This article is reprinted from the Palm Beach Gardens edition of Florida Weekly newspaper, July 10, 2014.
By Jan Norris
Chicago diners and Palm Beach diners like the same foods, but the Chicago diners are “more laid back,” according to chef Michael McLaurin of Del Frisco’s Grille. “They play around more and are more relaxed.”
The executive chef at the grill says steaks are certainly a big seller here and in the Windy City, where he got his start. But dining habits and attitudes are different. “They go out to eat more than people in Chicago,” he said. “And here, they’re more serious about their food. And more demanding. They want what they want when they want it.”
He got his start in a pizzeria — first, as a dishwasher, and when pressed into service as a pizza maker, found a talent for working behind the stoves. He was playing football in high school and considered going pro.
But a love for cooking, starting when he was 6 or 7 years old, cooking grilled cheese and eggs for his family, overtook his football ambitions.
Michael McLaurin started cooking for his family when he was 6 or 7; he now is chef at Del Frisco’s Grille, which opened last year at Royal Poinciana Plaza in Palm Beach.
“I decided to skip (football) at the college level. I wanted to have a backup plan. I ended up going with the culinary side to the College of DuPage and later, the Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago.”
It served him well. “Not a day goes by that I’m not doing something school taught me — I use (the lessons) every day.”
Chicago a teaching ground
Mr. McLaurin picked up his current grill lessons in restaurants in and around Chicago — Zed451 and Moxie, and traveling to kitchens with the Levy group. At one point, he owned his own catering company, MCM Catering.
Cooking for the VIP programs at the U.S. Open and Kentucky Derby were highlights of his travels, he said.
He came to Del Frisco’s Grille via the Double Eagle Steak House in New York’s Times Square.
Working within the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, he was promoted to sous chef and moved around to the different concepts they opened.
There are three concepts — the Double Eagle Steak House — it’s a typical steakhouse and there are 15 or 16 from Texas, Vegas,New York, Charlotte, N.C.,” he said. “Then Sullivan’s Steak House — it’s the same type of steakhouse but with a lower price point. There are 25 of those.
“And Del Frisco’s Grille — their latest — it’s a grill and more casual concept. It’s more fun. We get to play with the food a little more. Things like ahi tuna tacos, cheesecake egg rolls — it’s more of a family type of place.”
Broiling is a specialized technique
Along the way, he learned the ins and outs of proper broiling — the technique he most enjoys.
“It’s different from grilling. With grilling, the fire is on the bottom. But in broiler, you sear a piece of meat and you’re cooking it from the top to the bottom, so the juices can run down into it.
“It’s also cooking at a higher heat — almost in an enclosed space. Our broilers here are at about 1,800 degrees — at restaurants, that kicks up some really high heat.”
Meats cook quickly and must be watched carefully, but the result is a steak with a light char that remains moist and tender, he said.
“It’s one of our signature dishes — we want to be known for our steaks. They’re all Prime USDA grade. But other standouts are the veal meatloaf — it’s a comfort food people love. And the beef shortribs stroganoff that’s amazing.”
As executive chef, he says, “It’s my kitchen. It’s my responsibility — from bringing the food in to putting it on the plate. I have to make sure everybody knows what they need to do for perfection.”
Loyal staff counts
He has a dedicated staff, and praises them equally, though he says the hardest part of a job as chef is motivating everyone. “I have to be sure they’re doing the right things. Other than that, we have a lot of fun in the kitchen. They’re the staff I started with — they’re here all year. The staff inNew York was a great staff as well — you can take the ones from Palm Beach and they’d be just as comfortable in New York — they are similar diners.”
A demand from one of his pickier diners is no problem, he said. “If we have it in house, we’ll do it. I have no problem making anything for anyone.” Serving the guest and giving them a good experience is paramount, he said.
“You’ve got to deliver, or they won’t come back.”
When it’s busy and the kitchen is slammed, working on a time limit, it can be stressful, he said, but, “Other than that, we have a lot of fun in the kitchen.
“When everything comes out fine and good, it’s a great place to work.”
On his off time, he relaxes with his wife and 4-year-old daughter at the pool, or beach, saying he loves South Florida and especially the weather.
It’s a struggle with a chef’s schedule to have a family life, and young children, he said, but civil hours at Del Frisco’s help.
“I try my best, and now I get to put her to bed every day, and tell her a bedtime story. I’m still trying to find that balance.”
Q&A in the chef’s words
Name: Michael McLaurin
Restaurant: Del Frisco’s Grille, 340 Royal Poinciana Way, Palm Beach; 557- 2552; delfriscosgrille.com
Original hometown: University Park, Ill., about 10 minutes south of Chicago.
Mission as a chef: “To ‘FEED’ guests, by bringing in the freshest and the best product possible. FEED means Far Exceeding Expectations Daily.”
Cuisine style: “Grilling.”
Training for your job: “Washburne Culinary Institute, Chicago.”
What’s your footwear of choice in the kitchen? “Mozos.”
What’s your guilty food pleasure? “Chocolate-covered strawberries.”
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a restaurateur or chef? “Have a short memory, because you are only as good as your last meal you put out.”