Featured chef: Mitch Ciohon, Beta by Sabor
Roughly three months ago, the owners of Sabor Brazilian Steakhouse opened Beta by Sabor, a lounge and small plates restaurant appealing to diners' desire to try out new dishes in an intimate but social setting.
Beta is a far cry from its Brazilian sister restaurant, Sabor, in both scope and emphasis. Beta's "snack" menu, which includes home-style favorites like fried chicken and waffles right alongside indulgent bites like foie gras pate with blueberry bourbon honey and roasted bone marrow with caper berry chimichurri, is the brainchild of Chef Mitch Ciohon, a taste-master whose vision and palate far exceed his time in the field. And it's proof that culinary enjoyment is limited only by the boundaries of imagination.
Ciohon, who was hired as Beta's executive chef after working under Thomas Schultz at the Iron Horse Hotel, has been working in the restaurant industry since he was 13 years old. His first job, at his uncle's drive-in The Kiltie Drive In in Oconomowoc, endowed him with his work ethic. But, it was his first cooking job, at Gil's Café in Milwaukee, that cemented his love for cooking and convinced him to go back to school for his culinary degree.
I sat down with Ciohon to talk about his passion for cooking, his take on the Milwaukee restaurant scene and some of his favorite things in the kitchen.
OnMilwaukee.com: Describe your relationship to food as you were growing up.
Mitch Ciohon: I have always been a cook. I've always loved cooking. I cooked with my grandma when I was growing up. It was something that was easy for me to do, kind of second nature. I didn't ever think about it as a career path. I was a hockey player and I studied graphic arts when I got into college. Then I took my first real cooking job in a kitchen, at Gil's Café, and that kind of changed the way I viewed my life and my career.
OMC: What made you decide to become a chef?
MC: I stopped playing hockey, rather abruptly, because I knew I wasn't going to be in the NHL. My cousin worked at Gil's and got me a job there. And I got into the kitchen and I just loved being there. I fell in love with cooking. I understood cooking better than I understand anything. And I just wanted to learn everything that I could – everything about cooking. I loved the fast pace, the lifestyle. And that's where it started.
From there, I worked for a while and then I started thinking, "maybe I should go to school and just really see this through." So, I went to MATC and completed their apprenticeship program. It's a really cool program, a full immersed experience, and if you're good enough you can get paid for what you're doing while in school.
OMC: What would you do if you weren't a chef?
MC: If I couldn't cook, I would probably be a starving artist. I love art. Or maybe a farmer. But I think my love for farming really came after I developed an appreciation for food. So, I'd probably be an artist with a garden.
OMC: How would you describe your style of cooking?
MC: That's always a funny question for me. I don't like locking myself in. I don't do just French classic. I don't do just Asian. I love putting everything I've learned along the way into practice. It's fusion.
I guess I would describe it as contemporary French countryside mildly influenced by Japanese cuisine with a touch of the American South. American South with a sprinkle of Samurai. It's like my aunt was maybe Paula Deen at some point.
OMC: Where does the Asian influence come in?
MC: I think that it comes in a lot with the way I see the food and plate it. I don't use a lot of Japanese flavors in my cooking, but the way I look at things and pull them together is very much influenced by Asian style.
OMC: You've mentioned that cooking comes so naturally to you. What would you say to someone who is totally intimidated in the kitchen?
MC: Be calm. And have fun with it. Take a look into my kitchen and see how much fun we're having. I think that's a really important thing. I have a really great crew in my kitchen, and I couldn't do it without them. But, if we're not having fun – laughing and talking – then you can taste that in the food.
OMC: What's your relationship with other area chefs?
MC: That's a really challenging question to answer when I look around today and find myself standing next to guys I've looked up to for so many years. I was a sous chef and a line cook for so many years – since about 2002 – and it's crazy to be looked at as being on the same level with them. People like Tom Schultz, who was really a mentor to me, a really amazing person.
OMC: What are your favorite places to eat out in Milwaukee?
MC: I love Crazy Water. Really love the food and that quaint intimate space. I also love Comet, Honeypie ... and I'm eager to check out the Rumpus Room, since they're doing some similar things to what we're doing at Beta. I'm really very laid back, so I like casual places.
OMC: What is your favorite kitchen gadget, and why?
MC: Well, I really have the coolest gadget right here at Beta – and that's the super-powered liquid nitrogen machine. But, I'll be honest. My personal favorite tool is this little offset finger-wide metal spatula. It fits in my pocket, and I use it for everything. It really lends itself to preparing small plates. It's my knife, my spoon ... it does everything. I can use it to scoop up salt and pepper to season a dish and to arrange things on the plate.
OMC: What is your favorite food/ingredient to cook with?
MC: I love a good olive oil – fruity and peppery. I really wish we could get really fresh olive oil here with the crushed olives still in it. And pickles. I love everything pickled.
OMC: What is the best meal you've ever been served?
MC: This past February I was in New York and had the pleasure of sitting down for a meal at WD50. The meal was 15 courses, and it was the most intense, mind-blowing experience I think I've ever had. And yet, later on in the evening, I went out with some friends for late night cocktails and we ordered these little "marrow poppers" – bone marrow wrapped in a little puff pastry. They were absolutely perfect – creamy and rich. Totally blew me away.
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