Chef Michael Ponzio
Ciao! We are all things Italian here at Check, Please! this week and WTTW is rolling out a new show tonight with my friend, who is also an incredibly talented chef – Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde. This week we are revisiting some of our favorite Italian haunts, and so I chatted with Italian chef Michael Ponzio, the executive chef at the illustrious Medinah Country Club. Michael is of Italian descent and has trained with the top Italian chefs in the country. He lifts the curtain of the country club kitchen to show us the incredible sustainable food system he is building. Here’s what he had to say:
Cat: You have trained under some of the best Italian chefs from Chicago (and in the country)...Tony Mantuano, Missy Robbins, Rick Tramonto and the list goes on. Tell us a bit about your background, the best lessons you learned, and describe your cooking philosophy.
Michael Ponzio: I have been blessed with many great mentors and experiences. I come from a large Italian family where food was always the focal point of our gatherings. I started working at an Italian restaurant, washing dishes and bussing tables, at a young age. I have always been in love with the culinary industry. I attended culinary school at Kendall College, and while in school I held three jobs. Once I graduated, I was offered a position as the Sous Chef at Spiaggia. It was there that I learned about homemade pastas, importing beautiful products from Italy, and of course...truffles! The time I spent with Chef Tony (Mantuano) and Chef Missy (Robbins) pointed me in the direction I wanted to go. After that, I went to work for Rick Tramonto. With Rick, I was lucky enough to be on a team with some of the most talented chefs in Chicago. Chris Pandel, Jared VanCamp, Greg Biggers, and Joe Frillman. Together we developed and opened four concepts. My main focus was on the Italian Osteria, where I began learning about curing meats, working with farmers, and respecting classic techniques. Through them, I also met Chris Bianco, one of my most inspirational mentors. After my time with that team, I went to open Volare in Oak Brook. Benny Siddu, the owner, flew chefs in from all over Italy to spend weeks at a time with me. I was able to learn true regional Italian cuisine in the comfort of my kitchen. It was an incredibly valuable experience. I spent a few years after that working for Rosebud as Director of Culinary Operations, consulting for Portillo’s, and then I landed as the Executive Chef of Medinah Country Club. It was at Medinah where I really came into my own as a chef. I developed a program there for what I call “Real Food.”
My cooking philosophy is simple – understand, respect, and believe in the products you are cooking. If we put love into our food, it will translate to our diners.
Cat: Who have been the biggest influences in your career?
Michael Ponzio: The biggest influencer has been Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona. I flew out to spend time with Chris when I was 24 and, when I came back, I felt like I was born again as a culinarian. Here is a guy who has a pizzeria – he has more restaurants now – who had more respect for the product he created than anyone I had ever met. He made his cheese and dough by hand daily. If he used a lamb in a dish, he knew that lamb from when it was a baby, how it was raised, and what it was fed. It was a type of approach I had never seen before. To this day, we keep in touch and I go out to see him almost every year. One cup of coffee with Chris and I am re-energized as a chef!
Chickens at Medinah Country Club
Cat: You are currently the executive chef at the prestigious Medinah Country Club and have really elevated country club cuisine. You have a USDA-certified chicken coop, organic garden, you tap maple trees on the property for syrup. You’re also building an apiary! Tell us about the impressive sustainable system you are building at Medinah and why it’s important for chefs to be thinking about food in these ways.
Michael Ponzio: I have been working on this project for almost five years now. We started by tapping maple trees and making our own maple syrup. We host an event every year now where the members and their kids come out, tap the trees with us, and learn how to make the maple syrup. The maple syrup started a movement in our club. The members became very interested and we kept on going. Shortly after, we built a 900 square foot garden and a USDA-certified chicken coop that is home to 40 beautiful hens. We use the eggs and syrup in the restaurants for breakfast and the garden items on menus across the club. We have had so much fun with it that we built the entire program into our Medinah Ecosystem.
We make the feed for the chickens from the garden. We make compost to fertilize the garden. The egg shells from the chickens go into that compost. We started to get such a high demand for the garden items that we had to pair up with local farmers to keep up. We now work with Green Acres Farm, Slagel Family Farm, and are starting with Frillman Farm this year. We introduced Meyer Ranch -- and prime antibiotic and hormone-free steaks to our menus. The moment we did that, the members noticed a significant increase in quality. We work with a Hawaiian company to overnight fish that was caught the day I order it. There is nothing like using the best products and being able to remain financially responsible at the same time. My goal is to give the members the best and purest experience they can get. Unlike restaurants, my diners eat here four to five times a week. We started a bread program where we make our own bagels and other breads. We make our own red wine vinegar, bacon, and a variety of other items. We don’t do it because we want to be cool. We do it because we love food and what we do. It is important, as a chef, to recognize and pay attention to these things. I don’t write it all over our menus, but our diners notice and appreciate it.
Vegetable basket at Medinah Country Club
Cat: Not only are you a formally trained chef specializing in Italian cuisine, but you grew up in a large Italian family. So you know your sauce (or as we say in our family, “gravy”). What are your favorite Italian restaurants around town?
Michael Ponzio: My favorite Italian restaurant continues to be Ristorante Agostino on Harlem Avenue in Chicago. Agostino and his wife Anna own the restaurant and are there daily cooking. Both natives of Italy but from different regions, they bring true Italian flavors to the table. I have spent countless nights there – eating and having long talks with Agostino. He and his wife are so passionate about what they do and you can really taste the passion in their food. Another favorite of mine is Café Spiaggia. Incredible hand-made Italian cuisine using the finest of products. For years Chef Tony Mantuano has had a fantastic little gem of a restaurant next to the 4-star dining room.
Cat: Everyone who cooks Italian food at home is going to have garlic, basil, olive oil, parmigiano-reggiano, and tomatoes in their pantry. What would you add to that list as must-have Italian pantry staples?
Michael Ponzio: To me, the most important thing is good olive oil. Yes, I use it for cooking, but it is so much more. The flavors good oil give to a dish add a depth of flavor you wouldn’t expect. Another big one for me is red wine vinegar. I love what is known as peasant cooking. Neck bones, braised shanks, Braciola, and Bolognese sauce. All of these dishes are rich and packed with flavor. A dash of vinegar in a dish will cut through the richness of a dish and allow the flavors to really pop.
Hope you enjoy Italian week on Check, Please!
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