Some restaurant cooks bounce around the kitchen like a jitterbug, as if the floor is made of hot
coals and there’s a meddlesome fly buzzing around their head. They hop from flat-top, to fryer, to the prep cooler, then to the grill and back to the prep cooler. They shout instructions to prep cooks, find seconds to question a server and double-check a ticket, then toss buns on the grill and cheese on a Philly.
Finally, in a flurry a casual observer would never see coming, they’re flinging a line full of food into baskets and suddenly eight orders appear in the window.
“Kari, YOU’RE UP!”
Then it starts all over with the next flurry of tickets.
If those cooks are rattling through an eight-hour salsa dance, Big Mike, the veteran cook at Husby’s in Sister Bay, is performing a patient waltz. Somehow it works just the same, as decades of experience behind the line have created efficiency where he lacks flurry.
Mike Meyer learned to cook at the foot of his mother at his parents’ tavern, the Crowbar in Mishicot, Wisconsin. He was 10 and helped set baskets and soon was throwing burgers on the grill. But it was his older brother Doug, a culinary school graduate, who became his kitchen mentor.
“Anytime there’s something I don’t know,” Mike says, “I call him up, and he’s always got the answer for me.”
There’s a lot to be said for fine dining, for an exotic preparation and an eccentric server. But even in an age of health-crazed eating (of which I’m an enthusiastic participant) the lure of greasy comfort food remains irresistible.
There are few better to satisfy that craving than Big Mike. He’s worked just about every kind of kitchen you can find – fine dining, supper clubs, diners, even his own bar for a stretch. But at Husby’s, behind the tavern line, he seems most at home.
His red hair and scraggly goatee can make him look intimidating, a trait all good cooks seem to develop – some by appearance, others by temperament. When he gets control of the radio (and when your name is Big Mike, that’s more often than not), he prefers to grill to the sounds of Rush, Metallica or Ozzy Osbourne (he once had a dog named after Ozzy).
But Big Mike is an approachable sort, especially if talk turns to cooking, growing herbs, or good beer.
“I’m always picking up cookbooks,” he says. “I love those little ones you get at the grocery store, too. You can always find ideas.”
One of the specialties he developed over the years is a cream of Reuben soup that, admittedly, scares the taste buds on first proposal, but becomes an instant favorite for those who give it a shot.
I caught up with Big Mike in the Husby’s kitchen in September to get a refresher course on making the soup (I first learned how when we shared the same line about 10 years ago).
“It’s a nice hearty, cool weather soup. It goes hand-in-hand with chili. I like to make it as close to eating an actual Reuben as possible,” Mike says as he makes a restaurant-scaled, five-gallon batch.
On busy fall Saturdays, with the bar packed full of red-clad Badger fans, Big Mike has to please the masses. At home for my own Saturday party, I simply have to please myself and – if I’m being generous – a few buddies.
Cream of Reuben Soup
Here’s how I scaled down and modified Big Mike’s restaurant-sized recipe to serve six people at home.
2 cups boiled corned beef brisket, cubed
1/2 cup Thousand Island dressing
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup chicken soup base (paste-style)
4 tablespoons butter
6 slices dark rye bread
1 cup Door County Kraut
1 yellow onion, diced
3 stalks celery, chopped
6 slices Swiss cheese
3 pints heavy cream
1 pint milk
Lawry’s seasoned salt
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the corned beef brisket, simmering for 2 to 3 hours with seasonings. You can also use pre-cooked corned beef. Cut into small cubes. Once the brisket is cooked, start making the rest of the soup. Make your roux by whisking flour into 2 tablespoons of melted butter on low heat. Set aside.
- Sauté the onions and celery with 1 tablespoon of butter until the onions are translucent. Season with a little Lawry’s seasoned salt and white pepper.
- Chop the sauerkraut, then brown it in a frying pan on medium-high heat for 3 minutes.
- While the onions and celery sauté, start the base of the soup by melting 1 tablespoon of butter in a large pot on low heat. Once it melts, add the heavy cream, milk, chicken base, and Thousand Island dressing, mixing with a whisk.
- Turn the heat up to medium-high just long enough for it to begin to boil, stirring occasionally.
Once the base is hot, mix in the roux to thicken the base. You want to thicken the soup, but be careful to not turn it into sludge.
- With the soup hot – not boiling – add Swiss cheese one slice at a time, stirring as you add to make sure the cheese dissolves fully into the base (if it doesn’t dissolve it will sink to the bottom of the pot and burn).
- Add corned beef, onions, celery and sauerkraut and let the soup sit on medium-low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add seasoned salt and white pepper to taste.
- Toast the rye bread and cut into croutons. Add the croutons to the soup before you serve and enjoy a hearty soup perfect for late fall and winter!