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A change of academic appetite set chef Ariel Millan on a new path.

After graduating from Rochester High School in 2006, Millan attended Oakland Community College to study business administration. But after just a couple of semesters, “I realized I’m more of a hands-on learner, and I loved the food industry.”

Millan is now the executive chef of the Mercury Bar and Ottava Via restaurants in Corktown.

The chef’s first restaurant job, while he was still in high school, was as a host at the Alibi restaurant in Troy followed by a stint at Kruse and Muer in Rochester, where he started as a dishwasher and ended up as a pizza maker. While at OCC, he worked at Aunt Olive’s Food to Go in Birmingham. Then, in order to pursue his fascination with the food industry, Millan enrolled in a two-year accelerated program at the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Scottsdale, Arizona. While there, he also worked at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa’s Deseo restaurant where Douglas Rodriguez, the globally acclaimed godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine, was the chef/partner.

“Rodriguez did a lot of both Asian- and Spanish-influenced food, simple food with bold flavors such as flank steak with chimichurri or sea bass with salsa verde, and that in turn influenced me,” Millan says. “So when I run specials at Ottava Via, you will see a lot of simple food with bold flavors and just a few ingredients.”

Millan says his Puerto Rican heritage has also influenced his cooking style.

“I use a lot of garlic, onions, cilantro, avocado and sofrito (onions, carrots, celery, peppers and garlic cooked together and used as a base) when I cook,” he says.

And, in fact, his first cooking memory is of making guanimes with his grandmother, Walda Ortiz, when he was only 9 or 10. Similar to a dumpling, the potato or cornmeal-based guanimes are said to trace back to the pre-Columbian era in Puerto Rico. Millan says his grandmother made them frequently (along with a potato, tomato and pinto bean sauce) when he was a boy, and she still makes them.

The Corktown resident says he works approximately 60 hours a week. And once or twice a week, he either cooks for his girlfriend at his home in Corktown or for his parents and grandmother at their home in Rochester.

For this article, Millan chose to submit a salmon recipe.

“I love seafood, and salmon is easy to get. It’s a good fish, and just about everybody loves it,” he says. “And I chose the chimichurri because I love avocados, and I like the bold flavor of the chimichurri. It fits into my Puerto Rican background.”

Furthermore, he says he is a fan of couscous because “it’s a lighter starch and a good vessel for fresh ingredients. And, besides, couscous tastes so good, they named it twice,” he jokes.

Judith Harris Solomon is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. judyfreelance@aol.com.

Seared Salmon with Chunky Avocado Chimichurri

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 6-ounce salmon steaks

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

Avocado Chimichurri (recipe below)

Heat a sauté pan to medium high heat. Add the olive oil. Score the skin side of the salmon and season with the salt and pepper. When pan is hot enough, add the salmon skin side down. Sear salmon skin side down for about 4-5 minutes then flip to the other side. Cook to your desired doneness. When the fish is done, plate it and then put 3 tablespoons of the Avocado Chimichurri on top of each piece of the fish. Serves 2.

Per serving: 472 calories; 36 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 69 percent calories from fat); 4 g carbohydrates; 0.5 g sugar; 99 mg cholesterol; 1,406 mg sodium; 32 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Avocado Chimichurri

2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoons minced garlic

¾ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon dried Oregano

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup chopped cilantro

¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

2 fresh avocados, medium diced

Combine all the ingredients. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 141 calories; 14 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 89 percent calories from fat); 4 g carbohydrates; 0.5 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 226 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Cherry Tomatoes and Green Beans

½ pound fresh green beans

1 pint cherry tomatoes

½ tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

3 large cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Blanch and shock the green beans. Halve the cherry tomatoes. In a sauté pan set to medium high heat, add the oil and butter. Once the butter is melted, add the garlic. Once garlic begins to perfume (it takes about one minute), add the tomatoes and green beans. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for an additional 2 minutes. Serves 2.

Per serving: 179 calories; 10 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 50 percent calories from fat); 21 g carbohydrates; 10 g sugar; 16 mg cholesterol; 162 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 7 g fiber.

Couscous

2 cups water

1 cup couscous

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

¼ red onion, diced fine

1 red pepper, diced fine

1 tablespoons chives, chopped

1 tablespoon thyme, chopped

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

3 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

In a 2 quart saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Combine the couscous with the lemon juice, lemon zest, red onion, red pepper, herbs and salt. Pour the boiling water over the couscous, cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let stand for 10 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap and fluff the couscous with a fork and add the extra virgin olive oil, then taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Cover and set aside to keep warm while you prepare the fish. Serves 2.

Per serving: 431 calories; 8 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 17 percent calories from fat); 77 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 3,502 mg sodium; 13 g protein; 6 g fiber.

About this feature

Know of a chef — or a restaurant whose chef — you’d like to see featured here? Email the name of the chef and/or the restaurant to judybham@aol.com — and stay tuned. Who knows, you may find out what he or she is making at home soon.

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