5 Questions with Michigan Chef Of The Year Brian Henson
Brian Henson, Executive Chef of Big Rock Chop House in Birmingham, was recently named the winner the 2012 Chef of the Year award from the Michigan Chefs de Cuisine Association (an honor based on a cooking competition, which was a new method of judging for 2012). Henson went to Schoolcraft College 20 years ago when it was going through its major transition from extremely "old-school" teaching to hiring savvy master chefs and building a new facility.
Since then Henson's culinary career has been a colorful one. He worked under Brian Polcyn at Pike Street and Milos Cihelka at the Golden Mushroom, traveled with Wolfgang Puck as part of his national training team, spent time at the "White House of the West" (the Brown Palace Hotel) in Denver, then came back to Michigan where he spent a year at Steve & Rocky's followed by five years at MotorCity Casino, and landed at Big Rock, where he been for the last four or so years.
Big Rock is obviously a chophouse and does the bulk of their business in beef, but what sets them apart from the (many) other chophouses in Birmingham is that they are the only one that is independently owned.
"This is the only place where they spend money on a chef instead of on kitchen managers who do what the corporate chef tells them," Henson says.
He feels that Big Rock's strength is in the diversity of their offerings. "You can't go to any of these other places and get ostrich. I think the successful restaurants are the ones that can do a little bit of everything and not just pigeonhole themselves. We have 400 seats and there's no way in hell we'd be able to fill them serving only one style of food."
Metromode's Nicole Rupersburg asks Henson five key culinary questions.
What's the next big culinary trend to hit in Metro Detroit and what's on its way out?
I'm a bad person to ask that … I don't get into trends and fads. You have to know how to cook. You have to know how to serve good food. If you're always chasing what everyone else is doing and what's the next flavor … I can't stand the places that do that, and the food doesn't taste good. I don't like the chain restaurants because the chains aren't teaching people how to cook. You can't create trends if you don't know how to cook! All these guys in New York and Chicago who are creating what you'd call trends, those guys are actually good cooks!
In this area small little boutique bistros seem to be a trend … I really like the small, casual restaurants you can go in and get great food; they don't worry about white tablecloths or having the best china, they're just really great small boutique places.
Which Metro Detroit communities have the most daring eateries?
I've worked in a lot of different areas - Grosse Pointe, Detroit, Plymouth, Novi, Birmingham - and the places that I've seen that have allowed me to do what I do and not try and change what I do, places that strive to be a dining experience instead of a meal, are in the Novi-Northville-Plymouth area. They seem to be the people who are more into the adventure of the dining experience.
What are some of your favorite new or up-and-coming restaurants?
I like to try these small boutique bistro places. I don't know who the guys are, I just go out there and dine. I've had a great meal at Cork Wine Pub in Pleasant Ridge, at Vinsetta Garage in Berkley … I went to wine seminar at Tallulah in Birmingham and had a great meal there. I'm most anxious to check out Local Kitchen + Bar in Ferndale. I've always been a pretty big Rick Halberg fan; I loved Emily's in Northville [Halberg's previous restaurant].
What's your guilty pleasure food?
The Pad Thai at Siam Spicy … We had a Pad Thai when I worked for Wolfgang Puck and that's still the best I've ever had, but this comes close. In March I love Shamrock Shakes from McDonald's!
What are some of the highlights of Michigan's food scene?
The food that we grow around the state. Summer and fall I love to go to our orchards and take the kids raspberry, blueberry and apple picking. Also cherries and wine country up north [in the Traverse City area]. I think that what we have here, grow here and make here is really good. I think northern Michigan winemakers do what they do really well. They're still testing the soil up there to see what they can grow best, but the Greuner Veltliner from Chateau Grand Traverse is outstanding. It's the best white wine I've ever had. [Henson also named Trattoria Stella in Traverse City as one of his favorite restaurants in Michigan.]