Wednesday, November 13, 2013

[EID Feature] Young Guns: Brennan Calnin, Imperial

In anticipation of the first-ever Young Guns dinner at the Root - which sold out in less than 48 hours - Eat It Detroit will run a new profile every week leading up to the event featuring each of the six participating chefs. This week, it's Chef Brennan Calnin of Imperial in Hamtramck. 

Chef Brennan's background: Chef Brennan Calnin hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Brennan developed an early love of food and began cooking at home as soon as he was tall enough to see over the range. Both sides of his family had an early influence on him; from the large holiday dinners on his mother’s side, to the rather simplistic lunches prepared with his German grandmother on his father’s side. After a stint in college as a vocal performance major and a few odd jobs, Brennan attended and graduated from Kendall College with a degree in Culinary Arts.

Brennan gained his first restaurant experience as a dishwasher at Lloyd’s Lunch. In the years leading up to culinary school he worked as a busser, server, pizza maker, and bartender. While in culinary school, Brennan worked under two of Chicago’s well-known chefs. He spent a year cooking with Chef Jackie Shen at Redlight, followed by a year and a half under Chef Takashi Yagihashi at Takashi, where he was the restaurant’s first intern. Upon finishing culinary school, Brennan was off to his hometown to work under Chef Dan Van Rite at Hinterland. Following a stint as a personal chef in Colorado at Marvine Ranch, he was picked as the Executive Chef to launch Imperial in Ferndale. When not in the kitchen, Brennan enjoys all things music, he is an avid runner, and recently started practicing yoga.

EID: What is your culinary ethos? As in, as a chef, what do you BELIEVE in? What is important to you as a chef in your cooking and, in a bigger picture, what do you think the most important values are for a chef to have?

BC: Butter. Give me butter. Always butter. No, in all seriousness though I think it’s important to have fun. In being a chef it can be monotonous, stressful, and exhausting so I think it’s really important to not lose sight of why I started cooking. It’s fun. It’s an outlet for my creativity; my ADHD (I’m forced to be attentive while being hyperactive). It’s like being a captain on a pirate ship. It rules. A chef needs to be punctual, attentive, creative, realistic, compassionate, and human. What chefs don’t need to be are assholes, which is how we get portrayed on TV.

How/where do you see Detroit's/Michigan's culinary scene fitting in on a national level? Thinking in terms not of where it is (which is still far behind most other major cities/states) but where it COULD be, how can Michigan chefs/restaurants evolve and where do you see them going?

I think the sky is the limit for Detroit and Michigan. I’ve not native to Michigan but I’m from just the other side of the pond (Milwaukee) which happens to be as blue collar as Detroit. Which made me feel at home right from the get-go. The first thing I noticed from living here is the hustle and soul that people have. I feel like Detroit can compete because it’s a city of fighters; I mean, you gotta be to live here, right? There is an incredible amount of ethnic diversity, which makes us way more than just a meat and potatoes kinda town. Lastly, there’s the incredible bounty of produce, wine and beer that is produced here.

I think what we’re showing with this dinner is how Michigan can evolve as far as restaurants go, and by that I mean working together and supporting each other. I think at times people get too wrapped up in “my place does this better than yours.” That’s stupid and counterproductive. We need to support each other and appreciate the fact that every place has its own soul and personality.

What advantages does a chef have in Michigan over other states? 

Living in the Midwest we have a change of seasons ranging from face-contortingly cold winters to holy-shit-is-it-really-this-hot summers. This gives us a bit of advantage when it comes to writing menus and being creative because you are forced to not only use what is in season but prepare dishes that reflect the change of seasons…I mean in L.A., yeah they got all that produce and wine and shit, but it’s like 80 degrees everyday with a side of smog, where’s the inspiration in that?

What is your favorite cuisine and/or what are your favorite or signature dishes to make? What do you geek out over?

This is going to sound funny seeing as I’m slinging tacos, but I LOVE old timey. Give me pates, mousselines, mousses, liver and onions, steak tartar, rillettes, terrines and lastly champagne. I geek out over champagne, that shit is delicious.

Who have you worked with who has most influenced you, and who most inspires you as a chef?

Wow, this is a tough one. I would have to go with a couple of people here. I learned a ton of technique under Derik Watson (formerly Iridescence, now opening Bistro 82 in Royal Oak) and Chef Takashi Yagihashi while at Takashi in Chicago. Dan Van Rite of Hinterland in Milwaukee gave me my wings and let me be incredibly creative, and hooked me up with amazing seasonal gig as a personal chef in Colorado. While there I met Chef Jennifer Blakeslee from The Cook‘s House who has been an incredible friend and mentor and really rounded me out as a chef and person. Lastly, I would say my parents for always believing in me and letting me use the stove as soon as I could reach knobs on our little four-burner electric stove. Oh, they also let me live in the basement after I dropped out of college. That was huge.

When James approached you about being a part of this Young Guns dinner, what was your reaction? Did you consider yourself one of "Michigan's most dangerous chefs" prior to this? What do you think of your fellow Young Guns?

It’s funny because we were having a couple of drinks after an event at the Townsend and he mentioned wanting to do this dinner and I was like, “That’s awesome, hell yeah,” and then he asked me to be a part of it, and I was like “holy shit.” These guys are all so established and to be invited to cook with them at The Root is an honor. I am extremely dangerous after a Packers' loss and one too many soda pops… I just can’t wait to get into the kitchen with these guys and tear it up. It’s like going into a dojo with five dudes who practice different kung fu and just throwing down. It’s gonna be badass.

As a chef, what do you hope to achieve in your career? Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 20 years? And how do you hope to help strengthen and bolster Michigan's culinary scene?

What’s my five year plan huh? Well in my career I hope to stay happy, healthy and creative, really. I just love cooking and I don’t ever want to lose that. I try not to over think my “career.” I mean, I’m still that six-year-old cooking hotdogs in a frying pan, ya know? I think the great thing about Imperial is that it’s so approachable and at the same time I thinks it’s great that people are learning that you can eat tacos without sour cream and cheddar cheese. So in the future I would like to continue doing food that is approachable and served in a relaxed setting. That’s what I love about Imperial: you got hipsters and suits breaking bread at the same table. That’s kick ass; I want bring more of that to Michigan.

Read last week's interview with Chef Nikita Santches of Rock City Eatery in Hamtramck here