Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Summer II 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
NAME: Eric Nittolo
Job: Executive chef, food and beverage director at The Restaurant at LochenHeath. The Williamsburg restaurant at LochenHeath Golf Club is open to the public and focuses on locally sourced farm-to-table ingredients. It’s especially popular for its Sunday Brunch.
BORN IN: Queens, New York; moved to Michigan at age 17
LIVES IN: Traverse City
TRAINING: Studied analytical chemistry at Ferris State University and worked as a research and development technician with Graceland Fruit, Inc. and Kroger after graduation in 1995. Began studies in culinary arts at the Great Lakes Culinary Institute in 2005.
WHY I BECAME A CHEF: I was turned down for a job interview for a research position with food manufacturer ConAgra. My disappointment was short-lived, however, when my interviewer advised me that I had an incredible gift for “flavor profiling.” He asked if there was a culinary school near my hometown and sent me on my way, saying, “You’ll figure it out.” Inspired, I set off in a new direction.
With seven children at home, I embarked on new career and went back to culinary school. During this time, I held down a job as full executive chef at the Boathouse Restaurant on Old Mission Peninsula where I worked from 2006-13.
EXPERIENCE: On the chef side I worked for 14 years. My experience included running restaurants in Richmond and Charlottesville, Virginia before moving back to Traverse City. I then worked for the Cambria Suites Hotel where I was the food and beverage director from 2016-17. I also write wines lists and menus and am currently working on getting my Sommelier certification. This will put me in a position to apply for a Wine Spectator Award for Lochenheath Restaurant.
FAVORITE THINGS TO MAKE: Seafood Chef and Japanese Beef. I’ve worked in high-end cuisine or fine dining for my entire career.
BIGGEST INFLUENCE: Two guys: Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of La Bernadin, an elite French restaurant in New York City, and Rick Tramonto, a Tao chef at TRU in Chicago. That’s where I really learned my adaptation of his plating style.
BEST PROFESSIONAL MEMORY: Last year — I ended up cooking for a lady with stage 4 cancer. I was told her No. 1 bucket-list wish was to have her best meal with me. We drank wine and I brought her dish after dish of her favorite food. I cried halfway through it. We are very passionate people here. We put a lot of pride and hard work into what we do.
WORST PROFESSIONAL MEMORY: I had somebody verbally assault and curse me because he was handed the wrong steak. It was supposed to be medium and was cooked medium-well. This was at a restaurant in Michigan. I told him I’d take money out of pocket to pay myself if he would just leave. It was his disrespect. I don’t play those games.
MOST IMPORTANT THINGS I’VE LEARNED: Humility. This industry can be high stress if you are not organized. Age and experience have helped me. I started when I was 32 years old. Now I am 45 and I love what I do. We are passionate people and will continue to serve “above self.”
MOREL CHANTERELLE BISQUE
This recipe is in portion sizes for entertaining. Smaller portion sizes are in brackets.
1 lb. dry or refreshed morel mushrooms, not pieces (.5 lb.)
4 lb. fresh chanterelle mushrooms (1.5 lb.)
1 c. chopped garlic (1/2 c.)
1 c. chopped shallots (1/2 c.)
3 leeks, washed, quartered and chopped (1.5 leeks)
3 lb. unsalted butter (1.5 lb.)
1 bottle Chateau d’Origniac (1/2 bottle)
1 gal. whole mile (1/2 gal.)
3 gal. heavy cream (1.5 gal.)
Butcher grind black pepper
1/2 lb. unsalted butter, cubed (1/4 lb.)
1 c. all-purpose flour (1/2 c.)
A lot of patience and love
In a large heavy bottom pot, slowly melt the butter. Do not burn or brown as it will change the flavor. Once melted, add the garlic, shallots and leeks and allow to become slightly translucent. Add the mushrooms and simmer for 30 minutes to extract the mushroom flavor. Next, add the Origniac and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. You will need to stir very often so they do not burn. Next, add milk and cream and allow to simmer for 30 minutes. After the flavors have melded, season with pepper first and create a subtle peppery bite. With the sal, be very generous; mix using a wire whisk so that the salt is dissolving. I will wake quite a bit so push your salt limits — but not too much. It is the make or break of this soup.
To finish, in a small saucepot bring the 1/2 pound of butter to a rolling boil and remove from heat. Add the flour slowly to dissolve and with a wire whip mix until it forms a paste. It should clump slightly in the whisk; if it all sticks in the whisk, add more melted butter and it will be perfect. This is called a blonde roux. Return to the heat on high for about a minute; more time to make sure that the roux is incorporated. Add the roux to the soup and simmer soup for 15 minutes once the roux is added. This is your thickener.
Note: To refresh dry morels, in pot add cold water and mushrooms and heat slowly to not damage the morels. Bring the water to a warm state, not boiling. You want the flavor in the mushrooms and not just the water, but save the water for other uses. In my opinion, dry morels are stronger and have a more conentrated flavor.