One weekend about 2 years ago I was watching this PBS television show where this younger German guy was making sushi and a really cool looking miso soup loaded with Enoki mushrooms. I was immediately drawn to the show for two reasons; one was that they showed the chef making the items in a studio kitchen to provide the details, then showed him and his employees making the same dish for service at his restaurant. The show ends with restaurant customers offering their comments on the items that you watched him prepare. It was truly a unique show. The second reason I liked this show was that he was using ingredients that you don’t typically see on other cooking shows. Think about it, when is the last time you saw Rachel Ray pull out a lobe of foie gras or a rabbit loin and whip up one of her 30 minute meals? I liked it because it didn’t cater to the lowest common denominator as so many cooking shows do, yet the recipes were approachable for home cooks with just a little experience.
As weeks went on I watched a couple more shows and set my DVR to catch any future episodes. Marcel introduced me to the idea of using different international salts and to this day one of my favorite summertime snacks is cherry tomatoes seasoned with different types of salts, as featured in Episode 124. Then one weekend I was in a Kohler, Wisconsin hotel room paging through a visitor’s guide and I saw an ad for Biro Restaurant. I was shocked that this restaurant in Sheboygan, Wisconsin was the focal point of a nationally broadcast PBS show. How did I not catch this while watching the show? It made me happy to have a chef who was based in Wisconsin have a nationally televised cooking show. It made me even more happy that he wasn’t on there making fish fries, bratwurst, and other fare typically associated with Wisconsin. He was making high end creative food that was not out of reach of the average home cook.
In the few short years since I first watched Marcel Biro making sushi resembling tiny apples and wedges of watermelon I have marveled at how his culinary empire has expanded. He and his wife, Shannon Kring Biro have established the Marcel Biro Cooking School, opened O, a restaurant specializing in what Marcel describes as Span Asian Cuisine, released a cookbook with the Biro recipes (with O – Span Asian Cuisine close to being released), released a line of cookware, and is currently working on opening restaurants in LA and Miami. Another season of the Emmy Award winning Kitchen’s of Biro is in the works as well and Marcel was recently appointed “Ambassador of German Cuisine.” On top of all of this, Marcel’s wife Shannon Kring Biro co-authored “Johnsonville’s Big Book of Sausage” with Shelly Stayer. Shannon has also been working on a book she wrote with her sister entitled “Sister Salty Sister Sweet – A Memoir of Sibling Rivalry.” It makes me tired just thinking about it. When I discovered that Marcel was in his early 30s, I was even more impressed.
In the interview I ask Marcel about a lot of things including his expanding empire, using ingredients from Wisconsin, his role as Ambassador of German Cuisine, and how he felt about Dennis Getto’s scathing review of Biro back in 2003. I would like to thank Marcel for taking some time out of his obviously busy schedule and Heather Blamey at Biró OmniMedia, LLC who coordinated the interview. This was to be published earlier this winter but my busy schedule kind of put it on the back burner.
Since the interview Biro has closed and a new restaurant called Level will open in its place. The restaurant is co-owned by a former Biro employee and I think one of the chefs from Biro is also helping. It does seem strange that they would close their flagship restaurant, which was the focus of their cookbook and PBS series. But I am guessing with all of the irons the Biro’s have in the fire it was a business decision. I am kind of bummed that i never got to experience the cuisine at Biro, which I have been told was quite exceptional. I hope to get to O sometime this summer.
Here is part 1 of the interview with Marcel Biro:
EatWisconsin:It seems like you and Shannon have a lot of things on your plate including a new cookbook, a new series of our TV series, opening new restaurants in LA and Miami, the cooking school, culinary tours, and running the two restaurants in Sheboygan, how do you balance the demands of Biro Internationale with have some semblance of a life outside of work?
Marcel Biro: As in any business, it comes down to having great employees. Aligning yourself with talented people enables you to balance demands without micromanaging, and thus driving yourself crazy. As is this business—the culinary business at this level—there is not much of a chance to have a life outside of work. The lines between business and a personal life get blurred, especially when you happen to be married to your business partner. That being said, I believe in working hard and playing hard, so any time I have after work, I am participating in sports, relaxing, or just spending time with friends and family.
EW: How did you decide to expand in LA and Miami, two Cities that are about as far away from Wisconsin as possible? Do you or Shannon have any ties to those Cities and if not, what drew you to them?
MB:I have worked in nine countries, and most of those restaurants were in metro markets. The Sheboygan, Wisconsin, market allowed me to cut my teeth in the US, and it certainly had challenges beyond what you’d deal with in the most major markets—a largely uneducated client base when it comes to high-end European cuisine, lack of vendors, lack of foot traffic—which made me stronger, more savvy. But now I am ready to return to my roots. We chose LA and Miami because they are hot, up-and-coming restaurant cities, because we have lots of fans for our books and TV show there, and because we love the cities.
EW: Are there any types of cuisine, or ingredients that you would like to work with but just don’t think would be successful in Wisconsin? If so, do you plan on incorporating them into your menus in Miami and LA? In other words, what can residents of LA and Miami expect? Also, when do you plan on opening up in these Cities?
MB:Though I’m always educating myself on new styles and techniques (right now I am studying alongside Asian chefs), I believe in sticking with what you know. I will do much of the same in LA and Miami, fare from the favorite regions in which I have worked: Alsace, Tuscany, Andalusia, and Southern Germany. With our Ó concept, which we will open in these markets, we feature what we call SpanAsian cuisine—a fusion of the elegant simplicity of Asian cuisine with the straightforward rusticity of Spanish fare. I think eventually, any type of cuisine will be successful in Wisconsin. The question is, how much time and patience does a chef want to put into the education process?
EW: Have you given any thoughts to a closer expansion in Milwaukee, Chicago, or Minneapolis?
MB: We are thinking about opening an Ó in the Milwaukee area, and we’ll keep you updated on those plans.
EW: Are there any plans for a second season of “The Kitchens of Biro?”
MB: We are working on the second season as we speak! We were so pleased with the response of our first season—which was actually two seasons, as we cut 26 episodes rather than the usual 13. We won an Emmy award, got a ton of great press in publications including TV Guide, and have made friends across the country. I love working in television, and you can expect to see more of us on PBS and beyond.
EW: On the TV show and in your interview with the Restaurant Guys radio show, you mention Ramps and Morels as seasonal local ingredients you like to cook with. What other local ingredients do you enjoy working with?
MB:I love working with Wisconsin mushrooms, such as puffballs. I also work with local meats, such as bison from the Northwoods.
EW: I believe your next book is based on foods from O’, which is described as Span-Asian cuisine. In looking at some the recipes in “Biro-European Inspired Cuisine” you use some Asian ingredients as well. What draws you to Asian ingredients and cuisine and what inspired you to combine it with Spanish cooking? Also, what can we expect from this next cookbook?
MB: Surprisingly, Asian and Spanish cuisines share many foundations. Both cuisines are about straightforward, minimalistic presentations using ingredients indigenous to the region. The spices are similar, as well. I am drawn to Asian cuisine because it’s a new frontier for me. I began studying sushi in 1998, and there is always more to learn. I said before that it’s important to stick with what you know, but it’s also important to continually add to your knowledge base, and ever expand that which you know. The new cookbook will give insight into these cuisines with which not everyone’s familiar.
EW: Speaking of your first book, which I finally purchased last month, I have been reading through some of the recipes and there seems to be a good balance of easy and complex recipes, which is great. Too often cookbooks are either very difficult (The French Laundry Cookbook) or not challenging at all (30 minute meals). What has been people’s response to this book been like? Have you learned any lessons that may change the way the O’ Cookbook is written?
MB:I’m glad you found the book to have a good balance, since that was our goal with it. The response to the book was fantastic, and we won the 2006 Benjamin Franklin Award for it, which was a great honor. We learned a lot about how to write a cookbook during the process of writing Biró, and every book we’ve written since its release in May 2005—Shannon is on her fifth book already—has gotten increasingly easier to produce. The Biró book is reflective of my trademark cuisine, which balances elegance and simplicity. The Ó book reflects the fare served at that restaurant, and is thus much more streamlined, much easier, but every bit as flavorful.
Part 2 of the interview will be posted soon.