Melissa Novak has been a chef at The Chopping Block for the past four years where she teaches a whole host of cooking classes to bridesmaids, singles on blind dates, mother and daughter duos and co-workers ready to blow off steam with an Iron Chef style competition. There are almost as many cuisines as there are reasons to attend a class there. A peek at the July schedule reveals a Sushi workshop, a date night class called Jamaica Me Crazy, or for the more experienced home cook–Making the Most of Your CSA box and German Feast on the Grill (an outdoor hands-on class). But Melissa’s heart is in pastries, because that’s where she got her start at Frontera Grill, and since she was diagnosed with celiac disease a number of years ago, she has even developed delicious gluten-free pastries, one recipe she shares with us here (see below). I met with Melissa at the Merchandise Mart location (the other Chopping Block location is in Lincoln Square) a few weeks ago to talk about her background and her job.
Tell us about when you knew you wanted to be a chef.
I always enjoyed cooking growing up. As a kid, friends would come over and it wasn’t just cheese dip and snacks. I’d make omelets and cakes. In my family, we divided up meals every night and I used to feed everyone hors d’oeuvres and the first course. Although I enjoyed doing it, I didn’t think of it in terms of a career at that point. I originally went to college to be a teacher but the program I went in to changed parameters and I reevaluated what I was doing and got a job at a restaurant as a host with a friend of mine. I loved the atmosphere and chaos of a restaurant, so I worked my way around the front and then went to culinary school.
What kind of chef jobs did you have before Chopping Block?
When I moved to Chicago, I started my professional internship working at Bin 36 for a little over a year, then found a home at Frontera Grill. I worked there for 10 years. It was also my first pastry job. During the end of my tenure with Frontera, I was unfortunately involved in an accident (I was hit by a cab while walking across the street), which meant that I was no longer able to work long hours professionally in a kitchen, so I had to come up with other things that I could do with my background. After the accident it was like we’re going to see if I can bounce back. Working as a line cook is really a young person’s job and it physically breaks you down. I still wanted to be involved with food in some way, so I found this and it’s great.
Would you rather bake or cook and why?
I love both. When people ask me what my specialty is, I tell then my niche is Mexican pastry, which is a very unique set of pastry skills. I have a lot of breadth of knowledge in that as well as French pastries. But I love cooking as well. I prefer doing both for my family and friends, but if you asked me how often I cook at home, it’s not very often. At one point in my career I learned how to microwave sautéed onions in under two minutes so I could say I ate something at the end of the day when I got home. But if it’s for somebody else, I’m going to pull out all of the stops and I love cooking for my friends and family.
What do you like about teaching people to cook? What is challenging about it?
I love teaching because I love learning and you can’t be a teacher without learning. I really enjoy when I get people in and they are worried that they messed things up. I love the adventure of getting a whole new set of people in here and no matter how many tines I’ve taught this class there will be new challenges because not everybody is going to perceive it the same way. What I love most is finding what is common enough in a person’s everyday lives so that they can wrap their head around it and not feel intimidated by it. And if they mess it up, they mess it up. We can fix it. Almost everything can be fixed, unless you are making a cake. The most challenging thing is trying to get people to not be afraid to do stuff. Sometimes, in our more social classes, the challenge is getting people to pay attention. Sometimes I do turn in to a third grade teacher, and have to say “Whatever is in your hand, please put it down and eyes up here. You can pick up your wine glass, that’s fine.”
What classes do you teach currently?
I teach everything. The only class I haven’t taught yet is sushi. All of the gluten-free classes of course (I have celiac disease), and the vegetarian classes and boot camps.
When I found out I had celiac disease the executive chef looked at me and asked what was I going to do about my career. It had never occurred to me that I should do anything different. I was at the perfect place actually because at that time we really wanted to get in to using alternative ingredients that weren’t seen regularly in pastries. So it really gave me a chance to come up with a whole range of ideas and bringing things in. I wasn’t trying to replicate a cake with gluten-free alternatives, but trying to do other things in place of that which would be just as satisfying and just as delicious.
Do you see the industry getting more serious about feeding people with celiac disease?
Yes, definitely. When people come in the first question is always “Is this celiac disease, a sensitivity or for diet reasons?” Most people couldn’t tell you what gluten is, but they see it in magazines. A lot of restaurants put it on their menus and ask about restrictions. They are trying to get ahead of it so it doesn’t get sent back.
Do you see any food trends rise and fade in your work?
Gluten is one of those trends. There are always trends going on but in Chicago it is pretty evenly spread. There are enough ethnic groups with different cuisines in so many neighborhoods that there is not one food that’s popular. It’s pretty nice that you can go and get anything that you want as long as you know the right area. But I do think the big Chicago steak house is coming back in to popularity. People are going out for their big steak dinners once again.
Who is your chef mentor?
Rick Bayless definitely had a huge influence on how I look at food when I’m making it, when I go out to buy it, when I’m at a market and putting things together. He was also a huge influence on my work ethic and how I work with people. Here is one example of how he pops up, I recently went to Italy with a friend. We were in Turin and I had been trying to find open air markets in the other cities. We were walking around looking for the shroud of Turin and and came across a market and all I could think was that Rick would be very happy with that find. It really reminded me of the markets he used to take us to in Mexico. We just got some strawberries because we were staying in a hotel and customs frowns on you bringing fresh food home with you! But we walked around and saw great meats and cheeses and housewares.
Who needs cooking lessons?
Everybody can enjoy a cooking lesson. They’re fun and you always learn something even when you are a chef. It’s always nice to see not just what skills people have but also it sparks ideas for cooks -I hear ‘Oh, that’s a great way to show someone how to do that.’
Who comes to your classes?
We get everybody. We get groups, bachelor parties, bridal showers, we actually had a rehearsal dinner party once. We get a lot of date nights with couples, and if it’s singles we definitely get a lot more women coming in.
Got any good teaching or cooking stories?
I have quite a few! When people come in I put them in groups with people I think they will enjoy their two or three hours with. We had one class with two young couples who didn’t know each other. They were on dates. It was a Tuesday night and these two couples just proceeded to make out whenever I was giving instructions. They were holding hands and kissing and putting their hands in each other’s back pockets the whole time and they were right in my line of sight. I couldn’t watch that and try to explain things, so for the next recipe I stood on the other side. There was a group of ladies who were all trying to keep straight faces but one had to turn her face to the wall to hide her amusement. Still, one of the couples was able to produce a dish because they each had a hand in the other’s back pocket but between the two of them they had two working hands. I think at one point I had to mention that if you didn’t get your pasta done then you would not have anything for dinner. I’ve also had blind date classes that were awkward.
What is the coolest thing about being a chef?
I get paid to play with my food.
Is it hard to teach cooking or to cook for vegetarians, vegans and the gluten free, or a combination thereof?
I’m the gluten-free expert here but one of the chefs is vegetarian and one of our assistants is vegan and she is helping the curriculum coordinator to come up with some recipes for a class. When I first started there was one gluten-free class. I’ve come up with four or five; breads, desserts, holiday baking and gluten-free gourmet for spring.
Do you have a favorite recipe that you teach people how to cook? Would you share it with us?
I have a couple of family recipes that I don’t teach in classes, but my cousin is getting married in a month so they are putting together a cookbook and I wrote it all out for them. But I love teaching the gluten-free recipes and I will share the chocolate raspberry tart. It’s has a pressed dough and it’s really good.
Gluten-Free Pie Crust
Yield: Crust for 10-inch tart pan
Active time: 15 minutes
Start to finish: 32 minutes
1 1/2 cups brown rice flour mix (see note, below)
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons xanthum
Pinch of sea salt
7 tablespoons cold butter
1 to 2 teaspoons colder water
Preheat the oven to 350º.
1. Spray or butter the bottom of a 10-inch fluted tart pan and set aside.
2. In a food processor add the brown rice flour mix, sugar, xanthum gum and salt. Pulse in the cold butter until the flour looks like very wet sand.
3. Add the water to the food processor and pulse for 30 more seconds. Remove from the food processor and press into the tart pan.
4. Let the pressed crust chill in the refrigerator for 5 minutes. Bake for about 12 minutes until golden brown. Allow the crust to cool before filling.
Brown Rice Flour Mix:
2 cups brown rice flour
2/3 cups potato starch
1/3 cup tapioca flour
Chocolate Raspberry Ganache Tart
Yield: One 10-inch tart; 8 servings
Active time: 10 minutes
Start to finish: 25 minutes
2 cups heavy cream
1 pound bittersweet chocolate
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 par-baked Gluten-Free Pie Crust (recipe above)
1/2 cup raspberry purée (see note, below)
1 pint raspberries
- Heat the heavy cream in a saucepan until a film forms on the top. Pour over the chocolate to melt and set in a warm place.
- In a large bowl whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and salt, combining well. Temper the melted chocolate mixture into the egg mixture.
- Pour into the prepared crust. Add the raspberry puree, swirl with a paring knife, and bake for 14 minutes or until set in the center. Let cool completely before removing from the tart pan.
- Cut into slices and top with fresh raspberries. ¥
To prepare the raspberry purée use either prepared raspberry jam, or to make your own gently cook 1 pint of fresh raspberries for 5 to 7 minutes and purée.