“Be careful with these peppers – they're spicy.”
Dave Denison, owner of Amical, is handing out small bowls of hot peppers to a group of 18 staff members gathered at his downtown Traverse City restaurant on a Monday afternoon. He has convened his employees together for Cookbook Dinner Series “school” – a 90-minute training session held the first Monday of every month from November to May. Later that evening, the staff will roll out a brand new menu to be offered for one week only, highlighting recipes from a featured ethnic cookbook selected by Denison.
Erica Rodriguez, marketing assistant at Amical, teases the chefs in the kitchen, who are worried the peppers are too hot. “If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen, boys,” she grins. She takes a bite of the dish, then immediately grimaces. “Aughh,” she sputters. The other employees crack up, laughing and whistling.
There is a warm atmosphere to Denison's schools, designed to familiarize staff with the wine, cocktails and dishes they'll be serving for the next wek. Employees are encouraged to take notes, ask candid questions and – most importantly – give honest feedback on the beverages and dishes the kitchen crew serves them.
“We've adjusted dishes on the spot based on input from the staff,” explains Denison. “They're our guinea pigs.”
The experimenting pays off. Amical's Cookbook Dinner Series, now in its 17th year, has been a hit with customers, who flock to the restaurant during the winter off-season to try specialty menus of Indian, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek and other ethnic cuisine.
The menu for this week, February 4-10, is centered on Frank Pellegrino's “Rao's” cookbook, based on the New York Italian restaurant of the same name.
Red and white Italian wines, a drunken blueberry cocktail, and classic dishes including antipasto, gnocchi with veal sauce, lemon chicken and tiramisu are brought out to staff to sample just hours before customers experience the same dishes. A server asks Denison to name his “top three” items on the menu; without hesitating, the owner responds, “The veal, the shrimp scampi and the lasagna.” The staff scribble his recommendations in their notes.
Denison typically selects the cookbooks for each season in September, relying on suggestions from customers and publishers. A few rules guide his choices: Only cookbooks by chefs who own restaurants are featured (no Rachel Rays or Martha Stewarts allowed); recipe ingredients must be easily sourced; and the menu must remain affordable for patrons.
Once the cookbooks are selected, head chef Al Schmitt, sous chef Ben Hoxie and line cook Dan Cook take the books home and study them. They then meet for dinner, present and argue for their favorite recipes, and hash out the food list. Once Denison has signed off on it, a wine distributor representative collaborates on wine pairings, and Amical manager Paul Salvatore creates a custom cocktail to finish off the menu. The process is free-flowing, inclusive and democratic – which Denison says is by design.
“Our staff here get an experience they can't get anywhere else,” says Denison. “We change our menu over 20 times a year. That can be very challenging, but also invigorating. The Cookbook Series gives us license to do something we're not supposed to do – to mess around, experiment and offer food you wouldn't normally see in our restaurant.”
Occasionally, those experiments become a permanent staple on the restaurant's menu. Those popular Amical olive twists that are a restaurant crowd favorite?
“Those came from a Better Homes & Gardens cookbook,” Denison admits sheepishly, smiling. “The truth is, you just never know where inspiration will come from.”
To view a quick montage from the staff's Cookbook Series prep day, click on the image above.
Amical will be serving dishes based on “Rao's” cookbook every day this week through Sunday evening. For more information on this and other upcoming Cookbook Dinner Series events, call 231-941-8888 or visit www.amical.com.