Thursday, October 31, 2013

[EID Feature] Young Guns: Michael Barrera, Streetside Seafood

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 Michael Barrera of Streetside Seafood in Birmingham.

EID: Where do you work and how long have you worked there? 
MB: I am the Executive Chef of Streetside Seafood in Birmingham and have been there since June of 2010. So 3.5 years.

Where did you work prior to this? How long have you been with Roberts Restaurant Group?
Beverly Hills Grill from 2005 -2010.

What is your culinary background and who has most influenced you?
I studied at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia. I worked for the Starr Restaurant Group while in school and after. I was a line cook at the Continental Restaurant and Martini Bar and promoted to Sous Chef shortly after while still in school. I worked under Chef William Murphy while there. He was a huge influence on me. He helped teach me that in this profession you need to have balance. Balance with family, career, etc.... He taught me that what we do for a living is not how we are defined as a person. What defines you is who you are as a father, brother, friend, and leader. Awesome chef. Miss him. The Starr Restaurant Group was and is loaded with a ton of talented chefs. Chefs like Chris Painter, Masaharu Morimoto, Michael Schulson. I was fortunate enough to do parties and dinners with these guys at the James Beard House.

Describe your personal cooking style.
This is a loaded question. My style is free. I try not to limit what style of food I cook. I love it all. Vague but true. Flavor is universal. I feel strongly about my palate. I feel I can go to any restaurant and get the point or idea that chef is trying to convey through his food. This is no matter the style, price, area, etc. As for the restaurant we have a no-frills approach to our standard menu. We do however get to "play" everday with our specials and features that change daily. This is where we can be as creative as our skill level will allow us. 40% of our daily sales come off our chalk boards. There has been some sort of media backlash recently about why restaurants run specials. Either to use up old product or to use the guest as a test subject for your own ego boost. That is not what we do. It's calculated the risks with food we make. Understanding your cliental and what they are looking for helps but also recognizing what is in season and using that ingredient in the proper way goes a long way. My style is that of my staff: ever evolving, learning, changing. That won't change. To simply pick a style of food and specialize in that would limit what you can do and teach your staff and what they can teach you.

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? What do you believe in as a chef?
Humility. That value cannot be understated. I understand that I don't know everything about food or this business. I know that I can learn something from anybody on my staff or elsewhere every day. That is the true beauty of what we do. People often wonder how a chef can work long hours, miss time with family, have high stress, and still carry a sense of passion for what they do. To me it is easy. I have two families. My blood and my restaurant. Obviously, my priorities are always going to side with my blood, but my restaurant family is 1A. As for what I believe in? Having fun in what we do. It is business, yes, but a business predicated on service and pleasure. Very few professions give you a sense of instant gratification; this is one of them.

How/where do you see Detroit's/Michigan's culinary scene fitting in on a national level? And PLEASE don't bother with the "Detroit is the bestest thing ever" mindless cheerleading. It's not. At this point Michigan is barely even competing with Ohio, at least on the food side (our beer is a different story). So, thinking in terms not of where it is but where it COULD be, how can Michigan chefs/restaurants evolve and where do you see them going?
Love this question. I agree that our scene is not on par with many other metropolitan areas in the U.S. That being said, it is different on many levels. We are territorial. Each suburb has a different vibe. Corktown and Midtown are not the same, same with Royal Oak and Ferndale and Birmingham. First the problems: this town has a chip on its shoulder. [We're] always trying to prove we aren't what they say we are instead of loving who we are and celebrating what the greater Detroit area and Michigan have to offer. Great agriculture, beer, wine, spirits. Those are things to celebrate and I think the attitude is changing. We are also very territorial in nature as well. People from Ferndale tend to not dine in Birmingham because of the attitude or haughtiness of its citizens and the same is true of people from Birmingham going to Ferndale. They don't go because it's younger or it's hipsters or God forgive there are gay people there. That's all bullshit. Here is where I preach: stop thinking you know unless you have experienced. I have eaten in every neighborhood in this city and area. I don't give two shits about the people sitting next to me or what their income is or isn't. I don't care what they are wearing or what they are not. It is irrelevant. I care about the core ingredients of what make a good dining experience. 1. I am welcomed warmly into an establishment. 2. I am waited on by somebody who cares about their job and is educated to do so. 3. I am given a meal that has obviously been give some thought and care by the cooks or chef. It is actually pretty simple if you think about it. I think we can evolve by focusing on these core values in food and service. We can evolve by taking ownership of who we are and celebrating it through our food. In Philly, also a gritty no-nonsense kind of town, they don't care where your money comes from, as long as it comes. I also think some of the responsibility is with our guests. We have been so long a "steak and potatoes" kind of town. Understand that there is more to offer. Don't limit your palate with the same thing over and over. Take chances, try new things, go to a different neighborhood, leave your comfort zone. You will be suprised by what you find.

What advantages does a chef have in Michigan over other states?
Tough one. I love it here. Michigan is my home. I LOVED the east coast and Philly. I miss it for the reasons you mentioned in your last question. That being said, I love that I can go to Eastern Market on Saturdays. I love driving 30 miles to go to the Root and have a great dining experience. I love going to Ferndale for the relaxed vibe and drinks [and] to Empire for wine and the beach with friends. I guess that is why I am here. To prove that we are a good area. Hoping one day that it is recognized. Working to change the perceptions.

What is your favorite cuisine and/or what are your favorite or signature dishes to make? What do you geek out over?
I hate this question! I seriously love to eat anything. I do not discriminate. I do love Spain and its flavors. But I equally love the Southern U.S. Argentina has amazing food. Signature dish? I don't have one. I am sure I have made 1,000 specials in the last 8.5 years, maybe a few of those were signature I hope. I geek out over preserved foods. Pickled, cured, rillettes. Yum. The way that a food is manipulated to have such impactful flavor is something that cannot go unnoticed.

When James [Rigato of the Root] approached your 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?
I was sitting at the bar at the Root and James came to greet me. We talked briefly and I had mentioned that we should get together and throw down sometime or get a group together. He said that he was thinking of the same thing. He took it and ran with it. I only know James through my visits to his restaurant and vice-versa. I know he is as passionate about this profession as I am. I know he has a network of friends and chefs alike that would be a great fit for this dinner. What is so amazing about this dinner is its covered area of chefs with Nikita opening Rock City eatery in Hamtramck, Andy soon at Seldon Standard in Midtown, Brennan in Ferndale [at Imperial], Nick [Janutol of Forest Grill] and I in Birmingham, and of course James, the mastermind, in White Lake. I don't consider myself dangerous per se, but do consider myself to be a leader in this industry. Sure, I have made mistakes in the past but you can do two things from that, grow from them or let them bury you. I am honored and humbled to be a part of this event with these guys. They are all so talented. I hope to come correct with whatever dish I decide to do. No pressure!

As a chef, what do you hope to achieve in your career? Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 20 years? How do you hope to help strengthen and bolster Michigan's culinary scene?
I work for Bill Roberts. He is fantastic restauranteur and operater of some of the area's best establishments. I don't have any aspirations on leaving this area or his company in general. I have invested a lot of time and effort with this company and plan on continuing with them until they get tired of me. I hope that this area continues to grow in its culinary endeavors. I hope that we don't give in to outsiders perceptions of who we are and what we are. I hope that we become a place that has great dining options and are destinations for both locals and tourists. I hope this event will show that we are more than what people expected and that other events follow with more chefs. I hope that 20 years from now we all look back at this and see it as a beginning of something special. That is what I feel it is. No ego, no bullshit, just good food, good comraderie, and most of all, a great experience for our guests that night.