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DINING Dining and Nightlife

Award-winning chef: Wilganowski

The Osprey Lounge’s award-winning chef: Michael Wilganowski

The Osprey Lounge’s chef Michael Wilganowski is a contender. He keeps winning cooking competitions with ease. In January 2011, Wilganowski earned top honors for the second year at the bon appétit Beaver Creek Master Chef Challenge. Teamed with New York chef Joey Campanaro, Wilganowski defeated an impressive list of chefs.
The contest, a foodie fan favorite, requires chefs to prepare a dish “Iron Chef” style in just 20 minutes using a surprise ingredient.
Wilganowski explained, “The first year I won, the secret ingredient was Kahlua. We cooked tempura battered fruit-and-bacon skewers with a Kahlua sauvignon sauce. The second year, it was rabbit, and we chicken fried it, added some carrots, an arugula salad and topped it with a poached egg.” Both years, he wowed the judges.

Growing up in a food-oriented family, Wilganowski’s Mexican mother and Polish father – combined with the Creole, Cajun and Tex Mex influences of his hometown – shaped his future career.
He recalled, “I was a big hungry kid in Houston who wanted to learn to cook.” One of his first culinary experiences was to watch his mother make pig’s head tamales. “She put it on the counter, and I would stare at that pig’s head for hours.”

At Wilganowski’s house, “Everything revolved around food. My grandparents were farmers, gardeners and a fisherman. We never went out to eat. My grandmother made her own sausage. Back then, I thought everyone’s grandma made homemade sausage. Every Friday, she cooked fried shrimp. We went down to the docks to pick them up for the gumbo.”

Perhaps the biggest influence on Wilganowki’s career was his association with Robert Del Grande, executive chef at Houston’s Café Annie. Wilganowski worked his way up from grill cook to executive sous chef under Del Grande’s tutelage. He learned tight centered and focused cooking, gleaning skill from the undeclared father of Southwestern cooking. He said, “I kept my mouth shut, and my eyes wide open.”

When Wilganowski took the helm at The Osprey Lounge, he changed the restaurant’s focus and began to serve tapas, something that had never been done before. “In the beginning, people expected Spanish food when they saw the menu.”

Wilganowski’s take on the tapa raises it to a new culinary art form. He creates small plates intended to be shared family-style. Wilganowski prefers it when groups come in and interact. “I like more of a social scene. No white tablecloths or composed plates. We’re breaking out of that. The lounge is not stuffy. People just drink wine and enjoy good times.”

When he cooks at home, Wilganowski’s favorite dish to prepare is a perfectly roasted chicken. His secret is to keep it simple because, after all, “The chicken was perfect before it was cooked. As chefs, we either enhance the food or destroy it.” Wilganowski’s sixth sense tells him when the chicken is ready and his dinner guests rave over the results.

He also describes the evolution of another favorite dish he makes at home, a coconut milk-ginger soup that eventually made it onto the Osprey Lounge menu. “I was making this sauce at home for my girlfriend and using it as a curry over rice and stir fry. At the same time, I was looking for a blockbuster soup for the restaurant. Eventually, it evolved from sauce to soup.” With spicy carrot, ginger and coconut cream, it’s a crowd-pleaser.

When he dines out in the Vail Valley, Wilganowski prefers more informal venues such as Pazzo’s Pizzeria and Sato Sushi. Other favorites include Juniper and eat! drink! in Edwards and Larkspur in Vail.

Asked to name the restaurant’s best-selling dish, he jokes, “That is like asking a father to name his favorite kid.” Eventually, he relents, “Right now, it’s fried asparagus.”

Wilganowski admits he loves to “fry things” as a result of his Southern upbringing. “I like the comfort foods. I use all of my training to make them the best. If you don’t burn them and use the right seasonings, there is no difference between comfort food and gourmet. It’s all food with the same laws and principles of preparation.”

After one bite of his fried asparagus, a designated comfort food, diners become believers. These tasty battered morsels drizzled with a Balsamic red wine reduction and creamy garlic aioli, satisfy cravings for both a healthy vegetable and a crunchy fry. Wilganowski says the secret to this recipe is to make the batter light and crisp, not clumpy. To do so, he dunks the asparagus stalks in a cold rinse, flours them, dips them in an egg wash and flours them again. “It’s a simple dish with just three to four ingredients, but it’s great for vegetarians.”

Wilganowski also fries candy bars. “I put fried Snickers on the menu as a joke, and now I can’t get them off. It’s basically a candy bar fried in funnel cake batter. People love it.”

Back in the Osprey’s tiny kitchen, all of his pastas, breads, French fries and even tortilla chips are homemade. He takes pride in the restaurant’s hands-on approach. “We hand-cut our potatoes and make our own fries. I make the soups, the stock and the sauces. Nothing is frozen or bagged. I can’t allow myself to do that. The only things we don’t make in our kitchen are the ketchups and mayonnaise. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Writing on little scraps of paper kept in his pocket, Wilganowski keeps experimenting with new ideas for food combinations. Years of travel and his multicultural background influence his final cuisine choices.
“I like food the French way, the Mexican way and the Southern way. What I do is a lot like
‘a confusion fusion.’”

There’s really no confusion when it comes to chef Wilganowski’s skills as a chef. Whether he’s chicken frying a rabbit, grilling a flank steak, or rolling out homemade ravioli, he continues to please palates in The Osprey Lounge.  u

Visit The Osprey Lounge at
The Osprey Lodge, 10 Elk Track Lane in Beaver Creek. 754-7400 or
www.ospreyatbeavercreek.com