Chef Spotlight: Q and A
Name: Michael J. Stigler
Residence: Sullivan, Wisconsin
Position: Executive Chef
Q: What is your Signature Dish?
A: I would have to say that freshly made salsa is probably the dish that my family would call my “signature dish.” After taking trips to various areas of Mexico in my twenties I was astounded to see the variety of fresh salsas that are commonly served there and how different they were from what we considered “salsas” here in the United States. Upon returning home, I started to experiment by growing different kinds of chile peppers and using what I tasted in Mexico as inspiration. I began trying different combinations of fresh and cooked salsas. I found that their uses went way beyond just being a dip for chips. A nicely balanced salsa is the perfect accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken or steak. Heat levels can vary from mild to scorching hot and can include everything from pineapple or mango to cactus and shrimp! These combinations are endless as long as emphasis is on using the freshest ingredients with a careful balance of flavors. A well made salsa can be a key element of a wide variety of tasty dishes.
Q: What is your food philosophy or mentality?
A: I believe in giving people honest food, carefully prepared with quality ingredients and food that actually tastes good! Sounds simple, but nowadays it seems that many chefs are driven by ego and make overly complicated food that does more to feed that ego than it does to satisfy the hunger of the person they are cooking for. Many chefs talk about the food as being “my food,” when in reality it is the customer’s food, not theirs. People don’t always want to be challenged or educated when they sit down to eat, more often than not they want food that is going to be recognizable, visually appealing, aromatically arousing and food that tastes delicious. I like to prepare each and every plate that goes out as though it is going to be put in front of a family member. A little care and attention to detail can go a long way towards making someone happy.
Q: What is in your refrigerator at home?
A: With two young children, we have all the usual kid favorites such as juice, milk, ketchup, cheese, hot dogs, etc… plus an array of hot sauces, various home canned items such as green beans, peppers, jellies and jams. Also, some fresh veggies, eggs and a jug of water!
Q: What kind of food do you serve your family?
A: The kids eat a lot of fruit and as many fresh veggies we can convince them to try, as well as grilled cheese sandwiches, mac and cheese, chicken, pizza, breadsticks, PB&J’s, waffles and more. My wife and I eat a lot of in-season garden veggies, fish, chicken, grilled foods in summer, soups in the winter and omelets for breakfast!
Q: Name anyone that you would like to have cook for you and what you would ask them to cook.
A: Rick Bayless, the master of Mexican cuisine. He could cook me anything he wants, as long as it has fresh made corn tortillas and fresh salsa alongside it!
Also, Dave DeWitt, known as the “Pope of Peppers.” He could cook me any one of the numerous firey hot dishes from one of his cookbooks, as long as it is made with with freshly picked hot chile peppers!
Q: Where do you get your ingredients?
A: I grow herbs, tomatoes and peppers in my garden and make full use of them while they are fresh! I get spices from Penzey’s, a Wisconsin based company that grinds all of their own spices. They also make numerous blends of spices to fit any cooking need. Meats and seafood all come from local suppliers; the less distance the ingredient has to travel to get to your plate, the better it is going to taste!
Q: What is your comfort food?
A: For me, comfort food would be something that harkens back to my youth and would definitely have to include peanut butter – as it was a staple in our house growing up – it found its way into just about everything we ate! Also, fried venison steaks and slow cooked venison roast, fresh caught bluegill or perch with pan fried red potatoes, corn on the cob, chocolate milk, bacon, and rhubarb pie to name just a few.
Q: What would be on the menu for your ‘Last Supper?’
A: My last supper would have to consist of Ahi Tuna seared rare with wasabi and soy sauce, a whole venison tenderloin smothered in Morel mushrooms and bacon, a giant bowl of freshly shucked peas with butter and black pepper, a variety of fresh, sliced, sauteed chile peppers, a platter of thin cut crispy French fries, a pitcher of New Glarus Octoberfest, a bottle of Maker’s Mark Bourbon, a large glass of milk, a pot of black coffee and blueberry pie ala mode for dessert!
Q: Tell us one of your kitchen failures as a chef.
A: My wife’s grandfather proudly gave me a six year old rooster to cook up for dinner. We had them over and I cooked that rooster all day trying to get it tender with no luck. That old bird just refused to respond to any cooking technique I tried and was tough as could be no matter what I did. I ended up improvising some dumplings that didn’t turn out too well either and it ended up being a sort of rooster pot pie, that while flavorful, was stringy and not up to my usual standard to say the least! Grandpa was understanding though, he got a good chuckle out of it because he knew the old bird was going to give me trouble.
Q: What is the most exotic dish you have served?
A: I worked at an establishment in Florida that served deep fried shark and alligator chili. While I’ve never served it at a restaurant, I have cooked squirrel on a few different occasions, as well as bear, wild boar and antelope.
Q: Who is the most famous person you served and what did you serve them?
A: I served roasted chicken to the originator of the Lambeau Leap. the former Green Bay Packer and Super Bowl Champion LeRoy Butler. I also served Jim Koch, founder of Samuel Adams Brewery, and Dick Leinenkugel from Leinenkugel’s Brewery. I did beer dinners with both of them, and served a variety of items matched up with beer from their breweries.
Q: Who/what inspired you to become a chef?
A: Growing up in a family with 9 kids, my mom did a great job of taking care of us all and making sure we were all fed, however, let’s just say optimal flavor sometimes had to take a back seat to sheer quantity! When I turned 15 and got my first restaurant job, I started to see that it was possible to actually put taste first and foremost and that sometimes it was better to put quality in front of quantity. My love for reading drew me into amassing a variety of cookbooks on different cuisines and before ya knew it, I became a “kitchen lifer”!
Q: Name anyone (alive or deceased) that you would like to cook for and what you would serve them.
A: I would cook a feast for my two departed brothers Brian and Joel. We would have a cookout and make BBQ ribs, chicken, venison steaks, corn on the cob, fresh salsa, potato salad, grilled veggies and a big pot of spicy chili with peanut butter pie for dessert.