Interview with Chef Doug Robinson of Publik House in Peoria, Illinois
On Taryn’s recent trip back to her hometown of Peoria, Illinois, she had the opportunity to interview one of her new favorite chefs in the area. Read her recap of her meal at Publik House here.
Taryn Jeffries: What made you decide to become a professional chef?
Chef Doug Robinson: I couldn’t stop thinking about cooking.
TJ: Did you cook while you were growing up?
DR: My family has been in the restaurant business for awhile, so it’s just a thing that you do, and you always try to get out of it. So, I didn’t like it but it was a skill I had, so through high school and a little bit out of high school, I cooked but I didn’t like it. It’s hot and sweaty, and I played in bands trying to make money.
TJ: That’s hot and sweaty too…
DR: Yeah, but it’s more fun! The funny thing is with both things you get paid and you go spend your money on alcohol! So, I moved from Peoria to Providence and once I started cooking out there, the food was completely different. It wasn’t like your vegetable medley or your meat and veg with potato all at 10 and 2 on your plate. In Providence, I went to culinary school and worked in restaurants and thought, this is great.
TJ: So it was maybe a new channel that you hadn’t been exposed to before?
DR: I finally got it and then it was like a parasite that got into my brain and I was always thinking about food. You know, ‘what can I do with this?’ or ‘how can I make this thing better?’, watching the food network. Yeah.
TJ: So do you think now, being here, that your experience in Providence and getting sort of reacquainted and reignited with the whole food experience, is that reflected in your menu here?
DR: That moment in time, nah – that really just got me started. I’ve traveled a lot learning to cook. I’ve lived in Providence, Boston, Denver, the Florida Keys and St. Thomas and St. Croix in the Caribbean.
TJ: And those are all pretty vastly different…
DR: Yeah, so you learn cuisine and different techniques from all these different parts of the country. I mean, I was just watching Unwrapped and they were talking about coleslaw – a big factory making coleslaw and the lady they spoke with said that they make the same coleslaw, but they have to make it three different textures for different parts of the country. Same recipe, same coleslaw: so you can have one recipe but it will be made all different. So I traveled a lot and figured that out. I worked under a couple different chefs. So I have restaurant experience, resort experience and country club experience, you know to gather all of that up.
TJ: And this is, by far, the most preferred for you?
DR: This one? Oh yeah, I love this place. It’s very small, we seat 84 people in the summertime and 60 in the wintertime without the patio. We make everything from scratch here. I have 100% sort of free range as far as creativity goes.
TJ: How often does the menu change?
DR: Once a season, sometimes twice a season. We may find out after a bit that some items aren’t moving and then we can replace them but the major change is every season. We have a board with our daily specials. On Thursday, we’ll put up different drink specials and I’ll do a dinner special on Thur, Fri, Saturday, but on Mon, Tue, Wed we already have them ironed out. It’s going over really well. Monday we do $3 select beers and then we give out these home made chips with them.Tuesday is “Poor Man’s Surf and Turf”, with a burger and fried shrimp and we just started WoodSmoke Wednesday and it’s a hit. We have a smoker out back and whatever I feel like smoking I’ll put on it and make it a special.
TJ: Do you have a signature dish, either in or out of the restaurant? Maybe something that family and friends beg you to bring to family gatherings or parties?
DR: Grilled Corn.That actually just happened this month. I made a cilantro and lime butter and I picked fresh corn, pulled the husks down and rubbed the butter all over it.Then I closed the husks back up and threw it on the grill. My brother has not stopped talking about it. He told me, ‘put it on your menu and every time I come over I want that.’ So I have that and any sort of Asian noodle dish. I don’t know why, they just say make Asian noodles, make it hot. Okay…
TJ: Who do you think that you have learned the most from as far as cooking goes?
DR: My Grandfather, Dad, Rob Wyss, and Michael Lofero.
TJ: So, your Grandpa and your Dad – is that from their history?
DR: Yeah that and just their work ethic. They barbecued, so pretty much by 13 I was like, okay I can smoke ribs and all of that but I mean my Grandfather was there everyday and I watched my dad open up restaurants and be there and not being home. So, it was like, okay you’ve got something – you need to nurture it and be there. I don’t think you can become, even a good cook, if you don’t have a good work ethic and you definitely can never become a great chef if you don’t have that.You know that you have to sacrifice and put in the hard work – you can’t complain about it. If you don’t have that when you start out as a prep cook even and you don’t have that you’re not going to make it very far – you might not even make it through the line if you don’t have a good work ethic.
TJ: Tell me about Rob and Michael…
DR: Rob and Michael – Michael was the Chef at the first 4 star restaurant that I worked at and it was kind of like the second coming… he showed me really fine ingredients and taught me respect for your ingredients and how to really take care of them. You don’t cut up a fish and just throw it in a pan, you need to layer it. You need to make sure you don’t ruin it. And Rob, I worked with him, I went to high school with him. After that, we separated – he went West and I went East and we both became chefs. I worked in Illinios Country Club for about 3 years and he basically gave me the freedom to hone my skills and really do what I wanted to do and he showed me lots of ingredients that I hadn’t used before and I still talk to him like once a week.
TJ: And where is he?
DR: He’s in Springfield, IL.
TJ: Is there a specific ingredient or food that you tend to steer away from in your own kitchen at home?
DR: Ranch Dressing.
TJ: I am not a fan either…
DR: I hate it. I’m not just not a fan of it – I hate it.People ask me for Ranch dressing here all the time – and I say nope – no Ranch dressing here. It’s just gross, I call it Midwest Gravy.
TJ: Is there any dish that you have found to be particularly difficult to master?
DR: Foie Gras Torchon. Oh, I haven’t been able to perfect it. It’s a 4 day process. I’m still working on it. I mean, you mess it up and that’s $80 out the door right there! I’m not giving up on it – I will master the Foie Gras!
TJ: What would you consider the best meal you’ve ever had?
DR: Caribbean Stew Chicken.
TJ: Now where did you have this?
DR: In the Caribbean – off of a truck. Go figure – all the restaurants I’ve eaten in! Off of a truck that looks like a linen truck, powered by propane and this lady who was wearing a tank top – which probably wasn’t at all sanitary – hands me this chicken and rice dish that, oh – it was so good. Plastic fork, Styrofoam plate…delicious.
TJ: Do you think that was part of it, the whole experience in that it was so unexpected?
DR: Probably, that and I was really hungry.
TJ: What do you think it was that made it so good – how does that qualify as the best thing you have eaten?
DR: I don’t know – maybe she sweat in it a lot! I’m not sure. Maybe she raised the chickens herself. I had a family of chickens in the Caribbean that we raised, and when they grew up I killed them and ate them… really tasty. She worked wonders with it. They don’t have all the same rules and regulations as far as food down there. Everything that was on that plate could have been grown in her yard for all I know.
TJ: If you had the option of orchestrating your last meal what would you want it to consist of?
DR: BBQ, ribeye, foie gras and truffles.
TJ: Just straight truffles?
DR: Nah, some in a dish – throw some other ingredients in it. Have some on BBQ since I grew up on it, I love it all over my steak – foie and truffles you know you cant go wrong with those.
TJ: As far as your major influences, is there one thing that you learned really early on that’s stuck with you?
DR: Knife safety is one of them. It sounds weird – but being a kid growing up in a BBQ restaurant, I learned pretty early on that was really important. And tending the fire: If you’re out camping you have to tend the fire. If you’re the chef in a kitchen you have to make sure that everything is in place. Turn your back for a moment and your fire is not hot enough to do anything with. Same thing with the restaurant – if you’re running the restaurant you have to pay attention, down to the fact are the linens dirty? – okay we have to get them clean. It’s all the small details. Everybody looks at the big picture, but the big picture can’t be held together without the small details.
TJ: If you could have an unlimited supply of any ingredient from one of your purveyors what would it be?
DR: Unlimited supply? I hate to beat a dead horse – but anything pig, anything pork. I love pork. It was the first meat I learned to cook after all.
TJ: Have you done any head to tail dinners here?
DR: No, but we’re working on that though.
Amy Peterson: Do you think that would be well received here?
DR: Maybe, that’s why I’m trying to build up the customers trust in me, where I can say, you know, just come and do this. We did a Beer Dinner in May and we shut down the restaurant. It was the only thing we did that night. And the menu, nobody saw the menu prior to – and they all came. And that night we were talking about how we were going to do another one and we have it capped at 40 because we want it to be just right and we had 29 reservations before the end of the dinner. So, I’m basically trying to build that trust to see if the customers would want to do something like that. Maybe next summer.
Amy Peterson: Going back to your Caribbean experience, do you think there is something to be said about the whole idea that you’re raising the food that you are eating – in that you are treating it with respect.
DR: Oh yeah, I think in my instance I was familiar with it. I knew where it had been. There’s definitely something to be said for that. I have, in my basement, a big grow room and I grow a lot of herbs and vegetables that find their way here. It’s like 14×30 and I have 3 1000 watt lights, piped in water.
Amy Peterson: Do you break down your proteins in the kitchen?
DR: Yeah, I break them down – and we get them from Pottstown. We get in whole chickens and whole pork butt. I worked in a butcher shop, actually Pottstown, for about a year. They’re awesome. They cure meat there and their food is always good.
TJ: Do you have a favorite kitchen gadget?
DR: Spoons. I tell you what, when you need to get something out of a pan, like a sauce and you don’t have a spoon. You use them for tasting, plating – just about anything. Or isi containers. We infuse liquor, we use it for the potato puree on our menu – it’s not actually a puree, it’s a foam. You know, we’re in meat and potato land. We don’t want to serve mashed potatoes, so I thought ‘how can I get mashed potatoes on the plate without having a big ol’ heap of mashed potatoes?’, so we came up with the potato foam. It foams up, kinda looks like your traditional potatoes, tasted like potatoes, but it’s very nice and light.
TJ: Can you share one of your kitchen disasters?
DR: I’m in St. Thomas working at Havana Blue and we have to have a ceviche of the day, every day. I wanted to do sea bass, bacon, apple, red onion ceviche – but we didn’t have sea bass.So, I think, ‘salmon goes with bacon and apple. Why not?’ NO! Really, really bad – like horrible. Disgusting – I will even use the word disgusting. It was gross.
TJ: What happened then? Did you still serve it?
DR: Yeah. They graciously ate it all but said something to the server about it not tasting right and I took a spoonful and ran out to the table to apologize.
TJ: So you broke a cardinal rule then? You sent it out without tasting it…
DR: That’s right! That’s what happens when you’re in the last minute phase. You’ve got everything together.You know, you have the lemon, the lime and the orange and all your garnishes, you know the bacon and everything, and then I went to look for the sea bass and there was no sea bass. So then I had to break down the salmon, cut it – didn’t have the time to taste it. My bad, shame on me!
TJ: When you’re off the clock what is your go to comfort food?
DR: Wings. All of them. I don’t care. The hotter the better, but it has to be a flavorful hot. You have to balance it. And it’s really hard to get it up there, to get the heat up there and still have the flavor. There was only one woman that burned my mouth and made it taste good. Her name was Ilove, in St. Thomas. She grew her own peppers and she would make sauces for me. She worked in this place call Jack’s. “If you don’t know wings, you don’t know Jack.” So I’d go in there, my roommate worked there and I’d get there wings. She’d notice I would always get the hot and she said, ‘You like it hot, Dougie?” So she’d bring in her pepper and make me these sauces and ask me if it was hot. I’d say, yep its getting up there. For 2 months we did this and finally she said, I don’t know about this one and she pushed me over six wings and I took one bite and said, ‘I’m done!’ It was just too hot, just all hot. I guess she had reached that threshold where the flavor just didn’t exist anymore and it was just hot.
TJ: What are 5 ingredients that are always in your home pantry or fridge?
DR: Salt, pepper…rice.
TJ: Okay that’s only three and salt & pepper – that’s a given.
DR: You know, like all the variations. Peppercorns – green & pink. I mean salt & pepper does seem like a cop-out unless you go with truffle salt, Murray River pink salt – you know all of those. So it’s not just your basic table salt.
TJ: I appreciate the clarification, I was worried.
DR: Right? Uh, rice, I’ve always got to have rice. A bottle of Big John’s BBQ sauce, that’s my Grandfather’s sauce. My brother and Dad still own one of the restaurants; it’s called Grandpa John’s now, so I still get the sauce. I have a quart sitting in my refrigerator now. Guinness and eggs.
TJ: So are a lot of the foods that come through your kitchen purchased locally?
DR: Yeah, we try to go through local markets and you know I have all the stuff in my basement, that’s about as local as you can get! My meat, everything comes from Pottstown. I really try to stay as close to the border of Illinois as possible. We get some things from Iowa, but we definitely try to stay within the border. It’s hard to stay on a schedule. We’re still in our first year so we don’t have that steady, steady business to where we know so it makes it really hard to order. When you deal with farmers they want you to have that steady order, so it’s really hard to plan for – but when I can, we do. You know everybody wants asparagus – but when they want it in August – guess what – it’s not coming from your backyard!
TJ: How have you seen the restaurant and the concept here being perceived by the public? I mean, I have a 12 year old memory of food in Illinois and it was all Steak & Shake and Avanti’s for me, so seeing a place like Publik House here is really very encouraging, and I suppose I’m just really curious how it’s been received.
DR: You know, there have been people that have come in looked at the menu and got up and walked out. They didn’t understand it. They were expecting bar food – pizza, wings, maybe a hot dog or something. It’s the whole chain thing. They make cookie cutter food that is really bad for the population and when you go there and you eat that all the time, you know a lot of that is precooked, preserved and injected with all sorts of bad. I’m not saying that we don’t need chains that is just the stigma that some chains have. You need a corporation – that’s fine. You have a good product and you want to build it up nationwide – great. Don’t cut all those corners. I mean, I’m pretty sure Emeril Lagasse chain restaurants aren’t as great as his first restaurant, but they’re no Chilis. That, you can be sure of.
Leslie: I agree with you, I feel that the older I’ve gotten I seek out these mom & pop places, not only because I want to support them locally – that means a lot to me, it’s also just the curiosity. Let’s try this, let’s try that, let’s try something different. You know, let’s go of the beaten path. I mean, I’m all about trying different things and not being at the Chili’s on a Friday night. I’d rather come here, see some familiar faces and try something new.
DR: Not see the same menu day after day after day. Changing the menu was a battle. People here like seeing the same thing, knowing what to expect in a way. We’ve had a few people say if you take this off we’re never coming back. I just have to say, sorry I hope you do, but that may happen.
Amy Peterson: Don’t you think with all the media focus on things like Food Inc. and that whole concept of going local – you know, we’re in the middle of Illinois for God’s sake and there’s farmers markets…
DR: I know farmers that haven’t seen Food Inc. I know butchers that haven’t seen it. The information is out there – you just have to seek it out, you have to be willing to go after it.
TJ: What is the best compliment someone could give you after dining at the restaurant?
DG: Ordering the same thing they just ate to go.
TJ: So how often has someone done that?
DR: Oh, very rarely. I had a guy do it the other night and I was blown away. I told him you can thank me all you want, tell me how great it was but ordering the same thing to go after you’ve eaten it…That’s just – wow. He told me it wasn’t for him it was for his Dad and I thought, that’s even better! That he thought it was so great that he had to take it to someone else to let them experience that – it was amazing.
TJ: Who would your ideal diner be?
DR: Other Chefs, other food industry people.
To learn more about Publik House, visit publikhousepub.com