Farmers’ Market is open, they shop there every Saturday. Many of the fresh ingredients they buy are then turned into a delicious meal when the two are off on Sundays.

Some items, like baby potatoes, are regular purchases, week after week. Others depend on the time of year.

“We try to eat with the seasons,” Tim says. “In the winter, we’ll have butternut squash; in the summer, it’s tomatoes, corn, fresh herbs. Basil and cilantro just reek of summer.”

So how does a chef cook his vegetables? Grilled, steamed, sautéed or sometimes roasted. The best way to cook them, he says, is to make sure they aren’t overcooked.

Many of their dishes have a Latin flair. Tostadas, tacos and enchiladas are popular entrees for the couple. Though neither Sophia’s nor Sycamore serves Latin food, Tim draws on his restaurant’s style for preparation.

“I hardly ever use butter or cream at home, which is very indicative of a Mediterranean approach,” Tim says.

Sycamore’s style also comes home with the couple. Gnocchi, which they make often, happens to be Melissa’s favorite dish at her restaurant. Other common home items include big salads and “lots of pasta,” Tim says. “I like to make homemade pasta.”

In fact, the pasta maker is Tim’s favorite appliance. And because the two watch what they eat, their fettuccine is always the whole-wheat variety.

Even with all the fresh ingredients they enjoy, their pantry still holds a selection of must-have staples.

“We have a particular type of fire-roasted diced tomatoes that we always keep on hand for marinara and pasta sauces,” Tim says. “We always keep a lot of beans around for protein.”

Though both Tim and Melissa like almost everything, there are a few foods they skip. Broccoli, despite all its glorious health benefits, is one green veggie Tom assiduously avoids.

Sophia’s menu has a decidedly Mediterranean flair, which means olive oil and garlic, rather than butter and cream. At the same time, chef Tim Payne says, American ingredients like sea bass and chicken are incorporated to make the food “comfortable for the people of mid-Missouri.”


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