We sit down again with Executive Chef Micky Kearns to learn more about his passion for food and the journey that led to the tasty H&C menu!
H&C: You don’t use fresh pasta for H&C’s Mac & Cheese. Can you explain why?
Absolutely. Well, in the first place, this isn’t a pasta shop. This is a Mac & Cheese shop. And, for a pretty rich cream sauce, fresh pasta would just get lost in the shuffle. (Fresh pasta) is a more delicate thing, and for this operation, we wanted something that was a little more hearty to go along with that notion of comfort food. So, yeah, one thing you learn from studying in Italy, and in particular, looking at pasta and its uses – every style and size, and shape has a specific, intended use. (You know)So, there’s a time and a place for fresh pasta, and Mac & Cheese isn’t necessarily it.
H&C: Why Mac & Cheese and why Chicago?
Yeah, excellent question. Chicago loves comfort food. But, over the years, the ability to cook from scratch has kind of fallen by the wayside, and for a lot of people, and a lot of people in the business, it’s just easier to run a hot dog shop or make some tacos than it would be to make a luxurious, cream sauce from scratch. And it’s really not that difficult to do. But few people are willing to try and do it. I think that’s why Mac & Cheese and Chicago. Chicago loves cheese, and Wisconsin’s a Northern suburb.
H&C: What makes Chicago unique for culinary experiences?
Well you know, there’s good and bad things going on culinarily in Chicago. We’re still in the midwest mentality of quality equals value for the dollar which means lots of food for a little amount of money. And, of course, that really dumbs down the quality. There could be no other way, right? What’s nice is that the last twenty years, the Midwest, in general, has kind of woken up to the realization that you don’t necessarily need a massive quantity of food – it’s often times more desirable to have quality food that was made from fresh ingredients, from scratch ingredients, no processing involved. I think that’s important about what we’re doing here.
H&C: You and the team at H&C went through a careful selection process for your wines (Chef Kearns holds a Level 3 certification through the Guild of Sommeliers and the Court of Master Sommeliers). How do you pair your wine and cheese?
I think the thing to keep in mind is, you know, Mac & Cheese, at its root is a dairy-based dish. And dairy, it has certain foibles that when you go to pair drinks with it, you wanna kind of keep in mind. We wanna make sure that you know, in order to cut through the fat of the dairy, we have things like carbonation and a fair amount of acid. For example, an IPA can be very __- to have that level of assertiveness that can cut through the creaminess of the dish that you’re eating with it. Again, the acidity from white wine, like a Sav Blanc, is gonna help to rejuvenate the palate in between bites and when you’re eating something that’s dairy-based, that can be valuable. If you notice, this is why when you have a piece of cheesecake, typically, there’s some strawberries or some kind of acidic fruit along with it because it’s the acid of the fruit that cuts through the fat of the dairy.
H&C: Do wine and beer follow the same principles when pairing them with cheese?
I think, really, there’s going to be those that gravitate towards having a beer with a plate of Mac & Cheese and some that are going to want a glass of wine. You kind of want to approach it in the same manner. You wanna have something that has enough body, personality, and assertiveness to go with that dairy-based dish and stand up to the that. Makes sense?
H&C: Without giving away any of your trade secrets, how do you prepare the Mac & Cheese at H&C?
I will give away the number one trade secret for Hops & Curds, and it’s freshness. We source the freshest ingredients, the highest quality ingredients that we possibly can, and we do as little as necessary to elevate those ingredients without getting in their way. Then we send them downrange and watch people enjoy them.
H&C: There are countless ways to prepare Mac & Cheese. What makes H&C unique in that respect?
Again, I’m going to point to the freshness and the simplicity with which we make things. If there’s not a valid reason to have an ingredient in my dishes, it’s not it there.
H&C: How about Mac & Cheese recipes that contain several different types of cheeses?
There’s no right or wrong about how people want to eat. This isn’t a question of chastising people for not knowing any better, or something like that. Everybody do as you please, but here, we want to put a spotlight on a profile of flavor and let you taste what Parmesian actually tastes like and not convoluted with a bunch of other flavors that ultimately are only distracting and take the focus and spotlight off the star of the show.
Often times you’ll see a 3,4,5 or 18 cheese Mac & Cheese, or whatever, because there’s this implied “more is better,” therefore, “I’m getting a better meal” or more value for the dollar, or something along those lines. If that’s to your liking, awesome. Point of fact, because they have that, I(we) don’t need to bring that. I’m going to bring you something that tastes of a very specific thing that is easily identifiable and enjoyable in its simplicity.
H&C: Can you speak to the very fine texture of the cheese sauces?
Sure. My (our) sauce contains no thickening agents. There’s no roux, there’s no flour added, there’s no glop because I didn’t add any (****) to it. [laughs] It’s just cream & cheese. Who would’ve thunk it?!
H&C: What else can we expect to find at H & C?
(I’m) in the business of producing happy people, so we produce fresh food from ingredients that are wholesome and good for you under the working premise that your meal should not be an attempt on your life. It should be a life sustaining, nutritional event that nourishes your body, mind, and soul and doesn’t leave you feeling like an hour later like you have to take a nap under the table or feeling like you’ve done something detrimental to your health in enjoying a guilty pleasure.
We’re all about offering the diversification that you’d expect in a proper gastropub, the lynchpin on this menu is the Mac & Cheese, but everything here we make from scratch. So the burgers are sourced, and we only use fresh ground beef, never frozen. We make food the way they were making (food) fifty years ago. It’s not complicated.