The Joy of Michael’s Cooking

(This article, which first appeared in North Shore Magazine, won 2nd place in the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association Awards competition. Since this article came out, Chef Pierre Pollin retired from restaurant work and now teaches in the Culinary Arts program at Kendall College. Chef Michael Maddox and his wife, Susan, bought Pollin’s share in the restaurant, and Le Titi is still a thriving operation, with wonderfully expanded offerings that now include a wide range of classes, including summer cooking camps for kids. For those who are interested, by the way, Le Titi is French for scamp or rascal.)

Luxuriant plants dance in the stream coming from the hose trained on them. The tall, sandy-haired farmer’s son who is doing the watering strides gently but confidently among the tidy rows of healthy herbs, vegetables, fruits, and flowers. However, this farmer’s son is not attired in overalls. Instead, he sports a spotless, white jacket with a line of embroidery that identifies him as Michael Maddox, chef/partner of Le Titi de Paris, the celebrated French restaurant in Arlington Heights.

“I think people have more respect for the ingredients if they know where they came from,” Maddox explains. Directing water to the sorrel, he notes that it is at its peak. For the sautéed Rhode Island skate wing with sorrel and sun dried tomato infusion currently on the menu, the fish cook must cut the herb daily. “All the cooks are involved in the garden at some level,” Maddox explains. He thinks they should know how to raise what they use and sees education as an important part of what he does.

Growing up on a farm in central Illinois gave Maddox both a respect for good ingredients and a first-hand knowledge of their origins. He has milked cows, churned butter, gathered eggs, and enjoyed the produce of his family’s vast garden. That heritage is still clearly part of him, even now, after the schooling, the travel, the training in France, the acclaim. Maddox proudly, almost affectionately, points out the grapes (perhaps for a venison sauce this autumn), the rhubarb (some appears now with seared Canadian foie gras), the apple trees, tarragon, lemon balm, lavender, pumpkin, Egyptian onions, and more. “We gear the menu to what is seasonal, what is at its peak,” Maddox notes. “That’s how you get the best taste.”

Maddox coils the hose, then walks briskly across the parking lot that separates the garden from the restaurant’s back door. At 9 a.m., the kitchen is silent. “I like to be the first one here,” he explains. Having an hour before the rest of the staff arrives gives Maddox the opportunity to think ahead, check supplies, review the day’s reservations (how many are coming, is there a birthday, has someone noted dietary restrictions), write up lists for his cooks, make sure everything is working, and start the ovens. “I like to be alone for a while, to plan and get everything started.”

During this time, the 31-year-old chef also talks to purveyors. In addition to what he can raise, Maddox relies on a wide range of small purveyors to provide the high quality ingredients the restaurant needs. “We have suppliers for specialty items,” Maddox notes, “and I have someone go to the farmer’s market every day.” The suppliers call with recommendations, information, and updates; apricots and French morels are particularly good at the moment. Though there is a new menu every month, following seasonal changes, these updates help Maddox fine-tune the evening’s offerings.

Before long, Pierre Pollin, chef/proprietor of Le Titi, arrives, motorcycle helmet under his arm, and heads for the office. He and Maddox discuss new dishes and an upcoming regional wine dinner, but Pollin now primarily handles the business side of the restaurant. His respect for Maddox is great. “I’ve worked with a lot of people in the kitchen,” Pollin says, “and Michael is one of the rare people who cares as much about the details as I do.”

By ten, the rest of the staff is filtering in, and Maddox warmly greets each person. He has already posted lists at every work station of what needs to happen during the day and now takes a few minutes to explain the day’s plans, including parties and specials. Then suddenly, the quiet calm of the kitchen disappears, and everything is in motion.

As the wait staff arrives, they, too, are greeted. Before they head into the restaurant to arrange the silver, crystal, and flowers that will adorn each table, Maddox takes a few minutes to explain anything a waiter might need to know to enhance a diner’s experience, from what a dish contains to how a salad should be garnished. And then he is moving again.

The next few hours are a brilliantly orchestrated ballet at controlled high speed. Everyone has a place, but Maddox’s place is everywhere. He removes salt-crusted salmon from the room-sized cooler, rinses it, then turns it over to his fish cook for the next steps on its way to the smoker. Another cook needs help with a large pot, and Maddox is there. He takes over a workstation, turning out a decadently rich Black Forest mousse cake. He instructs an intern, tastes the velouté of asparagus and watercress, strides swiftly into the “alley,” where plates are prepared for serving, and adds a nasturtium blossom to a waiting tian of Maine lobster.

Maddox is clearly the boss in the kitchen, but is also the primary facilitator and main “energy source.” His positive attitude flows through the room. He weaves through the bustling kitchen, assisting here, instructing there, then returns to his own workstation. Because he loves to have a clean kitchen, he washes down the work area before starting the next dish. He requires that all his cooks do this, but believes in leading by example.

After the lunch rush, there is a “family meal.” There is very little turn-over here; most of the staff has been at this family-owned restaurant long term, so, Maddox explains, it doesn’t seem right to call it a staff lunch. He then encourages everyone to get out of the kitchen, go for a walk, do something to refresh, so they will be ready for the evening meal.

His other passion is his family, and Maddox talks happily about his wife, also a chef, and two children (a girl, 5, and boy, 3). He says that he used to be the last one at the restaurant every night, but that Chef Pollin sets a good example and encourages him to make family a priority. So now, Maddox feels that he can leave by eight on a slow night, and get home in time to tuck in the children. However, this will not be an early night.

After the break, the kitchen is completely cleaned. Then the ballet begins again. Two knocks on the cooler door alert those nearby that it is about to swing open. A cry of “pot coming through” clears a path. And in the midst of it, Maddox is still both conductor and first violin. His work area is dedicated to desserts at the moment. It might as easily be filled with terrines and patés, which he particularly enjoys preparing, or confections (“I make my own chocolates, and can turn out 2-3,000 in a couple of days”).

Because there are more guests, more courses, more choices at dinner, there is more action in the kitchen. Maddox communicates special requests from waiters to the cooks, checks the lobster consommé, oversees the preparation of Asian-scented Muscovy duck, discusses a simmering raspberry sauce with an intern. Chef Pollin and Marcel Flori, maitre d’ and sommelier, are recurring themes in this concert, mingling, contributing, and departing from the now-crowded kitchen. Maddox disappears occasionally, going to the front of the restaurant to meet customers, answer questions.

Every station is humming. Because as much as possible is left to the last minute, to ensure freshness, crispness, perfection, the pace does not let up until well after the last guest has ordered. At 8 p.m., there are four tables still to order, and two still to arrive.

Even after the last order is placed, Maddox is not through. A special request has been made that needs his attention. He checks pending orders to see what is still needed. A purveyor in Texas calls with an update about some particularly nice saddles of antelope that are available. A cook brings over a list of supplies that are running low. Maddox checks the cooler. He then begins making phone calls. “I call 6 or 7 vendors every night to order what we’ll need for the next day.” He explains that this is one reason he prefers working with smaller vendors. Bigger vendors don’t want your order at 8:30 at night.

At last, cleaning up can begin. Maddox’s policy of washing through the day simplifies this, but there is still much to put away, from utensils to pots of soup that have simmered through the night and are ready for tomorrow. He visits the front of the restaurant again, to see if people are lingering over their food. He considers that a good sign. “I love to see people stay and talk. It means they’re having a good time. I love cooking, and seeing people enjoying themselves is my reward.”

By 9:30, there are no longer any details that need the attention of a great chef. The tasks that remain can be handled by those who do not arrive as early as he does. Michael Maddox can go home.

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One response to “The Joy of Michael’s Cooking

  1. Pingback: Farewell to an Old Friend | The World's Fare

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