As a genre of modern painting, still life representation is testimony to our artistic love affair with everything “food.” From the aroma, to the vision, texture and taste, food is that which sustains us and delivers energy to our bodies.
In 1500s Italy, Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted whimsical images of people that were made up entirely of fresh foods. In this perfect time of year when gardens offer up their abundance, food enters the category of fine art.
In medieval France, a feudal lord often owned all large ovens within his fief, each operated by an oven master. In exchange, personal ovens were generally outlawed and commoners were compelled to use the feudal lord’s ovens. Such use was subject to payment. The ovens were commonly large enough to hold an entire community’s ration of bread.
Today, we enjoy cooking facilities in our homes. Or, we simply go out to eat. However, in light of COVID-19, that is becoming a risky behavior for many.
As winter began in 2018, Manitowoc celebrated the opening of a new restaurant by some old friends. Holla opened its doors in December 2018 and immediately enjoyed instant acceptance of what owners Myke and Shannon Hollahan call “Local fare, global flair.”
The dictionary definition of “gourmet” is as follows: “a cultural ideal associated with the culinary arts and is characterized by refined, even elaborate, preparations and presentations of aesthetically balanced meals.”
In its menu of dishes, Holla is proving that gourmet can be at one time elaborate, complex, basic and adventurous.
Myke Hollahan is head chef, and with wife Shannon Hollahan, co-owner of Holla. Myke develops recipes for the restaurant by looking at a combination of things: what’s on hand and what’s seasonally available locally. He then tries to mesh those things together to create something that is unique to Holla, or to put a unique spin on classic dishes that are still approachable.
One of Myke’s goals is to “nudge people out of the culinary comfort zone and to try something new.”
Since opening Holla, Myke has had a couple of customers call his food “pretentious; which it is not,” he said. “It’s rustic food, yet refined, with proper portions and high-quality, fresh ingredients.”
Holla began as a business using a farmers’ market approach rather than the traditional food services available. A group of food producers, or farmers, were chosen based on the quality and availability of foods.
Before owning Holla, Myke and his family did grow some of their own foods, but with the restaurant, it’s impossible to maintain a garden. But fresh herbs and garnishes are grown on site.
East-central Wisconsin crops are wonderful! As a person who has gardened in a variety of temperature zones and dirt types, this area has wonderful soil and so can produce, in a short growing season, wonderful vegetables, as well as orchards that produce tree fruits and cane berries.
“Terroir” is a term used in wine producing that refers to the environment in which grapes are grown. That definition, to many, is confining as every region that produces food has the “taste,” or terroir, of the region.
Our agricultural offerings often taste of grasses, fungi and oak. From the point of view of a gardener, Wisconsin food is delicious.
Who teaches us how to use these foods in ways that respect the food itself? In the case of Myke, he learned to cook at around the age of 11 or 12 from his stepfather.
Early on, Myke said he learned that, “to properly take care of yourself, you need to be able to cook for yourself. So I’ve transferred that to cooking for our community.”
This writer never wanted to cook, and as an urban dweller, didn’t need to learn to cook — food was everywhere in Chicago. But when I moved to Wisconsin, I realized that I could not return to Chicago for dinner every day. So, I slowly learned to cook.
Another friend never learned to cook as she was growing up. Her mother didn’t cook and she did not need to learn. Then, she married, and in her words: “We needed to eat. I bought cookbooks. It was the days of opening cans of this and that.”
Then, my friend found Julia Child cooking on television and that was the beginning of her love of cooking.
We should never return to a time when the cooking of our food is no longer something we control; regardless of “who owns the ovens,” our own cooking — with love — is art.
On my cookbook shelf is Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food.” It is one of my first cookbooks, and it adheres to the philosophy that good, fresh, quality food should be respected as the star of a meal. And that is one of the keys to food as art — how quality food is grown and used in food preparation.
According to Myke, for Holla, local produce means “the high-quality of our ingredients, which are harvested one to two days before we get them (sometimes the same day), are whole foods complete with all their nutrient-dense goodness. Some of the vegetables and leafy greens are probably still living when I get them. With that high quality of freshness, we are getting all the benefits from the nutrients, unlike things that are harvested and shipped from other states and even countries. They are picked weeks in advance and forced to ripen during shipping, and basically dead and void of most of their vitamins and minerals.”
With food, the less nutritious it is, the more of it our bodies crave. Which is why so much processed food requires more quantity to meet nutritional standards — or to fill you up properly and give you energy. When you eat quality, you need less quantity.
Keeping a limited menu is what allows a restaurant to achieve an “each plate is fresh and individual” status. With those standards, a chef, either home or restaurant, uses various techniques to prepare before opening for the day. One technique is laying out the ingredients for a dish, or “mise en place.”
Preparing ingredients is the most fabulous, artistic thing about making a dish. And the more equipped your kitchen is, the better your mise en place will present, for both you, the chef, and in appearance.
At Holla, in Myke’s kitchen, he said “Everything is done fresh, cooked a la minute, meaning ‘in the minute,’ prepared for each specific order. There is no hot holding, microwaves or steam wells in my kitchen where I can just scoop and serve or reheat by pushing a button.”
How can a home chef hope to hold to same standards as a restaurant such as Holla? According to Myke, one of the secrets is to “start with finding out what’s in season in your area. You can find out with a quick online search, or talk to the farmers at your farmers’ market; they will give you more info than you would probably expect. I use a lot of light, fresh, leafy herbs with the plethora of spring/summery produce, paired with bright acids like the juice from lemons, limes, oranges or grapefruits.
“I’ve been playing around a lot with fresh ginger juice that is produced locally in Sheboygan,” he said. “Or light apple cider, rice wine, or champagne and white wine vinegars. In the fall/winter seasons, it’s a lot of rich squash, root vegetables and cabbages. And paired with red wines, and red wine vinegars, with warming spices like cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, I also use a fair amount of cranberries and cherries. Why not? There are a ton produced here in Wisconsin.”
Like most restaurants, a home kitchen needs to rotate its menu based on seasons for a variety of reasons; baking isn’t wonderful in summer, and stews are not quite summer foods.
Using what is in season is how a chef changes their menu. And, in the case of favorite foods, seasonal items can be used to “freshen” flavors based on season.
A great example of doing that would be fish tacos, which appear on Holla’s menu quite often. Myke’s secret for changing by season is to “do light and bright in the summer, and warm and rich when it’s cold outside.”
For a restaurant like Holla to rotate its menu, considerations are deeper than what is growing.
Since Myke orders whole animals for the restaurant, and there are only a certain number of cuts on each animal, when his kitchen runs out of steak, steak is off the menu until he buys another whole animal.
Local, fresh and sustainable makes “requests” challenging. The art of “cheffing” is to be flexible.
Some of the most labor-intensive cooking is done in Mexican, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines. As a person who has dabbled in preparing many of those dishes, my main complaint has always been “eight hours to cook, eight minutes to eat.” I asked Myke what he thought of that concept, and his response is the epitome of food as art: “I love that statement. It’s so true this is probably one of the very few art forms that can take so much time to produce, and is gone in minutes. But some of the memories will last forever.
“For example, I will roast the bones of one of my lambs for an hour or so,” he said. “Then, I make a 72-hour stock, cool it over night, remove the fat cap, and reduce it for three-plus hours to make a super rich and flavorful demi-glace, just to put about a tablespoon in a dish. But if it creates a food memory or an experience in someone’s visit, that’s why I do it! I always say that we are in the business of creating memories for people.”
All chefs cook to share the love. There is very little in life that is as gratifying as preparing a meal with or for friends or family, then sitting down to enjoy it in the warmth and acceptance of how we break bread.
Perhaps the inability to share table with loved ones is the hardest part of the COVID-19 procedures as we attempt to stay safe. Since reopening after the national shutdown, Holla had opened in a limited eat-in capacity, but has closed twice since doing so for more employee testing.
I asked Myke, in light of COVID-19, what he saw as the future of dining out. He was quite frank about it, stating as follows: “I don’t see it changing from our new normal anytime soon. I think we are going to learn to accept social distancing in dining rooms. People are going to get sick of curbside and delivery. They’re going to want to go out more. Therefore, reservations may become more common, since seating will become more limited. Also, restaurants will need to be in more control over the flow of their guests.”
However things go, Manitowoc — and many of the people who live here — hope that Holla will be there with open doors when it is safe to do so.
Meantime, it is important to remember, in the words of Myke, “that a cook works very hard to make food, a chef (or chief) is the leader in a kitchen and is ultimately responsible for everything that goes on in the kitchen, and every single piece of food that comes out of that kitchen, no matter who made it.”
Make your food with love. Show your food love. Appreciate those who grow your food and prepare your food. And remember that food is the art we can create each day to nourish and enrich our lives.
Jody Kuchar is a freelance writer and artist living in Manitowoc. Art Forward is a weekly column by the Manitowoc Public Arts Committee.
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