Be Geneva ChopHouse’s guest for top-notch steak and more.
Michael Sawin got burned.
A hot pot of coffee at a Boy Scout camp was to blame. It was an accident that left him bedridden for six months. It was an accident that would change his life.
While healing in bed, Sawin made a friend who sent him on a journey to find and embrace a lifelong passion – cooking.
His “friend” was Graham Kerr, better known as “The Galloping Gourmet” – a cooking show on PBS and a forerunner to culinary programs found on Food Network and the Cooking Channel. Sawin watched his show religiously.
Inspired by Kerr, Sawin set off in pursuit of his dream to become a chef, traveling the world as a cook in the Marine Corps, graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and serving under some of the most admired chefs in Chicago – Chef Jean Banchet, founder of the legendary Le Francais in Wheeling (now closed), and Chef Bernard Cretier of Le Vichyssois (Lakemoor).
Now Sawin calls the shots. He’s the executive chef at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva, and the craft that he’s so passionate about can be seen nightly on the tables of the Geneva ChopHouse.
A Room With a View
Eating is part taste and part visual. The Geneva ChopHouse does the visual part magnificently. The dining room is at once expansive and enclosing. The room is warm ad comfortable, but feels big because of the stunning view offered by its window wall that looks out onto the 18th hole of The Brute golf course, Grandview Lake and the wooded hills surrounding the resort’s property.
The dining room’s interior is a palette of warm colors that complements what you see outside. There’s nothing bright and buzzy or overtly modern here. Only comfort. It’s a room of dark and heavy wood, stone and parchment colors. The design compels you to slow down, put away the phone, and enjoy the person or group you’re with. Tables are covered in crisp white linens. Booths are richly upholstered and have their own lighting.
Fresh, Local Flavors
Sawin is exactly what you think an executive chef should look like – a big presence with an easy smile – but with a drive for excellence and memorable service.
Meat is like bedrock for any steak house. It has the ability to make or break a reputation. Sawin takes quality so seriously that he created his own meat “bible.” It’s a blue three-ring binder that ensures meat deliveries are up to scratch. Each page describes the standards for a particular cut of meat received. To make sure there is no room for interpretation, he puts a picture on the page. That’s serious quality control before the meat even hits the grill. As he likes to say, “Don’t expect what you don’t inspect.”
Pictures and words are great, but Sawin “takes things to 11” by choosing meat from the Berkshire breed of pigs because its fat content keeps the meat moist when cooking and provides more flavor.
He’s demanding with all proteins, produce and baked goods. Fish is daily flown in from the coasts with an insistence on it being the freshest possible. Sea bass and salmon are patron favorites. Other dishes from the sea range from tuna crudo and diver scallops as appetizers to seared Florida grouper and ahi tuna au poivre nicoise style as main dishes.
Baked locally, bread arrives twice a day. Micro greens come from Middlebury Farms in Woodstock and Harvard. Yuppie Hill Poultry in Burlington, Wis., is the egg and chicken provider, while some meat comes from Hometown Sausage Kitchen in East Troy, Wis.
The kitchen has its own garden just down the road from the Geneva ChopHouse. Enclosed by a white picket fence and tucked between some tennis courts, a playground and a stand of pine trees, the garden provides the restaurant with Japanese eggplant, poblano and jalapeno peppers, tarragon, basil, tomatoes and more. Sawin said it is organic produce because the only fertilizers he uses are water and mushroom compost.
So why the military-style discipline when it comes to the ingredients? “We use fresh ingredients because the flavors stand out,” Sawin said.
Experience in Progress
”If a customer wants a peanut butter and chicken sandwich on black bread, you make it for them,” Sawin said.
It’s not clear why someone would want such a dish with the aromas and sounds coming from the open-air grill, but it shows Sawin’s seriousness about customer service.
“I own customer service,” said Sawin, and walked a guest to the bathroom, a gesture you wouldn’t normally expect to see from the chef of a regarded restaurant. “It’s my job,” he added.
His example informs his staff that everyone is responsible for the experience of the customers. As a reminder, the last thing a server sees when exiting the kitchen is a sign, hung at eye level, that reads, “Experience in Progress.”
“If we make a mistake, the sous chef will bring the [new] steak out and apologize,” he said. “That’s customer service.”
Eating at the Geneva ChopHouse is not an exclusive privilege for guests of the Grand Geneva Resort, and reservations are recommended due to its popularity. “It is a destination restaurant that’s open to the public,” he said. “Lots of locals eat here.”