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Chef Spotlight: Darin Yenter - Juniper 61

Photos by Matt Haas

April 2016

Now the executive chef of Juniper 61 in Wauwatosa, Darin Yenter began working at Juniper four years ago as a line cook. Within the first year, he moved through all the stations and became sous chef, and then, two years ago, he took over the kitchen as executive chef. M Magazine sat down with this inventive cook to talk about his first wine dinner, his first Thanksgiving dinner at his new home, and what he always keeps in his kitchen.

M: How did you get into cooking?

DY: "I kind of stumbled into it backwards. It was just a way to pay bills. I started working as a line cook at the original Pizza Man. I didnít realize itís an art form. After the restaurant closed, I just decided to go to culinary school at MATC."

M: What did you do when you graduated?

DY: "I didnít (graduate). I went for almost two years, and at that time, I was working at The Pfister Hotel, and the executive chef there, Robert Ash, asked me to go with him to Florida to work for the Omni Hotel in Orlando. It was a nice place if youíre just looking to cook, but thereís not a lot on the creative side. The culture is you just keep your head down and chop 200 pounds of potatoes. It would have been a great place to learn, but I had already been doing that at The Pfister, and that wasnít what I wanted to do. I had just gotten back from a two-week internship in Mexico when I moved to Florida, so I skipped an entire winter in Wisconsin. I moved back, and thankfully, the new chef at The Pfister, Brian Frakes, gave me an opportunity to work for him, and then I moved on to Juniper."

M: Tell us about your experience at Juniper.

DY: "The nice thing about new American restaurants is you get to (experiment) with international flavors, but they can work together cohesively on the menu. Working at Juniper, it has been a gradual process for me to move up, and both Cameryne Roberts and Sarah Jonas have mentored me. They recognized that I was serious about what I was doing, and it has not just become a career for me, but it is a passion."

M: What are some of the favorite things youíve done at Juniper lately?

DY: "We did our first wine dinner not too long ago, and I did a customized four-course wine pairing dinner. The wines were from the Virginia Dare Winery wine series called The Lost Colony. That was very fulfilling to me. The food not only matched the wine, but it also had a natural progression. The cool thing about The Lost Colony was that the wine series is based on an old story and legends (about the vanished Roanoke Colony in Virginia, where Virginia Dare was the first baby born) based on this settlement that disappeared. I not only got to pair the food with the wines, but I also got to pair it to the story. Storytelling is a great way to pair food."

M: Will you be doing more wine or beer dinners?

DY: "Absolutely. Thatís something weíre working on now."

M: Tell us a little about the current menu.

DY: "I started doing these short rib hush puppies, and we make them with traditional, Southern collard greens with lots of molasses and bacon. Short ribs and puppies are so iconic, but doing them together and serving them with the collard greens and a beer mustard sauce Ö all of these sweet and savory flavors come together in a really fun way.

"Iím also doing a smoked mac ín cheese, which is fun because we smoke the tomatoes and fold those in with a really deep cheddar sauce. That makes for a really good dish. We also do a honey- brined Amish chicken, and that was a Eureka moment for me. Dry chicken is my worst nightmare, and my solution to that problem is the brine ó the chicken just absorbs all of the richness of whatever you put in the brine. I brined my turkey this year for my familyís Thanksgiving dinner. It was the first Thanksgiving I ever cooked. It was a great event."

M: What are the tools and ingredients you use at home?

DY: "I really value my wooden spatulas. Those are essential for home cooking, and my wine opener Ė thatís definitely a kitchen essential item. I also need my nonstick pans and my spices, for sure. Iíve developed a taste for epazote. Itís a Mexican spice that you have to go to the south side (to a grocery like El Rey) to get, and it tastes like a really deep basil maybe. That trip to Mexico was pretty influential. You think you understand ethnic cooking from the cookbooks, but your palate is limited until you go to a place."

M: Do you shop at other ethnic grocery stores besides El Rey?

DY: "The Indian grocery store on North Avenue is great, and sometimes I just like to wander the aisles. Also, thereís Viet Hoa grocery store on North Avenue. Itís fun. You can walk in and get a whole different world just by the smell of the place. Going to ethnic grocery stores is really a great way to expand what you think of as food."


This story ran in the April 2016 issue of: