“I’m gushing over him,” said Paul Geragosian, owner of Brecon Grille in downtown Saline. “Saline has not seen someone like him before.”
He’s talking about Chef Chris Huey, who has been working at Brecon Grille & Pub for six weeks now. Huey, a native of Ann Arbor, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He’s worked at Logan’s, a French Asian fine dining restaurant. He worked under Chef Takashi Yagihashi at Tribute in Farmington. He’s also worked at Zolo’s Bistro, Terry B’s in Dexter, and Mediterrano.
(Brecon Grille is open from 4 to 11 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday-Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday. FACEBOOK)
Hiring a renowned chef is a big step for a downtown restaurant that sometimes feels like a neighborhood pub.
“I've had line cooks who've worked their way through the business to become chefs, but this is new. If we were at B+ or A-, now maybe we are at A or A+,” Geragosian said. “For us, it's a great addition. I think it's a great addition for Saline.”
Chef Huey and Geragosian have begun tinkering with the menu and retraining the kitchen staff. Already, Geragosian said, the move is paying dividends.
“I have my mainstays like the brisket and burgers that aren't going anywhere. But I’ve given him a clean slate. If you want to change my fish and chips, show me why,” Geragosian said.
So, Chef Huey recommended fresh Icelandic cod.
“We tasted my old fish and chips, side to side, with the fresh cod. The new dish was 10 times better,” Geragosian said.
Now the Icelandic cod is flown in twice a week. The price for the fish and chips went up by $1.
The menu is slowly being transformed. Instead of Atlantic salmon, they’re serving Scottish salmon, which is fattier and tastier. Last week, Chef Huey made pasties from scratch. They’re using Amish chicken breasts, from chickens raised without hormones.
“It might cost me a little more and I might have to raise the prices a little more, but I’m serving a better product and people are really enjoying the food,” Geragosian said. “As a restaurant owner I can only take the kitchen so far. I have other ownership responsibilities, trying to keep the doors open and paying bills and doing payroll and hobnobbing with everyone out front.”
Chris Huey grew up in Ann Arbor, where he attended Greenhills. Family meals were an important part of Huey’s life. He remembers running home from school to help his mom in the kitchen. He’d stand on a crate and help her peel the lettuce and clean the vegetables.
“There was a deep, deep enjoyment of sitting down as a family and having quality conversations while we ate,” Huey said.
By the time he was 15, Huey was already starting to think about a career as a chef. He worked at the Zingerman’s Bakehouse. He credits managing partners Amy Emberling and Frank Carollo for instilling kitchen discipline and teaching him “the right way” to do things. After high school, he planned to get a business degree at Western Michigan University and then go to the Culinary Institute of America. Just a few months into his first year, he called his parents.
“I told them I was wasting my time. I wanted to go straight to the CIA,” Huey remembered.
So he did. After graduating, he worked in New York for a spell. Then he came back to Michigan to work as a line cook for Chef Takashi Yagihashi at Tribute in Farmington. It was a grueling, demanding job that Chef Huey remembers with some dread but much pride.
"It was the hardest two and a half years of my life. It's one of those things you'd never, ever want to do again. But you're so glad you made it through the experience,” Huey said. “It was meant to break you.”
It didn't quite break Huey. Instead, it forged a work ethic that carries Huey to this day. He’s grateful for the experience.
"School is school. School, unfortunately, gets you in the door. I never would have got the job with him without it. But where I learned everything was from him,” Huey said. “What you really want in life is a good teacher who will take you under their wing and care about you.”
Huey, 35, lives in Dexter, where he had worked at Terry B’s for four years. He nearly bought the restaurant. When the deal fell through, he went back to work for Mediterrano’s. He and Geragosian knew each other from their golf league.
Huey said that Geragosian had approached him a couple times about working at the Brecon Grille.
“He’d say, ‘When are you going to be my chef, man?’” Huey said. “And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not working in a bar.’”
They’re friendship strengthened. Geragosian finally convinced him to join the team at Brecon Grille.
In some ways, it’s been a challenge.
“I’d never made a French tip before. I hadn’t made many hamburgers or sandwiches either,” Huey said.
He’s spent the first few weeks training staff on “the fundamentals.” He’s working with cooks who are still teenagers in some cases.
“I've been pleased to see a young staff anxious to learn and challenge themselves,” Huey said.
He’s and Geragosian have improved the menu.
“We don’t want to surprise our guests with drastic changes and increases in prices. But we’re transitioning to a nicer product. We’re upping our quality and our techniques,” Huey said.
Huey’s expertise is sauce work. He loves to work with a demi-glace.
“It’s my favorite part of being in the kitchen,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. It takes time and focus, so people tend to skip it.”
But when you can braise lamb, short ribs or steak with demi-glace there are rewards.
“You achieve deep, deep robust flavors only accomplished with proper roasting and stock made from bones,” he said.
Huey’s Asian restaurant experience has influenced some of the changes. There are two dishes featuring kimchi on the menu.
“Our goal is to create an identity that makes us stand out. Sometimes we can do that with the littlest tweaks,” he said.
Instead of serving Brussels sprouts with bacon, Brecon Grille now serves them with “bacon jam.” They dice the bacon, render it, take the fat out for other uses, hit the bacon with onions, garlic, brown sugar, chicken stock and other ingredients.
“It creates a syrup that turns into a savory jam,” Huey said.
Huey said he’s falling in love with Saline, his new restaurant family, and his “groovy neighbors.”
“I love Paul and I know he cares about me. If I’m going to put everything I’ve got into a restaurant, let’s at least love each other and make our lives as good as we can,” Huey said.