Best Restaurants 2013: Chefs to Watch

Sweet Surprise

After test-driving a culinary career, Matt Danko is baking up creative desserts at Greenhouse Tavern.

Food was always on the periphery for Matt Danko. The son of an artist and a teacher, Danko planned to follow in his parents' footsteps. He graduated from Kent State University with a bachelor's degree in arts education and a minor in education, but found himself questioning what he really wanted. "Family meals were a huge part of my life — I tended to cook for my family," says the Greenhouse Tavern pastry chef. "It was always kind of floating around on the back burner." He staged (that is, worked for free) at the Greenhouse Tavern for eight months, worked at a few other restaurants and eventually found his way back into chef and owner Jonathon Sawyer's fold three years ago. After just a year there, he was recognized with a coveted Young Gun award from foodie site We talked with him about his pastry conversion and the locally beloved popcorn pot de creme.

What made you become a chef?

I was a late bloomer. I had a little experience [teaching] and didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I spoke with a friend about culinary school, and he [said], "Don't go to culinary school yet, get a job cooking, and decide if you like it." I did just that, and after a couple months working in the kitchen, I started to pick up a lot of stuff.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Yesterday, I went to the flea market. Sometimes you see things. You're like, That's a really interesting pan. I would really like to see if I could make something out of that. So maybe sometimes inspiration comes from objects, not necessarily food. I think that's a big thing for me, that may be a little different from other people.

You're known for using vegetables in dessert. Any favorite methods?

Right now we're braising apples in beet juice. Beets were one of the original forms of making sugar, so if you think about it like that, it's not really difficult to get vegetable in desserts. A lot of the flavors that are savory are really interesting, and it's fun to see them come to the sweet side of the kitchen where you might not have seen them before.

Do you have a sweet tooth?

Before I had this job, I never really liked eating sweets very much at all. As I got the job, you eat sweets all day long. I go home and I have a jar of chocolate at my house, and I can't not eat chocolate after dinner. It just happened that way. One day it all just clicked.

What's your favorite dish to make?

There's been a lot of acclaim over the years for the popcorn pot de creme [featuring popcorn-infused custard]. That's a really exciting dish, because it's something that struck me as, Oh my gosh, maybe I'm doing my job right! People actually like this, this is really good.

Pork Toast

Washington Place Bistro & Inn's Melissa Khoury brings
her farm-to-table approach to Little Italy.

Local foodies know Melissa Khoury as the Queen of Pork. The 30-year-old executive chef at Washington Place Bistro & Inn even goes by the Twitter handle @iHeartSwine. She began butchering pigs after meeting a local farmer at the Florida farm-to-table restaurant where she was working a few years ago. "How passionate he was about his pork was insane," she says. "The way he spoke was mesmerizing." Khoury learned how to break down an entire pig, and pork has been her passion ever since. We spoke with the recently returned native Clevelander about kitchen life, the Zen of pasta and all those pig parts.

How did you get involved in cooking?

My grandmother was from the South. She always had a garden, was always canning. My mom started doing part-time cooking for money when I was a kid. I had a super-supportive family whose life is based around food. Growing up, I thought everybody had [a garden]. That's what I grew up with, earth-to-table.

What's your style in the kitchen?

I'm pretty short in stature: 5 feet 2 inches, 5 feet 3 inches. You'll see me climbing on things to reach what I need. I never take no as an answer. I'm very rustic in my style, but I like to push guests' experiences — where they may have never had head and foot meat from a pig, I want to be the one who gives them that and lets them experience it in the proper way.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Farmers. I loved the Wednesdays when the mushroom guy would come in. Just to sit there and talk with him and see how excited he was about how beautiful his mushrooms got that week, that really kind of gets the juices flowing.

What's a favorite dish to make professionally?

My head and foot terrine. Most headcheeses are scary to people, especially if you look at traditionally what they are: giant chunks of meat and fat in this big blob of gelatin. I try to take that and make it more approachable to diners. You can pretty much guarantee any event I do, I try to throw the tidbits in there.

Where did you hone your philosophy on using some of the more unusual parts of the animal?

[After Florida], I moved up to Atlanta; even though it's not the Dirty South, it's the Dirty South as far as food goes. They don't waste a single piece of an animal. We had a storefront where we did all of our own charcuterie. I just really fell in love with it, I fell in love with using the whole animal.

What do you make on your days off?

I always try to make a pasta. There's something kind of Zen related to making pasta. I just kind of fall into it, and it's like, nothing else matters except the pasta dough in front of me. That's a way for me to relax.

Enticing Ensemble

Jezebels Bayou's Rodney Gibson puts on a performance
of bold flavors at his New Orleans-inspired restaurant.

Rodney Gibson isn't just a chef, he's the composer of the savory Cajun/Creole cuisine that plays jazz on Clevelanders' taste buds. His methodical menu execution at the New Orleans-influenced Jezebels Bayou has produced a hearty fan base among those hungry for an authentic taste of the Big Easy. "With the atmosphere and ambience, people honestly feel like they're in New Orleans when they come to my restaurant," Gibson says. Chef Hot Rod, as his regulars refer to him, talks about returning to Northeast Ohio and his French Quarter inspirations.

Have you always spent your career working in the restaurant industry?

No, I grew up in Youngstown and worked on the assembly line at [General Motors] for 15 years. I took the buyout in 2007 and relocated to Las Vegas.

How do you make your dishes sing?

We don't use stuff in a can. We cook the chicken stock from scratch; we make a real roux with flour instead of cornstarch. You can't take shortcuts. Every item on our menu has gone through about eight months of testing and tweaking.

Which menu item is your most popular?

My alligator voodoo appetizer. I can't keep it. I get very close to running out of it at the end of the night, which surprises me. The seafood étouffée is our No. 1 entree. I can't keep that either.

From where does your appetite for Cajun and Creole cuisine stem?

I was raised on Southern food. My mom and grandma are from Alabama. I've studied under Dave Russo [of Russo's in Peninsula], who worked with Emeril Lagasse. I was also a personal chef for a lawyer based in Vegas and California who loved Cajun and Creole cuisine.

What five spices or dried herbs
must be in your kitchen?

Cayenne, cumin, salt, pepper and thyme. I use these in my house rub, which is in everything. I pride myself on my flavoring profiles. Some dishes will warm you up a bit, like the seafood étouffée, but we have plenty of other mild dishes, like the redfish and gumbo. There's a misconception that this cuisine is always spicy and hot.That's simply untrue.

Taking Root

Rachael Spieth makes vegetables the focus of her food in Press Wine Bar's from-scratch offerings.

Patrons often stand shoulder to shoulder at Press Wine Bar, thirsty for a glass of red or white at the city's first wine-on-tap bar. But many also are there for the artisan flatbreads, meat and cheese boards, and other courses crafted by executive chef Rachael Spieth. After her seven years running the kitchen at Lakewood's Three Birds (renamed Georgetown by new ownership in 2011), Spieth transplants her approach to Press, where seasonal vegetables are menu cornerstones and meats purposefully support them. To this she adds unique cured meats and cheeses such as Roaring Forties Blue cheese from Australia, Italian finocchiona fennel salami and French Toulouse sausage. "Before I opened the restaurant, I went out to eat at every restaurant on Professor Avenue to see which products they weren't using," she says. "I haven't seen a lot of our cured meats and cheeses on anyone else's menu." The chef talks to us about her food philosophy and her grandma's chicken paprikash.

What sparked your interest in working as a chef?

I didn't like school but the elective cooking classes at Hudson High School interested me. I was raised eating unhealthy food — my mom thinks frozen vegetables are fresh — so I never ate fresh radishes, beets or asparagus until then. So eight days after graduation, I left for Le Cordon Bleu.

How do you describe your philosophy for the menu at Press Wine Bar?

I work backward. Most chefs start with the protein and build their dishes off that. I start with the vegetables and then incorporate the proteins. We do a lot of small plates here — like the breakfast pizza, based off butternut squash, or the pear flatbread — that reflect my approach. I think there's a misconception among some people that this is just a wine bar, when in fact we have a full-service scratch kitchen. Now we're offering brunch, and it's just been crazy here, especially on Sundays.

Where do you draw inspiration for new dishes?

It's based on the season. If I'm creating a summer menu, I list all the ingredients that make me think of summer. So the tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, watermelon, peaches are the stars, and the proteins are the supporting actors.

In which city or country would you love to immerse yourself for its cuisine?

Mexico and Puerto Rico. I love that kind of cuisine. I think I have eaten at almost every Mexican restaurant in the Cleveland area. I love Mi Pueblo and Paladar.

What are your go-to dishes when you're at home?

I love making my grandma's chicken paprikash, and I have this awesome recipe for Swedish meatballs from my friend's mother. I love pork. I'm a huge pig fan.

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