In the kitchen with Renee Schuler: Owner of Eat Well says 'there's never a reason not to season'

NEWPORT, Ky. - We invite you to dig into our column spotlighting 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.  

Renee Schuler

The view from the top of the staircase in her childhood home, the sound of clinking glasses, and breezy laughter: These memories made a lifelong impression on Renee Schuler. (Above: Photo by G. Yek)

“As a child, I just remember listening and looking down, watching everybody. They were all dressed up, with fancy jewelry,” she recalled. 

A Louisville native, Schuler is the chef and owner of the catering company, Eat Well Celebrations and Feasts . Her parents loved to entertain, and she vividly remembers the attention that went into every event.  

“That’s when I fell in love with food and entertainment,” she said. 

Schuler would one day return to her childhood love, but not before exploring other interests. She went to Depauw University to pursue a degree in psychology, with a minor in theater. After graduation, she took a job in New York, where she discovered "food styling," the art of preparing food for the camera.  

"I worked with food stylists, and realized food styling was a career option," Schuler recounted. She was immediately drawn to the idea of combining her love of food and her sense for the aesthetic.

Schuler enrolled in the Institute for Culinary Education  in Manhattan, which opened new doors--straight into the establishments of food superstars like Daniel Boulud , Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Bobby Flay . She  started her new career as a server and worked her way to the kitchen as her culinary skills got stronger. 

She chuckled as she recounted how she had to submit a headshot to be considered for a server position. 

"That’s when you know you live in New York.”

After five years there, Schuler returned to Ohio and worked as the chef of the Murphin Ridge Inn . Her career took another turn when she catered the food for her sister’s art opening at the Annie Bolling Gallery. She started getting calls for her catering services, prompting her to start Eat Well in September 2005.

Food and cooking philosophy
"I'm an avid reader of cookbooks and magazines. I always think first about the visual," Schuler said. "I'm very vegetable-driven; they are fresh and colorful. The protein is just a complement to everything else on the plate."

"I like to keep our standards high, through the quality of products we use, and the level of processing we allow to happen," Schuler added. "We get whole heads of garlic and peel them ourselves. Our salad dressings are  made fresh, with fresh juice."

"When I trained in New York, I was exposed to a lot of ethnic foods. I try to keep it as authentic as possible, but I don't limit my approach. Every culture has so much to offer in the way of flavor components, ingredients, and preparations."

Essential ingredients & tools

Schuler's kitchen must-haves include:

  • Japanese mandoline . Schuler finds this easier to work with than the French mandoline
  • Y-shaped Kuhn Rikon peeler
  • Citrus juicer
  • Fresh citrus--especially lemons and lime
  • Fresh herbs --especially cilantro, basil, chives and thyme
  • Dijon mustard
  • Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Schuler prefers this over Morton's pressed kosher salt flakes; she finds it less dense and better-tasting.
  • Fine sea salt or iodized table salt . Schuler uses this for baking because it dissolves quickly.

Schuler believes "there is never a reason not to season," so she takes her salt seriously.

Inspirations

Schuler is inspired by Judy Rodgers, Alice Waters  and Deborah Madison

"I feel more drawn to the female sensibility about food," she said. "Men like to push the envelope and challenge people, whereas women pull from the past. Women are tradition-keepers and nurturers."   

The high culinary benchmarks in New York continue to inspire Schuler. 

"In New York, you don’t survive unless you produce something people absolutely demand. Even the food at the falafel stand is really good."

Schuler also looks to other coasts for inspiration: California and Miami. She belongs to the International Caterers Association to keep herself current.

Favorite meal to cook at home: Shrimp and grits

"This dish is a favorite of mine for easy home entertaining, because if the shrimp ingredients are prepped ahead of time, it’s super easy to put together while everyone gathers in the kitchen," Schuler said. (Photo courtesy of R. Schuler)

Ingredients

1 cup diced pancetta (8 ounces) 
6 whole scallions, sliced crosswise (use the whole scallion)
5 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup white wine
2 pounds raw, peeled & deveined shrimp, tails off
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 cups baby spinach, raw
1 ¼ cup stone ground grits or cornmeal
1 cup half and half
2 ¾ cups cold water
½ cup Parmesan cheese
4 tablespoons butter

Directions

  1. Sauté pancetta in large soup pot, or
    1. deep-sided skillet
    2. When golden,and fat has rendered, use a slotted spoon to remove the pancetta from the pan
    3. Add scallions and garlic and cook until wilted
    4. Deglaze with wine and bring to a simmer to cook off strong wine flavor
    5. Add tomatoes and ½ cup water and bring to a simmer
    6. Reduce heat and let cook while you start the grits
    7. Meanwhile, in another large saucepan, place the cornmeal grits, the half and half and the cold water. 
    8. Add 1 tablespoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (reduce salt if using iodized table or sea salt), whisk to combine
    9. Bring grits to a simmer and reduce the heat, stirring occasionally until very thick.  This should take about 20 minutes.  Add butter and parmesan cheese and hold over low heat, in warmer drawer or in 200 degree oven Stir shrimp and spinach into tomato sauce, let simmer until shrimp are pink and cooked through.  Season to taste.
    10. Serve shrimp over warm polenta. 

    Yield: 8 servings

    TIP: Ask at the deli for a block of pancetta, or request very thick (1/3 inch) slices, rather than the thin pre-packed slices, to create a larger dice. The recipe is quite versatile; instead of pancetta, you can substitute smoked sausage, bacon, or chicken sausage. Just remember, with a leaner cut of meat you may need to use a small amount of olive or canola oil so that it gently browns rather than burns in a dry pan.

    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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