7 September - An Evening with a New Friend - Executive Chef Michael Feker, Il Mito

When I walked in, I didn't see my party straightaway, but I poked my head into the private dining area to meet our head chef Michael Feker and his assistant, Jed. We exchanged pleasantries, then jokes and I think I ended with my Molly Shannon "Supah Stah" pose. Chef Michael and Jed chuckled and said, "This will be a fun night. Take your time. This is your evening to enjoy."

I found the rest of the ladies at Il Mito's regular bar as the rest of us trickled in to celebrate Amy's 40th birthday. This was the first time my core friends were reconvening in quite some time. I missed the camaraderie these women provide. Their kindness and authenticity provide such a safe haven that I am grateful for, especially when enduring the ups and downs of life…. After catching up, we headed into Il Mito's Cooking School to dine at the Chef's Counter.

I had never been to the Chef's Counter, nor this location before. And I have to say I have never enjoyed learning from someone so vibrant, humble and passionate about living his dream and generous enough in allowing us to be a part of it. We found our individual name cards and personalized menu at our seats.

Our three-course meal this evening was:

Tuscan Asparagus and Mushroom Salad with Watercress, Lemon Parmesan Dressing and Scrambled Eggs
Freshly Made Tortelloni, Stuffed with Ricotta and Beef Tenderloin in a Mediterranean Roasted Vegetable Ragu
Chocolate Torte with Espresso Whipped Cream, Fresh Berries and Chocolate Sauce

As he began preparing the salad, Chef Michael was a wealth of information in feeding us tidbits of his culinary passion as he performed. I did not realize this was going to be so much fun and like an actual class. He shared his philosophies, that cooking is not rocket science but passion science, and using the chemistry of the ingredients is what makes the whole equation work. Little tidbits like watercress was going to be the next super food because of its high antioxidant content...how we throw salt in the boiling water to season pasta because of the window of time allowed when its pores open...how when we cook with excellent (organic/fresh) ingredients, 3/4 of the work is done for us, as he scrambled our orange-in-color organic eggs to top off the watercress asparagus salad. He shared with us the difference between black and white pepper and when using each, they co-mingle and play with different parts of our palates.

What I found even more interesting was his background. Chef Michael is Iranian in descent. He grew up in Switzerland from the ages of seven to 18. In following his father's wishes, he pursued pre-medicine and moved to Los Angeles. Chef Michael knew this was not for him. He stayed in dental school until he visited his sister in San Francisco. While searching for a more gratifying route in life, his older siblings encouraged him to research the California Culinary Academy (CCA) to fulfill his interest in cooking. He knew this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life...but was afraid to tell his father. His siblings 10 years his senior, were the buffer and explained to their father about his switch in careers. When asked if Chef Michael were around for the conversation, he joked, "Are you kidding? I got the heck out of there!" He continued to share many rich and poignant stories about his childhood, father, family and background. “We are so blessed here (in the States). I am grateful for the cleanliness, the water we drink…. I have been through a lot but that is what makes character. I squeeze the passion (from life) to absorb more.” We were honored to witness these incredible tales.

To get his feet wet, Chef Michael took an apprenticeship under Chef Jean Francois Metenier at L’Orangerie in Los Angeles. Upon enrollment at the CCA, he was mentored by a gentleman named Roberto Gerometta. He fell in love with the discipline and quickly became one of the top students. He was one of eight individuals invited to cook for Master Chef Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. Chef Michael put his best foot forward, flabbergasted and humbled at this opportunity to cook for these culinary greats and recalls the day vividly with the same enthusiasm. This tale in particular had us chuckling (ask him about it next time you take a class or attend a dinner.) He continued building his knowledge base, working on the Royal Viking Cruise Line, side-by-side Master Chefs who would board at various ports.

His training is classical French. One can tell by the precision in his technique and through his Alton Brown-esque knowledge in the chemistry of food. But he switched to cooking Italian when through the tutelage of his Italian Mentor Antonia Tommasi, he realized the Italians introduced the French to flavors and seasonings. Food was Tommasi’s art form and believed the beauty of any dish lay in its simplicity. Chef Michael calls his style Madriatic, a combination of the Mediterranean and the Adriatic side of Italy.

The whole evening continued in the entertainment in chatting with a new friend. We asked him his favorite ingredient = eggplant; his guilty pleasure = McDonald’s Whopper and Big Mac; his children’s favorite meals = broiled chicken Milanese and Cheeto- and tortilla-encrusted chicken.

He shared that cooking truly feeds his soul. This is not only his passion, but his stage and home. "It is all about balance...balance between, flavors, textures, and seasonings." Lucky for us, he found his own personal balance of heart, talent and storytelling.

Please join us for the taping of his next show, Feker's Culinary Magic, on Saturday, September 26th. It airs on Wednesdays at 5pm and Sundays at 11am on Channel 32, Milwaukee. For more information, please visit http://www.ilmito.com/ and http://www.ilmitocooking.com/.