Southwest Fried Chicken and Picante Mac n Cheese by Chef Steve Johnson

Chef Steve Johnson: Not Your Ordinary Hotel Food

by Dara Schwartz on January 17, 2013

Behind-the-Line Chef’s edition connects our favorite chefs with home cooks, weighing in on cooking methods and kitchen technique, favorite ingredients and kitchen resources to help grow your inner cook.

Chef Steve Johnson-Hyatt Regency Columbus, Ohio

Executive Chef Steve Johnson, of Hyatt Regency Columbus, at Big Bar On 2

“I was born in a restaurant,” says Chef Steve Johnson, “My parents co-owned an American-Continental restaurant, called Berkeleys, which was located just five houses from where IChef Steve Johnson's first cooked meal lived. Every day, I would pick up the house keys on my way home. I worked there until I was 16.” Growing up in an Ohio household to what he defines as “normal,” Johnson’s family grew everything from kale and greens to cherry and apple trees and blackberry bushes right in their own backyard. “I grew up with well water. It’s what we knew.” Tied to his roots, it’s these ingrained principles Johnson brings to the Hyatt Regency Columbus, where he has transformed the kitchen to an 80% made-from-scratch kitchen, designing organic menus with a commitment to local farms within 150 miles radius, partnering with farms like Davis Creek Meats and Gerber Farms. “All of our desserts are made in-house,” claimed Johnson, “I’ve changed the staff’s thought process. If they can’t embrace these core values, then they aren’t going to make it in my kitchen.”

Hyatt Regency Columbus Pear and Brie Sandwich at the Market Stand Cafe

Market Stand Café pear and brie sandwich – watercress, balsamic aioli and caramelized onion on rustic walnut bread. The pear, brie and bread are sliced to order and the arugula is organic.

Flavor affair with the southwest.
Johnson’s 13-year journey with the Hyatt Regency began in Southern California, where he discovered bright bold flavors of southwestern cooking. This Ohio native carries on the southwest tradition with a twist, where he merges traditional home-cooked staples with tex-mex flair. “Your typical fried chicken will not be accompanied with the standard mashers and gravy,” said Johnson. Better yet, expect smoky notes of paprika and hints of heat from this buttermilk-crusted breast. And the neighbor side dish? Be prepared for a spiced-up mac-n-cheese explosion with chef’s secret cream infusion, tapping into classic French cooking principles. And if you stick around long enough, your palate may be blessed with a mind-blowing take on fried ice cream. What I like to call a scoopin’ bombshell. Can you get your head wrapped around a poblano pepper stuffed with vanilla ice cream, then double-crusted with crushed blue and red tortillas? My taste buds are anxiously waiting.

For Chef Steve’s Southwest Fried Chicken and Picante Mac and Cheese recipes, scroll to end of interview

One ingredient you couldn’t live without and why?
SJ: S&P. Without salt and pepper, you have nothing. I fluctuate between using Kosher salt and sea salt and use coarse ground pepper. If you have iodized salt in your cabinets, throw it away immediately, unless you want to use it for melting ice off your sidewalks.

Must have kitchen supply or utensil in your kitchen
SJ: Microplane graters. I have two: one used for fine grating and another used for coarse. I use them for multiple purposes, from zesting citrus or garlic to making root vegetable ribbons.

A cookbook that every cooking enthusiast should have in their library
SJ: The Flavor Bible. This book will help you pair foods. If you are cooking with something you’ve never cooked before and don’t know what to do with it, it will guide you on how to prepare it and pair it with complementary foods and flavors.

What country has influenced your cooking the most?
SJ: Mexico. My favorite style of cooking is Southwestern. I got the southwest cooking bug when I worked in Southern California. Then, I traveled through Mexico and Central America, visiting countries of Costa Rica, Venezuela and Guatemala, where my appreciation and love grew strong for bright colors and bold flavors. With that being said, Chef Rick Bayless is my hero.

Most expensive food, beverage, or ingredient in your kitchen. How do you use it?
SJ: At home: pink Himalayan sea salt that I purchased from North Market Spices. I am using this as my table salt and putting it on everything. I buy all spices whole and then grind them at home in my little grinder.

In the Hyatt kitchen: saffron threads. I use it on rice and desserts. Make sure to steep the threads into a stock before using.

What is one thing Columbus does not know about the Hyatt kitchen?
SJ: Our children’s menu is 100% organic. We partnered with world food extraordinaire, Alice Waters, to design and implement our menu.

On average, how many people do you serve a day and how many people do you manage in the kitchen?
SJ: 500-600, though there are some days where we will serve over 1,500, which is really nothing to me. I am used to high volume. 3,000 a day seem normal to me. I manage over 60 employees, which includes about 30 cooks and 30 stewards.

Where would you like to see the Hyatt kitchen in 5 years?Chef Steve Johnson snowboarding to cooking
SJ: When I was Executive Sous Chef at The Hyatt Regency Westlake Village in California, I implemented a 1,000 sq. ft. garden packed with herbs, chilies and peppers. We could walk outside with scissors and pull what we needed for that day. I have the vision of turning the green right outside this window into a garden. We are also looking to re-concept our Market Stand Café. I want an oven to throw logs into, where I can make house flatbreads and smell the aromas of cherry wood.

What is one thing Columbus does not know about you?
SJ: In 2010, I received Hyatt Chef-of-the-Year. I am the Stay Fit Chef for all Hyatt’s in the United States, where I advise and monitor all Hyatt’s Healthy Eating Menu. When any Hyatt designs their Healthy Eating Menu Entree, they have to submit it to me for portion size and ingredient approval. For example, I ensure they are using 100% olive oil in their vinaigrettes versus a blend, which can contain olive oil and canola.

Favorite thing to do with root vegetables.
There’s nothing better than roasted beets. That’s the only way to go. My go-to salad is roasted beets, arugula and goat cheese.

Join Chef Steve on February 13, 2013, at the North Market School of Cooking for a three-course meal with wine/beer pairings. To sign up for this cooking class, call the North Market at (614) 463-9664, or register online here. 

Southwest Fried Chicken
Makes 24 pieces

For the Chicken Rub
1/2 cup paprika
1 tbsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp garlic powder
2 tbsp onion powder
8 tbsp kosher salt
2 tbsp black pepper

Mix all dry ingredients together. Rub chicken breast generously and let refrigerate overnight.

Frying the Chicken
2 lbs Seasoned Flour (can season with salt, pepper and other spices like paprika)
1 quart of buttermilk
4 whole eggs
Rubbed Chicken Breast  24 Pieces

Beat buttermilk and eggs together. Dredge rubbed chicken breasts in flour. Dip in buttermilk and back in flour. Fry at 350 degrees, until golden brown. Finish in oven if needed until internal temperature reads 165 degrees for 15 seconds.

Picante Mac and Cheese
Makes 25 servings

Poblano Cream
1 ounce of olive oil
2 ounces chopped onion
4 ounces diced poblano pepper
1 ounce of minced jalapeno
5 cloves of chopped garlic
½ tsp ground cumin
1/8  tsp ground coriander
1 tbsp chopped cilantro
½ tbsp chopped parsley chopped
salt and pepper  to taste
1 ounce lime juice
1 tbsp sugar
32 ounces heavy cream
4 tbsp of chicken stock

Heat oil in sauce pan on medium high heat. Sweat onions until tender. Add chilies and cook until soft. Add garlic and cook until aromatic. Add sugar, lime juice, herbs and spices. Cook for 30 seconds. Add cream and chicken base then bring to a simmer. Adjust thickness if necessary. Remove from heat & cool.

Mac and Cheese Base Sauce
4 ounces diced onion
4 ounces white wine
prepared poblano cream from above
2 lbs of american cheese
1 cup of picante (any picante salsa will do)
8 ounces of pico de gallo
3 beaten eggs
1/4 lb butter

Sauté onions in oil until soft. Add wine and reduce until almost dry. Add cream and bring to boil. Temper beaten eggs with half of boiling cream, return to pan and bring to a simmer. Add picante and pico, and bring back to simmer. Add cheese in small batches, stirring consistently. Turn off heat and whisk in butter.

Final Preparation (combine all):
Cooked elbow Macaroni 2.5 pounds
Cheese sauce base from above, while still hot 1 quart
Pepper Jack Cheese, Shredded 8 ounces
Salt and pepper to taste

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