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Jerry Davich: Order up — a peek behind a chef’s kitchen curtain

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Updated: March 3, 2014 3:03PM



Nicole Bissonnette dished out pointed but polite directions to her kitchen staff while floating around her oldest offspring, Bistro 157 in downtown Valparaiso.

“Make sure you wipe off the edges of that plate,” she told server David Hugg before he left with a dinner entrée, duck confit with spiced currant and demi glaze.

On this winter night, her upscale eatery hosted a four-course “Mahoney Wine Dinner” for guests, many of them frequent fliers in the serene dining area. It’s been a familiar scene for thousands of Northwest Indiana diners since Bissonnette opened the bistro 12 years ago.

But her kitchen? Not such a familiar sight for diners — or anyone else, for that matter. Like most every head chef, this is where Bissonnette’s culinary magic happens on a nightly basis. So I asked if I could shadow her during a dinner rush. She kindly agreed.

“It’s a small kitchen, don’t judge,” quipped Bissonnette, who studied in France and whose husband, Gary Sanders, runs Bartlett’s Gourmet Grill in Beverly Shores.

I took a peek behind her wizard’s curtain, watching a handful of kitchen staff performing a well-rehearsed dance to prepare an array of creative cuisine. (Watch a video of them in action at http://posttrib.suntimes.com/news/davich/index.html.)

“Table 22 is ready,” said line cook Jennifer Austin to server Andrew Bray while sliding two prepared entrees onto a metal counter. Bray, a jazz pianist who’s been here almost since day one, balanced them on his arm and breezed into the dining area.

Austin looked like a whirling dervish in the eye of this swirling hurricane. She yanked orders from a small feeding machine and jumped into action again and again. Open flames. Squirts of cooking oil into pans. A garnish here, a taste-test there.

One second, she’s literally running toward a refrigerator. The next, she’s hovering over a meal to make sure it looks … just … perfect. A hand towel is perched on her shoulder to clean up any spills or to handle a hot pan. I couldn’t help but notice all the burns and cuts on both arms, familiar battle wounds for line cooks.

“It’s all part of the job I love,” she explained between orders.

The kitchen staff blended seamlessly together, like a proven recipe with just the right ingredients, including servers, busboy and dishwasher.

Bissonnette’s sous-chef, or second in command, is Jason Glisan, who sports a backward St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap and a talent for tossing a massive amount of sautéed vegetables into the air and back into a pan.

Together, they prepared the night’s four-course meal, including lobster bisque Veloute, scallops, and arugula salad with watermelon, ticotta salata and candied pork belly. It’s a mouthful to say but more enjoyable to smell, let alone sample.

Bissonnette and Glisan turned a dozen or so empty plates into culinary canvases of edible artwork.

“Are they ready for the next course?” she asked the server.

“Almost,” he replied in passing.

I asked for Bissonnette’s opinion on young children in her bistro, a hot issue in the industry these days. Earlier this month, a Chicago eatery, Alinea, was grilled when its chef posted on Twitter: “Tbl brings 8mo.Old. It cries. Diners mad. Tell ppl no kids? Subject diners 2 crying? Hate saying no, but …”

I wrote about this issue on social media and it immediately polarized readers. Keep babies and young kids away from such expensive restaurants, most people agreed. Bissonnette disagrees. The mother of two, ages 2 and 7, says she is happy to serve “young gourmets.”

“Chuck Harris’ kids practically grew up here,” she said, referring to the Porter County coroner’s two daughters.

Across the country, younger diners are frequenting more upscale restaurants these days, though by younger, I mean 25 to 35 years old.

“We are definitely seeing the younger set,” Bissonnette said. “I think they are more educated about food and more adventurous due to the Food Network. Yet they also lead busier lives than ever and do not have time to cook.”

At Pikk’s Tavern in Valparaiso, owner Paul LoDuca aims for the 25-to-45 demographic.

“We feel that by 25 the customer is ready for a nice dining experience,” he said. “They are done with the bar-food places. Plus, we feel we offer a nice alternative with a good selection of craft beers and creative food choices.”

Another related issue in the news is the startling number of calories in many chain restaurants versus upscale chef-proprietor ones. A report published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior studied more than 2,600 menu items at 21 restaurant chains.

The average adult meal, including drink, appetizer, entrée and dessert, contains more than 2,000 calories, 30 grams of saturated fat and 3,512 milligrams of sodium. Let’s face it, most dishes at those places are heaping to meet our quantity-over-quality mantra in America the Bloated.

However, the opposite is typically true at more expensive places, where entrees are strictly about quality and presentation — quantity be damned. I seem to be always wanting more at those eateries, which is exactly what chefs want, so you return again and again.

“You can’t rest on your laurels,” Bissonnette said before scrutinizing another plate heading out of the kitchen. “Or your last entree.”

Super Bowl preview

Local Broncos and Seahawks fans. Fun facts, football trivia and a sports-bookie odds-maker. Plus, expert analysis on those new multimillion-dollar TV commercials from Lakeshore Public Media’s “The Ad Men.”

We’ll tackle all this and more on today’s Casual Fridays radio show while previewing the Super Bowl this Sunday, the 60 minutes of actual football, and the event’s pop culture significance.

Tune in at noon at 89.1-FM, streaming at lakeshorepublicmedia.org/local-programs/casual-fridays/.



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