Chefs Coast-to-Coast — Featuring Michael Stebner, Executive Chef, True Food Kitchen, Arizona and California
Let me introduce you to the True Food Kitchen Dream Team.
Michael Stebner, prior to his Executive Chef position at True Food Kitchen, was an integral culinary player at Fox
Restaurant Concepts. Developing his skills with acclaimed chefs in the kitchens of many esteemed restaurants; was a career path with an ethical focus.
Sam Fox is the founder and CEO of Fox Restaurant Concepts. Making extremely successful contribution to new and unique restaurant concept, cuisine and design, has earned him a three-time nomination as Restaurateur of the Year by the James Beard Foundation.
Dr. Andrew Weil, a world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, is also a best-selling author and editorial director of DrWeil.com, an online resource for healthy living.
The True Food Kitchen’s Dream Team keeps the faith that eating delicious food can be accessible, approachable, delicious and very good for your health. The following should demonstrate why I share their faith.
During my recent visit to True Food Kitchen, a group of ladies seated next to me were in the process of ordering a second round of pizzas, which they were endorsing to me as a soapbox medicine man would give the big push to his latest discovery. I, in turn, believed every delicious adjective they uttered. After all, I knew where I was, and therefore, quite naturally, shared my own food elixir – kale. The response to my suggestion: “Isn’t kale sort of harsh?” I found that statement somewhat predictable, and not worth a lengthy explanation on the merits of kale. Instead, I boldly pushed ahead with, “Just order it. You’ll love it.” They trusted a stranger and immediately called over the waiter –“ two orders of the Tuscan kale salad please” – Cheshire cat smile from the waiter. Their million-dollar statement came quickly, “This isn’t what we imagined kale would taste like – it’s so good.”
Possibly due to my kale victory, I feel compelled to take someone new along on each of my True Food Kitchen visits. If they dare say, “Well isn’t that health food?” I bark, “Stop, be quiet and get in the car.”
Taking on the responsibility of influencing the eating habits of people is an automatic journey outside the food comfort zone. The avalanche of ridiculously healthy and delicious dishes at True Food Kitchen immediately made the point that the “dream team” has taken on the challenge. Intrigued, I wanted to know more about how the restaurant was conceived — the concept A, B, C’s.
Seeing me here, I am afraid is a dead giveaway – like a wind up toy that seems to have a life of its own – migrating to the expansive and continually evolving chefs’ territory. True Food Kitchen’s Executive Chef, Michael Stebner delivers the goods – the where, why and how of it all.
Sam Fox, CEO of Fox Restaurant Group + best-selling author, Dr. Andrew Weil
Chef Michael Stebner reveals how it all works and why
How did you, Sam and Andy come together to create True Food Kitchen?
Chef Stebner: Sam and Andy met years ago. Sam started operating in Arizona and that’s where Andy lived. I think Andy used to frequent Sam’s restaurant, and they met that way. I believe the idea came from Andy. If you read some of Andy’s books, he talks about someday opening a restaurant that would serve some of the food found in his older books. I think he came to Sam and said, “ I want to create this restaurant, but I don’t know how to do the restaurant thing, so I’d like you to open the restaurant, and I can help with the menu.” What Andy does is he puts his name on the products that he believes in.
A year before I became executive chef for True Food Kitchen, I was working for Sam Fox at one of his restaurants. During the previous 15 years, I had already begun to feel a responsibility for what I was feeding my restaurant guests but not necessarily for health reasons. My goal at that time was to cook Southern Californian food using local, organic ingredients and treat them with a light touch by not using a lot of butter, cream and sugar. That light tough with great ingredients brought me to True Food when Sam first asked Dr. Weil, “Who’s going to cook this way?” I believe he thought of me because I was closer than any other chef in the company to making this natural progression. It just made sense for me to start thinking about how I needed to start doing a little bit more; being more proactive about my own health, my wife’s health, my kids health, as well as the number of people I could reach through the restaurant and the impact that I could have on them.
My first meeting with Dr. Weil was at his house. We cooked together, had lunch and just talked shop. He’s a great cook, so he can talk with a chef about food without being intimidated. We had a great dialogue, and it wasn’t about, “Oh you’ve got to cut the fat and you’ve got to give them fewer calories.” It was, “These days, I love to go to the farmers’ market, buy what’s fresh, and then make a menu based on that.” Dr. Weil said, “Oh my God, that’s exactly what we want — that’s healthy.” We just hit it off from the first day I met him. I really feel as if we’re kindred spirits. I don’t know if he feels that way, but I do.
Sam knows how to develop restaurants. He has hamburger concepts and steak house concepts, but he’s smart enough to know that the True Food Kitchen concept needed to be something else — it needed to be special. He’s brought a lot to the table, especially by not taking the corporate restaurant track on things like, Pepsi must be served in the restaurant or nobody will come. He’s been very gentle with that kind of stuff.
The U.S. has seen an alarming spike in childhood obesity and diabetes. What are your thoughts about these conditions as they relate to food choices?
Chef Stebner: That’s where it becomes personal for me. The things that are happening to our society gave me another sort of level of consciousness about food.
My parent’s friends are getting prostate cancer, having heart attacks and struggling with obesity. I don’t want to think about the last 20 years and how many heart attacks I’ve caused. I have four kids. I take my kids to school with a sack lunch every day. I see what these other kids are eating, the condition that they are in, and what they’re being subjected to. We keep feeding these kids what we think they want even though it’s not good for them. We’re not introducing them to anything new. If I let my eight-year-old decide what she’s going to eat, she’s going to eat cupcakes, popcorn, cheeseburgers and pizza. As a parent, I have to teach her how to eat right and give her good options. Too often the options are prepackaged processed foods that are simple to prepare but terrible for them.
Is it your belief that children and adults can learn that nutritious food can taste wonderful? How do you approach that ideal and deliver it to people who come to True Food Kitchen?
Chef Stebner: True Food is a great platform for me because, if anything matters to me, it is that. I have the opportunity to develop a kids’ menu for True Food, unmatched by any other restaurant, which was pretty darn easy because every other restaurant contains five items on the kids’ menu. It was easy to come up with a menu that was sensible and kids would like. We don’t set out to make health foods in this restaurant, we set out to make good food. I buy great ingredients and don’t mess with them too much — I let a carrot taste like a carrot. We don’t believe that kids have to have macaroni and cheese, so let’s try and make healthy macaroni and cheese. We don’t have a healthy shepherd’s pie or a healthy meatloaf on the menu either. We don’t take the position that we have to have this or that or people aren’t going to come to the restaurant. What we can do more and more of is introduce them to interesting things, new things that maybe they’ve never tried before. When I was growing up, we had carrot sticks, celery sticks, and jicama that we ate all the time. Kids now don’t know what jicama is. It’s as if we’ve stopped teaching our kids about anything beyond their five food groups, which is hot dogs, cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly.
We’re not aiming for esoteric and weird with crunchy twigs and berries, but we have enough diversity and variety on our menu that we can introduce super nutrient dense foods into regular dishes. I use my dad as an example. He cares about his health, so he wants to eat right, but he’s very picky. He’ll take chances when ordering at our restaurant not because he wants to try something weird or different; he orders it because he knows it’s going to be good. It’s good food first, and it just happens to be packed with a lot of nutrition.
How might you differ from many chefs today?
Chef Stebner: I think a lot of chefs or artistes, if they want to be called that, feel as if they have to do so much to the food. I feel that the artistic part of being a chef is getting the right product. You may have to go to three or four different farms to get the right products for your salad, but once you get those right products, you don’t have to do anything to them; you just put them in a bowl and eat them. What I’m looking for is to build a relationship with a farmer that I know has great stuff, who cares as much as I do. When I was in Southern California, I used to buy a lot of produce at Chino Farms where they’ve been growing produce for 65 years. If anybody knows how to grow a tomato, it’s Chino Farms. Their tomatoes are ridiculously good. The worst thing, as a chef, that I can do to that tomato is anything besides slice it. What can I do to make that tomato better? Leave it alone. That’s the restraint I’m talking about.
True Food Kitchen – Clean, Natural Elements – Like the Food
What has been the most unexpected thing that you’ve learned as a result of the True Food collaboration?
Chef Stebner: After I came to work for Sam, I was amazed at how organized a restaurant could be from an accountability standpoint. I came here from owning my own restaurant and thinking I was doing a pretty good job of it. I think my biggest professional surprise was learning how great restaurants could work well.
Chef Stebner’s Bits + Pieces:
What ingredients do you think are the most versatile?
Chef Stebner: Extra virgin olive oil, garlic, vinegar, a little sea salt and I can pretty much do anything. I can do a lot of damage with those ingredients.
Give me an experience in your life that was a prelude to becoming a chef?
Chef Stebner: I used to watch Julia Child with my mother and grandmother after school instead of watching cartoons.
What’s the biggest food related surprise you’ve ever had?
Chef Stebner: The first time I ate jellyfish. It was surprisingly good.
What’s your most treasured family recipe?
Chef Stebner: My mom’s strawberry jam.
What do you excel at besides being a great chef?
Chef Stebner: Professionally, leadership. People like to learn from me. They like to listen to what I have to say. I pride myself on bringing great people up.
Personally, I play a mean banjo. Someday I might go on tour. I could never give up cooking. I could do some sort of banjo supper club or something.
Tuscan Kale Salad
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, mashed
Salt & Pepper, to taste
Hot red pepper flakes, to taste
4-6 cups kale, loosely packed, sliced leaves of Italian black (also known as Lacinato,“dinosaur.” or cavolo nero) midribs removed
2/3 cup grated Pecorino Toscano cheese (Rosselino variety if you can find it) or other flavorful grating cheese such as Asiago or Parmesan
½ cup freshly made bread crumbs from lightly toasted bread
1. Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and a generous pinch (or more to taste) of hot red pepper flakes.
2. Pour over the kale in serving bowl and toss well.
3. Add 2/3 of the cheese and toss again.
4. Let the kale sit for at least 5 minutes.
5. Add the bread crumbs, toss again, and top with the remaining cheese.
For the complete True Food Kitchen Experience visit: www.truefoodkitchen.com.