Satisfy the soul

At Shawn Loving's restaurant, Loving Spoonful, it is quiet in the afternoon. The day cooks are cleaning the kitchen; the evening shift begins to arrive. The cooks, in their white jackets, checked pants and baseball caps, tote cases of knives. ("The nicer the restaurant, the more they expect you to have your own knives," says one.) Chef Loving emerges from the kitchen. The cooks greet their boss: "Hi, Chef." There is reverence in the word "Chef."

Cooking for the evening meal has begun. Shrimp bisque simmers in a vat in one corner. Chef peers inside and gives it a stir. Racks of St. Louis baby back ribs are on the grill.

Chef goes downstairs to check the refrigerator. There are big plastic containers of soup stock — chicken, beef and veal. Chicken feet cause the stock to gel. "Makes the best stock," he says. Boxes of mixed greens. Bundles of fresh herbs. Boxes of meat and fish. It's important to rotate what's in the fridge. Containers are dated in black marker.

"FIFO," says Chef. "First in, first out."

Upstairs, the kitchen is getting crowded. Already you can feel the heat. Escoffier oversees the activity from a framed drawing over the doorway. Chef Loving, in an elegant white toque, puts in time on the line every night. His station is in front of a blue, yellow and black board that keeps track of the orders. Blue is entrées; yellow is appetizers and desserts. The computer printouts are transferred to the black square if the dish is on hold.

Chef is setting up a demonstration of chicken with brioche and pine nut crust. The young cooks are busy readying their stations, but they’re listening. If Chef needs something, it instantly appears.

He talks about the creative process, the way foods play on the palate — sweet, sour, savory, salty, peppery. He wants the dish to be simple and complex at the same time. He believes in comfort food, but with a twist.

"Begin with a staple protein," he says. "Chicken breast. Real simple."

Think about texture. Breading adds crispness. He makes crumbs made from brioche for its rich, buttery taste. More texture. Add pine nuts.

The chicken has been pounded to an even thickness. Otherwise it’ll be too dry on the thin side, too moist on the thick side.

He sets up three bowls: flour in one, eggs beaten with a bit of olive oil in the second, then the crumbs. "I don't like to press the crumbs," he notes. He has a feel for what works best.

As he cooks, Chef Loving relaxes. This is where he is comfortable. He talks about chefs he admires: "Wolfgang Puck." His voice is animated. "Puck believes in his heart, his cuisine and his motto — ‘Live, love, eat.’ And my motto is ‘Cuisine from the heart.’ Whatever his cuisine was — like serving a pizza with chilled salmon — was new. It wasn't normal. Today it's respected, not by all, but by enough."

It’s the elusive recognition that Loving aspires to.

"If the dining room is empty on a Tuesday night, it's such a letdown. You don't know if your motto, your feeling for why you do what you do — is it approved of?"

Chef Loving has plans to eat at the French Laundry at the end of the month, a California restaurant often called the best in the United States. He has a reservation and knows what he’ll order.

"I've been studying the book for a while," he says. "I'm not afraid to spend what it will take to get my palate involved with all of it."

He hopes that tobacco-infused crème brûlée will be on the menu, because he’s curious about how tobacco can be made into a flavor.

Turning a burner up high, Chef Loving pours olive oil into a battered frying pan just big enough to nestle both pieces of chicken. Cook them quickly, he warns, because the rich brioche tends to burn. He turns the chicken and ladles hot olive oil from the pan over the finished side. "Adds more flavor," he explains.

The chicken is transferred to a "sizzle pan" (a small griddle) and into the oven. It should be cooked to an internal temperature of 150-160 degrees; it will go up a few more degrees in "carryover time" after it’s pulled from the oven.

"Taking it out at the right moment is the difference between a moist chicken and one that is too dry."

Loving explains his plan: "Now I look at the flavors I've got going. I've got crispy, and I've got some buttery taste from the breading. So my next thought is to incorporate some earthiness with a very standard button mushroom. I look at a button mushroom and I think it doesn't lean toward a specific flavor. It's more neutral, not strong like a morel or overpowering like a chanterelle. It blends in and adds a certain texture. Then I want to bring in a sweetness and yet a sourness, so my next ingredient would be sun-dried tomatoes, which brings a tang and a little tartness, yet it has a natural sweetness too. The third element that I add, red onion, brings just a tad bit more sweetness. The arugula adds a sharp, peppery taste."

Loving began to understand his chosen profession as a high school student at Golightly Vocational School where he learned how to hold a knife and peel a carrot.

"When you're peeling a 25-pound bag of carrots," he says, "you set up three pans, one for the tops, one for the peelings and one for carrots."

He throws away the tops because they’re dirty. The peelings are used for stock, though nowadays he might fry them as a garnish.

His mentor and best buddy is Jeff Gabriel, who was his teacher at Schoolcraft College's culinary arts program.

"When chefs get together, we either talk about other cooks, cooks who do something that we feel is butch (which is horrible), doing something you know is wrong, cutting corners — say you're tired and you decide to throw away the carrot peelings. Gabriel doesn't like the way I do butter." He laughs. "Or we talk about outside life — when we will have a day off, what we will do with it."

Chef Loving melts a chunk of butter. Everything's cooked in the same pan to preserve the flavors. When he adds the greens to the onions and mushrooms, he covers the pan loosely with another frying pan. The chard and arugula steam and turn a vibrant green. Done!

"What is left in the pan, those brown specks, are full of flavor, something you don't want to lose. By deglazing with a chicken stock, I release all of that."

The stock cooks down a bit; another chunk of butter makes it into a rich sauce. The breast is fanned into four slices, abutting a nest of vegetables. And the sauce is served next to, not on, the meat to preserve the crispy coating.

The first bite reveals that the dish has just the right combination of crisp and moist, buttery and peppery, sweet and savory. The white chicken breast is almost austere, but the buttery sauce adds complexity. The vegetables have come together in an earthy flavor that explodes on the taste buds at many levels. It’s a dish that does exactly what Chef wants it to do.

Chef Shawn Loving's recipe for Brioche-and pine nut-crusted chicken

Loving Spoonful is at 27925 Golf Pointe Boulevard, Farmington Hills; call 248-489-9400.

Read other chefs' stories in Chow!! (this week's special restaurant collection):
Tribute's Takashi Yagihashi refines the yin and yang of multicultural cuisine.
• Mind-morphing means sweet surrender to Agave's chef Carlos Bonilla.
• Laurent Devin keeps the Gallic fires burning at Elaine Bistro Français.
Udipi's Thilagam Pandian cooks her way to places of the heart.
Elissa Karg writes about food and feasting for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]

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