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.

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