“I seek simple, clean, familiar flavors in an unexpected presentation.” Mike Sheerin
When acclaimed Chicago restaurant, Blackbird, sings these days, it’s thanks to Executive Chef Mike Sheerin. Sheerin mans the kitchen now that founding chef Paul Kahan presides over his budding Chicago empire, which also includes The Publican, avec, and the recently opened taqueria and bar, Big Star.
Sheerin, whose skills were honed in New York at wd-50 with molecular gastronomy wizard Wiley Dufresne, also worked at Jean Georges, Lutece and Atlas in New York and Everest in Chicago. At Blackbird, he blends culinary arts with technological innovation, with his adept use of such state-of-art appliances as a cryovac machine, immersion circulator, dehydrator and commercial blender.
Sheerin fuses art and technology to create impeccable dishes at this world-class restaurant, which has already won the James Beard Best Chef of the Midwest for owner Paul Kahan. As Sheerin puts it, “I seek simple, clean, familiar flavors in an unexpected presentation.”
Take his signature version of duck tartare for example. Using classic French technique, Sheerin sears his maigret duck breast to achieve the caramelizing maillard effect, but from that point forward, he leaps into realms normally associated with food science.
Relying heavily on the sous vide technique, which he learned at WD-50, Sheerin now puts the duck breast into an immersion circulator, cooking it slowly for one hour at 100 degrees to render it tender, while retaining the rareness of tartare, though the meat is cooked. “One hundred fifteen degrees was too high. Ninety degrees left the meat too rare. One hundred degrees Fahrenheit was just right,” he notes.
For inspiration, he can credit Wylie Dufresne’s tartare of venison with edamame ice cream, a dish that also uses the immersion circulator and the dehydrator plus xanthan gum and agar agar in its preparation. Helpful, too, was the seminar he took while at wd-50 with renowned French sous vide pioneer Bruno Goussault, where he learned to assess the correct balances, textures and flavors necessary to realize his own tartare.
Extraordinary Everyday Flavors
According to Sheerin, he learned how to think for himself from Wylie Dufresne. From Paul Kahan, he learned about seasonality and what constitutes “deliciousness.” With the tartare, he fuses this knowledge with a tip his toque to the meat and potatoes tradition of the Windy City, by serving it with A1 sauce and mini tater tots.
Using agar agar, a seaweed extract, he can not only devise his own version of the traditional A1 sauce that normally accompanies meat, but also make it more velvety and luscious. And by adding transglutaminase (Active RM) to his tater tots, they become more solid and fryable.
Another dish that wafts between creativity and the classic is his bacon-cured veal sweetbreads with kohlrabi, candied kumquats, winter savory and black pepper jam. Here his sweetbreads are cured in maple syrup like bacon, so they are sweet and smoky, but also creamy and crunchy in texture.
Rather than use the term ‘molecular’ to refer to his cuisine, Sheerin prefers the more basic term ‘gastronomy.’ “It’s just the study of food,” he maintains. “French culinary technique is the basic alphabet of cuisine.”
His classically seared duck breast is cooked sous vide, then diced, before being mixed with dehydrated duck gizzards in classic mayonnaise, that is enhanced with ingredients unheard of in more traditional kitchens: xanthan gum to thicken it and dehydrated duck skin to intensify the flavor.
Sheerin’s duck tartare sells for $15 and is topped with chopped fresh strawberries, but grapes, cranberries, or anything else classically paired with game can be used to garnish the dish. “The presentation relies on fluidity, the consideration of negative space, and the play between the straight line-up of all the ingredients and the pure white plate,” notes Sheerin.
To add to the experience, sommelier Eduard Seitan suggests pairing the duck with a Domaine Tempier Bandol, a rosé from Provence , that offers tart fruit, minerality, and spice flavors.
So would the likes of Escoffier and Carême applaud or disdain what transpires in Blackbird’s kitchen? Mike Sheerin doesn’t seem to care. Instead, he seeks to walk the line between innovation and tradition. “Food needs to be grounded and recognizable, neither too traditional nor too far out,” says Sheerin. “I’d like to be the considered the guy who can help relate both sides of the culinary spectrum.”
A Flight of Equipment in Blackbird’s Kitchen:
Promarks VAC cryovac machine, Model TC-420-F1.
Sci-Bath immersion circulator
Misono Swedish Steel series knives
Vita Prep 3, Model VM0101D
Edlund Poseidon gram scale, Model WISC-10
Salter gram scale, Model 1250
Robot Coup R2, 3 quart
All-Clad sauce pots
Excalibur Dehydrator, Serial number 10850790
Mike Sheerin’s Duck Tartare
(about three servings)
1 9 oz. duck breast (clean w/skin on)
2 duck gizzards
40 grams salt
½ head garlic
1 oz thyme
1 liter + 1/2 cup water
1 egg yolk
1000 grams A1 sauce
100 grams water
50 grams honey
1% (or 11.5 grams) agar agar
500 grams peeled, shredded yukon potatoes
10 grams gelatin, bloomed
10 grams Activa RM
rice flour for dusting
1/2 cup champagne vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
.2 % xanthan gum
1 egg yolk
1. Whisk 1 liter of water with 40 grams of salt. Cover the duck breast with this brine and let sit for one hour. After one hour, strain, and sear the duck breast, only on one side, until the skin is golden brown. Once the duck breast is cool, cryovac and sous vide at 100 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. After an hour, cool. Cut the duck skin/fat away from the meat, set the meat aside. Clean the fat from the skin and dehydrate the skin overnight at 125 degrees, dehydrate the leftover fat for half an hour.
2. Salt duck gizzards and toss with garlic and thyme; let sit overnight. The next day, remove garlic and thyme, cover with oil, and cook in a 325 degree oven until the gizzards are tender. Cool, and brunoise.
3. Puree 1000 grams A1 sauce with 100 grams water, 50 grams honey, and 11.5 grams agar agar. Transfer to a pot and boil for two minutes. Transfer to a separate container and cool. Once cooled, spin in blender until smooth.
4. Shred potatoes in food processor using shredder attachment. Place the shredded potatoes in a pot and coat with melted butter; cook until tender. Add in the bloomed gelatin and Activa RM (before handling, read label and be sure to follow safety instructions!). Season potatoes to taste with salt and pepper. Press in a half hotel pan over night. Portion into 1/2 inch squares and dust with rice flour.
5. Mix champagne vinegar, sugar and 1/4 cup water until sugar is dissolved. Cut strawberries into quarters. Pour the vinegar mixture over the strawberries (just enough to cover). Set aside.
6. In blender, spin 1/2 cup water with xanthan gum until thick; add in 1 egg yolk. Slowly add in dehydrated duck skin and slowly stream in oil, until a mayonnaise-like consistency is achieved. Season with salt and pepper.
7. Dice the duck breast meat into small pieces. Toss with the brunoise duck gizzard, 2 tablespoons of the duck skin mayo, olive oil and salt. Place in a circle in the center of the plate. Garnish with three dollops of the A1 sauce and equal amounts of the macerated strawberries. Deep fry the potato tots until golden brown. Place in a line across the tartare and garnish with micro celery.
Mike Sheerin: 312-715-0708
Michael Stryder (photographer): 847-377-1808