A Chat with Branzino's Chef Mike Stollenwerk

Staff Writer
The chef recently moved to Branzino in Rittenhouse Square
Punch Media
Mike Stollenwerk

Chefs shuffle around all the time, but for Chef Mike Stollenwerk, his recent relocation is a major one. From a little place called Fish, to an upscale Rittenhouse Italian spot named for a fish, his arrival at Branzino has inspired big plans in a big, brand new kitchen. Stollenwerk, who won Philadelphia Magazine’s Best New Restaurant in 2010’s Best of Philly, has garnered good press in Bon Appétit and The New York Times, and has been a featured chef at the James Beard House multiple times, is more than ready for the challenge.

We recently caught up with Chef Stollenwerk at a white linen draped table under the crystal chandeliers in Branzino’s dining room to talk about what’s next.

The Daily Meal: When did you start here at Branzino?
Chef Mike Stollenwerk:
I started here about a month ago, the beginning of April. It’s going well so far; we’re going through the menu changes for the lunch and dinner menus, and we started brunch on Mother’s Day. We’re not making it too sophisticated, but just modernizing and refining the menu. We haven’t moved to the kitchen downstairs yet, but once we do that it will be really special.

Tell us about this new kitchen!
It is state of the art and a lot of space, like 2,500 square feet. There’s a separate prep kitchen, separate line, separate cold station. Everything is brand new. It’s like getting a brand new car - you don’t have to worry about it breaking down for a while, so that will be nice.

One major new thing is that we’re going to start a charcuterie program; I’m HACCP (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points) certified, which is like a sanitation certificate times ten. You need it if you’re smoking food, using sous vide, anything where the food is in the temperature danger zone for a long time, but it’s controlled by salt or air. So we’ll submit our HACCP plan to the city and after it’s approved, we can actually sell our charcuterie retail.

We definitely want to get some long-term stuff hanging up, like prosciutto, stuff that takes a while. My wife’s grandparents are from Italy, and her granddad was a butcher his whole life, so he’s taught me to do like, the cacciatorini, those little dried sausages, capicola, and all that stuff. Then it will be kind of cool to get into cheese making, which we can definitely use our space for. We’re going to can our tomato sauce with peak summer tomatoes, too. The bigger kitchen gives us a chance to do all this stuff.

What’s your approach with the menu? Are you revamping or it or creating a hybrid of old and new?
The first couple weeks I was here, we kept the menu the same, just so I could see what people order, and now we’re refining it a little. If it’s simple and good, that’s what we want. That’s the way I cook. I want you to taste what’s on your plate… I’m not going to mask it with a “dirt” or a foam.

One of my favorite new dishes on the menu right now is a roasted lamb belly. We marinate it overnight and roast it really slow for four hours the next day so the skin gets nice and crispy on top. It’s a lot like pork belly, but it’s a little richer.

I’m also working on the vitello tonnato, which is Italian veal and tuna. We cut a little rectangle of tuna and wrap it with a veal cutlet and sous vide it so it sort of glues itself together. Then we sear it and slice it, and it looks like raw veal tenderloin, but the middle is tuna. It’s pretty cool. We’re also doing a lot of homemade pastas, like English pea tortellini with a scallop nage; lots of spring ingredients right now.

How has your transition from Fish been? Does coming to a new restaurant give you a surge of creative energy, or do you hold back at first?
My family background is Italian, so this is how I’ve eaten my whole life, but professionally, I’m used to doing just all seafood, and more American-style.  But the challenge is the fun of it. The challenge and all the stuff going on here: the outdoor patio, the new kitchen, all the room for growth - that is what brought me here.

What do you like to eat?
I mean at home I eat sandwiches, but out, I like to eat straightforward food, simple but big flavors and good quality. A roasted chicken or a piece of braised meat or a steak from the grill... I like when food can speak for itself.

Have you always been a cook or a chef by trade?
Yeah, it started when I was a teenager. I wanted to buy a water bed when I was 13 and my mom said if I got a job I could buy it. So I went out, got hired as a busboy, saved up, and I bought it! And from there, I was really intrigued by the kitchen. By 14 I was fry cook, moved my way up the line, and then I started working in the Washington Inn in Cape May, which is pretty fine dining. From there I went to school at Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing, New Jersey.

I kind of dragged my feet about school. I was already a sous chef at the Washington Inn, so I had a lot of experience, which was actually an amazing thing to have when I went to school. I took so much more out of school than the average person who goes in. Some kids I went to school with had never even seen a kitchen. Our class started with 200 kids and graduated with 40, the drop-out rate is ridiculous. People get into cooking because they think they’re going to party like rock stars every night, and don’t realize the hours and how much work has to go into it. If your heart’s not in it, you’ll give up.

What’s the first thing that you made that excited you?
My memories of cooking stem from cooking for my brother when we were both little. It was a fridge raid. We’d find steak, mustard, steak sauce, and just mixed everything together to see what would come of it. Sometimes it came out really good! But we had to use a thin pan and everything would burn really fast. I used to hate it, but it was our only pan.

Seafood is my specialty now, and I remember when I was younger, going crabbing then cooking the crabs, making a whole day out of it. Simple stuff like that has stuck with me.

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