Eddie Merlot’s Top Chef, Tony Dee

Known for their fresh take on steakhouse ambiance, upscale menu, wine selection and five star service, Eddie Merlot’s has taken the Midwest by storm with locations in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and most recently, Illinois, in Burr Ridge, Warrenville and Lincolnshire. 

2013 promises to be another stellar year for the mini chain with new openings scheduled in Bloomfield, Michigan, Pittsburgh and Denver. At the core of it all, is the company’s Executive Chef, Tony Dee.

This is a lifestyle, not a job

Executive Chef, Tony Dee says food was a big thing in his family, so much so, in fact, that he and his grandparents would, “plan vacations around where they wanted to eat” when he was a kid. When he “had to get a job” to support his high school sports activities, he went to work as a dishwasher at the local sports bar & grill. Dee’s first culinary caper occurred one Friday night when the owner of the restaurant asked him to fill in at the last minute for the cook who took ill suddenly.

Did he know what he was doing?

“That’s what the owner asked me,” smiled Dee. “I hadn’t been officially trained, but I’d cooked for my buddies and watched the cooks at the bar long enough to know what I was supposed to do. We managed to save the shift that night and from that moment on I began ‘filling in’ more and more. Three months later, I took a job as a cook at the local country club.”

Executive Chef, Tony Dee

When Tony graduated high school several years later, he was hooked, turning down football scholarships and opting instead for culinary school. He chose Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. One of the first culinary schools to offer business management curriculum for the restaurant/hospitality industry, Dee saw the JWU program as a career growth must have. He continued to work as a cook throughout his college years and returned home after graduation as a highly experienced emerging chef.

Zigzagging north to south and north again, Tony worked for name restaurant groups, such as Cameron and Barton G, “This is a lifestyle, not a job,” declared Dee, “lots of travel and sacrifice.” He further honed his management skills when he accepted an offer to work for a private hospitality firm in the British Virgin Islands in the role of Food & Beverage Director managing four restaurants. “I’m glad I did that because it gave me a renewed appreciation for the U.S.”, says Dee referring to the rampant lack of food safety and sanitation there.

Crediting much of his career growth to being, “fortunate to have met many great people”, Dee shared it was another chance event which led him to his current position.  “I was at a charity event and went to the bar to get a drink. It was right after I had come back to the U.S., and I didn’t know most of the people that were there. I struck up a conversation with a guy at the bar; we immediately hit it off and spent a good time chatting. At one point, I told him I’d just moved back and was looking for my next opportunity. He said to me, ‘ I know, your resume is on my desk’ – it was Bruce Kraus, Director of Operations for Eddie Merlot’s. Shortly after, I was offered the Executive Chef position in Indianapolis. Last fall I moved to the Chicago area as the Executive Chef responsible for all locations.”

Taking Care of Business

Tony Dee Interview

Tony with Buedel Managing Partner, John Cecala. Interview pictures by Jorge Took Your Picture.com.

How do Executive Chefs spend their time? Managing an ever-growing multi state operation of any kind takes organization and discipline – both inherent to Dee. He says he, “tries to do breakfast – coffee, juice, yogurt – check emails and get to his first location by 8 each morning…the phones usually start by then.” Vendor calls, catching up with Bruce, handling personnel issues and production needs fill the majority of the morning until he leaves to check in at another location. Always keeping menu and management in check, he tries to talk to “at least two” chefs every day.

What is the hardest challenge for any upscale restaurant?

“Sourcing! Getting the product you want affordably. Portion sizes are shrinking now because prices cannot continue to rise – 85% of restaurants fail in the first 11 months.”

What do you think makes a restaurant with great food even greater?

“Quality service. When I was in my 20’s I was going to catch the mistake you made, but you have to know how to deal with people – one bad meal delivery doesn’t make a bad restaurant. Knowing how to handle mistakes when they happen is crucial. We make sure our chefs are trained properly so they can train cooks better, who can train other staff better, and so on. Training…for us, it really starts with whom you hire – not just for their experience, but for their personality too.”

What do you see as a change in customer trend?

“People go out to eat today; they don’t dine; they don’t enjoy anymore. The experience has changed. No one gets dressed up to go out anymore … but the ‘good china’ shouldn’t just come out for the holidays. I don’t want people to stop – lose their passion for the food they eat – I want them to have a great meal with family and friends …it’s about the experience.”

Asked if he’d ever be interested in doing a cooking show, Dee quickly replies, “8 million people will see you make mistakes”. He is thankful for the role TV has played in nurturing public interest for the culinary arts and attributes much of the “foodie revolution” to “culinary ed-u-tainment”.

Closest to his heart is teaching. Dee would love to pay it forward and help kids go to culinary school.


From the desk of John Cecala Twitter @ Buedel Fine Meats  Facebook  Buedel Fan Page

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Meat Picks | 1.25.13

Wake Up and Smell the Schnitzel!

TOC recently scribed “Four reasons German food will take off in 2013” citing upgrades and openings of German/Euro inspired restaurants in the city. Grubstreet echoed with Sprechen Sie Trendy [love that title!] noting the last time German was hot was in 1965.

Has it really been that long?

Adding to this micro trend (in a really big way) is Hofbräuhaus Chicago in Rosemont – yes, Rosemont – the “first and only German micro brewery, beer hall, restaurant and beer garden to call Chicago home”, which opened earlier this week.

Modeled after its 400 year old Munich namesake, the 20,000 square foot ‘haus offers seating for 700, (plus another 350 in the outside beer garden), brews its own beer on site, stages live music seven days a week, and has its own gift shop. The menu is also modeled authentic with traditional Bavarian dishes, imported bakery items and sauerkraut flown in from Germany. Executive Chef, Klaus Lotter is at the helm.

Viel Glück, Hofbräuhaus!

Restaurant Week Countdown

Restaurant Week(s) has been running nationwide since the beginning of the year. Chicago’s officially begins a week from today on February 1st and runs through the 10th. San Fran ups our ten day week by seven – their food fest began January 15th and will end on the 31st.

One of the best things people love about Restaurant Week is of course the price fixed menus; one of the worst is figuring out where to go among the over 200 participating restaurants. Here’s our top list of helpful links: Metromix Pix   Chicago Foodies   Chicagoist Staff Picks   Phil Vettel’s Recs  Event Site   Open Table Reservations.  If you’d like a chance to win a foodie gift card, link here: Sweepstakes Entry.


From the desk of John Cecala Twitter @ Buedel Fine Meats  Facebook  Buedel Fan Page

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Venison | A Winter Menu Delight!

Venison (deer meat) has a rich complex taste and tender supple texture. High in protein, low in saturated fat and loaded with healthy B vitamins, Venison is also considered a healthier meat choice. A serving of Venison loin has less cholesterol and calories than skinless chicken and well over a third less total fat.

Venison makes a great winter menu alternative.

Farm Raised Venison

Wild or farm raised, the flavor of Venison comes from its diet. Unlike beef cattle, Venison have small simple stomachs and thus graze upon easily digestible foods such as, leaves, grass, shoots, lichens, fungi and fruit. Farm raised Venison is preferable in taste and texture than its wild counterpart.

Consumers who believe they dislike the taste of Venison usually feel that way when their experience is limited to wild-shot male game animals harvested at hunting season – at the height of their combative reproductive cycle. These animals may be several years of age, have elevated hormone content (lactic acid, testosterone, adrenalin) and may be in poor physical condition and/or under stress.  As such, their meat tends to be tougher and more “gamey” in taste.

It is for these reasons, plus species-specific and “varietal” characteristics that make farmed Venison a very different meat product which produces a uniquely different and pleasing culinary experience.

Domestic Venison

Domestic farm raised Venison is largely produced in Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Farmed/ranched Venison cuts are quite similar to beef cuts. Mild and tender, domestic gourmet Venison is also lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, pork and lamb. Gourmet chefs have a special appreciation for this lean meat.

New Zealand Cervena® Venison

Some of the best tasting Venison comes from New Zealand, certified as Cervena® Natural Tender VenisonCervena® is distinguished from all other Venison by the trademarked assurance that the meat has been naturally produced, and processed in accredited plants, according to a system of high quality standards.

Similar to the way Champagne only comes from France, Cervena® only comes from New Zealand under some of the highest inspection standards in the world. Cervena® certified deer must be New Zealand farm bred, entirely grass fed and raised naturally without steroids or growth hormones.

Cervena® deer must also be three years or under to ensure tender, mild flavored meat. As deer age, the tougher and more ‘gamey’ their meat becomes. Young animals produce consistently sized, delicious flavored meat. Cervena® certifications apply only to saddle and leg cuts.

For chefs, the Cervena® name guarantees they are working with the finest meat.

Popular Venison Cuts

There are seven popular Venison cuts:

  • Bone-In Saddle
  • Tenderloin
  • Strip Loin
  • Rib Rack
  • Leg Bone-In or Boneless Denver Leg
  • Ground Venison
  • Venison Stew Meat

Working with Venison is as easy as working with lamb or beef cuts. Recipes and cooking guide are readily available courtesy of Cervena®.

Tender, delicious and healthy, Venison delivers superb choice on winter menus.


From the desk of John Cecala Twitter @ Buedel Fine Meats  Facebook  Buedel Fan Page



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New Year, New Ewe!

Healthy eating is at the forefront of most everyone’s mind this month and along with it search for lean meats and proteins. Did you know Lamb delivers both?

A former “fatty”, Lamb has become significantly lean in recent decades due to better breeding systems and trimming methods. Today’s Lamb is low in “bad” (saturated) fat.

You don’t have to be sheepish when it comes to serving Lamb anymore.

Health Stats

►Calorically speaking, a three and half ounce serving of Lamb loin is only 6 calories more than an equal serving of salmon and about 11 calories less per ounce than beef.

►Lamb is a stellar source of protein. A serving of Lamb delivers a whopping 30 grams of protein, 54% of the daily recommended requirement for men and 65% for women.

►Lamb also provides a good resource of iron, zinc and vitamin B12.

►The niacin (vitamin B3) found in Lamb has been reported to provide protection against Alzheimer’s, promotes healthy skin and greatly retards the risk of developing osteoarthritis.

►Lean Lamb is a “selenium-rich food”. A mineral reported raising mood levels from poor to good, selenium is further known for its antioxidant properties which boost the immune system and promote good health.

Cuts & Cooks

► Upwards of 2,000 breeds of sheep have been arguably documented through the ages. Sheep meat is  categorized by age: Lamb, being less than a year old, Hogget, over a year old and Mutton, two years of age and older.

Fun Fact: Mutton fat was used to create macon during the WWII food rationing era as a substitute for bacon.

► Milk-fed, Young, Spring, Sucker, Yearling and Saltmarsh are global distinctions used in describing Lamb.

►Legs, loins, racks and chops are just some of the types of cuts of Lamb available today.

►Lamb can be roasted, grilled, boiled, stewed, skewered, braised (try it in wine with spices) and ground for burgers – yes, burgers!

► French, Mediterranean, and Welsh cuisines are among the most notable for Lamb. Rosemary, garlic, mint, tarragon, apricots, cucumber, nuts, tomatoes and yogurt are typical of the ingredients used in preparing center of the plate dishes and sauces.

Here’s a great recipe for Mediterranean style Lamb Chops adapted from the Niman Ranch cookbook:

Mediterranean Lamb Chops with                                 Cucumber-Yogurt Dip           


2 lamb racks, about 1 ½ lbs. each, frenched and trimmed                                                     5 T extra virgin olive oil                                                                                                           ¼ C loosely packed fresh rosemary leaves, chopped                                                            2 T fresh thyme leaves, chopped                                                                                             6 cloves garlic, chopped                                                                                                         1 t kosher salt                                                                                                                           1 t cracked black pepper


1 C plain whole-milk Greek style yogurt                                                                                  1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and grated                                                                                 3 oz. feta cheese, crumbled                                                                                                    2 cloves garlic, minced                                                                                                           1 T extra virgin olive oil                                                                                                   Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Prepare Lamb  Place lamb in baking dish. Combine 4 T of olive oil with the rosemary, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub mixture over the lamb, coating evenly. Refrigerate at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.

Prepare Dip  Combine yogurt, cucumber, cheese, garlic and olive oil in a bowl; season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill until the flavors meld, at least 2 hours, up to 8 hours.

Finish Lamb  Remove lamb from the fridge and let set for at least 1 hour. Pre-heat oven to 350ºF.  Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a large, ovenproof skillet over high heat. Wipe the marinade from the lamb and season the meat with salt and pepper. Add lamb to skillet meat side down and cook, turning once, for about 2 minutes per side until browned.

Transfer to oven and roast for about 12 minutes, or until thermometer inserted into the center away from bone reads 130ºF for medium rare.

Transfer the racks to a cutting board and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Cut each rack into individual chops and arrange on a platter. Serve the dip on the side. Makes 4-6 servings.


From the desk of John Cecala Twitter @ Buedel Fine Meats  Facebook  Buedel Fan Page

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