Chef Robert Kabakoff, 43, director of culinary operations and partner at The White Chocolate Grill in Naperville, was immersed in the culinary world very early in life. When he was young, he went out to eat a lot and his mom allowed him to order anything on the menu as long as he met the chef.
"It was exciting; my mom was always there to make the meetings less stressful," says Kabakoff, whose dad gave him a Culinary Institute of America course catalog when he was 14.
Those early dining experiences, along with an after-school job at a private country club, fueled his passion for food and led him to Hyde Park, N.Y., where he attended the Culinary Institute and graduated in 1986.
Kabakoff's career has taken him to Scottsdale, Ariz.; Napa Valley, Calif.; and Bend, Ore., where at the last locale he opened his own restaurants. He later moved to Chicago to open Frasca Pizzeria and Wine Bar.
Chef Kabakoff brings culinary brilliance to his current post as evidenced by several awards including Phoenix's Chef of the Year, American Culinary Foundation Champion for Hot Foods and U.S. Chef's Open Grand Champion. Kabakoff lives in Wicker Park.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned in cooking school? I learned to be a professional culinarian. It was cooking school, not chef school. I was taught how to be humble and how much I really didn't know. We all left school as new clay, and every day I find that I'm still learning.
What responsibilities do you have at White Chocolate Grill? I am responsible for kitchen standards, kitchen and menu design, hiring chefs, vendor relations and execution of recipe development. White Chocolate Grill in a nutshell is buying great ingredients and maximizing their potential. We consider what's going to capture and keep your attention in food.
What do you most like to do in the kitchen? I like butchering, cutting fish and meat, and working on the line. I also like baking. I did a lot of competing, and it taught me a lot about how important baking is. Baking is artistry and we use it all the time. Unfortunately, we don't have many hometown bakeries anymore.
What inspires you to create new dishes? Travel. It allows me to understand the culture behind food and see what I can do to add more weapons to our arsenal. In the culinary world, it's all been done. We try to find a product that we think our guests are going to love and then work on it so that we can put it on the menu.
I understand you collect boutique spices and herbs when you travel. Do you have any favorites? Grains of Paradise, it's like a peppercorn. When it's cracked, it almost smells floral with a peppery undertone. I also like epazote; it's a Latin American herb that is earthy and can be used when making black beans or tortilla soup. At the restaurant, we are very particular about our specs on our spices; that's what sets us apart.
What can you tell me about white chocolate? White chocolate has no cocoa butter. It's a chocolate product with a very vanilla flavor; we love that flavor profile. In our White Chocolate Banana Cream Pie we use bittersweet chocolate to line the shell, vanilla cream and caramel to cut the cloying sweetness. The flavor profile is a journey. Our White Chocolate Brownie is white with specks of bittersweet chocolate and has a good chocolate flavor.
Describe your kitchen at home? It's a long galley-style kitchen with tons of counter space. I love frying and I can put my deep fat fryer on the counter. I made fried chicken and waffles for my girlfriend's birthday. It's great with maple syrup drizzled over the chicken.
What other dishes do you like to cook at home? Skirt steak tacos, crab fritters, pozole and grilled burgers. I love white pizza with ricotta, fresh mozzarella, sometimes provolone, and garlic and herbs. I'd choose that or roast chicken as my last meal on earth.
Where do you like to eat when you dine out? Bob San Sushi Bar, Fat Willy's Rib Shack, David Burke's Primehouse and Eerie World Café, all in Chicago.
What is the best cooking tip you can offer home cooks? Use good ingredients. If you start with great ingredients, you will end up with great food. If you buy average ingredients, you will get average food. At the restaurant we agonize over ingredients. For example, choosing a blue cheese is important because it needs to complement the whole flavor profile of the dish. If you can buy a fresh chicken instead of a frozen chicken, always buy the fresh chicken.
What do you like to do when you're not in the kitchen? I run; I do half marathons. I create more food on a run, and I can eat more because I run. Life is too short to rob yourself of something like fried calamari -- I just eat half of the food on my plate. I also love baseball; my girlfriend and I are Red Sox fans.
What do you enjoy most about being a chef? The people I work with. There's nothing like a great shift, it's pure magic. I am more comfortable in a restaurant than I am outside. There's camaraderie in cooking; I crave the food and the knowledge. I want to create memorable experiences for people. Creating a product that nourishes somebody -- what an honor.
Tell us about this recipe. White Chocolate Walnut Banana Bread can be eaten for breakfast or dessert. Griddle it up and serve it with ice cream; it's awesome.
Enjoy this at home or at The White Chocolate Grill, 1803 Freedom Drive, Naperville, (630) 505-8300 or www.whitechocolategrill.com.
White Chocolate Walnut Banana Bread with Ice Cream & Caramel Sauce
1¼ cups granulated sugar
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup butter, softened
¾ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1½ cups very ripe bananas, mashed
1 cup toasted walnuts
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons Sugar in the Raw
Vanilla ice cream
2 cups whipped cream
1 cup dark chocolate, shaved
Fresh mint sprigs
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat two loaf pans with vegetable spray and dust with flour, removing and discarding any excess flour. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together granulated sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In a separate bowl, mix together softened butter, whole milk, eggs, vanilla extract, bananas, walnuts, white chocolate chips and cinnamon. Mix until just combined; do not overmix.
Fold the wet and dry mixtures together until just combined. Evenly divide the batter between the two loaf pans. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon Sugar in the Raw evenly over each pan. Bake about 30-45 minutes until loaves are golden brown. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick in the center of the loaves. If the toothpick comes out dry, the loaves are done.
Remove loaves from oven and allow to cool on cooling racks. When completely cooled, remove loaves from pans and slice to preferred thickness.
To serve: Place 2 slices on a plate and garnish with one scoop of vanilla ice cream a dollop of whipped cream, some caramel sauce, shaved chocolate and a sprig of fresh mint.
Chef Robert Kabakoff, The White Chocolate Grill, Naperville