Brian Polcyn, 52, is a renowned chef who looks to bring the flavor of life to his customers and community through the food he serves. Born in Pontiac and raised in Farmington Hills, Polcyn is the chef/owner at the Cinco Lagos Mexican restaurant on N. Main Street in Milford in addition to the Forest Grill restaurant in Birmingham, where only in-house ingredients are used in the food served. In addition, he is also a culinary teacher at Schoolcraft College in Southfield, where he tutors his students in the art of charcuterie. In addition, Polcyn has also made a name for himself on a national stage as he co-authored a book with Michael Ruhlman and Thomas Keller called “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Cutting,” that has sold over 150,000 copies. Polcyn also made a guest appearance on the Travel Channel show “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain, which exposed him to a national audience. Despite his success, Polcyn does not let it get to his head and he is always adapting to the newest trends in food. Married to his wife Julia and the father of five children who range in ages from 17 to 29, Polcyn spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly about his passion for cooking, thriving in the restaurant business, and his plans for the summer.
When you look back at how you started as a chef to where you are now as the chef/owner of restaurants in Milford and Birmingham, what goes through your mind? Tell us about the food that’s served at Cinco Lagos and the Forest Grill.
BP: What amazes me is how knowledgeable the customer base is. We really live in a world where people are into food. They’re into the natural, organic, local thing that’s been going on. I’ve done that ever since I started my career 35 years ago. But with the Internet, television, people are more traveled, they’re more educated, which makes it great.
Everything we do (at the restaurants) is in-house. Both are in-house. Cinco Lagos used to be Five Lakes Grill for 15 years and then the economic times changed in southeast Michigan… and I had to change the place. I’m part Mexican and I got back to my roots. We make our own mole sauce. We make everything from scratch, so it’s a contemporary Mexican restaurant.
Forest (Grill) is an American restaurant using local ingredients. Everything’s seasonal and it’s contemporary American. So it’s like, I’m an American but I’m also part-Mexican, so the two restaurants really reflect a little bit of (what) my personality is.
In 2010, you also appeared on the Travel Channel in an episode of “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain. How was that cameo made possible and how did you feel the episode turned out?
BP: That was not a cameo, that was one-third of the entire show. I couldn’t believe how long I was on. I thought it was great. I met (Bourdain) a number of times and his people called me up and they wanted to feature the Midwest, so I was just excited that they looked at Michigan as being an important part of the culinary scene in the United States.
And I told them what I do every day and he said, “What are you doing here in Detroit? Why aren’t you in Los Angeles or New York?” And I said, “Because this is where I live.” People think of Michigan as a “fly over state” as far as food goes, but it’s not. We’ve got some of the best produce. We’ve got a lot of good chefs in this state, too, and we’ve got a lot of great restaurants that people don’t know about.
Where do you get the inspiration for new dishes, whether it’s appetizers, entrees or desserts? What are some of your favorite dishes?
BP: I look at what nature provides. That’s what inspires me. People say to me all the time that I’m an artist. I’m a chef; I’m really not an artist, I’m a craftsman. The true artist is nature, so I might get inspired by a head of red cabbage cut in half or I might get inspired by some baby vegetables my farmer gave me. I might get inspired by some beautiful pork that was organically and naturally raised. It could be anything. But it’s the food that gets me excited.
(Asking me about my favorite dishes) is like asking me which one of my kids is my favorite. I love everything. I can’t answer that. I love asparagus as much as I like lobster, and I like caviar as much as I like broccoli.
You are known as an expert in what’s known as charcuterie. Please explain to our readers exactly what is involved in that concentration. You also teach charcuterie at Schoolcraft College and also co-authored a book on the subject. What is like for you to teach students and how do you feel people respond to you as a teacher and author?
BP: Charcuterie is the craft of preserving food before the refrigerator. If you think about it, the refrigerator has only been around for 120 years, but food has been on Earth much longer. It’s an ancient craft that I don’t think should ever die in American cooking. I wrote a book on it and it’s still in print and we’ve sold more than 125,000 copies worldwide and it’s a phenomenon.
I’ve got a second book coming out called “Salumi” this August, which is the Italian craft.
People respond to charcuterie. It’s like a phenomenon. It’s a cult following. If you’re a chef, this is the kind of cooking that has a “chef’s chef” cooking. Anybody can grill a piece of steak, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Anybody can grill a piece of meat to medium-rare and that’s a good cook, good chef. But take a underutilized cut of meat like a pork mec and transform it into something that tastes absolutely fantastic.
Charcuterie also makes the kind of products that aren’t necessarily meant to be consumed by themselves, like pancetta, which is Italian (bacon). You wouldn’t eat that by itself, but it’s an integral part to a Bolognese sauce or tomato basil sauce. It’s flavor enhancers. How can you make beans without smoked ham hocks?
(Teaching) wouldn’t be the same and the students really dig it. This is probably the most popular class in the entire program.
At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to become a chef and why? Growing up, how much were you influenced by cooking and food?
BP: Well, at 14, I found that it came easy to me. I was working in a kitchen just to get a job and I was promoted to a cook in a very simple family-type restaurant. It came easy to me. It was very simple for me to pick up the craft. And I remember my father sitting me down thinking that I was crazy that I wanted to be a chef or a cook because — especially back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, when I started — it was not fashionable to be a chef. So he said at least pick something that you want to do, because you’ll be working for a lot of years, you’ll be working the rest of your life. And so I just enjoy it and it came natural ,so to me it was a perfect fit.
My grandmother lived with us, my mother of course, they baked bread every day. I didn’t taste Wonder bread until I was about 25-years-old, I think. It was not overly complicated food, but simple chicken soup on the stove, so to me it was very simple.
People say to me, “You use all organic ingredients.” And it’s like I only know organic. Is there anything other than organic out there? I’ve always picked garden vegetables. I’ve always cooked with natural ingredients my whole life. So this current organic farmer’s market thing is fantastic because people are aware of the things that I’ve known my whole entire life.
As a veteran in the restaurant business and having seen restaurants open and close, what would you say is the toughest part about being in the business? How were you able to endure and overcome setbacks that you experienced?
BP: The hours, absolutely the hours. If you think about it, my life has changed. I only work a half-day, 12 hours, 6 days a week, every day for 35 years. So the worst part is the hours. Also, you’re working when everybody else is having fun. Typically everybody likes to eat dinner at night and that’s when I work because people eat dinner at night and I have to cook for them.
So those are the down sides. On the other side, there’s so much joy and appreciation for creating magic for people and a good restaurant does exactly that — create magic. It makes people change the way they think about food, the way they think about a moment that’s important in their life, the way they feel about something at that particular minute.
I always say, “We adapt, we persevere, we overcome.” This is what we do in the restaurant business. “There are no problems, only solutions.” There’s another one of my sayings. Another one is, “Successful people solve problems.” In the restaurant business, every day is full of problems. You can stop and cry about it and say, “I couldn’t make this because…” or “I can’t because…” — or you make it happen and you persevere and you solve the problem and you have success.
So you have to be tough and you have to be thick-skinned and you have to understand that it’s not a perfect world. So part of the excitement to me is every day is different than the previous one; there’s no two days alike in the restaurant business. And it’s a ride. It can be exciting and also very depressing. I can cook for 300 people and if one person is unhappy and 299 are ecstatic, I’m miserable because I want to hit 100 percent, but it’s impossible.
With summer on the horizon and events such as the Milford Farmers’ Market and Milford Memories taking place, what plans do you have to add to the upcoming festivities?
BP: The Farmers’ Market, I really support them. I’m doing a “Chop, Shop and Dine” class where we take a bunch of people to the market and I have no idea what I’m going to make. I teach them how to shop at the Farmers’ Market. We can pick vegetables or meat or whatever and we go back to my restaurant and in an hour and a half, I’m feeding them dinner and provide the recipes and everything.
So the idea is you kind of have a menu pre-thought about in your mind, because you know what’s in season as I do. So I go there and I know there have to be tomatoes or fresh melons, depending on the time of year, so I’ll be looking for those ingredients. And yet to have the forethought. To teach people how to cook using the farmers’ market mentality is really quite exciting, so I contribute that.
Milford Memories, this will the 18th year I’ve done this event. It gets better every year. We always put a tent up outside every year. I haven’t decided exactly what we’re going to do. We’ll have some real cool Mexican food out there for people to consume, and we’ll put some music out there, too.
What future ambitions, if any, do you have for your career and your restaurants?
BP: I perpetually evolve. I don’t measure success as much financially as I do with how I feel internally. Do I feel like I’m contributing back to the culinary world? Am I giving back to the community? Those are certainly ways I measure where I want to be in success. I can see that the future is fantastic. I see the younger generation of cooks coming up through the ranks.
I’m more informed than I was when I was their age — these people at 20- and 25-years-old know a heck of a lot more about food and the restaurant business than 27 years ago when I was that age, which is fantastic, which helps me grow. And I continue to learn and I feel that I certainly do not know everything and (that’s) another part of the equation. I preach to my cooks, my students and even my children that a doctor practices medicine and a lawyer practices law and I practice cooking.
Why do you think that a lawyer practices? Because the law perpetually changes how it’s interpreted. Why does a doctor practice medicine? Because new technology is always available and you have to take advantage of it to practice medicine. Cooking is exactly the same way to me. There are some fundamentals that never change — how to peel a carrot. But on the other hand, there’s so much more to learn and that’s what makes it exciting and that’s what I look forward to.