Chef Don McMillan in business of making good cooks
Published 10:25 am Thursday, November 8, 2018
By Stephanie Williams Dean
Bless Your Spoon
“I can read a recipe and know exactly how it’s going to taste.” I challenged my mentor, Chef Don.
Not letting me get one over on him, he retorted, “I can walk in a kitchen, smell a dish, and know exactly what’s in it.”
Yes, he could – he had conquered me already.
Recently, I caught up with Don McMillan at The Stocked Pot & Co. where he and son, Andrew, offer unique experiences through competitive team-cooking challenge. I recalled fond memories from the mid-80s of Don’s original cooking school in Reynolda Village where he taught me the culinary skills necessary to be a good cook. He demonstrated food prep methods through a series of fun, methodical classes that helped foster a budding talent.
While Don didn’t learn from his mother what he needed to know to become a master chef, she’s the first person who ultimately comes to his mind as a teacher because of her love for cooking. More importantly, she taught him the most important lesson in life – to do the best he could at anything he did. By the time Don was 16, he knew basic cooking skills, how to sew, and the proper way to iron.
Don’s culinary career was to come later rather than sooner, but he was one step closer to that end when he boarded a ship. He was working for the National Science Foundation on an oceanographic vessel with the Merchant Marines. The ship researched anything found beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean. They checked depths of the ocean, sampled fish, tagged sharks and hatching turtles, studied migration patterns, and even checked the stomach contents of what they were eating – basically looking at anything to do with what was under the ocean.
Later, Don worked for a man who became his mentor, Homer Ringo, a chief steward on the vessel known as Anton Bruun. For 27 months, Don served as a steward – a cook and baker – where he actually cooked for a living.
Don had more than one mentor who influenced the way he looked at food. He began working in restaurants with Ryo Sato from Japan who trained under top chefs in France. Sato saw promise in him and took the young man under his wing, showed him food prep, and introduced him to the classic culinary world. At the same time, the VP of the company, Jacques Theraube, showed Don front house fine dining. Through these experiences, Don learned a whole new way of cooking and tasting – that of classical dining. To this day, he continues to fly to California every year to visit with his mentors.
When Don first began learning to cook, his goal was to be captain of a ship, but he ended up in the steward’s department cooking basic foods. From there, positions he held changed his life. Don was exposed to many opportunities to cook a variety of foods – different experiences and locations. What influenced him most was travel to different countries and exposure to ethnic and international cuisines.
He continued to add to his own culinary knowledge while teaching others the art of cooking.
Don felt he was meant to be a teacher because it was the one thing he always really loved to do.
“It’s a form of entertainment. I share my life experiences when I’m teaching which helps engage students,” he shared.
Chef Don described his personal style as one of basic cooking. He didn’t want to oversimplify food but understood the importance of affordability and practicality. He wanted people to feel comfortable and have access to ingredients they could buy in the local supermarket – cooking didn’t need to be too elaborate. That might sound just a bit oversimplified from a well- known, respected chef who hosted a cooking show from 1996-2001 who had only 3-5 minutes to demonstrate how to put a pie together from scratch.
“Do you believe all the steps are necessary?” I asked. “When I read the top culinary industry magazines, they appear to make something more difficult than what’s necessary.”
Don agreed. “No. It’s good for people to learn basics and a foundation for cooking, but then the knowledge allows you to change around a recipe and change the order of your ingredients. The steps just aren’t that important.”
Sometimes the difference is negligible when combining a few steps that take five minutes versus a page of directions that takes 30. It’s often not relative to the outcome of taste.
Don believes that fear of failure is the greatest challenge people have in cooking. They need confidence. They miss the experience – too afraid to even try. Don encourages those he teaches to focus on fun.
“I have to show them each step – spell it out for them due to fear of screwing it up. When I teach, I do it hands on. When you mess up, you learn, so that’s good. These are the people who ask me what kind of salt do I use? The brand you get on sale, of course,” laughed Don.
“We’re here to have fun. That’s what I tell them. Concentrate on having fun.”
Over the years, one of Don’s greatest challenges has been keeping up with industry changes and staying ahead of the curve in order to be a leader. He’s learned how to be pretty good at adapting.
“When you work on a ship and you’re cooking, and you’re in the middle of the ocean, you have to adapt, so I’m good at that.”
Whenever a problem arose in catering, Don segued a different path. One such occasion was when he catered a meal at a beautiful home in California. At the stove, he prepared a delicious sauce, but his assistant burned it. Don quickly searched through the homeowner’s cupboards, hunting any combination of herbs and spices on hand suitable for preparing a sauce. Anyone else would have abandoned the sauce. Don’s experience allowed him to adapt and avert disaster as quick thinking was often necessary.
Reluctantly, Don shared another rescue story. Once, when making a paella onsite, his host, a local orthodontist, directed him to put a hot pan directly on a glass top table, assuring him it was safe. In one of the worst cooking disasters imaginable, the glass shattered, and the entire dish fell to the floor. Don left, went back to his kitchen, and came back 40 minutes later with a different dish.
“No one ever forgets that story or lets me forget it, either,” he laughed.
For people who want to learn to cook, Don advises succumbing to fear of failure and having fun with it. People will gravitate to the kitchen so he recommends including guests in the process of cooking. Get them involved by stirring – have part of your entertainment factor in the kitchen with guests included. If you’re going to entertain, don’t just hand out platters of food – put them in the kitchen – they will love it.
Wistfully, Don and I recollect the supper clubs of the past. Like me, he wishes these events would make a comeback. Back in the 80s, dinner clubs were popular, but life changed. Back in the day, everyone brought a dish central to a theme, and the best part was there was lots of conversation – people talked to one another. Technology has separated people.
Don’s favorite cooking experience is turkey and dressing with the sides for Thanksgiving. His family prepares the same traditional meal in the same way, every year – the way his mother did it – he’s sure she did it the way her mother did it. The holiday’s a family event – everyone contributes. All his children know how to cook because they learned alongside their father and grew up in the industry. Don’s favorite ethnic food is Indian because he lived in Pakistan, India, and his wife’s father is Indian so that’s her favorite too. They actually met in Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean.
Don remembered the first thing he ever made – a bleu cheese dressing.
Do you have a secret ingredient? I asked.
“Nutmeg. I use it in cream sauces and spinach dishes – a pinch. Not much. 1/8 tsp. to be exact.”
When asked about cooking with wine, Don smiled, saying, “I sometimes even put it in the food.”
“A favorite wine to cook with?”
“Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink with Julia Childs.”
And regarding the unspoken rule of serving reds with beef and white with chicken?
Don’s go-to, can’t live without, kitchen utensil is his French knife due to its universal nature – it does almost everything. The cookware, Le Creuset, is his favorite and especially the 5-quart Dutch oven which can handle anything from rice to stews, roasted meats, and pot roasts.
“I like the slow cooking way of preparing food.”
Don made an exception, “I’m not typically an appliance user or buyer, but I would – if you paid me,” he laughed, his humor ever present. “I use my two hands. They’re the most valuable tool in your kitchen.”
If he were to have a wish granted, there were a couple of celebrity chefs he wished he could have joined at the stove. Don admired Paul Bocuse and thought he was an exemplary chef. He also loved Anthony Bourdain. Both chefs have passed away.
“Watch the one show about four years ago when Bourdain was on with Paul Bocuse, and they were together in the kitchen. That would have been my dream opportunity.”
After watching the show, Don duplicated the same dishes closely but said they weren’t quite as good. Don reluctantly admitted knowing he could never truly duplicate the celebrity chefs.
“It doesn’t get better than that. I mean I’ve had to make puff pastry dough before, but I don’t.”
Last year, when Don traveled to Eastern Europe, his goal was to experience the cuisine in that area. This year he went to the islands in the South Pacific. Don doesn’t choose a travel destination based on the region’s food, but while there, he’s definitely going to seek out what’s local.
“Many tourists might walk right past a culinary landmark on their way to McDonald’s. They don’t want to try anything new. It’s just not part of someone else’s trip. I want the experiences. I’m only going this way once. That’s life.”
When asked if stranded on an island, what’s the one food he couldn’t live without?
“I would say fresh fruit.”
“And, if next weekend was your last on earth, in what city would you be dining?”
“Somewhere in France, so let’s just say Paris…you can’t get a bad meal. I’ve never had a bad meal in France.”
Don still cooks dinner at home – at least 4 times a week. He and his wife like to eat out at least one night a week.
“I go where my wife wants to go – she likes Firebirds, Bonefish, and we had a great meal at Davie Tavern.”
I prompted Don to self- reflect.
“As a man, do you feel there’s power in an apron?” I ask him.
“Yeah, I think so. At one time, it seemed that celebrated chefs were males. That’s no longer true today. As far as cooking, I think there’s a certain aspect of respect for men who cook. It humanizes men. Sometimes I see men who are macho acting like cooking is something they can’t do. I know for a fact that when these guys get together, they get into the food. That’s changing a lot. All these cooking shows on TV have had an impact. Children today know more about food than ever before. They can handle a knife and know the culinary terms”
Don recognizes cooking is hot right now as he’s seeing a whole new industry. Kids are wanting to become TV chefs. No longer is it cooking and fine dining – it’s more like entertaining people. Some restaurants are famous, and you can see all the cooking in the restaurant – part of the reality thing. Just watching the cooking gets people involved. People now want to see the prep of food. People want immediate gratification. We reminisced the former Shakey’s Pizza Parlor where you watched a pizza prepared while customers watched through a solid, glass window. Don also shared a fun hobby – his favorite book club of all time was one where members read books on cooking.
Don still enjoys going to private homes to prepare a meal. He was Maya Angelou’s personal chef, prepared all the meals when she entertained and designed the food for her cookbooks. When Don cooked for her and her guests during Thanksgiving weekend, there were 4 days of feasting. Each day, invited guests would come from around the world – over 200 people visited her that weekend.
“We were very close, and I was amazed people sent me sympathy cards when she passed. For the last 12 years of Maya’s life, I was at her house at least once a month. With Oprah’s phone number on her speed dial, you never knew when some actor or executive was going to walk in.”
I lamented the loss he must have felt.
“The good thing is we had those wonderful days and experiences. They were so much fun,” he replied.
Keeping up with the times, the Stocked Pot is heavily involved in team building where a company signs up to compete in food creation. Each team selects an executive chef and it’s based on a point system – so many for taste, presentation, and practicality. One person makes the presentation to the group after cooking. Culinary exercises promote working together and using creativity to make something as a whole – it brings people together. They get gratification, eating it afterward. The company now does more team building than anything and can design a plan to fit your budget. Family team builds are a big thing now and run about $75-100 per person.
“Not everyone’s budget is the same, and it depends on how many people and what ingredients they want to use – lobster or chicken budgets – we serve wine and appetizers, too.”
They also provide audio and visual technology, traveling to other facilities, if necessary. As far as cooking in folk’s homes, Don can prepare dinner for 6-8 people for around $450 which primarily includes cooking, serving and entertaining guests as well.
Don summarize what he loves most about cooking – the ability to make people happy. Erma Bombeck called her book, The Joy of Cooking, and Don agreed the sentiment is precisely what it meant for him. While we talked, Don’s wife’s sister and her husband were visiting from out of town. He prepared a hearty breakfast for them earlier that morning.
“It’s just a true joy of cooking, and when you have that approach, it shows through.”
Don grew up sitting down to eat at a table with family – the same way his family and kids have shared their meals.
“I shrivel when I hear people ask what someone wants for dinner – to be picked up on the way home from work. I prefer fresh and don’t like preservatives.”
It’s a fact that American’s diets have changed, and our health’s changed along with diet. Besides the health factor, there’s another positive take away when you sit with family – you talk.
Don says he really feels his creative juices flowing when he’s cooking. His senses are satisfied by the smell and the taste, and that makes him happy.
“It’s a feeling of comfort I always feel. There’s always that reward at the end. Sharing food with someone you love.”
The following recipes were submitted by Chef Donald McMillan.
APPLE-SAGE DRESSING (STUFFING)
3 cups crumbled cornbread
2 loaves dry, thin white sandwich bread, crumbled
5-6 cups chicken broth
3 chopped, medium onions
1 chopped stalk celery
½ cup chopped water chestnuts
1 peeled, seeded, diced Granny Smith apple
3 Tbsp. sage
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Combine all ingredients and mix well. Place in a greased 9 x 13 baking dish. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 minutes or until golden and done. Cut into squares. Can also be made into balls and deep fried as well as made into patties and fried on both sides until brown. Freezes well.
SQUASH WITH SAUTEED
ONIONS, PEPPERS, AND SAGE
1 squash, acorn, pumpkin or butternut
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, julienned
2 large bell peppers, julienned
1 sprig of sage leaves, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Cut the hard skin from around the squash, remove the seeds, and cut the meat into large squares. Coat the squash with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and place on a sheet pan, and roast in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Saute the onions and peppers in the remaining olive oil in a pan on medium heat and caramelize the vegetables. Add the sage to the onions and peppers and toss with the squash, serve hot, season with salt and pepper as desired.
GREEN BEANS WITH
SUNDRIED TOMATOES AND ALMONDS
1 lb. fresh, trimmed green beans
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
½ cup thinly cut sun-dried tomatoes
½ tsp. pepper
¼ tsp. salt
1/3 cup sliced almonds
In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cook beans until bright green and tender-crisp, about 2 min. Drain and toss with olive oil, tomatoes, pepper, and salt. Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with almonds.
3 peeled, thinly sliced, large sweet potatoes
4 thinly sliced carrots
1 peeled, seeded, thinly sliced butternut squash
¼ cup dark raisins
¼ cup light raisins
¼ cup pitted prunes
¼ cup chopped dates
Grated rind of 1 orange
Juice of 1 orange
2 Tbsp. packed light brown sugar
¼ cup honey or real maple syrup
Layer the sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, and dried fruits in a greased or nonstick spray coated 9×13-inch baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 1 ½ hours or until all vegetables and fruits are very tender. Serves 6.
GARLIC SMASHED POTATOES
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 tsp. salt
2 cloves fresh garlic, pressed
2 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, crushed
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 cup milk
4 oz. butter
6 sprigs fresh parsley, minced
Place potatoes in medium saucepan. Cover with water. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes or until potatoes are fork tender. Drain and return potatoes to saucepan. Sauté the garlic and rosemary in the butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Mash with potato masher, gradually adding milk, then butter/herb mixture. Place in a serving bowl and top with the parsley.
SWEET POTATOES MCMILLAN
From Maya Angelou’s Cookbook
Great Food All Day Long
6 Tbsp. butter or margarine, plus more for the pan
4 cups mashed boiled (with skin on) sweet potatoes
¼ cup sugar
¼ tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. salt
¼ cup Grand Marnier or orange flavored liqueur
2 Tbsp. milk or light cream
1 Tbsp. grated orange zest mixed with 1 Tbsp. sugar
1 small can pineapple rings for garnish
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 1 qt. casserole dish. Melt 2 tablespoons butter, set aside
Combine the sweet potatoes, 4 tablespoons butter, sugar, ginger, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Mix well. Stir in the Grand Marnier and milk until fully incorporated. Turn into the prepared casserole dish, brush the top with the melted butter, and sprinkle with the orange zest-sugar mix. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until browned.
1 lb. fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar
1 seedless orange, cut into eight pieces, skin on
1 apple, seeds and stem removed cut into eight pieces,
Place all the above ingredients into a food processor, pulse until the desired consistency is achieved. Do not over process. Store in a container with a tight-fitting lid, will keep for 4 weeks in a refrigerator, and always use a clean spoon when removing relish.
PUMPKIN PIE CHEESECAKE
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
4 Tbsp. butter, melted
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 lb. cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin
1 Tbsp. flour
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. ground allspice
Preheat oven to 350°F. For the crust, mix all ingredients in medium bowl. Press evenly into bottom of 9-inch springform pan. Set aside. For the filling, beat cream cheese and brown sugar in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating on low speed after each addition just until blended. Add pumpkin, flour, vanilla, and spices; beat until smooth. Pour into crust. Bake 50 minutes or until top is lightly browned and center is almost set. Turn off oven; let cheesecake stand in oven 1 hour. Remove from oven. Run small knife or metal spatula around rim of pan to loosen cheesecake. Cool in pan on wire rack.
Refrigerate 4 hours or overnight. Garnish with whipped cream and sprinkle with additional pumpkin pie spice, if desired.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
2 large eggs
1 can (15 oz.) pumpkin
1 can (12 fl. oz.) evaporated milk
1 unbaked 9-inch (4-cup volume) deep-dish pie shell
Mix sugar, cinnamon, salt, ginger and cloves in small bowl. Beat eggs in large bowl. Stir in pumpkin and sugar-spice mixture. Gradually stir in evaporated milk. Pour into pie shell. Bake in preheated 425° oven for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350° F; bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for 2 hours. Serve immediately or refrigerate. Top with whipped cream before serving.