At age 36, Cafe 5-Ten chef Michael Waliser’s resume could fill a small book. In other words, he’s been around.
A self-taught cook who started as a busboy at a Spaghetti Factory in Seattle, Waliser came to Spokane in the late ‘80s to work at Spezia. That flamboyant restaurant was one of the city’s first trendy dining establishments. It lasted only a couple of years, though.
Then Waliser landed at Amore, another groundbreaking restaurant — the first upscale, innovative venue on the South Hill. There, he worked with Gina Lanza until she sold the place and Waliser moved into the top spot in the kitchen.
After Amore closed, stints at Fugazzi, Bountiful Fresh Foods and Huckleberry’s followed.
So, why do folks in the food business move around so much?
“People are always making promises — fame, fortune — and you’re jumping after that carrot,” Waliser said. “When it doesn’t work out, you don’t take it personally. You think about the experience you’ve gained.”
That experience brought him to the point where he was hungry to do own thing. With partner Tony Bennett and the financial support of a friend, he opened Cafe 5-Ten last summer at 510 S. Freya (533-0064).
“It’s all been like schooling and now I feel like I’ve finally graduated,” he said.
And his appreciative customers get to sample his nightly theses, er, specials.
His short, ever-changing menu fuses Mediterranean flavors with fresh Northwest ingredients. For instance, a recent special revolved around a grilled salmon fillet and slim stalks of asparagus (very Northwest) paired with Middle Eastern couscous. The whole plate got a burst of rustic flavor from a drizzling of balsamic vinegar imported from Italy.
“I try to bring out the natural flavors of the dish,” he said.
And, at the same time, excite the eye. For Waliser, that might mean taking that traditional sprig of parsley garnish to an arty extreme.
He makes an oil infusion of that herb by sauteing it briefly - about 30 seconds - to heighten its color. After it cools, the parsley is chopped and then pureed in a food processor with a neutral-tasting oil such as grapeseed. That mixture is strained through a cheesecloth and stored in a squirt bottle.
Just before serving, the plate is painted with squiggles of the stuff. The effect on the restaurant’s sunny yellow Fiestaware is dazzling.
“You can use any herb, or emulsify carrot juice or beet juice with oil,” Waliser said. (Take note, though; such mixtures have a shelf life of just two or three days in the refrigerator.)
The biggest challenge isn’t turning out the pretty, innovative meals. It’s the business of running a business.
“We all want to be artists, but it has to work economically,” he said.
That means his dishes can’t be too far out on the cutting edge. “I never go way out there,” he said. “If something doesn’t sell, I take it off.”
Given the consuming demands of being in the kitchen five or six days a week along with managing the business, Waliser finds time for little else.
“I’ve been trying to grab my life back lately,” he said.
That means spending time with his 7-year-old son, Christopher, reading, going to movies, and, yes, cooking for friends.
Tuscan White Bean Soup
This thick soup is more like a flavorful, meatless Italian chili. It can be served as a first course or as light meal. Pass around extra grated Parmesan and plenty of crusty French bread.
2 cups dry white beans
2 bay leaves
6 cups water or stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped
1 sprig fresh sage, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Soak beans overnight in plenty of water. Rinse well and bring to a boil, with bay leaves, in the fresh water or stock. Cook uncovered over medium to medium low heat for about 1 hours.
In a shallow saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and saute the vegetables for 3-5 minutes. Add to the beans, along with the herbs, cover and continue to cook for 30 minutes. (If mixture becomes too thick at anytime during the cooking process, add more water or stock.) Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Yield: 4-6 servings.
Nutrition information per each of 4 servings: 452 calories, 24 grams protein, 74 grams carbohydrate, 8 grams fat (16 percent fat calories), no cholesterol, 55 milligrams sodium.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: Chef du Jour is a monthly feature of IN Food that profiles area chefs and provides one of their recipes for readers to try at home.
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