The centerpiece of Michael and Paulette Poklar’s kitchen is a hefty wooden butcher block that Michael picked up for $25 more than 30 years ago. A jumble of mismatched pots and pans, no doubt amassed over time rather than from an extravagant spree at Williams-Sonoma, dangles from a jury-rigged copper pot rack. It’s clear that the gas stove top and double wall ovens were original to the Pepper Pike house when the Poklars bought it in the early ’80s. Elbow room is in painfully short supply.
On days when Paulette is showing her friends how to make her famous pesto, or when Michael is leading one of his informal pasta-making tutorials, there may be as many as 10 adults crowded around the butcher block. “It gets a little tight,” Paulette admits. “But our friends don’t care.”
|Photography by Barney Taxel|
It would be natural to expect this East Side couple to operate out of a state-of-the-art gourmet kitchen, one blinged out with sparkly stainless-steel appliances and yard upon yard of quartz countertops. After all, this is a couple who travels almost yearly to Italy just for the gustatory delights; a husband and wife who share an Italian heritage and childhoods spent in the kitchen. But bling and quartz just isn’t the Poklars’ style.
“We cook a lot; we entertain a lot; but we’re old school,” Michael concedes. “You can get swept up with all the gadgets and gizmos. I don’t think it improves the taste of the food. Our friends come into our kitchen and say, ‘You guys cook so much, why don’t you have fancy equipment?’ Because you don’t need it.”
Michael and Paulette, who were raised in Northeast Ohio, had family in the restaurant business and recall spending inordinate amounts of time in those professional kitchens. Paulette’s grandfather owned Caminati’s at Shaker Square, and the only way Paulette could secure quality time with her grandfather was to visit him there. Michael’s grandparents ran the Poklar Tavern in Willoughby Hills. As a child, Michael learned how to make fresh pasta at his Italian grandmother’s side.
Those early experiences shaped the way the Poklars cook, eat and entertain. “We both grew up knowing what good food is supposed to taste like,” says Paulette.
“Italians are so passionate about food,” adds Michael. “Their cooking style is fresh ingredients simply prepared — and that has always been our philosophy.”
The Poklars repeat the phrase, “fresh ingredients simply prepared,” often when discussing their personal approach to cooking. They take issue with restaurants that cover up an exquisitely fresh piece of fish with superfluous adornments, or recipes that treat fresh-made pasta merely as a meatball-delivery system. And don’t get them started on chefs who elevate polenta — humble cornmeal mush — to a glitzy side dish.
A typical Saturday at the Poklar home begins at the crack of dawn; that’s when Michael trots down to the kitchen, puts on a pot of coffee and sets about making fresh pasta. Using his well-worn butcher block as a work station, Michael transforms humble flour and eggs into a smooth-as-silk dough ball. Following a lengthy kneading process, he covers the dough and allows it to rest. During the down time, he and Paulette settle on a pasta sauce.
“We can’t cut the pasta until we know what sauce we’re making for dinner,” explains Paulette. “Each pasta shape demands a particular type of sauce.”
With that decision behind them, Michael rolls, cuts and hangs the pasta to dry on a simple wooden rack. Before the rest of the Poklar household has even begun to stir, the kitchen is cleaned and ready for the next phase of dinner preparation.
The Poklars are used to spending inordinate amounts of time in their tiny workspace, but never has this small kitchen received such a workout as it did when they were compiling “The Happy Cooker,” a professional-looking cookbook containing the family’s most cherished recipes. For two years, Michael and Paulette tested, edited and retested some 200 recipes to ensure accuracy, converting folksy measurements such as “an eggshell of water” to something a tad more precise. “We would often cook and eat four or five dinners a night,” Michael recalls. When completed, the cookbooks were sold to restaurants, donated to charities and handed out as gifts to appreciative friends. A few errant copies linger about in the basement, but for the most part, every cookbook has long been spoken for.
Michael, an attorney by day, has toyed with the notion of opening a small restaurant with Paulette’s mother, also a passionate home cook. But he is well aware of what happens when one endeavors to convert a beloved avocation into a paying vocation. “Then you’re working instead of having fun,” Michael says. “Plus, at home you don’t have to worry about food costs.”