Chef Chat, Part 2: Michael Pellegrino of Max's Wine Dive

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We continue our discussion with Chef Pellegrino, learning about how he creates new concoctions for the menu at Max's Wine Dive.

Eating Our Words: Now that Max's offers more creative fare on the right side of the menu, how do you go about creating dishes for this side of the menu?

Pellegrino: There are two ways. First is what I'm craving at the time. As I mentioned, my cooking has a heavy influence of Italian cuisine. Lately, I've been craving spaghetti. I love spaghetti, but specifically my family's spaghetti, which is different than anything I can get here. So a version of my family's spaghetti will be offered on the menu soon. The other way is from seasonal inspirations. For example, the other week I was driving through Luling and saw they were having their Luling Watermelon Thump. I ended up buying 10 watermelons and we ended up with watermelon on the menu.

EOW: Describe the process of how you create a specific menu offering.

Pellegrino: One thing I love to do is involve my kitchen staff. That way, everyone contributes and feel they own a part of a dish. I'll get everyone together, we'll talk about what makes sense and then try out the good ideas to see what works. If it works and it's delicious, then it goes on the menu. It typically takes about a week for an idea to show up on the menu, but sometimes it just takes a few days. For example, [two days ago] I was thinking about halibut and thought it would be great with a succotash made with our sweet cream corn. So I called my sous chef to get it in. Then yesterday we played with it, and it made sense. And today we added to the menu. So the timing can vary.

EOW: How do you decide what makes sense when experimenting in the kitchen?

Pellegrino: I believe that the ingredients tell me what to cook. So I literally taste each ingredient with the idea, "Okay, what does this tell me?" So the ingredient might tell me that it needs to be with bacon, or something sweet, or something vinegary, or something acidic. I let the ingredients tell me what it wants. Then from there I compose a dish.

EOW: So people already know of Max's classic fried chicken and mac-and-cheese. But what creations on the right side of the menu are near and dear to your heart?

Pellegrino: I like the crackling chicken. We're currently offering a crackling chicken with spring mushroom risotto. I love risotto. I grew up eating risotto. It's my favorite way to eat rice, period. We also have a cool Hungry-Max, which is a play on the TV dinner Hungry-Man. It's served on a school-style cafeteria tray.

EOW: Like the Hungry-Man, is the Hungry-Max a pound of food?

Pellegrino: Oh no, it's definitely more. *Laughs boisterously*

Tune in tomorrow for photos and detailed descriptions of Chef Pellegrino's crackling chicken and Hungry-Max.

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