Michael Garbin began his culinary career in high school washing dishes, busing tables and cooking at local restaurants outside New York City when his stepmother discovered information about the Culinary Institute of America. He applied and was accepted in 1974.
After graduating in 1976, Garbin worked in hotels throughout the country, learning the cuisines of New Orleans, Boston, Memphis, Denver and Phoenix along the way. Working at the Royal Sonesta in New Orleans, he says, was particularly influential.
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"I thought learning Creole cuisine was something that always stick with me. It was more techniques and recipes and ideas that can always be in my back pocket," he said.
Garbin eventually put down roots in Chicago where he has worked 19 years as executive chef at the Union League Club of Chicago. He oversees a staff of about 50 and the club's three restaurants and room service for 180 rooms.
He said offering a menu to a regular clientele has its challenges, but he's up to it. As evidence, the club was named the top private city club in 2009 by the Club Leaders Forum.
Garbin lives in Naperville with his wife of 35 years, Susan. The couple has one son, Joe, 23.
How has the view of the cooking profession changed since you've been in it? Being a chef went from being domestic to becoming a professionally recognized profession. Cooking became popular and parents started saying 'OK my son wants to be a chef, I can live with that.'
Can you share an early food memory? I can remember as a kid my dad got fresh horseradish for the Passover. He said 'Don't smell this.' Being a kid, I tried it anyway. The horseradish cleaned out my sinuses and burned my nostrils. That is an experience you never forget. I now take a more careful look at things and try it sparingly instead of jumping in feet first.
How do the demands of the Union League Club differ from a traditional restaurant? The club is an ever-changing environment because this is a member's home away from home. We want to establish the level of comfort for our members and guests. We see these members and guests on a regular basis, and there is that quality interpersonal relationship. We see some members two or three times a week and ask if there is anything they'd like to see or anything we need to improve upon.
Because we have regular clientele, we need to stay current. We need to be evolving and changing menus and presenting new ideas. We're dabbling into molecular gastronomy, holding specialty dinners and wine events. Because our members can go to other restaurants, we want them to come to their club to dine. Our challenge every day is to compete with everyone.
What are options you offer on your menu today? We have gone to smaller plates and offer lighter and healthier options. We have been doing that since the beginning ... hopefully members realize they have been eating healthier for the past 19 years because we don't use a lot of butter, salt or heavy cream. We've lightened up things over the course of time because that is the way it should be cooked.
What do you enjoy in your spare time? To do things professionally, to be part of local chefs association, to network with my colleagues, that's important. Two years ago, about a dozen chefs from Chicago were invited to Belfast, Ireland to cook at the Belfast Taste and Music Festival. We worked with chefs in Belfast, and we did a mini Taste of Chicago for four days. We had a great time, and I have created lifelong friendships with these guys.
I like to spend time at home. I relax with family, sit in the backyard open up a bottle of wine, cook on the grill and play with the dog ... those are all things that are nice to do.
Tell us about this recipe: Sea Scallops with Roasted Corn and Peach Salad. I shared this recipe because the salad showcases the freshest ingredients of the season and can be made in advance. The scallops can be cooked in 5 minutes.
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