At home with chef Todd Sabo

Judith Harris Solomon
Special to The Detroit News

In 1986, while attending Aquinas High School in Southgate, Todd Sabo went over to his friend Joe’s house to study for a biology test.

“Joe’s family owned an Italian bakery and they all lived together in the same house. The grandma insisted I stay for dinner. So I sat down to a full meal that to me was a feast, an endless parade of food that included salad, pasta, fish and meat. It was the first time I had my eyes open to food,” said Sabo, today the executive chef of the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham.

That experience ultimately led the chef, during the summer of his junior year, to get a job as a breakfast busboy at the Dearborn Inn. “I worked there for two years while still in school, mostly on weekends, and eventually became a fine dining server at the hotel’s Edison Restaurant,” he said.

After graduation, Sabo entered the University of Michigan, where he majored in English literature and Russian, and planned to get a law degree. While there, he worked in food service at the Real Seafood restaurant in Ann Arbor.

“I was a server for two years, but because so many of the patrons were actually mean to me, I literally walked back into the kitchen and asked to become a cook,” he said.

Eventually, Sabo liked the idea of being a lawyer more than being one, and said he got burned out working as a kitchen manager at Real Seafood. So he proceeded to work as an electrical engineer for the next six years, traveling the world working for a company called Commerce Controls.

“But whenever I was home, I was cooking,” said Sabo, 45. “Even when I was working as an engineer, I was constantly reading cookbooks and magazines and practicing. And the entire time, everyone kept asking ‘why don’t you become a chef?’ ” the Dearborn resident said.

In 1999, Sabo left the engineering job, moved to Boca Raton, Florida, and worked for Legal Seafood and Catch 22 before returning to the Detroit area in 2001, where he got a job as a baker for five different Panera restaurants.

“I loved that company, but it was a night job from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and I decided I wanted to get back to fine dining,” Sabo said. In 2003 he ended up at the Ritz Carlton in Dearborn. After a short stint as a cook for their Grille restaurant, he was rapidly promoted to sous chef, then chef de cusine. That position was followed by a job from 2007 to 2015 as the executive sous chef at the Ritz Carlton in Dallas.

While in Dallas, Todd met his fiancee, Gladys O’Neill, a Venezuelan who was the hotel’s food and beverage manager. The couple moved to Michigan in October and have an 18-month-old daughter, Christina. Sabo said he cooks at home three or four times a week and often makes Venezuelan recipes.

“Gladys introduced me to the yuca recipe printed here when we first started dating,” he said.

Citrus Brined Roast Chicken

For the brine

2 limes

1 lemon

1 orange

1 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup granulated sugar

10 cilantro stems (with leaves), roughly chopped

Half a head of garlic cloves, unpeeled and smashed

1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed

1 gallon of water

Zest the citrus and place the zest in a stockpot. Cut the remaining citrus in half and squeeze the juice into the pot. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Bring just to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature and then chill the brine in the refrigerator. Do this a day or two ahead of when you plan to roast the chicken.

For the chicken

1 (3 to 3-1/2 pounds) whole chicken

1 citrus brine recipe (see above)

Salt and pepper (to taste)

1 teaspoon canola oil

2 tablespoons thyme leaves

Rinse the chicken under cold water and pat dry. Place the chicken in the chilled citrus brine, cover and place in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours.

Remove the chicken from the brine, rinse under cold water and pat dry. Tuck the wings underneath the bird. Lightly salt and heavily pepper the outside of the bird.

Heat the oven to 475 degrees, while the bird is shaking off the chill from the fridge. When the oven is really hot, about 20 minutes later, add the oil to a skillet large enough to fit the bird with room to spare, and place over high heat. Swirl around to distribute the oil while the skillet gets really hot, about 3 minutes.

Place the trussed bird, breast-side up, in a cast iron skillet (a hot skillet prevents the chicken from sticking to the pan) and place in the preheated oven. Roast for 40-45 minutes (the bird will get very brown, so tent loosely with a piece of foil if you think it’s getting too brown).

Remove from the oven and check the temperature with a meat thermometer stuck in the thickest part of the thigh, making sure it doesn’t touch a bone. The temperature should be 155 degrees to 160 degrees. Check the temperature every 5 minutes. When the bird is between 155-160 degrees, remove it from the oven. As it rests, it will continue to cook.

Add the thyme to the pan drippings and then with a spoon, baste the bird with the thyme-infused drippings for a minute. Remove the bird to a cutting board to rest for 15 minutes before carving. Serves 4.

Crispy Garlic Yuca

2 pounds Yuca (peeled and cut into 3 inch sticks)

2 quarts water

6 tablespoons kosher salt

6 cloves of garlic (finely chopped)

1 bunch of cilantro

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon butter

Cut ends from yuca and split in half length wise. Using the edge of chef’s knife, peel tough outer layer from yuca to reveal pearly, white flesh. Cut remaining yuca into 3-inch-long sticks that are approximately 3/4-inch wide. Add yuca to room temperature water, add kosher salt to the water and set over medium high heat. Simmer yuca approximately 12 minutes or until a knife passes easily through a piece. Do not overcook. Strain yuca thoroughly and place in mixing bowl.

In a separate pan, heat canola oil on a medium setting. Add garlic and sauté until it is golden brown and crispy. Do not walk away from garlic near the end of cooking process because it can burn easily and become bitter quickly. Remove pan from heat and add butter and cilantro. Incorporate thoroughly and immediately add to the hot yuca in mixing bowl. Coat yuca thoroughly and check for seasoning. Add salt if necessary. Serves 4.

Black Beans

2 cups black beans

5 quarts chicken stock (low sodium if using store bought)

1 cinnamon stick

2 onions divided: (one quartered, one diced fine)

8 cloves garlic divided: (4 left whole, 4 chopped)

2 pieces bacon

2 jalapeno peppers, diced fine

1 bunch cilantro

Tabasco or Cholula sauce to taste

Juice from 1-2 limes


Rinse black beans under cold water and remove damaged beans. Combine beans, chicken stock, cinnamon stick, quartered onion, and whole garlic cloves and simmer until beans are tender. Strain beans, reserving remaining liquid. Discard onion and garlic cloves from beans.

In a separate pot, cook bacon on medium heat until fat has been rendered. Remove bacon. Gently sauté diced onions and jalapeno until tender. Add chopped garlic and sauté for two minutes. Add reserved black beans and at least a cup of cooking liquid. Gently simmer and reduce liquid to desired consistency. Finish by adding chopped cilantro, lime juice to taste and Tabasco or Cholula to taste. Check for final seasoning and add salt if necessary. Serves 4.