April 11 2006 12:00 AM
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse Enjoy your natural resources: Michigan fish meets Michigan timber for a hot date in Eric Villegas’ wood-roasted Great Lakes Whitefish Chowder.

Of course, there's a complex human being inside the food fanatic  Villegas cultivates on his TV show and in his Okemos restaurant. But Villegas, like any other successful brand, stands for something basic: a unique Michigan cuisine.

{mosimage}It bothers Villegas that New England, Louisiana, the West Coast and even Texas have all have well-known regional cuisines, with much fewer indigenous ingredients to work with than Michigan. “We have the most diverse state in the country, and there's no reason why we shouldn't have a cuisine,” Villegas says.

Villegas has parlayed his love of Michigan-made ingredients into a PBS cooking show, “Fork in the Road,” which airs at 9:30 a.m. Saturdays on WKAR.  Villegas roams the state, talking to fishermen, farmers, canners, vintners, fungi freaks, and anyone else who funnels Michigan-made delights to his kitchen.

“We have everything in Michigan — shrimp, ostriches, cranberries,” he says. “This is the most diverse state in the nation. When you go to New York or Chicago, they're using Michigan products — they just don't tell you.”

Villegas grew up at the adults' table, so it's no wonder the usual fare doesn't interest him. “My father never took us to family restaurants that had kids' menus, so we ate what they ate,” he says. “Regal chefs with big hats, strawberries with clotted cream — I was hooked.”

When Villegas was still a young man, his mother became ill and he began doing the cooking out of necessity. “I just never stopped,” he shrugs.

In the mid-70s, when California cuisine was all the rage, Villegas somewhat perversely made up his mind to study at La Varenne in Paris. He did it not just to learn his art, but also to experience a different social world. “Being a chef in the United States was still considered a blue-collar job,” he says. “The kitchens were hidden, and cooks were all considered drunks.”

At La Varenne, it was culinary boot camp — cuisine only, with no business or “hospitality” training. “They would say, 'here's a chicken, here's how you kill it, feather it, eviscerate it, and make the best roasted chicken in the world,'” Villegas says. On one exercise, the students had to make everything possible from a pig, from head cheese to blood pudding. “I lived on a foie gras farm, went on truffle hunts.”

Back in the United States, Villegas went to New England Culinary Institute, a two-year program, to learn management. He was so apt a pupil he ended up teaching classes in his second year.

During the '80s, Villegas worked at Dusty's Cellar and co-owned Dusty's Wine Bar, also in Okemos, selling his half of the business in spring 1995 to strike out on his own. Since then, he has pursued his Holy Grail: a 100 percent made-in-Michigan bill of fare.

“If we as a culture want to consider ourselves as having a cuisine — like Louisiana, New England or the West Coast — we have to get back to our roots and see what we have,” he says.

One thing Michigan has is whitefish, and Villegas' Great Lakes Whitefish Chowder respectfully spotlights this delicate crown jewel of Great Lakes fishery. It's a hearty dish, cooked in a wood-fired oven and served in a cast-iron pan. “I hate little cups of chowder,” Villegas says.

The whitefish is cooked in its own broth, with a few tablespoons of heavy cream on top. “In the wood-burning oven, the sugar in the cream speckles and caramelizes,” he points out. “This is how chowder could have been made when all they cooked with was wood.”

Everything in this dish is made on the premises, from the bits of bacon in the broth (cut and smoked in back) to the home-made, sweet hardtack-style crackers arranged on top. Villegas' trademark garnish is a zippy green “V” of parsley oil made from organic, hothouse-grown, scissor-clipped micro-arugula. (Whew.)

Despite the refinements, it's a basic offering that might have been served in the captain's quarters of a Great Lakes freighter 100 years ago.

This is the course Villegas says he'd like to steer in the future. As a young hotshot, he used to gravitate toward the dishes with the most ingredients. Now he says he's becoming more comfortable with himself “as both a human and a culinarian.”

“The older I get, the more I realize the less I do to a dish, the better it is — if you have the right ingredients.”

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