Alex Knezevic’s first cooking experience was not a good one.
He clearly remembers, at the tender age of 6, watching his mother core red peppers and when her back was turned, he grabbed a pepper and a knife hoping to do the same. Instead, he ended up with a red pepper dripping with red blood and a very distressed mother. But it’s been onward and upward ever since.
By the age of 14, Alex, currently the executive chef at Vertical restaurant in downtown Detroit, was working in the banquet hall attached to his parents’ church and worked at several different Detroit-area restaurants, including O’Sheas’s, Salvatore Scallopini, Big Buck Brewery and Mountain Jack’s all through high school.
After graduation from Rochester Adams High School in 1996, he enrolled at Oakland Community College to study engineering, but after 1 1/2 years, decided to switch proverbial gears. He enrolled in to Schoolcraft College’s culinary arts program while working simultaneously at the Whitney restaurant in Detroit.
After receiving his associate degree at Schoolcraft, Knezevic moved to Tampa, Florida, where he spent the next 10 years cooking at several different restaurants including the renowned Bern’s Steakhouse, where he was the chef tournant for two years. (Generally found in high-end restaurants, a chef tournant is the cook in the kitchen who provides help to all of the different cooks.)
Knezevic, 38, returned to the Detroit area in 2013 and worked simultaneously at Tallulah in Birmingham and at Gold Cash Gold in Corktown until being appointed executive chef at Vertical (which just celebrated its first anniversary).
The chef said he cooks as often as he can for his fiancé, Megan Conway.
“Because of my long hours at the restaurant, I sometimes cook the best stuff at 3 a.m.,” he said.
He also enjoys cooking for his mother, Helen, at her home in Rochester Hills.
“She also cooks for me. I love her cooking. She’s actually better than me,” Alex said.
This year, for Thanksgiving, instead of cranberry sauce, Knezevic’s menu will include the delicious quince puree whose recipe appears here.
“The quince will come from a tree in my mother’s garden, but you can buy them at upscale markets,” he said. Adds the chef: “It has been said that quince is actually the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden and that the forbidden fruit couldn’t have been apples because apples are of Asian descent.”
When it comes to preparing the turkey, Knezevic recommends utilizing a brine that combines the spiciness of the chile de arbol with the sweetness of both the orange and honey and also utilizing bacon fat and butter to baste the bird while it’s baking. He also notes that the Dirty Stuffing recipe printed here is “a play on Dirty Rice, which has chicken livers. I usually make a version of it every Thanksgiving. It keeps evolving,” he said.
5 links sweet Italian sausage
1 Vidalia onion, diced small
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 ounces unsalted butter
5 ounces chicken livers, cleaned
5 ounces turkey liver, cleaned
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
8 ounces turkey stock (made from the turkey neck and gizzards)
1 loaf high-quality rustic Italian bread, cut into 1-inch pieces and dried
Sea salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh chives, finely cut
Remove the sausage from its casing and sweat in a large pot. Once cooked, add the onion, garlic, butter, chicken and turkey livers and fork shred the livers while they are cooking. Add the turkey stock, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to simmer. Add dried bread, then turn off heat and steep covered until soft. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste. Finish with the fresh chopped chives. Serves 6.
Per serving: 514 calories; 27 g fat (13 g saturated fat; 47 percent calories from fat); 39 g carbohydrates; 2 g sugar; 310 mg cholesterol; 979 mg sodium; 29 g protein; 2 g fiber.
Alex’s Brined Oven Roasted Turkey
2 gallons water
1 cup salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup honey
2 chile de arbol
6 cloves garlic
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs thyme
6 black peppercorns
Zest and juice of 3 oranges
To prepare the brine
Bring all the ingredients to boil, stirring often to dissolve the salt and the sugar. After cool, place turkey in brine for 24 hours.
1 whole turkey, 12-14 pounds
8 cloves garlic
4 sprigs thyme
8 ounces butter
1 pound slab or thick cut bacon
To prepare the turkey
Remove turkey from brine and pat dry.
Crush garlic cloves and place under the skin, along with butter and thyme.
Place bacon on top of turkey breast and roast it at 325 degrees on a flat roasting rack for 3-3 1/2 hours.
During the last hour, cover turkey with aluminum foil. Serves 12.
Per serving (with 6 ounces white meat): 427 calories; 22 g fat (12 g saturated fat; 46 percent calories from fat); 0 g carbohydrates; 0 g sugar; 185 mg cholesterol; 1,055 mg sodium; 54 g protein; 0 g fiber.
1 pound quince, peeled, cored, and chopped
1 pound sugar
2 vanilla beans, scraped
4 ounces balsamic vinegar
Pinch of salt
Add all ingredients to a short-sided pot. Simmer on low for approximately four hours until sugar dissolves and quince becomes a dark burgundy color. Then puree in food processor until a thick paste has been achieved. Serves 10.
Per serving: 208 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 53 g carbohydrates; 48 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 16 mg sodium; 0 g protein; 0.5 g fiber.
Alex’s Pumpkin Pie
8 ounces unsalted butter, small diced
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons ice water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
To prepare the crust
Keeping all the ingredients cold, make a paste using a fork until all ingredients are mixed thoroughly. Refrigerate one hour. Then remove from refrigerator and roll out to 1/4-inch thick and line a buttered pie tin with the dough, crimping the edges. Poke holes in bottom of dough to let the steam escape. Then line the dough with parchment paper and enough dried beans to cover the bottom of the tin and hold the parchment paper down. Bake the crust at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. Remove parchment paper and dried beans.
3 one-pound sugar pumpkins
6 ounces butter
Salt and pepper to taste
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon Chinese 5-spice
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 whole eggs
To prepare the filling
Remove stems from the pumpkins and cut in half. Remove the seeds. Put 2 teaspoons of butter inside each pumpkin cavity. Season the cavities with salt and pepper. Place on cookie sheet and roast at 325 degrees for 45 minutes or until soft. Then scrape the roasted flesh and fork mash to a puree. Then combine the rest of the ingredients until thoroughly mixed. Place filling in pie crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Cool to room temperature.
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
3 Madagascar vanilla beans, scraped
To prepare the topping
Using all cold ingredients, whip until firm peaks have been achieved. Then spread on top of the pie. Serves 8.
Per serving: 890 calories; 64 g fat (40 g saturated fat; 65 percent calories from fat); 70 g carbohydrates; 52 g sugar; 255 mg cholesterol; 1,211 mg sodium; 11 g protein; 3 g fiber.