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updated: 10/16/2012 6:15 AM

Chef du jour: Arlington Heights native still rockin' in the kitchen

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  • Chef Jeff Schmehl plates a serving of meat loaf for diners at Mac's on Slade in Palatine.

       Chef Jeff Schmehl plates a serving of meat loaf for diners at Mac's on Slade in Palatine.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Chef Jeff Schmehl traded life on the road as a tour caterer for the kitchen at Mac's on Slade, a new eatery and music venue in downtown Palatine. His Beer Burger pleases patrons and musicians, like Joel Tarpinian of Island Lake and Mac Rietz of Tower Lakes.

       Chef Jeff Schmehl traded life on the road as a tour caterer for the kitchen at Mac's on Slade, a new eatery and music venue in downtown Palatine. His Beer Burger pleases patrons and musicians, like Joel Tarpinian of Island Lake and Mac Rietz of Tower Lakes.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
By Abby Scalf
ascalf@dailyherald.com

For several years Jeff Schmehl worked as a tour caterer, cooking for acts like Taylor Swift and Van Halen. Today he's still rocking, but the bands he feeds are decidedly lesser known.

After meeting his wife on the road and deciding it was time to settle down, Schmehl has settled in at Mac's on Slade, a Palatine spot that features dinner every day and local bands on the weekends.

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"I realized I came to the point that my life progressed, and I was ready to come off the road," he said.

Owner Mac Rietz, who plays in a couple of local bands himself, asked Schmehl join the team at Mac's on Slade. The place opened in September and offers a full menu for players and the audience alike.

Schmehl's music-infused menu includes a blues burger -- a Cajun spiced burger topped with caramelized onions and crumbled blue cheese -- and P-Funk wings topped with a sauce that Schmehl says is "George Clinton-approved."

As the live music plays within Mac's on Slade, Schmehl has found a place again where music and cooking coexist.

"I remember walking in the back hallways of the venue as the band would be onstage," he said. "At the restaurant, there is a common wall between where the bands play and the kitchen. Now when I hear the music and I'm cooking, it feels like I'm back in that atmosphere."

Schmehl, who grew up in Arlington Heights, now lives in Palatine with his wife and puppy, Lola.

What is your earliest food memory? I was about 9 years old and I wanted my aunt to teach me how to make crepes. She did. I was involved with Boy Scouts and when we went on camping trips, I was the one who always wanted to cook for everyone, with a lot of questions for my mother, of course.

What led you to become a chef? It's as simple as when I was younger and the question came up, "What are you going to do with your life, boy?" The only thing I could think of that I had any interest in was food. I knew the restaurant business was a tougher job than it was ever projected to the public. I let myself flounder a bit before I took the plunge at age 23. When I made the commitment, I knew I was in it for life.

At the beginning I was most intrigued by the reality of the business and the fact that it wasn't the fun, cool job that everyone thinks it is. I wanted to go to the school of hard knocks and learn it well.

What do you remember about your early job experiences? I worked for a French chef (in Minneapolis). He wasn't your typical French chef. He was actually French/Armenian and had a loathing for classic French food as it's viewed today. What I didn't realize was his goal was to find out how much I would take. I wanted to impress him. He pushed and treated me worse than the mop. I kept it professional, saying 'yes chef, no chef,' working 80 hours a week, getting cursed at and feeling stupid. One busy Saturday night in the middle of a crowded kitchen, I was being made to feel like I was 2 inches big. I hit my limit. I felt it building up in my toes and my body was flooded with rage. I turned around and with all my anger I spewed a loud '(expletive) you.' With a cocky little grin he put out his hand and said 'There, you finally cursed me out, now I can respect you.' After that we became like family and I learned more from him that I could ever imagine.

What led you to toward the job of a tour caterer? It was a chance and a world I did not know existed. I knew they had to eat but I didn't think about it. A relative's friend's brother was involved, and after Brockway (Chophouse in Palatine) closed, I hooked up with him and thought I'd check it out. I had done private, in-home catering before, but this was a whole new world.

Who are some of the musicians you catered for, and what are some of the memories? Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, Britney Spears, Van Halen, The Eagles, Jonas Brothers, American Idol Tour, Dancing with the Stars, R. Kelly, Alicia Keys just to name a few. I guess to sum up working for the entertainment business: anything goes. In a restaurant, you have a regular format to follow.

Does music influence your menu? For Mac's, I tried to lace music genres and terms into the menu for effect. Music is the focus here at Mac's. I have a rock and roll burger, a jazz burger and blues burger. There is also a spinoff of meat loaf that was something I made on the Rascal Flatts tour. The meat loaf is made in muffin tins, stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. I may go farther with it as time goes on.

What rock-star (dead or alive) would you like to cook for? Jerry Garcia. I'd make him a PB&J wrapped in bacon and deep fried and hope it wouldn't give him a heart attack.

What do you like to do in your spare time? I am kind of outdoorsy. Golf is a large focus of my summer. With opening a new place, the term spare time does not compute.

Tell us about this recipe: Beer Burger with Brown Ale Sauce. The beer burger is a half-pound Angus beef patty grilled to order then soaked in a brown ale sauce and served on a pretzel bun with a side of thick beer cheese soup for dipping. I chose the beer burger because I think it's a great example of the type of bar food that we are trying to do here. It is not your run-of-the-mill bar food.

• To recommend a chef to be profiled, send the chef's name and contact information to food@dailyherald.com.

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