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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, October 22, 2017 1:00 am

Chefs, readers offer their dining experiences

RYAN DUVALL | The Journal Gazette

From time to time, I answer readers' questions in my column. But, hey, I have questions, too!

I recently reached out on social media to ask chefs and customers about a few things I have been wondering about. The feedback was great with a few surprises.

From the chefs

Why did you get in this tough business and why do you stay with it even when it is so tough?

The answers here were pretty obvious for the first part – love of food, family business, etc. – but the answers from chef John Maxwell of the Ragin' Cajun food truck were very interesting. I was well aware of the former New Orleans chef's credentials, but did not know all of the details of his journey here:

“(I) started mopping floors and scrubbing pots at a lunch diner inside the state college of dentistry when I was 15,” he said. “Within two months I was on the grill and pot-cooking red beans and rice. At 17, I walked into Antoine's, the oldest restaurant in the country under the same family, (opened 1840 now in seventh generation; inventors of Oysters Rockefeller and many more famous dishes) as an 'apprentice waiter.' ... I had a front row seat to a level of cooking I had never really even thought about. I was hooked. The apprentice program in the 'old days' used to be 10 years. I did it in three. The menu was 181 items, all in French, no explanations.

“Moved to Fort Wayne to be closer to my wife's family after Katrina, and after being 'overqualified' (for local restaurants) we started The Ragin' Cajun Food Truck.”

For David McLaughlin of Bluestack Smokehouse, the path to food came out of necessity.

“My old job (at Navistar) laid me off and I didn't get an invite to their new location,” he admitted.

The second part of the question had some interesting responses, too. My favorite was from the always witty River Bend Pizza owner, Alex Demetroff, a fourth-generation restaurateur, who simply said he stays at it because of, “Lunacy in the DNA and I just love to feed people.”

Maxwell said it is the reaction he gets from customers.

“Seeing their heads nod up and down as they take that first bite, and then maybe close their eyes for a second, before offering a taste of what they have to whomever is with them, like, 'try this,' that's a big part of why I stay at it.”

Sean Richardson of The Golden had a similar response that centered on the farm-to-table, fresh, locally grown items his restaurant emphasizes:

“It's rewarding every time someone eats something as simple as a fresh English pea and realizes for the first time what a pea is actually supposed to taste like.”

What dish are you most embarrassed of having on the menu in the past?

Chefs being chefs, nearly all confidently stated that they have never served something they were not proud of. I don't believe that for a second. Richardson, however, was not scared to admit to his greatest transgression:

“I was messing around using pork shoulder steaks on the menu. We get a half pig in every week and it is always fun trying to find new things to do with all the meat,” he said.

“We were getting these fantastic blueberries from Berry Hill farm out of North Manchester and, at the time, I wanted to use them on everything including the pork. From there, my mind wandered to berries and cream and using that in an application with the pork. The dish wound up being some spicy blueberry jam, a slow roasted pork shoulder steak and some shaved fennel tossed in this creamy dressing.

“It was not good. I am embarrassed to have served it, and feel pretty awful for the people who ordered it that night.”

When you are off the clock, where do you like to eat?

Maxwell: “I eat only at independently owned restaurants. I have never in my life set foot in an Applebee's, Olive Garden, Chili's, so on. ... OK, Burger King and Taco Bell. Maybe twice a year, but that is only a shortness on time thing.”

Then he added this disclaimer that I can relate with: “White Castle. I will cut across three lanes of oncoming traffic blindfolded in a snowstorm for sliders.”

McLaughlin: “My family's go-tos are Hall's Prime Rib and Raimindo's Pizza. I enjoy coneys from Mr. Coney – they start serving them at 7 a.m. – Mi Pirrilla burritos and there is nothing better than Chung King's egg rolls and hot sour soup after a long day.”

Richardson often heads to other cities, like Chicago, to eat when he has time.

“I frequently leave town to get inspired by other restaurants that are making splashes in the food community and then am often surprised to find places that were not on my radar that also inspire me,” he said.

“Right now, eating out is all about education at first and then partying after a few drinks have kicked in and the education becomes secondary.”

From the readers

What type of restaurant do you wish we had?

Ken A. Bugajski had an answer that echoes a craving of mine since I moved to Fort Wayne: “A non-chain deli sandwich shop.”

We were not alone.

Zach Anderson: “Polish cuisine or a true Polish delicatessen.”

Lisa Lowder Lobo: Good German Bavarian style with authentic schnitzels, good authentic Greek restaurant. A true Jewish/European deli with real stacked corned beef.

What are your biggest beefs with restaurants?

Again, Bugajski's answer had me nodding furiously.

“Being asked if I would like dessert when I am clearly only half way (or less) through the main course. The main course arriving three minutes after the salad or appetizer.”

But Anderson's answer to this question was by far my favorite answer of this entire experiment.

“The trend of farm to table is a good thing, but telling me that my chicken's name was Phillip and that he ate only blue corn after 4 p.m. just so you can charge 28 dollars for your chicken breast cutlet is an awful off-putting thing that will make me not return.”

What should I review?

Bugajski: “I like the idea of, 'Best Of,' lists; maybe once a month or six times a year.”

Anderson: “I'm afraid if I tell you, my favorite place will get overcrowded and I won't enjoy it anymore.”

Lobo mentioned a place that has been suggested to me several times over the years – Chef Peng Chinese Restaurant in Garrett.

So, for all of you who have been waiting for me to review it, you'll need to check out next Sunday's “Dining Out” column to see what I thought about it.

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.