Revolver Restaurant is single-handedly responsible for my food obsession. Sure, I read all those food conscious books, such as Fast Food Nation; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Food Matters and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, all of which got me interested in rethinking food.
But I didn’t feel passionate about grass-fed beef until I tasted a dry-aged grass-fed strip steak for the first time—at Revolver. I wouldn’t have ever imagined I would crave sweetbreads until I had the perfectly juicy ones on Revolver’s menu one fateful New Year’s Eve. I would have never guessed that I would be inspired to cook with local vegetables, like kale, beets, and brussel sprouts, if not for the countless dishes I have devoured in the warmly lit dining room of Revolver Restaurant in Findlay, Ohio.
The chef behind the restaurant: Michael Bulkowski.
As I make my New Year resolutions to bake my own bread, to start canning my own soups, and to use rutabagas, I want to pay homage to the person who helped develop my palate and my appreciation for local foods—Chef Michael Bulkowski. His passion for food translates as excellence in the kitchen, and his cooking is a cornerstone in my progression as a food enthusiast. I have eaten in several fine dining establishments in several “big” cities, and afterwards I always wish that instead I would have been eating Chef Bulkowski’s food. He uses fresh, local ingredients to create meaningful, innovative dishes. I know many chefs share this vision, but I have yet to meet one that can compare with Bulkowski’s talent.
This month’s From Palate to Plate happily features an interview with Chef Michael Bulkowski and reviews of Revolver and his newest venture, The Big Jerk. Check out how one down-to-earth Ohio guy who is bridging the gap between fine dining and fast food.
When Chef Michael Bulkowski (pictured with his wife and fellow co-owner Debi) of Revolver Restaurant and The Big Jerk in Findlay, Ohio, pulls one of the sleek orange dining room chairs to our two top, he seems as he always does—totally chill. He’s one of those guys who are so cool he doesn’t know he’s cool. And if you told him he was cool, he’d probably laugh and shake his head, humbly. But, as he folds his hands underneath his black apron with white pinstripes, the first thing Michael says is “I’m pissed. A party of 10 didn’t show tonight and didn’t think to cancel. Dude, some people are rude.” He shakes his head again. When I volunteer to interview him at another time, he smirks and shakes his head: “No way. I’m glad you guys are here.” My husband Dan starts shooting the breeze about music with Michael, who fidgets with his cell phone, as I gather my notes and questions, and I can tell by the way he’s leaning forward and nodding that Dan’s thinking the same thing I am—“How cool.”
Chef Michael Bulkowski interview with Amanda McGuire
When did you become chef? Actually I mean a cook? When did you start cooking?
I was just out of high school, not digging college, and the only job I could get was in the restaurant business because it’s the only industry in the world that needs people all the time. And I just fell into it and saved enough money to get to the next show, the next concert. But the next thing I know I got serious about cooking, so I packed up the car and headed to Las Vegas. It’s something I needed to do to grow-up and stop floating around. But I hated Vegas, so I moved to Vermont, then Chicago, and that’s when I really got serious.
It is hard to be serious about this business when you’re working with people who aren’t. You start thinking, “No one else cares so why should I care?” You need to be around people who care so you get something out of it or else you’re just some guy running the microwave station at Applebee’s.
Do you see yourself as a mentor to the young chefs and line cooks that work in your restaurants?
This is the way I was taught, and this is what I believe in: it’s not my job to teach people how to cook. It’s my job to teach them how to do my food. It’s their job to extract the knowledge and the information and the things that they want to learn. Obviously, we’re all more than willing to share everything in the kitchen with each other. But my job is to make sure people cook the food in my restaurant the way I want it served. The whole idea of the chef/mentor/apprentice thing—I’ve never really seen a place where that exists.
They talk about it a lot on TV, so I’ve been wondering…
No, they do. Don’t get me wrong. I worked for Shawn McClain for eight years and he was definitely my mentor. But he didn’t come to me and give me advice and tell me what to do. I made out of it what I wanted out of it. As a chef, and as I saw with Shawn, you don’t have time to stop and individually take on everyone in that kitchen and help them, so it’s the line cook’s job to get the knowledge from the chef. In my eight years under him, I probably learned just as much from the other cooks in the kitchen as I did from him. We learn from each other. People come in from other restaurants and show you something new. That’s how it works; that’s how people get better. You work in a good kitchen where the cooks have all worked in other good kitchens, and suddenly everyone’s on the same level. I think it’s different here because most of the cooks haven’t worked in those kinds of kitchens. There’s definitely a greater knowledge gap. And some want to close that gap, and others want a paycheck. I’m fine either way. Just as long as they do what I want them to do. That’s how it should be. You make your own destiny.
Speaking of Vegas and Chicago what do you think is the difference between diners there and the diners here in northwestern Ohio who have a whole different mindset and values set regarding eating, especially at restaurants? It seems people in “big” cities are willing to spend more money on fine dining, so I’m wondering what your experience has been like here in Findlay?
It’s like being on an island, my own Findlay Island. But at least we let people into that island. I want any diner to feel welcomed in my restaurants.
When Dan and I tell people we ate at Revolver most ask how we can afford it. But we don’t eat fast food—ever. We don’t buy Starbucks every morning. We cook at home a lot, even when we don’t feel like cooking. That’s what I tell most people, but how would you respond?
They could eat 4 meals at Cheddar’s [a local chain restaurant that’s similar to but cheaper than Applebee’s] for what you just spent on dinner at Revolver.
True, it’s cheaper but the cost is higher if you consider poor labor conditions, the use of factory farm meat, the negative health effects from eating low quality food. The list goes on. So wouldn’t people rather eat at places like Revolver?
I don’t know…I’d love to figure it out, but I don’t know.
Maybe the answer would frustrate us.
I had this great idea this summer to hold a Food, Farm, and Film Festival where I’d get some cool chefs to cook some good food and have a farmers’ market downtown on Main Street. And at night we’d show some of the edgier documentaries like King Corn and other films most folks probably won’t watch on their own. But with the economic crash, funding was gone. They did have a film festival here, but I have no clue who put it on. Probably not farmers.
You know, that’s what we are, though—we’re farmers here. I grew up on a farm; my grandfather was a farmer. It absolutely influenced the food I cook.
The more I get involved in the local food movement the more I want to support businesses that use local foods. What percent of the menu at Revolver comes from local foods?
At our peak in August and September, we could probably push upwards to 80-90%. There’s always things that we’re not going to get locally— sometimes out of habit but mainly out of cost—like bulk onion, carrots, or celery. Depending on the season, we determine what are the most important local items to feature, and the local proteins we use year round.
Seasonal food influences the menu at Revolver, but music does too. You named the joint after a turntable for crying out loud. What connection do you see between food and music?
Music sets the mood for the diners, right? On New Year’s Eve, I never start the tunes until the first course goes out. Then everything starts at once. Same as with food, there’s always certain music for certain seasons. I like Tom Waits in the Fall/Early Winter when the street lights start to flicker on early and people brace themselves against the wind. Winter is definitely Radiohead. Spring is Jam Bands. In Summer anything goes. Music is definitely what inspires me. My dream is to plan a meal where each course is presented song by song, like a mix tape. That’s not impossible, right?
No. That would be my dream come true. What do your average customers think of the music choices?
Only a couple of people ever say anything about the music. Maybe just you two. I even put the featured musician on the menu. I guess you just have to be a music lover.
Well, what kind of customer feedback have you gotten about the food at Revolver?
You would probably know better than me. I don’t hear anything unless something’s undercooked or under seasoned. And that’s fine with me. I don’t want feedback. When we first opened I wanted to know what everyone thought. I was asking customers all the time, but too much feedback clouds my vision, so I try to avoid it. Maybe I sound like an asshole, but that’s the truth.
Then what do you think of food critics?
Most critics think food is about fashion, not flavor. It’s not cool when critics don’t see a chef’s vision or when they only critique the vision, not the taste of the food. Good critics focus on the food. I’m not really all that into critics, but I know they’re necessary. They keep restaurants in business.
Where did the concept for The Big Jerk, your newest venture, come from? By the way, the name cracks me up.
Debi named it. I’m still not sure I like the name yet. But I’ve had the idea for a long time, even before I opened Revolver. The Big Jerk is actually based on the Subway model—no hood or grill. I wanted to keep it simple but pump out high quality food. I’m using some of the local foods I use at Revolver like the pork. But to keep the costs down at The Big Jerk, I’m buying most of the foods in bulk.
Is the menu inspired by the local college and bar scene? What crowd are you hoping to draw with this fast food/late-night establishment?
The menu has a Caribbean Asian vibe. I like jerk. So I make jerk—with other things I like. I’m hoping to catch the late night drunks and stoners, but also people coming home from second shift. And people who want good fast food. It would be awesome to steal Taco Bell’s crowd when the bars close, though.
I was thinking about the differences between Revolver and the Big Jerk, and I thought of them as Revolver being older, wiser, sophisticated sibling, and The Big Jerk as the punky younger sibling.
Or better yet, Revolver is the Beatles. The Big Jerk is the Dead Kennedys.
You better be playing The Dead Kennedys over there.
Oh, I am. And anything else I feel like. But definitely the harder stuff.
What advice do you have for home cooks?
Read. Buy books. When I did a cooking class, I did a while section on what books to buy. There are definitely some books that are really going to help people and there are others that will just make it worse. Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page really help people pair flavors. Simple things like that really help. All you’re really doing when you’re cooking is taking different flavors and applying different techniques. So once you get down your flavor combinations and your techniques you can do a bazillion things. Flavor combinations are half the puzzle. Old books like Julia Childs’ are still good stuff. Taking classes is always a good thing too. Just elementary level classes. Learn how to braise. Any cook that’s worth anything knows how to braise. That’s a key thing that most home cooks don’t do and it’s so easy.
Dude, you get to cook great food, work with great people and listen to great music. You have to love your job.
I’m doing what I love to do, but I never asked for the additional burden or financial stress that comes with opening restaurants. I knew I was taking it on, but it didn’t register until it was too late. I’m doing what I love but it’s hard to enjoy sometimes. Does that make sense? Sometimes I think I should have taken a job at the country club; I would have more time with my family and I could embrace that part of my life more. Hindsight is 20/20; you really shouldn’t go there if you don’t have to. All will work out. But I couldn’t do anything else. I can remember sitting there when we moved home and I hadn’t worked for a year. I told Debi I can’t fucking take this, and she said go get a job at Blockbuster. I can’t fucking work at Blockbuster. I cook. But when I think back on it now, I should have gotten a job a Blockbuster. I could go into work every day, slouch off, and not worry about anything. That would be nice.