Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Madison Club’s Executive Chef Catherine McKiernan

In ANEW Magazine
Column: Around the Table
March 2006

Related recipe: Madison Club PBJ

For those of us who have enough trouble just mangling a supermarket pack of boneless, skinless chicken breast into stir-fry chunks, imagine the skill and nerves it would take to disassemble an entire bird – beautifully, to exacting standards of precision and cleanliness. Now add a gang of chefs scrutinizing your every move, just waiting for you to slip up by wiping your hand on your apron or leaving behind an unsightly knife mark.

That’s just a sliver of the practical exam portion of the American Culinary Federation’s grueling process of Chef de Cuisine Certification (CCC), a distinction recently earned by Catherine McKiernan. That makes her one of 726 CCCs in the nation, possibly the only one in the Madison area and certainly the only female one locally.

“It was a long process,” says McKiernan, 36, a native of Scotland who moved here in 1988 when she married her (now ex-)husband, a Madisonian. “I had to sit a lot of exams. But the hardest part for me was the practical.” Under five merciless pairs of eyes and a strict time limit McKiernan whipped up classic French sauces, crystal-clear consommé and intensive, artful platings that would make the Iron Chefs weep. “I must have washed my hands a thousand times,” she recalls.

One of a handful of women to make the difficult break into the rigidly male-dominated upper echelons of cuisine, McKiernan is executive chef at the Madison Club, a prestigious private venue located downtown on Wilson Street.

McKiernan graduated MATC’s culinary trades program, attending on a scholarship from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association. Today she’s a scholarship mentor for the Association’s Education Foundation.

As a teen McKiernan worked a fruit and veg stand on the streets of Glasgow. Later she took jobs in professional kitchens while earning her degree in English literature at the University of Glasgow.

Stateside, McKiernan started out washing dishes at Camp Ojibwa in Eagle River, where she was quickly promoted to head cook. “The camp director, Denny Rosen, is the person who really encouraged me to pursue my culinary career. No other boss since has been so fair and encouraging,” she says. McKiernan spent 12 summers at the camp. After her first marriage ended, romance blossomed with Paul Williams, camp waterfront director, who’s now her fiancé.

Q: In this day and age, is it so different for a woman to make it in the professional kitchen?

A: Yes. Part of it is the hours. I work six days a week, usually 55 to 60 hours. It’s hard to have a life, a family. I don’t have children or anything. The men have a wife who will do that.

There is prejudice, especially as you go up through the levels. I went to a chef’s conference in West Virginia recently. Out of 300 chefs, only 4 were women, myself included, and one of the women was from Dubai!

[A local magazine] just came out with an article about the top chefs in Madison. Not one woman was mentioned. This happens a lot.

Q: How about in your kitchen?

Our situation is extremely unusual – I’m sure we’re the only place in town where both the executive chef and sous chef are female. Amy Shimank is my sous chef. She just had a baby. That’s really unusual for women in our profession. Her fiancé is home looking after the baby. She’s fantastic – 100% focused. Then there’s Corrine Richardson, She’s the lead sauté chef.

I can’t say enough about these wonderful, skilled women. The three of us have skills that the men in that article don’t even have! For example, we’re all accomplished in pastry work. That opens up more possibilities for what we can do. I can describe something, and they know exactly what I mean and how to create it. But because we’re a private club, it’s harder to get the word out about what we’re doing.

Q: Did you pursue the Chef de Cuisine Certification in order to prove yourself?

A: Definitely. Especially because I’m a woman. Even if you say you’re an executive chef, it could mean nothing in sense of professional certification to back you up. I’ve interviewed so many people who say they can cook, but put them in a kitchen and they can’t. I never want to be that person.

Q: What’s for lunch today at the club?

A: A group of Norwegians get together here every month. All men. They always have the same thing: cod with lots and lots of butter. And they drink lots of Aquavit.

Q: How about the regular menu?

Our menus are seasonal, and we get a lot from the Farmers’ Market right next door. When we serve lamb, it’s organic lamb from a farm nearby.

We just did the menu tasting for spring. Amy and I are very happy with it. I really like the genuine, wild, striped bass. It’s done in a Niçoise style, with haricots verts, Kalamata olives, baby red potatoes. We’re oven roasting the tomatoes. All the flavors just work so well with that.

We’re also serving a tangerine-glazed pork belly. It’s one of those cuts of meat you have to braise for hours on end. But it comes out so tender and flavorful.

Q: Are you going to call it “pork belly” on the menu?

A: No! We’re calling it “House-Cured Pork.” Pork belly? Nobody would order that.

Madison Club PBJ

Related article: Madison Club Chef Catherine McKiernan

This playfully layered treat features fruity preserves and fluffy mousse on that loveliest of French breads, a rich, buttery slice of brioche. Prepare the luscious components at your convenience for serving-time assembly. McKiernan assures me this is the easiest brioche recipe ever, and it freezes well, too. You can also slice up a purchased pound cake. If you can locate loaf-shaped brioche for sale in town, let me know!

One step easier? Use any of the excellent, locally made fruit spreads available at farmers’ markets and supermarkets.

To assemble, cut 1/2" slices of brioche or pound cake. Slather with PB mousse. Lay on some strawberry. Garnish with powdered sugar. Serve on pretty plates!


1/3 cup warm (105 F) water
1 packet active dry yeast
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
6 eggs, at room temperature
2 1/2 sticks butter, cut in cubes

Dissolve yeast in water. Sift together flour, sugar, and salt into mixer bowl fitted with dough hook. Add eggs and beat on low for 1 minute. While still beating, slowly add water-yeast mixture. Beat five minutes. Scrape down bowl and beat five minutes more. Add butter cubes, beating one minute after each addition. Beat 10-15 minutes more.

Let dough double, covered, in a bowl. Turn onto floured surface and gently work out air bubbles. Cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight. Divide in half, shape, place in two generously buttered loaf pans and let rise to about 1/2" above the tops of the pans. Bake at 350 F for 35-40 minutes, until top is well-browned. Bottom should make a hollow sound when thumped. Turn out onto rack to cool.

Peanut Butter Mousse

1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup whipping cream, whipped with 1 teaspoon powdered sugar
2 tablespoons whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Mix peanut butter and mascarpone. Add whipping cream and vanilla. Fold into whipped cream.

Preserved Strawberries

1 pint fresh, or 1 bag frozen, strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon each lemon and orange zest
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, cook berries (top and halve if fresh) over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they break down. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Increase heat and stir about 20 minutes, until thickened. Remove from heat. Stir in lemon and orange zest and vanilla extract. Let cool.


Q&A with Eco-Friendly Flooring entrepreneur Melissa Clements
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine, March (?) 2006

In 2001 Melissa Clements began a business with a little bamboo. Today Eco-Friendly Flooring offers non-toxic, sustainable and recycled materials to customers throughout the U.S. and Canada (only a quarter of sales are local), works with several design subcontractors and employs a handful of fulltimers including Melissa’s husband, Robert. With his years of experience with floor installation, remodeling and customer service, he oversees logistics and installation contracting. We caught up with Clements to find what lies beneath.

VVK: What do you love most about your business?
MC: I love to open the door to clients. Many people think that environmentally friendly products are out of their reach financially, but I have lots of products that are actually quite competitive against their non-eco counterparts. Projects actually become doable for people.

VVK: How did you come to start Eco-Friendly Flooring?
MC: I have a background in international sales and marketing. Through my travels, I witnessed bamboo being used in a variety of applications and was fascinated by the possibilities of introducing it in our area. When I was laid off from my job at a local software company, I tested the market for bamboo with some pilot projects, and it really took off from there. My family are all builders, so I have always been in and around residential construction and design. This, coupled with my own chemical sensitivities, provided a solid background and understanding for the best way to market the products.

VVK: How has having your own showroom helped?
MC: I moved [from a home office] into the Madison Enterprise Center in September 2002. I think it is very helpful for local customers to see the product installed over a large area versus just seeing a small sample.

VVK: What has been your greatest challenge?
MC: Striking a balance between business and personal time. With a fast-growing business and a two-year-old, we have very little time to unwind. We’ll often work 80 hours a week to keep up with growth.

VVK: Who is your typical customer?
MC: Well-educated, discerning homeowners who are interested in finding a non-toxic, durable, beautiful and affordable floor.

VVK: What’s your most popular flooring, and where do people put it?
MC: For new construction, bamboo for main living areas like dining, living and kitchen areas. For remodels, cork. Our clients like to use it in kitchens because it’s comfortable to stand on, easy to install and can be put in directly over the existing floor without a messy tear-out.

VVK: What’s your favorite flooring?
MC: I like our floating linoleum flooring planks with an interlocking tongue and groove. They just float over top of the existing floor. You don’t need any glue or nails to put them in. I am drawn to the saturated color selection of this type of flooring, as it lends itself to funky, creative design.

VVK: What are the most exciting trends you see?
MC: More suppliers for cork. As the wine industry moves to using more plastic for bottle stoppers, cork farmers in Europe are looking for ways to expand their offerings, and are starting to make flooring. As supply increases, price typically drops, so this will make the market larger for us.
I am also seeing many more physician referrals for clients with chemical sensitivities, allergies, asthma, or intolerance to plastics and vinyls and the chemicals they emit. These consumers seek out healthier products that don’t make them sick.

VVK: What do you see in the future?
MC: I think that more and more big-name manufacturers of flooring will introduce a “green” offering in their lineups. This will increase consumer awareness of the products, and will lead to more competitive pricing and availability.