Q&A With Mani and Isalita’s Executive Chef
Along with owner Adam Baru, executive chef Brendan McCall has helped create two of Ann Arbor’s hottest restaurants in the past three years: Mani Osteria and Isalita. He takes his food seriously – as evidenced in every dish served at the side-by-side joints on East Liberty. Want to know more about what it takes to be an Exec chef? Good. Read on.
SB: When did you start to cook?
BM: I started cooking growing up as part of my household responsibilities. We split nights, helped my mom out because both of my parents worked. My mom’s family is Italian-American, and food is a big part of how you do everything, how you celebrate anything special, how you show someone that you care about them — it is all food related. My mom is an excellent cook; my dad is a horrible cook. It fell to the kids to sort of help out.
Professionally speaking, I started doing some cooking on and off while I was in college, mostly barista-type things. I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands. I didn’t start really cooking professionally until after college.
SB: Did you know going into school that you wanted to be a chef?
BM: No. Going into college I was studying history, Spanish and anthropology, so I was planning on ending up as a lawyer or a teacher. [Being a chef] just sort of developed as life developed. Certain doors open, you follow certain opportunities and you work hard and you lift your head up. Years have passed, and you’re like, ‘oh, this is what I’m doing now.’
SB: Where was the first place you cooked professionally?
BM: I was at a place called Diamond Jim Brady’s Bistro in Novi, [MI]. I started there doing prep and dish washing. I had already graduated college, and I thought that I would just get my foot in the door by telling someone that I’d work for free. I was like, ‘let me show you what I can do.’ It’s sort of what happens with a lot of restaurants, you pay attention, someone doesn’t show up and you show that you can do what they were doing.
SB: Have you worked at any places other than Diamond, Mani and Isalita?
BM: Yes. I worked at Buku in Royal Oak, I was the sous chef at Eve the Restaurant for a while. I had my own catering company in town, so I did private-catering sort of in home stuff for Orchard Lake people and mostly locals, specializing in local, seasonal menus.
SB: So this your first head chef job?
BM: Yes. Well, I started a lunch place under Everyday Wines with Mary Campbell in Kerrytown. We had a place called Everyday Cooks. We started as a demonstration kitchen. Then we started doing lunches as a way to bring people in to show them the pots and pans. Suddenly we became a lunch restaurant, almost more so than a cookware store. It ended up being me and five other chefs. We would write a menu from scratch. I was exec-ing that, but we were all so young and hungry that it was more like being part of a band than managing a business.
SB: If you could open one restaurant other than Mani and Isalita, what would it be?
BM: I would love to have another just completely free-form culinary restaurant that is not specific to a single cuisine. It is just what’s available, what’s in-season and what I feel like doing. Maybe that is a little ego-driven, but for me, it would be very rewarding as far as a chef goes.
SB: I know that you guys experimented with the pizza recipe, changing amounts of salt and oil in the crust for weeks and weeks before opening…
SB: Months. So what puts Mani ahead of the restaurant curve?
BM: It is a lot of factors. We say that it’s like we got lightning in a bottle. I think that we could’ve done the exact same things we did, at a slightly different time in a slightly different location, and it wouldn’t have struck the way that it did here [in Ann Arbor].
We work very, very hard on our recipes, and we push ourselves hard everyday to make sure that they are right. That comes from our management staff, all of our sous chefs — we taste, taste, taste, — and the line cooks themselves. On a daily basis, the line cooks are the ones producing this food, so the quality that is coming out is something that I’ve taught, and I re-teach and I instill. Some people have that natural work ethic and personal standard that you can’t really teach, but you can help grow. We have been good at selecting individuals that have that, and then helping them grow.
SB: What is your favorite thing on the menu at Mani?
BM: Jeeze. Well that changes based on what I’m eating and feeling into. Right now we have a new pasta cook, and she is making some of the best garganelli that we have had in this restaurant. When she picks that dish up it is really amazing. So, right now, I have her make me one every night because it is just awesome. She’s killing it.
SB: How about at Isalita?
BM: When it comes to Mexican, I’m a classics guy. I love carnitas, braised-pork shoulder. It’s got a nice spicing. Ours has got a little twist to it. It’s braised in beer and Coca-Cola, so you get a little bit of this sweet tingle — but you don’t know exactly where it is coming from. I love that dish. It is really, really good.
SB: Other than Mani and Isalita, where do you like to eat in Ann Arbor?
BM: I really like Pacific Rim. Duke at Pacific Rim is a great chef. We go to Raven’s Club a lot. I love Thursday night a Raven’s Club; great jazz, great cocktails and good bites to eat. I do brunch at Zingerman’s Roadhouse. They’ve got a killer brunch. We hit Tomukun up a lot. When I was in school here, I used to eat a lot of San Foo. It is on South University near the South Main Market. That was my jam.
…Well Mani and Isalita are our jam…a must-go for all readers of Spoon. Seriously – check ‘em out.