What does it say about a region’s culinary scene when two (yep, count ‘em – two!) of our chefs are contestants on this season of Hell’s Kitchen? Well, no doubt that we have a red-hot culinary scene here in the Traverse City and Leelanau County area. Last week we checked in with Chef Kimberly Ryan who is, shall we say, kicking some pork butt on the show. Today we meet Chef Aaron Smock who is also on the show. Aaron was just 22 when he filmed the show, so yes, he is the wettest behind the ears of all the other contestants—a persona his baby face and big glasses accentuated.
Ah, but don’t be fooled. Smock lives for the back of the house. Craves it, adores it and is plenty enthusiastic and humble enough to just keep on learning. As folks at The Homestead in Glen Arbor, where Smock is now banquet chef and executive sous chef to chef straordinario John Piombo, he’s pretty darn magnetic in the front of the house as well.
Here’s what Aaron tells us about how he started cooking, what it was like to be on Hell’s Kitchen and what to order at The Homestead.
MyNorth: How long have you loved to cook?
Chef Aaron: I started when I was 6 years old—cooking with my dad. And then when I got older I thought, ‘I love this, why not go for it.’ If I couldn’t cook another day I wouldn’t know what to do with myself because that’s all I know is food, cooking and working with people.
MyNorth: You grew up in Frankenmuth, home to the family chicken dinner and Bavarian everything. Were you weaned on that cuisine?
Chef Aaron: Yup! Chicken, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, all that stuff. My first cooking job was at the Bavarian Inn.
MyNorth: At the ripe old age of 24 you have already worked at seven restaurants and are The Homestead’s banquette chef and executive sous chef. Have you had any formal training?
Chef Aaron: I went to culinary school up here for a bit (Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College) and then went to Mott (Mott Community College Culinary Arts Program) for a little bit. I never finished. Mom and dad weren’t too happy about that one. But cooking has been my whole life. And going to school it was, ‘Okay, we are going to do this today.’ And I’d been able to do that since I was 10. I did learn some stuff, but the thing was I could learn 10 times more working at a restaurant than in an hour at school. And instead of paying for it, I was getting paid for it.
MyNorth: What is your favorite cuisine?
Chef Aaron: I love to cook everything. The reason I like cooking is to make people happy and see the enjoyment on their face. But I really like Italian food—I think Chef Piombo has contributed to that—and German because I am of German descent.
MyNorth: Okay, let’s get down to Hell’s Kitchen business. How did you get on the show?
Chef Aaron: My uncle was like, ‘You should do it, you should do it.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ So I saw something online and I thought, well I’ll sign up. I did a few phone interviews with producers out in LA, and suddenly it was like, okay, you are on the show. I was like, ‘Huh. Okay.’
MyNorth: What life experiences, if any, would you say prepared you for the show?
Chef Aaron: Just working under different chefs. I’ve worked for chefs who are calm in the kitchen and I’ve worked for chefs like Ramsay who throw things. Doing that has helped me understand how the world works. In Hell’s Kitchen, the pressure was a lot higher than in a normal restaurant. It is chop chop chop. Normally in a restaurant, you know what is coming. There’s a slower time before it gets busy. But there it was just busy. It was like being thrown off a boat in the middle of the ocean without a life preserver. Either you sank or you swam. That’s what this industry is like though. I’m a tall guy so I can just kind of touch the deep end, and I’m all good.
MyNorth: In the first episode Chef Ramsay gave you a 4 out of possible 5 score for your signature dish, pork schnitzel with sauerkraut. You were definitely in your comfort zone there! But then in episode 2 you kind of got a big black eye and almost got asked to leave. What happened!?
Chef Aaron: It’s really hard to work Chef Ramsay, he’s Chef Ramsay … you want to make him happy and I think my nerves kicked in. I was on appetizers and I messed up a salad and then later in the show I messed up a pizza. I was just nervous.
MyNorth: Great that they didn’t kick you off?
Chef Aaron: Yeah! I was happy about that. Whew!!! Hahaha, I was like, oh man, still in it!
MyNorth: Okay then, episode 3 you committed perhaps the greatest faux pas a Frankenmuth man can commit. You burned mashed potatoes! Explanation?
Chef Aaron: I was doing great the whole night and then the last table at the dinner service I burned mashed potatoes. I was overexcited and burned them.
MyNorth: No offense to anyone, but the guys team on the show seems like a bunch of jerks. Did you stay friends with any of them?
Chef Aaron: Actually, they are great. We still all talk. We are all friends. And we’re all like, ‘Ya know, that was in the past—the heat of the moment.’
MyNorth: Your co-contestant, Chef Kim Ryan, lives and works in Traverse City. Do you stay in touch?
Chef Aaron: Yes, we’ve stayed in touch here and there. We were just texting the other day.
MyNorth: In the last episode you also got to cook with ostrich? Ever worked with that before?
Chef Aaron: No, I’ve cooked with kangaroo and alligator before but never ostrich.
Chef Aaron: Yes, we’ve had kangaroo at Nonna’s (at The Homestead). Kangaroo is just like a steak. Just a little gamey. Very delicious. You cook it just like a steak.
MyNorth: Which brings me to The Homestead. What do you recommend at Nonna’s this fall—you know, beyond the kangaroo?
Chef Aaron: Even though I work here Nonna’s is one of my favorite restaurants. The other night I had grilled octopus with purple potatoes, almonds and lemon dressing. We also do an eggplant rollatini which is amazing. You slice the eggplant very thinly, put ricotta cheese on it, roll it up, cover it with tomato sauce and bake it. And our osso buco just falls off the bone. It is phenomenal.
Check out this Q&A with Traverse City chef Kim Ryan also competing on this season of Hell’s Kitchen.
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