Friday, 11 December 2015 14:19

Meet the Chefs: Tastemakers from San Chez, Winchester and Electric Cheetah

Written by  Nicolette Chambery
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You may know your resident servers and bartenders, but do you know who’s masterminding your favorite dishes? Revue chatted with a few local chefs about how they got started in the kitchen and what’s new on each of their menus.


Aaron Stek: San Chez

38 Fulton St. W, Grand Rapids,, (616) 774-8272


Aaron Stek, 40, head chef at San Chez in Grand Rapids, chatted with Revue about his modest beginnings at a book store café, family life, and how he keeps things fresh in his kitchen. Here’s what he had to say.

How would you describe the San Chez menu to a newbie?

It’s a Spanish-influenced small-plate menu based on the concept of Tappas, which is the Spanish dinging experience. It involves going out and eating a number of small, unique dishes rather than bouncing around town trying a variety of things from different sources. We try to wrap it all up into one package here. It’s kind of like going to dinner at Grandma’s house: You have a whole variety of plates on the table and you just pass and share. That’s the way it works best.

What are you up to when you’re not at San Chez?

We have three sons at home, they keep me very busy. We have a half dozen chickens, Cub Scouts — that’s a lot of fun. We cook for family and friends. We also like to play in the kitchen, just experiment and show our boys how to cook and get them excited about cooking, as well.

When did you first decide to become a chef?

My first real taste was at Schuler Books & Music and Café on 28th Street when they first opened that place up. That was around 1995 or so. That’s where the interest was sparked and the whole notion of going to school for the culinary arts was put into my brain. I went to Grand Rapids Community College, their culinary program. The staff I was working with at Schuler inspired me to go. Today, there are a lot more people interested in this career compared to when I first started. When I went to school we certainly had full classes and all of that, but now you have to plan a year or two in advance if you want to go there.

You’re the head chef at San Chez, when did you start the job?

I started at San Chez in the late summer of ’96 and stayed there until 2004. Then I left and came back in February of this year.

Since your return, how much control do you have over the menu?

I have a fair bit of creative control over the menu. There are definitely core items that I wouldn’t consider changing and others you just can’t change — they’ve been on the menu since we opened. They are things people expect.

What’s the most popular item?

The Blue Cheese Fritters are a main core item. In the years I’ve been here we’ve played with them or attempted to take them off the menu and there’s been absolute outrage. It’s a hot ticket item. During the three weeks of ArtPrize we sold close to 3,000 Blue Cheese Fritters. There are probably 20 items on the menu that are just engrained. You can’t go anywhere with them because they’re part of who we are.

Can you recommend a vegetarian dish?

My favorite one is the Champinones. It is wild mushrooms I’m sourcing from Scottville, Mich. They are just to die for. They are big and juicy with a little salt and butter. Then we serve it up with a Cherry Reduction, which pulls out the flavors, it’s almost like a meat dish in mushroom form.

How focused are you on using local ingredients?

I get as much local product as we can feasibly get. We like to purchase through local venders, we like to purchase local products. We work with Farm Link a lot to bring things in. Right now we’re bringing in over 100 pounds of butternut squash each week from Heidi’s Farmstand out in Cascade. We get locally sourced maple syrup and, really, whatever I can get my hands on. —Interview by Rich Tupica


Brian Oosterheert: The Electric Cheetah

1015 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids,, (616) 451-4779


For those traveling down Wealthy Street, you’ve no doubt passed by The Electric Cheetah and noticed a small pool of people outside anxiously awaiting their turn for a table.

That hungry, eager crowd is there thanks in part to Executive Chef Brian Oosterheert. He’s worked at Electric Cheetah on and off for six years. Oosterheert, 29, originally set out to become a teacher, but began working in fine dining in California after he changed his mind and eventually went to culinary school.

“What’s different in California than Grand Rapids is the strange combinations of food people are willing to try that isn’t embraced as much in the Midwest,” Oosterheert said. “Because of this, there aren’t as many culinary trends as much as what people want to eat.”

As a result, menu items won’t necessarily change drastically each year apart from the changes you’ll find from seasonal produce and the different pairings of pre-approved items.

Nonetheless, like many other passionate local chefs, Oosterheert insists on evolving and creating new menu items – not only for customers, but to maintain his own sanity and to preserve the creativeness of his chefs. “You can just see when people go to cook and there’s not that passion behind it,” he said. “It’s nice for us to try new things. If you don’t go out to eat very often you can come in and try something new on the menu.”

As for the day-to-day, Oosterheert’s 70-hour work week begins most days at 7 a.m. with a pot of coffee and ends whenever the work is done. Is it worth it? “I love it,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything else.”


New/Revised Menu Items:

Porkergeist: Toasted ciabatta, pimiento cheese, smoked pork, bacon, charred poblano and haystack onions.

Thanksgiving City: Char grilled bacon wrapped turkey and stuffing, meatloaf over garlic whipped potatoes, rosemary gravy, cranberry chutney, arugula and haystacks.

The Lee Majors: Roasted butternut squash, dried cranberries, fresh apple, quinoa, arugula, shaved parmesan, cider vinaigrette with a maple drizzle.


Shane Behning: San Chez

38 Fulton St. W, Grand Rapids,, (616) 774-8272


Shane Behning is a poster child for the old “hard work pays off” adage. He started at San Chez more than a decade ago as a dishwasher and gradually worked his way up to sous chef. It was a chance gig that turned into a fervent career at the popular tapas bistro.

“It just clicked for me. I didn’t plan on it at all,” Behning said. “A friend of mine got me the job. Eventually I started working in the kitchen a bit and found I really enjoyed it.”

Having practiced veganism for a time, Behning’s base knowledge of how to wield vegetables into delectable meals came in handy in those formative years in the kitchen.

“I went through different stages when I was vegan, which made me pay more attention to food and helped prepare me for this role,” Behning said.

These days, when it comes to finding inspiration for his recipes, Behning, 31, said it’s a never ending search for original flavors. “I tend to look around the kitchen and start playing around with what I find,” he said.“I’ll do some research, too – to see if a form of it has been done before and if I can find a way to put a different twist on it. I look to see what we can have fun with and still keep with the theme of the restaurant.”

Behning has noticed restaurants around the city that are increasingly embracing the chance to partner with local food sources – keeping the menu at San Chez, and other local hot spots, as fresh as possible.

“A lot of the restaurants are really trying to utilize the local businesses and it’s great how that’s blown up,” he said. “Hopefully we make more and more steps toward that and only use what’s in season. The city is making a lot of good steps toward that.”


New/Revised Menu Items:

Butternut Squash: Winter squash, brown butter and roasted pecans.

Trout: Scored rainbow trout stuffed with lingua sausage.

Almond Milk Brined Lamb Ribs: Sautéed rosemary polenta cake with an apple-raison red wine reduction.

Spanish Eggrolls: Shredded chicken, cabbage, chilies, cumin spices and brown sugar.


Ryan Martin: The Winchester 

648 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids,, (616) 451-4969


A native of Michigan originally from Traverse City, Ryan Martin made his way down to Grand Rapids eight years ago. He joined the team at Winchester in 2010 filling various positions in the kitchen until he was offered the role of sous chef. He eventually became head chef.

Growing up, he remembers sitting on a stool next to his mom in the kitchen watching her cook, which bore his creative passion for food.

As the lead chef at Winchester, Martin strives to create menu items that complement the warm atmosphere of the restaurant—the earth tones, the exposed brick and industrial feel of the building itself. Guests can expect menu options that are savory, simple and seasonal. “(It’s about) creating with what you can get within arm’s reach, utilizing local farms, which is a huge trend in the Midwest right now,” Martin said.

“[Customers] are going to be stoked about it,” Martin said about the grassroots movement. “Michigan is huge with their agriculture. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?”


New/Revised Menu Items:

Pierogis: Bacon braised cabbage, brown butter, pig cheeks, potatoes and a horseradish cream.

Crab Toasts: Traditional crab cake mix to spread on focaccia with mustard aioli.

Chicken Wings: Barbeque-spiced dressing, smoked gouda and honey.

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