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For chef Payne Mills, biscuits, not bon bons show love

Judith Harris Solomon
Special to The Detroit News

For Valentine’s Day, most people express their feelings of undying love and affection with either flowers or candy. But not Chef Payne Mills. Instead, this Oklahoma City native makes biscuits.

Mills, the executive chef of Crave Restaurant, which recently relocated from Dearborn to Ferndale, says his family cooks homemade biscuits as a special family dish, “for just about every occasion, including holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.” And he actually proposed to his wife Rachel over biscuits and tea. The couple married in June.

The chef says he became fascinated with food early on.

“When I was just 3 or 4-years-old I requested a SaladShooter for Easter, he said. “And that same year, I also asked for a blue, not pink, Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas.”

He was 15, when he started his first restaurant job as a pantry chef at a café in Edmond, Oklahoma. He spent his senior year of high school at a vocational technological school where he apprenticed with Travis Smith, a well-known chef who occasionally made trips to Schoolcraft College in Livonia for culinary training.

“That’s what brought me to Schoolcraft,” said Mills who graduated from their culinary arts program in 2011.

While attending Schoolcraft, Mills also worked at the Great Oaks Country Club in Rochester Hills, where he trained under Chef Randy Emert. That was followed by a six-month tour of Europe during which he “studied pastry and baking and also dined at many different restaurants to learn their techniques.”

Upon returning from Europe, the Westland resident came back to Detroit to work at Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak at the MGM Grand and at the Walnut Creek Country Club in South Lyon before becoming Chef de Cuisine at the Adoba Hotel, formerly the Hyatt Regency, in Dearborn.

In the process of purchasing a home in October, a serendipitous thing happened. It turned out that Mills’ mortgage broker, Khalil Ramadan, was also the owner of Crave Restaurant. Ultimately, Payne ended up not only owning a home, but also becoming Crave’s executive chef.

“Chef Payne is like a Breaking Bad chef,” said Crave co-owner Eddie Farah. “He’s the mad scientist of chefs. He takes comfort food and adds just enough science to change it up and give it a little bit of a twist and some spice.”

Although Crave specializes in Asian fusion cuisine, Mills says, “Because I’m from the South, when I cook at home the food is often a little South, simple and homey.”

True Love Biscuits

1 cup bread flour

1 1/2 cup pastry flour

1 heaping tablespoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons baking powder

2 tablespoons sugar

2 sticks cold butter, diced

14 ounces buttermilk

Egg wash ingredients

1 egg yolk

1 whole egg

2 tablespoons whole milk

Heat oven to 450 degrees.

Mix dry ingredients together thoroughly, making sure there are no lumps. Put dry ingredients into a bowl and add cold diced butter. Rub between your fingers until it resembles cornmeal. Add the buttermilk and mix it in until just incorporated. Dump biscuit dough onto a clean, floured tabletop. Add a little flour on top of the dough and fold it 12 times. Cover with a wet cloth and allow to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.

After dough has rested, roll it to 1/2-inch thickness, cut with a round or heart-shaped cutter about 2 inches wide. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Stack all the biscuits against each other so that when they bake, they press against each other and rise higher.

Brush dough lightly with egg wash and bake the biscuits until golden brown and baked fully in the middle, approximately 12 to 15 minutes.

Makes approximately 20 biscuits.

Per serving: 156 calories; 11 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 63 percent calories from fat); 12 g carbohydrates; 2 g sugar; 48 mg cholesterol; 545 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 0.3 g fiber.

True Love Biscuit Gravy

1 pound ground breakfast sausage

1/2 white onion, small dice

1 fresh bay leaf

2 ounces butter (if needed)

1/2 cup flour

1 bottle wheat beer

1 quart cream

1 tablespoon kosher salt

5 dashes of Tabasco sauce

Heat a four-quart saucepan on the stovetop. Break up sausage and carefully press it into the bottom of the hot pan so that as much of the meat as possible is in contact with the hot surface of the pan. (It is important to not move the meat for about 4 minutes so that the sausage has enough time to caramelize.) Keep the pan on high. With a wooden spoon, start to break up the meat and turn it so that the other side of the sausage can get a nice rich brown crust as well. Turn the heat down and add the onion and bay leaf. Cook the onion until it is translucent and tender, roughly about 5 minutes. Add 2 ounces of butter if the mixture is dry. Sprinkle in the flour and turn the heat back up to medium. Stir while cooking for about 4 minutes or until the roux starts to come away from the pan. Add the beer to the mixture and mix well. Once fully mixed, add cream and mix well. Bring this back to a boil as quickly as possible, then turn down to a simmer. Allow it to simmer for 30 minutes. Finish with salt and Tabasco. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

Serve hot immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 657 calories; 56 g fat (30 g saturated fat; 77 percent calories from fat); 18 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 70 mg cholesterol; 1,864 mg sodium; 17 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Grits Southern Style

1/2 pound cooked bacon, plus 3 ounces of bacon grease

Water (whatever amount is listed on the box of the brand you buy)

4 cups noninstant, organic grits *

3 ounces butter

2 cups shredded sharp cheese

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1/2 lemon

3 dashes of Tabasco sauce

Cook bacon. Reserve 3 ounces bacon grease. Bring water to a boil in a four-quart saucepot. Stream grits into boiling water and whisk hard as you do so. Keep on high and bring back to a boil. Once the grits come back to a boil, reduce to a low simmer and stir frequently. Cook for 30 minutes. Once fully cooked and tender, turn off heat and add butter, bacon grease and crumbled bacon. Then stir in cheddar till melted. Add salt and pepper, the juice of half a lemon and the Tabasco. Serve hot.

*Mills says he tries to find organic grits at a health food store or market because they are almost always more fresh and cook more tender than regular grits.

Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 622 calories; 33 g fat (17 g saturated fat; 48 percent calories from fat); 63 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 70 mg cholesterol; 1,114 mg sodium; 16 g protein; 1 g fiber.