Chef Nick Janutol’s gift for pure flavor results in splendid cuisine

By Nan Bauer / Photography By Jacob Lewkow | November 26, 2017
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If you want to see the chef de cuisine at Forest Grill in Birmingham, don’t look for a chef’s coat. Nick Janutol doesn’t wear one. “I’d rather save that money that I’d spend laundering 300-thread-count coats and aprons and put it to better use in the kitchen,” he says. “I just want to cook good food.”

In Janutol’s case, “good” is something of an understatement, certainly according to his many fans. They include award-winning southeast Michigan chefs Brian Henson of Big Rock Chop House and Bacco’s Luciano DelSignore, who remarked that he could eat Janutol’s farm egg every day for breakfast.

Janutol wraps a soft-boiled egg in Turkish brik dough, deep fries it, then serves it with Nameko mushrooms and a velvety Madeira Saboyan. It’s the current headline appetizer on a concise menu that features fewer than 10 each first and second courses, every one a showcase of melodious flavor. There’s also a five-course seasonal tasting menu that changes daily.

But Janutol likes to keep the main menu consistent. “How can you perfect if you don’t spend time with something?” he asks. That quest for perfection, as well as Janutol’s studious appreciation of classic French technique, is rooted in Michigan soil. Before heading off to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, the Grosse Pointe Woods native worked in the pantry at the Beverly Hills Grill—the one in Michigan, not Southern California.

“I had heard that before you committed to culinary school, you really needed to do time in a restaurant to make sure you could deal with the long hours and having to work holidays,” he says. “I’d been watching Jamie Oliver, and I thought, ‘This guy has the best job in the world!’ And it’s not like that, there’s no glamour. But I loved the intensity of a kitchen, and I still do.”

Following CIA graduation, he felt prepared for the 15–16 hour days required during “stage-ing”—pronounced the French way, to rhyme with “massaging”—in cutting-edge NYC restaurant 11 Madison Park. “I’m super competitive,” he says. “I’ve got to be the best cook in the room, and until I do that, I don’t quit.”

I20 in Chicago was next. But after a couple of years, Janutol began to look for an opportunity to get closer to home. He sought out Forest Grill Chef and Proprietor Brian Polcyn, who literally wrote the book on sausages, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, along with Michael Ruhlman of The French Laundry.

“I happened to be in Chicago for a book signing, and we arranged to meet. I knew right away we had the same approach to food,” says Polcyn, who teaches at Schoolcraft College in Livonia. “Nick has exceeded my expectations and is certainly the best chef de cuisine in the city.”

As Polcyn and Janutol evolve the restaurant, some changes have been in order, including a recent choice to stop lunch service. “We make great burgers and sandwiches, but they aren’t a good representation of who we are,” says Janutol. The decision has freed up both chefs to focus on an exciting slate of new offerings, among them an oyster club, upcoming theme dinners and plans for cooking and cocktail classes.

Underlying all projects is the team’s fierce dedication to the finest, freshest local ingredients. Herbs are harvested in a garden across the street from the restaurant, as are all the zucchini blossoms.

Janutol recommends that home cooks also seek out the best raw materials they can find and let the flavors shine. His go-tos are simple: “I love butter and garlic, and you’ll find citrus in pretty much every dish.” Sure enough, a quick perusal of the menu reveals lemons, limes or oranges sparkling throughout, a natural in the fish dishes, but also glinting in pasta, pork and even potatoes.

“Eric Frechon, the chef at Le Bristol in Paris, does potato with grapefruit,” Janutol says. “I’m always looking for things that surprise me. I love that.”

The Grill also serves up intriguing cocktails, including the Cloud Zapper, featuring beet brine, Reposado and other potables, as well as the Can-Can Martini, graced with St-Germaine. The wine list, under the watch of General Manager and Sommelier Joseph Salerno, has excellent range without being overwhelming. Favorite category: “You Like Big Cabs but It’s Time for a Change.”

Polcyn’s delighted with the direction the Grill’s headed: “When two passionate people who care about the customer and love food get together, there are no differences. It’s a very exciting time for us and for the food community in southeast Michigan.”

Janutol works hard to keep things light—both in portion sizes and in his aversion to what he calls “egotarian” food. “Look, all we’re doing is cooking food. We’re not curing cancer,” he says. Meanwhile, he pushes himself and his staff in his quiet way. “I never want to stop learning. You can always get better.”

Learn more at Forest Grill


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