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updated: 8/12/2014 6:17 AM

Cook of the Week: Stunning dinners start in garden for Prospect Heights cook

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  • Kevin Kilgore uses tomatoes from his backyard garden for his Fat Stax Tomato Salad.

      Kevin Kilgore uses tomatoes from his backyard garden for his Fat Stax Tomato Salad.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Kevin Kilgore says the vegetables for his Fat Stax Tomato Salad should be sliced very thin.

      Kevin Kilgore says the vegetables for his Fat Stax Tomato Salad should be sliced very thin.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

By Abby Scalf
Daily Herald Correspondent

Like many home cooks, Kevin Kilgore first learned to cook by watching his mom and dad.

Sitting around the table with his four younger siblings, he remembers feasting on his mom's tuna noodle casserole and shrimp creole. On weekends, his father manned the grill.

In high school, Kevin was one of the few male students in classes such as family meals and creative cooking where he learned to properly measure ingredients and make sauces. "These were the classes I looked forward to the most," he said.

But this Prospect Heights cook also credits his time as a waiter at the long-gone Rusty Pelican in Arlington Heights with inspiration. There he learned what goes into sesame fire pot sauce, a sauce still uses to marinate chicken and serve with steak and fish.

"When that type of knowledge is given to you as a food server, it is easy to make the transition to making your own food in your home," he said.

Continuing to share the passion for food with co-workers from the restaurant, they formed a gourmet club called the Esculent Society. Gathering once to twice a year, they create an umami dinner, featuring foods that characterize that fifth taste, an inherent savoriness. This group, he says, is a chance to rekindle the friendships and enjoy good wine and well-made food.

"It's a fun group of people who are as passionate about cooking as I am," he said.

Kevin continues to learn, taking classes devoted to making sourdough bread and one focused to grilling. Whether it be brining and then grilling the Thanksgiving turkey or a weeknight dinner of rotisserie chicken, Kevin considers grilling a year-round habit. In the summer, Kevin becomes obsessed with grilling the tomatoes that he grows in his garden.

"I slow smoke plum tomatoes and the things I do with my plum tomatoes is nothing short of fabulous," he said. "I do about half a dozen dishes including smoked tomato bisque and smoked tomato margherita pizza."

One of Kevin's proudest moments at the grill, he recalls, came in 1991 when he got the opportunity to compete at Ribfest in Grant Park. Surrounded by family and friends, he remembers that moment when Mike Royko and Oprah Winfrey came to his table.

"I was ecstatic that those people said they loved my ribs and were going to come back to taste my ribs for the judging. I didn't go any further, but to make the top 25 out of 600 plus contestants was pretty cool," he said.

And while he said he loves fancier food and can "eat snails all day long," the moments he cherishes most are the most simple meals with family and friends.

"You can do wonders with a cheap cut of meat and a bunch of fresh ingredients in a soup or stew," he said. "When you sit down with your beverage at the end of a long day, life is not much better than that especially when you get to enjoy that with someone you care about."

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