I am a sucker for great food so when Drovers Editor Greg Henderson called and asked, “Would you have some time to fly up to Cleveland and visit CAB’s new Culinary Center? They’ll feed you well,” I was elated.

Yeah, I was packing before I hung up the phone.  The plan was to visit some of Cleveland’s hottest restaurants the first night in town and then bus on down to Wooster to look at the Center and dine on the finest dishes that a flock of fine chefs could put together.

I packed a suit, a fork and a wine glass and headed out to MCI.  I was fed and fascinated.  I’ve been in hundreds of kitchens run by some of the top chefs in the country.  This one was in the top 10.  I’ve had some incredible meals at some legendary joints.  The dinner in Wooster was also in the top 10.

And they took the time to teach me a little bit about meat cutting.

The spark plug behind this extravaganza was CAB chef Michael Ollier.  He talked, demonstrated, explained and helped feed a room full of editors from all over the country – trade magazines, ritzy ‘foodie’ magazines, newspaper people – every part of the media was present. All of us dined on the most drool-worthy Certified Angus Beef dishes. 

I wanted to spend more time with chef Ollier, though, and talk with him about why CAB decided to build such a showplace and what he wanted to accomplish now that he had one of the most marvelous toys any foodie could have.

It took some time.  His job requires that he travel.  A lot.  I finally got him to sit still long enough to answer a few questions.  When I checked back to get a few of the photos you’ll see in the interview, he had to pass the request along to someone else.  Ollier was in Ireland.  I’m not sure if he was just flying to LaGuardia and forgot to deplane or that was his intended destination.  I am sure he’s standing in some Irish kitchen, though, teaching a few of the locals how to prepare beef.

Q. Michael, Certified Angus Beef’s new Education & Culinary Center, built next to your headquarters in Wooster, is an impressive ‘kitchen’ and showroom. Why did CAB decide to invest in such a massive undertaking?

A. Our connection to our ranchers, and our foodservice and retail partners, is increasingly important. It was the vision of Brent Eichar, Senior Vice President of Operations for the brand, to create a facility in which we can strengthen that connection by providing the best interactive and innovative training opportunities for our partners, and thereby growing their success with our brand.

The facility’s amenities were designed to support many educational initiatives, including retail case merchandising, subprimal fabrication, creative menu planning, and signature grind development. We can break down an entire side of beef to examine different muscles and their relationship to tenderness and palatability, and we can then immediately take those cuts and test them in the kitchen with different preparation methods.

Jolley: Five Minutes with Chef Michael Ollier and the CAB Kitchen
Ollier prepares a Certified Angus Beef® dish

Q. As you enter in the front door and walk from front to back, the Center has a teaching area, a first class kitchen and, behind the scenes, a state-of-the-art cutting room. What are you trying to achieve with each of those areas?

A. Guests entering the 7,000 square-foot facility are welcomed by the large meeting room with vaulted ceiling, Amish hardwoods and warm earth tones. The walls display rural landscapes honoring our connection to America’s Angus ranchers. We can seat 80 to 100 for presentations, complete with a large projector screen flanked by televisions on each side.

We also have two smaller board room-style meeting areas, which are ideal for intimate meetings. These rooms honor two of the men integral to the brand’s creation: Louis M. “Mick” Colvin and Dr. Bob Van Stavern. Nearby, a bar with a seating area of high-top cocktail-style tables, plus an outdoor covered patio off the bar, are used primarily for breaks within meetings and more informal gatherings.

The focal point of the main room is our “show” kitchen, featuring a massive granite countertop island atop richly-stained Amish cabinetry, with a drop-in cooking surface and sinks. Seating for 14 at the island allows for some of the most effective communication and education. We can meet with key decision-makers in retail or foodservice, cook on the spot, and present dishes immediately, delivering an interactive educational experience that represents the central mission behind the facility.

Behind that is a 40-foot, state-of-the-art cooking line, including a 6-foot grill, 3-foot griddle surface, a 6-burner range, C-Vap and convection ovens, under-counter storage, and stand-up refrigeration.

In the back room, we’ve got a meat fabrication area that includes four 8-foot cutting surfaces, band saw, grinder, vacuum sealer, scale, a rail overhead and more – all designed to meet the needs of our meat science experts to facilitate hands-on learning opportunities for guests. The area allows for a range of activities to be performed by our experts, including meat fabrication demonstrations, retail case merchandising ideas, portion and yield demonstrations, and cutting techniques.

There is a second kitchen in the back, with a double-stack broiler, convection oven with stovetop, deep fryer and smoker. As chefs, this is where the bulk of our prep is done for meals. The back kitchen area also has a huge walk-in cooler and freezer, and a high-efficiency dishwasher.

Q. When CAB opened the Center to the press, a carefully selected group of five of the country’s top chefs was invited to show off their skills. How were they chosen?

A. They were a great example of the wide variety of chefs we partner with. Each is a local celebrity of sorts, but they all would deflect that attention — giving it humbly, instead, to the quality beef and the ranchers who raised it.

Chef Michelle Brown from Jag’s Steak and Seafood in Cincinnati has been a brand partner since 2003. She is an incredibly talented, high-energy chef known for nurturing up-and-coming culinary talent in the area. If you’d like a steak perfectly prepared, Michelle is your chef.

Chef Howie Kleinberg owns a casual family joint in Miami, Bulldog Barbeque. He’s gained fame on the Food Network, and as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” with his intense focus in the kitchen. His forte: “low and slow” cooking with smoke and international flavors.

Chef Rory Schepisi hails from Boot Hill Saloon in Vega, Texas. When we read her comments about her role as a chef as honoring the ranchers of our country, we knew we had to meet her. As a finalist on “The Next Food Network Star,” she is not just vivacious when a camera is on her — her genuine energy in the kitchen and behind the scenes is contagious.

 Q. What did they prepare?

A. Our own corporate chef Scott Popovic prepared the starter course. His goal was to capture the earthy flavors of spring in the Midwest — roasted fiddleheads, asparagus and fava beans with a spring pea foam and balsamic reduction complemented Certified Angus Beef ® sirloin, cooked sous-vide.

Chef Howie exhibited the influence of one of his early mentors, a chef of Hawaiian and island cuisine, by preparing Korean-style short ribs for the salad course. He marinated the flanken-cut ribs in a blend of ginger ale, lime and miso (a marinade from his restaurant), and cooked them over a charcoal grill. His dish was rounded out by an Asian pear kimchi and samjang honey.

Chef Michelle exhibited her mastery of the kitchen with a unique presentation of the cap of ribeye (spinalis). She rolled up the beef, and encrusted it with savory morel mushrooms. Once grilled, it was topped with bourbon caramelized onions and mushrooms, a gourmet cheese blend, and flavorful veal jus. The dish, a crowd favorite, was completed by handmade wild mushroom ravioli with sherry cream and iced spinach. A delicate garnish of edible flowers ensured it delivered both eye appeal and a flavor explosion!

Chef Rory’s turf and surf – a ribeye filet topped with a smoked salmon ceviche – married her history on both the coast and the ranch. The dish was served with creamy herb couscous and pesto-sautéed summer squash, and finished with a drizzle of lemon beurre blanc.

 A display of petite desserts from pastry chef Kara Swortchek of Moxie Restaurant in Cleveland gave stuffed diners the opportunity to walk around and choose their sweets one bite at a time. From mango purees to gold-leafed dark chocolates, each was a meticulous jewel designed to excite the palate – a perfect ending to a perfect meal!

Jolley: Five Minutes with Chef Michael Ollier and the CAB Kitchen
CAB Chefs Michael Ollier and Scott Popovic

Q. You joked that you were going to “flat out steal” their presentations. Having tasted their dishes, I think it was a wise decision on your part. Let’s talk about more recipes, though. In your work at the Center and your tours of some of the culinary hot spots, you must have picked up a few more good ideas. Make me hungry.

 A. Each chef was given the opportunity to talk about their dish at the end of the meal. Part of my role at this event was to support these chefs, giving them the tools they need for their vision to succeed. We prepped together all day and were a unified team during the evening, plating each course together.

Part of my role as a corporate chef for the Certified Angus Beef® brand is, similarly, to give consumers the tools they need to succeed. That includes recipes influenced by restaurant trends. These chefs, beside whom I was honored to work, are leaders of these trends.

Michelle’s crust idea, for example, is smart—dried mushrooms put in a spice grinder with peppers and other seasonings. Rolling a steak, such as a filet, in this mixture would bring out the robust flavor of beef rather than masking it.

Another simple tip I learned from a James Beard Award nominee chef from Charleston was the creation of beef butter: rendered beef fat whipped into high quality butter. Many chefs brush butter on steak as it rests, but this idea took it to an even more flavorful level, while creating a smart use of “extra” fat trimmed from steaks in the restaurant.

Q. The Center had been open for a few months. What groups have been your guests and what was their reaction to the place?

 A. We’ve already hosted partners from all segments of our community, coming from across the nation and internationally. It’s incredibly exciting to see the center’s mission in action, and the vision fulfilled. It’s also very rewarding to hear our guests describe the impact and the value their visit has made with regards to their partnership with the brand.

Retailers such as HEB Mexico, executives from Meijer and meat managers from Acme Fresh Market stores have all visited, participating in brand education, product sampling, cutting demonstrations and more. For the first time, we were able to hold our two-day “Roundup” seminar in Wooster and Illinois, where we give our international partners a look at our brand “from gate to plate.”

 Hands-on sessions in the meat cutting area, such as those we’ve completed with foodservice distributors including Sysco Cleveland, have exceeded expectations. And we’ve welcomed chefs and restaurateurs, like Chef Ric Rosser from Texas’ iconic Saltgrass Steakhouse chain, to get involved in some with some exploration of new and alternative cuts, and menu ideation.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.