The Talented Mr. Koetke

Christopher Koetke has been cutting stuff up since he was a kid. He grew up on the Valparaiso University campus, where his father was a physics professor. When he was eight he developed a fascination with dissecting laboratory animals. For the next five years he accompanied his dad to campus every Saturday afternoon; while his dad worked, he’d spend hours in an empty lab examining various worms, frogs, fetal pigs, and even a shark.

When Koetke was 12 he got another lab–his mom’s kitchen. Soon, butchering meat and filleting fish supplanted frog dissection as a hobby, and the next year he enrolled in continuing education cooking classes on campus taught by a Hungarian cook named Judith Goldinger. After six months he signed on as Goldinger’s assistant, co-teaching classes in a variety of cuisines. While other kids were reading comic books, he pored over the Larousse Gastronomique (a classic culinary encyclopedia) and Jacques Pepin’s La Technique and La Methode. He used his home as a test kitchen, preparing family meals and documenting every dish with a photograph–a collection he still treasures.

When he started high school he got his first job in a real restaurant, as a kitchen hand at Strongbow Inn, a family-run American restaurant in Valparaiso. Before long the chef and owner Russ Adams recognized his abilities and gave him free rein over planning and preparing the Sunday brunch. Soon, whole poached salmon and aspic-coated turkey were appearing on the menu. He also tried his hand at ice carvings. Patrons loved it. So did Adams, who gave Koetke increasing freedom in the kitchen over the following four years.

In 1985 he enrolled at Valparaiso to study French literature, but he continued to hone his culinary skills by commuting to Chicago and working part-time at Lucien Verge and Alan Tutzer’s famed (and now defunct) L’Escargot. For his junior year of college he headed off to the Sorbonne, where his academic and culinary interests battled for his attention. He spent his free time volunteering in the kitchens of famous eateries–in Paris at Pavaillon and Elysees and later in Lyons at Orsi.

When he returned to the U.S. he finished up college and then, only 20 years old, set his sights on the only restaurant performing at the same high level he’d witnessed in France–Le Francais in Wheeling. He spent five years there, the first with Jean Banchet, the acclaimed original chef and owner (who has just returned to the kitchen after a ten-year hiatus in Atlanta), and the rest with Roland Liccioni, now of Les Nomades and Rhapsody.

When Roland and Mary Beth Liccioni purchased Les Nomades in 1993, Koetke was their first choice to run the kitchen. He spent five years there, but the 12-to-14-hour days took their toll. He stuck it out until the birth of his second child, and then started looking for a “normal” job. In 1998 he took a position as a chef-instructor at Kendall College in Evanston, whose highly respected School of Culinary Arts has turned out top-notch local chefs like Campagnola’s Michael Altenberg, Trio’s Shawn McClain, and Mas’s John Manion.

At Kendall he’s back in the laboratory again, this time with a room full of chefs in training who watch his every move. This winter in his garde-manger class (the catchall term for cold items like hors d’oeuvres, pate, and terrines) he’s instructing a group of second-year culinary students. It’s 8 AM but the room buzzes with energy as they work on various stages of intricate dishes. One team prepares the forcemeat for today’s terrines by mixing together ground beef, liver, and spices, another lines terrine molds with thick slices of bacon, while a third works a hot veal glaze into the ice-cold forcemeat with their hands, moving fast so it doesn’t clump.

“Has anyone checked the temperature of the mousse in the oven?” Koetke shouts. One student hurries over to discover it’s up to 180 degrees–way too warm. With the intensity of an ER physician, Koetke instructs them to quickly get an ice bath ready. But his manner is so approachable that he commands more respect than fear.

He shows me what they’ve been working on this week. A dozen homemade sausages hang inside a hand-rigged smoker that in another life was a Peking duck oven, headcheese terrines (bits of pigs’ heads, braised until tender) line one shelf of the cooler, pans of scallop and snail pate cook in a bain-marie (water bath) in the oven, and the sink’s full of ducks awaiting boning. Koetke circulates through the room, inspecting each station and reminding students of the most important step. “Did you taste it?” he asks. “Don’t tell me if it’s good or bad, tell me what it needs to be extraordinary. Lemon zest? Rosemary? More pepper?” Students run over to the four-tiered spice rack and grab various bottles. By ten they’re tasting and retasting seared duck hearts, liver pate, and escargot.

The public can test the finished products in the Dining Room of Kendall College, which serves both lunch and dinner. A pate or terrine of the day can be sampled along with other class projects like sauteed bay scallops, or lobster salad with a goat cheese strudel, or inventive creations like a macadamia-nut-and-caramelized-onion-encrusted halibut with vanilla-Frangelico cream.

A year ago Koetke launched, a Web site featuring recipes, cooking tips, cookbook recommendations, and even mini cooking lessons. There’s a “chef’s forum,” where top chefs talk about topics like olive oil, choosing the best salt, and how to make chicken stock. He’s also kept up his ice carving skills, working part-time at Nadeau’s Ice Sculptures in Forest Park, one of the oldest ice carving companies around, providing ice art to hotels, country clubs, banquet halls, and even the Lincoln Park Zoo’s winter ZooLights festival. Despite his best efforts, his days aren’t much shorter than they were at Les Nomades.

The Dining Room at Kendall College is at 2408 Orrington, Evanston, 847-866-1399.

The Dish

JaponiSante, a new French-Japanese fusion restaurant at 2044 N. Halsted, reopened February 1 after it was closed by a fire January 19.

The Black Duck Tavern and Grill opened February 9 in the space formerly occupied by J.P.’s Eating Place at 1800 N. Halsted, serving a full menu of steaks, seafood, burgers, and pasta.

Evanston has a new Cuban eatery–the month-old Mambo Cuban at 726 Clark.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.