In the kitchen with Michael Paley: Metropole chef says it's all about seasonings, with a light touch

CINCINNATI - We invite you to dig into our weekly column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each Sunday, WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.  

Michael Paley

“I teach my guys to not only be good cooks and managers, but also good operators from a financial aspect.  I give them a lot of freedom to succeed or make mistakes.”

Michael Paley does not flinch when faced with a challenge. He took open hearth cooking, a page from Colonial America, and made it his own. You could say he's reinvented fireplace cooking.

Paley is the executive chef at Metropole, the restaurant nestled inside the 21c Museum Hotel. Wood fire cooking is currently in vogue, but it's something Paley thought about three years ago. 

"I wanted a bare bones fireplace with no gas injection. You could put a grill in the fireplace with gas fed into it, but that would be cheating," he said. 

"I really like to make things difficult on myself," Paley said, referring to the inherent temperament of cooking with wood. "This winter, we had problems with wood coming in frozen, or wet with snow. Trying to get the fire lit by five o'clock in the evening has been a challenge."

Metropole opened in November 2012. The restaurant may be new to Cincinnati, but it's really a continuum of Paley's work with 21c. He moved from Proof on Main, another 21c restaurant in Louisville. Paley was the executive chef there for seven years.

Far from Louisville and Cincinnati, Paley grew up in an Italian household in New Jersey. He remembers watching Great Chefs of the World on television as a child. It wasn't just the food that got his attention. 

"I saw chefs in their whites in their kitchens, with their stainless steel tools. I liked seeing the way the chefs worked,” he said.

His first restaurant job showed him what he did not want to do. "When I turned15, I got a job as a bus boy. I was bussing tables one night, and got yelled at for taking someone's food away too soon," he said. 

Paley went back to the kitchen and washed dishes instead, which suited his disposition just as well.
"I did not want to be out in the front of the house," he said. Paley quickly found his niche in the kitchen. 

He pursued film in college for a while, but returned to cooking and went to the Florida Culinary Institute. Landing a job at Lucca restaurant at the Boca Raton Resort and Country Club proved to be a turning point in his career. His experience at Lucca ultimately won him the executive chef job at Proof on Main in Louisville. 

It's taken grit and a steep learning curve after the idea, but the fireplace is today, a hard-working centerpiece at Metropole.

Food and cooking philosophy

"Seasoning is most important thing. My food always has the proper level of salt and acid. Acid and citrus--like lime, lemon and grapefruit--are important to me. They add that third dimension to food."

“My food is straightforward and simple, but I like to use ingredients that make the guests think about what they're eating. We do it here with ingredients like fresh green garbanzo beans and octopus.”

Paley likes to be “light-handed” with food, and relies on high quality pantry ingredients. 

“If I’m using four ingredients in a dish, I want you to taste them, and not cover the food in sauce, or overcook the dish to where you don’t even know what it is.” 

“I want to use what the region is producing, not just stick to what’s traditionally been around. We have pockets of small farms we work with regionally.” 

Essential ingredients & tools

Paley's kitchen must-haves include:

  • Fresh herbs--especially parsley, sage, rosemary, tarragon and dill
  • Seasonal fruits and vegetables. Paley loves the great citrus fruits in winter.  He lets local farmers dictate the menu by bringing what they have. He’s currently developing a dish for bitter melon, grown by a local farmer
  • Good pantry ingredients, such as oils and vinegars
  • Sharp chef’s knife
  • Cooking spoons
  • Fireplace cooking equipment 

Inspirations

Paley has great respect for Thomas Keller's work.

"I love the French Laundry cookbook, not just for the food, but also for the level of professionalism and attention to detail. It's a culture you can't just phone in," he said. 

Paley won the culinary lottery when he got to experience the food at the French Laundry while on his honeymoon. 

"The experience was even better than the book," he said.

Mario Batali opened Paley's eyes to the possibilities of regional Italian cooking, and has since shaped his culinary vision. 

"Mario Batali reinvented Italian food in New York," Paley said. "His cookbook, Babbo, was one of my bibles at that time. My base ideas, even today, come from that book."

The hearth cooking at Metropole inspires Paley to be even more creative with his food. 

"It's added a new element to what I can do," he added.    

Favorite meal to cook for family: 

Burnt

carrot salad with avocado, pickled onion, cilantro, feta & toasted pumpkin seeds (Serves 4). Paley makes this salad at home often, and suggests serving it with roast chicken.

Ingredients

  • 2 each, large carrots, peeled and ends trimmed off
  • 2 each, firm avocados, halved and thickly sliced
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/4 cup pickled red onion, julienne
  • 1/4 cup picked cilantro leaves
  • 2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, toasted and salted
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil + 1 tablespoon for searing carrots
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste

Directions

  1. Cut the carrots in half lengthwise and then cut them into 3.5 inch segments.
  2. In simmering salted water, slowly poach the carrots until they are easily pierced with a paring knife.
  3. To ‘burn’ the carrots, bring a cast iron pan to medium high heat and coat it with the one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. 
  4. Once the oil starts to smoke, season the carrots with salt and pepper and lay in the pan with the flat cut side down.
  5. Turn the heat down to medium and let the carrots start to slowly develop a nice, even, dark char.  If the pan is too hot, it will just burn the carrots.
  6. Once the carrots are charred, pull out of the pan and set aside to bring to room temperature.
  7. To make the salad, in a large mixing bowl combine the carrots, avocado, feta, pickled onion, cilantro and parsley.  Season with salt and pepper, and dress with the lemon juice and olive oil.
  8. Divide the salad evenly among four plates and garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds.

(All photos by G. Yek)

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek .

 
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