At home with chef Josh Duncan

Judith Harris Solomon
Special to The Detroit News

One day, while Josh Duncan was a high-school student in the midst of an autoCAD class at Walled Lake Northern High School, he came to a realization that standing at a machine or sitting at a computer was something he didn’t want to do.

“I realized I really didn’t want to continue doing any of that stuff, so I got a job with a buddy at a Buffalo Wings restaurant,” Duncan, 26, said.

And that was the beginning of his cooking career.

Duncan, now the executive chef at Cafe ML, a Roberts Group restaurant in Bloomfield Township, said that while working at Buffalo Wings he “really fell in love with the camaraderie of my five or six fellow employees, all working towards the same goal while working the dinner rush. Getting ready for it and executing it was exciting for me.”

After three years at Buffalo Wings, first as a cook, then as a supervisor and trainer, Duncan got a job at Mitchell’s Fish Market in Livonia, where he worked alongside their executive chef, Russell Bronson. And when Bronson left to work at Vellum in Ann Arbor, he brought Duncan with him.

“I learned a lot of modern cooking techniques such as sous vide while there,” the Commerce Township resident said. “And we also used a lot of modern pantry ingredients such as agar, which is a thickening agent.” (As a result, at Cafe ML, Duncan creates what he calls “balsamic pearls” which are a combination of balsamic vinegar and agar. He uses them as a garnish for a tomato mozzarella salad.)

Duncan said his cooking has also been influenced by Sean Brock, a renowned Southern chef who is also the author of a cookbook called “Heritage.”

“My fiance Tina Zeni (who the chef met while both were working at Mitchell’s five years ago and who is now a server at ML) and I went to Brock’s restaurant, Husk, in Nashville, Tennessee, and we were blown away,” he said. “We ate enough for a week.”

Brock also introduced Duncan to Anson Mills products, which Duncan now likes to utilize in his cooking.

“It’s a huge line of organic corn, grits, rice and polenta.” he said. “And they’re all fresh and taste really pure.”

The chef said he created the stuffed jalapeño recipe after his mom gifted him with a metal “pepper stand.” “She found it at Sur La Table and I decided I had to use it,” he said. “And it turns out everybody likes these peppers.”

The pork recipe is similar to one Cafe ML had on their summer menu last year.

“It’s one of the first dishes at ML that I had a lot of influence on and I like to make it at home,” he said.

And Duncan particularly likes this creme brulee recipe because, “It’s one of the easiest creme brulees you can ever make because it doesn’t require any cooking or baking,” he said.

Josh and Tina say they cook at home a couple of times a month, usually for Josh’s parents, who live just down the street. And when they do, dinner is served on the fabulous 8-foot-long stained pine table that the chef managed to craft in his spare time.

Charred Jalapeño Poppers

8 jalapeños, tops cut off and seeds removed

8 ounces cream cheese

1/2 cup bacon, diced and cooked

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all but jalapeños and mix thoroughly. Using a piping bag, stuff jalapeños with the filling. Then grill the jalapeños until tender and hot throughout. (I use a pepper stand on the grill to keep peppers standing upright.) Serves 4.

Per serving: 252 calories; 23 g fat (12 g saturated fat; 82 percent calories from fat); 6 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 71 mg cholesterol; 463 mg sodium; 7 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Green Chili-Cheddar Polenta and Sweet Corn Black Bean Salsa

For the polenta

1 cup polenta

4 cups water

1/4 cup cheddar cheese

2 tablespoons minced roasted jalapeños, skin and seeds removed

Salt and pepper to taste

To prepare the polenta

Combine polenta and water in a pot, turn stove on high, whisk constantly until it thickens. Turn down to a simmer. Simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until polenta is soft to taste. Remove from heat, stir in the remaining ingredients, season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the salsa

4 ears corn on the cob

1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped

1/4 cup red onion, chopped

1/2 cup black beans

2 tablespoons cilantro, minced

1 tablespoon lime juice

Salt and pepper to taste

To prepare the salsa

Grill corn in the husk, shuck and remove from cob. Then combine all ingredients in a bowl, season with salt and pepper.

For the pork tenderloin

2 pounds pork tenderloin

1/2 tablespoon chili powder

1/2 tablespoon cumin

2 tablespoons salt

1/2 tablespoon black pepper

To prepare the pork tenderloin

Season the pork with chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper. Grill to desired temperature. Serves 4.

Per serving: 582 calories; 15 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 23 percent calories from fat); 53 g carbohydrates; 8 g sugar; 156 mg cholesterol; 1,720 mg sodium; 58 g protein; 7 g fiber.

Vegan Chocolate Creme Brulee

1 15-ounce can coconut milk

1/2 cup agave

1 vanilla bean

2 tablespoons coconut oil

1 avocado

2 tablespoons cocoa powder


Fresh berries

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Disperse mixture into six 6-ounce ramekins. Chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Just before serving, put an even layer of sugar on the top of each ramekin. Then, using a brulee torch, caramelize the sugar until golden brown. Serve with fresh berries. Serves 6.

Per serving: 303 calories; 18 g fat (13 g saturated fat; 53 percent calories from fat); 33 g carbohydrates; 26 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 26 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 4 g fiber.