Gypsy music, local produce season chef's life
Daniel Ovanin may have hated vegetables as a kid, but now he's searching for Midwest-grown winter produce. He's also looking for lake fish.
Ovanin is chef de cuisine at the new Crowne Plaza Glen Ellyn and its adjoining restaurant, Glen Prairie, which focuses on seasonal Midwestern cuisine and locally produced foods.
Although he grew up with California cuisine, the Los Angeles man, 30, learned his trade in the Midwest, moving here to study at the Cooking & Hospitality Institute of Chicago.
His first jobs were in Burr Ridge: washing dishes at Gia Mia, where he worked his way up to line cook; sous chef/kitchen supervisor at Marriott's Ciazza Restaurant; and a kitchen manager at the Five Seasons Country Club. Before joining Glen Prairie, he cooked for a retirement community managed by Compass Group in Evanston.
Ovanin lives in Willowbrook with his partner and their daughter.
What led you to become a chef? When I was young, I never ate any vegetables. My mother got tired of cooking two separate dinners. So I made stuff my way, without putting any vegetables in it.
I was always watching my mother and my grandmother and my father cook. I used to watch Julia Child with my grandmother. I come from a strong home-cooking family.
Do you still hate vegetables? I love all vegetables now. I like everything under the moon ... except escargot. I don't like the texture.
What's your culinary style? I have a lot of Mediterranean influence in my style. I'm French trained, so that's there as well. I love making sauces - I'm a great sauce guy. I believe strongly in making all my stocks and sauces from scratch. They're much tastier. You know what components are in that sauce. And great sauces come from great stock.
I put my all in every dish I make.
Is it difficult to stay with a Midwestern theme? It's a little more challenging, but the result is well worth it. The immigrants who came here - you have a little bit of everything here. Germany, Italy, you have all those great influences coming into it. I love the challenge - it's working out well, I'll tell you that.
How focused are you on local foods? We have a strong emphasis on the Midwest. Our meat comes from Dietzler Farms in Wisconsin. We go shopping at farmers markets when in season. As much as we can, we're buying all-natural and organic.
We don't say 100 percent local. We have coho salmon on the menu that's not native, but I'm looking to replace it, maybe with Wisconsin trout. We have whitefish, Wisconsin northern pike. I intend to get more lake fish, maybe sturgeon.
A lot of wine is being made here in Illinois. We get all our cheese from the Great American Cheese Collection.
What will you do in the winter? The menu's kind of focused toward root vegetables. As much as we can, we'll do it. We're getting some things from local greenhouses. It's definitely a seasonal-style menu. We're so new, though. We need to figure out what the winter months will bring.
Do you handle the hotel's banquets and room service, besides the restaurant? Is there any difference in your approach? I do everything. There's a slight difference. Some of the banquet menus are more mainstream. For the rest, we focus on everything being quite original.
In the restaurant, we are primarily serving locals. The restaurant is not inside the hotel. It has a separate entrance.
What do you do when you're not cooking? I play in a band, T-Rroma. The T stands for tamburitza, a stringed instrument. We play Eastern European gypsy music. I've done that since I was a little kid. I'm Croatian. The music is a cross between Russian, Spanish, Middle Eastern, Greek ... music from the coastal region of Croatia is almost identical to Italian music. We also play American music on the instruments. We've played for the Taste of Chicago a couple of times already.
Can we expect to see Croatian-influenced dishes at Glen Prairie? We might. We eat lots of lamb and pork.
Tell us about this recipe. Chervil-Crusted Northern Pike with Mac and Cheese. This is made with northern pike from Wisconsin. That's not the same fish as walleye, which is not actually a pike - it's a different species.
Try this at home or at Glen Prairie, 1250 Roosevelt Road, Glen Ellyn, (630) 613-1250.
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Chervil-Crusted Northern Pike with Mac and Cheese
Mac and cheese
1 quart whipping cream
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon lemon juice
11/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack
1/2 cup shredded Gruyere
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 pound mini penne pasta or other small pasta, cooked al dente
1 box (16 ounces) buttery crackers, such as Keebler Club, crumbled
1/4 pound butter, melted
1/2 cup chopped chervil
1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
4 pike fillets (8 ounces each)
6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 pound haricots verts (thin French-style green beans), blanched and sauteed
For the mac and cheese: Heat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a medium casserole dish.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine cream, eggs, paprika, nutmeg and lemon juice and mix thoroughly. Place in a medium saucepan and bring to simmer on medium heat.
Stir in 1/2 cup of the Cheddar and all the remaining cheeses, reduce heat and continue to simmer on low heat for 10 minutes or until cheeses are melted. Add the pasta and stir gently to coat. Place in the casserole dish.
In a large bowl, combine the crackers, remaining Cheddar and melted butter; sprinkle over the mac and cheese. Bake until top is golden brown, about 10 minutes.
For the fish: Mix the chervil and bread crumbs together in a small bowl. Brush the pike fillets with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Dredge the flesh side of the fish in the bread-crumb mixture.
Heat a frying pan so that it is hot but not smoking. Add the remaining olive oil to the pan and fry the fish bread-crumb-sides first until they become golden brown in color, about 2 minutes, then flip and fry on back sides for 3 minutes.
Serve over the green beans with mac and cheese on the side.
Chef Daniel Ovanin, Glen Prairie, Glen Ellyn