Michael Gris thinks of himself as “a really lucky guy.” The part owner and executive chef of Romano’s Ristorante had almost followed another career path altogether. As a student at Carleton University, he had finished his degree in psychology and was planning to continue on to graduate school. And then, during a summer job at the Burlington Golf and Country Club, he met his future wife. As he tells it,
“She was working in the restaurant business and, when we began dating, I put my education on hold. I never went back to school and my whole career as a chef is thanks to her.”
Chef-dom (and love!) won out easily over academia and Gris changed course. He completed his chef’s training at Liaison College and, upon graduation, got a job at the Knollwood Golf Club in Ancaster where he spent seven years. His background is Italian and he is so familiar with that cuisine that you might say Italian cooking is in his genes. So when his partners found Romano’s for sale, he knew that the right plan was to go with it.
Gris’ culinary inclinations had started in his childhood. Early on he developed an obsession for watching the television series on PBS starring Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. He cites his mom — an excellent home cook — as his earliest mentor — but also, his friend Mike Maloney at the Burlington Golf and Country Club, as another great teacher.
He still loves cooking as a pastime, for friends and family, noting that it’s “a whole other ballgame” compared to doing it professionally. Being a professional chef is “a tough gig” and there is no element of recreation about it. You don’t have to take home cooking so seriously and it’s so much more personal, he says.
In fact, that’s one reason why he anticipates with pleasure his participation in our Go Cooking sessions. He knows that he’s working with people who are avid home cooks and he has the feeling that he’s really in his element. The worst mistake that home cooks can make, he believes, is to betray a lack of confidence. He finds that people often tell him, “I can’t make it look like that.” His advice is to be brave and stick with it, try and try again, and things will work out eventually.
As a versatile master in the kitchen, Gris claims to have no particular specialties, although he adheres to the mantra of fresh, local ingredients and seasonal menus Still, there are certain staples in his repertoire — rotisserie roasted chicken, simply prepared with lemon, garlic and herbs, for instance. He loves duck and is glad that it is now possible to buy just the breast meat off the bone so that the time consuming and labour intensive butchering of the bird is no longer necessary. To cook the duck breast easily, he suggests, just make sure it is 100 percent thawed, salt it, sear it quickly and roast it in a 365 degree oven (the interior temperature should be higher than 170 degrees). Then let it rest for 20 minutes before cutting into the succulent meat.
Creativity, passion and patience are the basic ingredients for success in the professional kitchen, according to Gris, but he also believes that it’s important to give back. Searching for a way to make a meaningful contribution, Gris found Hamilton’s Mark Preece House, a non-profit organization which provides accessible and affordable accommodation for families whose loved ones are critical care patients at Hamilton area hospitals. Now, every Tuesday night at 6 p.m., the entire Gris family prepares dinner at the institution. He approaches his volunteer work with a typical attention to detail:
“It’s not always Italian,” he says, “Sometimes people are staying there for quite a few weeks, so we try to change the menu up.”
We have no recipes yet from Michael, but here’s a recipe for an easy vinegar-based sauce with apples to use if you try the roasted duck breasts.
Apple and Honey Sauce for Duck Breasts
loosely adapted from “The Cuisine of Normandy” by Marie -Blanche de Broglie
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups duck stock or rich chicken stock
6 tablespoons butter
4 apples, peeled, cored and quartered
1 and 1/2 cups sugar
about 1/3 cup tap water
3/4 cup ice water
Deglaze the roasting pan with the vinegar. Add the honey and stock, stir and reduce the liquid to about 1 cup.
Whisk the butter into the sauce a tablespoon at a time.
Trim the apple quarters into ovals and rub with lemon juice.
In a saucepan, combine the sugar with enough tap water to moisten it. Cook over low heat until it reaches a deep golden colour. Quickly add the ice water (watch out, it will splatter.) Add the apples and cook until they are tender.
To serve, arrange the duck breasts on a heated serving platter, pour the sauce over them and surround them with the caramelized apples.
This is for six duck breasts. which should be a bit rare. I like to use Spys, or some firm, not too sweet, type of apple in the sauce. It is good to serve with wild rice that adds a sort of nutty flavour to the sweetness.