Michael Werneke chose a career in the kitchen after Tom Cruise foiled his original plans.
"I really wanted to fly Tomcats for the Navy. I went to school for aerospace engineering and wanted to be a fighter pilot," he recalls. Werneke devoted his youth to ROTC and rigorous academics in pursuit of his goal — and then Top Gun came out. "Suddenly every 17-year-old boy in the country wanted to be a pilot," he says.
With a wider field of candidates, the military changed its eyesight requirements. Werneke's vision was just below the accepted cutoff. Instead of continuing on a path that would leave him as a flight crew's "Goose" at best, Werneke embraced the job that had been putting him through college.
Vermont diners should be grateful for the chef's imperfect eyes. Werneke has been pioneering his brand of comfort food at Waterbury's Prohibition Pig since 2012. Before that, he was known as the man behind the Rusty Nail Bar & Grille's Donaught, a bacon-and-egg-topped cheeseburger served between two duck-fat doughnuts.
Though Werneke got his start in California kitchens, he is no Guy Fieri knockoff. (Granted, his chocolate-caramel dump cake for two, still on Pro Pig's menu since its introduction at an ironic April one-off night called Schiddy's Tavern, sounds tailor-made for the Food Network clown.) His wit quickly proves he's got more going for him than fatty novelty.
The chef speaks four languages, including fluent Spanish learned from Mexican kitchen workers he befriended early in his career at San Diego modernist temple George's at the Cove. He got his German from his grandmother, who inspired him to cook. Her recipes still provide the hearty heart of Werneke's cuisine.
The promise of a similarly down-home experience drew Werneke to the Green Mountains five years ago. Disenchanted with kitchens after running a corporate steakhouse in Virginia, the chef fled to the Cellars at Jasper Hill to become a cheesemaker. "Mateo and Andy [Kehler, owners of Jasper Hill] are the reason I'm still involved in food at all," Werneke says. "They got me so excited about artisanal products and farm-to-table."
After working in commercial kitchens, the chef found the slow-paced repetition of cheesemaking therapeutic at first — then taxing. Werneke spent time doing prep at Stowe Mountain Lodge before landing his spot at the Rusty Nail. These days, Jasper Hill's Bayley Hazen Blue and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar both claim regular spots on Prohibition Pig's menu in deference to the Kehlers.
Perfect cheese is just one of the simple pleasures that makes Werneke tick. He names international chef/restaurateur Joël Robuchon as an inspiration in the austerity that he wishes to capture — albeit a version of "austerity" that encompasses half-butter mashed potatoes.
The chef who loves excellent local products expresses equal passion for the processed foods of his childhood. What else motivates Vermont's prince of pork? We grilled him to find out.
SEVEN DAYS: How did your family eat when you were growing up?
MICHAEL WERNEKE: It was pretty simple. My mother grew up dirt poor. She cooked a lot of the stuff she grew up eating, like oyster stew, which was just oysters and black pepper and milk. We ate a lot of macaroni with tomatoes and meat, but she'd roast nice chickens and make good meatloaf, too. She was a fantastic cook, actually. We ate wholesome, good food.
We'd go out to visit her brother in central Pennsylvania, and that's when I got hooked on charcuterie-type things. When I tried scrapple for the first time, it was a huge revelation.
SD: Did you always love food?
MW: I liked to be in the kitchen, whether it was my mother or my grandmother cooking Thanksgiving dinner or whatever. In the Boy Scouts, I had to learn to cook because you share duties when you're at summer camp. I always volunteered to cook, because I didn't want to eat burnt eggs and raw bacon.
SD: Name three foods that make life worth living.
MW: Just three? Pizza, for sure. It's all simple stuff. Mac and cheese. And a good burger. A lot of people would say foie gras, but I'm in the camp of Jöel Robuchon: His favorite thing is just a great potato with good butter. Nothing fancy, just what makes you feel good.
SD: What's the last thing you ate?
MW: I made a Chef Boyardee pizza last night. It's the one thing I don't tell anybody that I do. There's something about the sauce. My mom used to make them for us when I was a kid, when my dad was out of town.
There's something about taking the time to mix this horrible crust. I put my own cheese and pepperoni on it. Man, there's something about it. It wrecks my stomach, but I don't care. It's so good going down.
SD: What foods are always in your pantry?
MW: For sure, elbow macaroni. My housemate thinks I'm insane, because every time we go to the store it's "Really? More elbows?"
I make macaroni, tomato and meat — or mac and cheese. It always goes back to my childhood. I don't know why. There's always elbows and always saltines. I've got 18 kinds of salt. That's hyperbole, but there's a lot of salt and always lots of exotic spices and fish sauce.
SD: If you left Vermont, what local products would you miss most?
MW: Eggs and cheese and beer. That's a home run.
SD: If you could have any chef in the world prepare a meal for you, who would it be?
MW: I kinda want to say Daniel Boulud. Either him or Joël Robuchon. Those guys know how to do all those old-school, obscure things no one does anymore, like oeufs en gelée. Anything with aspic. Or a really good, old-world consommé that sets up and it's like Jell-O.
SD: You're trying to impress somebody with your culinary prowess. What do you make?
MW: Reservations. I don't think I ever really try to impress. I just make something tasty that I hope they're going to enjoy.
SD: What's the dish you'll be remembered for?
MW: Probably charcuterie of some kind. Maybe my smoked pork rillettes. Or, as my friend calls it, "pork butter." Everyone I know is, like, "Dude, are you making any more of those?"
SD: What's your favorite cookbook?
MW: When my grandmother passed, my aunt made copies of her cookbook. Her handwriting is kind of difficult to read, but I'm trying to cook my way through it, making everything from her mac and cheese to her pickles to kartoffelkloesse to sauerbraten. Our pickle spears [at Prohibition Pig] are based on her pickle recipe. The only difference is, she used dill flowers and I use dill seeds.
SD: What are your favorite Vermont restaurants?
SD: If money were no object, what kind of restaurant would you open?
MW: I would open a San Diego-style taco stand and just do it right. That's more of a self-interest thing. I know I could just crush it. Other than that, it would be a proper fish house, like [New York's] Le Bernardin but not as high end. Get everything in every day from Boston and just do it right.
SD: What's your favorite beverage?
MW: Coca-Cola. If it weren't so bad for me, I would drink two liters a day. As it is, I have one or two sodas a week.
SD: What kind of music do you like to listen to in the kitchen?
MW: Mostly Grateful Dead, much to the chagrin of several members of the kitchen. I traveled some [to see them], but mostly I was busy with school and work. But I did get to see them 40 or 50 times before Jerry died.
But it's a broad spectrum; we listen to whatever the mood and the situation call for: some punk rock, some classic rock, Blink-182, jazz sometimes.
SD: What are your hobbies?
MW: Snowboarding in the winter. The rest of the year, I collect botanical prints. Some are food based, like opium poppies, wormwood and coca leaves.
SD: You seem to enjoy some level of irony in food. True?
MW: Food should be fun. And especially if you're in a restaurant situation, you can have fun and make fun of other things. You can do off-the-wall stuff.
Picasso was an amazing portrait painter before he was a surrealist. In order to do modernist cuisine, you have to learn to sauté a duck breast.