Mark McKee started his search for all things gourmet at an early age.
“I grew up on a ranch in the middle of no-where Texas,” he says.
His mother was not an adventurous cook, so young McKee took matters into his own hands and began adding spices to his mother’s dishes when she was busy elsewhere. Some of the results were a little questionable, but others were spectacular.
McKee also wanted to try grilling and flipped an old bicycle basket over a pile of wood. He started the fire, threw on a steak and had a flame-broiled masterpiece.
“It worked OK for large cuts of meat,” McKee recalls.
McKee continued to experiment until serving in the Marines. After his discharge, he attended college and discovered that his cooking abilities did more than provide him with a good meal.
“Cooking is very impressive to the young ladies,” says McKee with a sly grin. “It is a great skill for a young man to have.”
After he found Daphne, his perfect mate, McKee continued to enjoy cooking for the sheer joy of creating a fine dish.
“Cooking is like art to me,” the Naperville resident says. “I find it very relaxing.”
After a busy week as a Naperville child psychologist, McKee enjoys escaping into the kitchen to concentrate on simmering, roasting and savoring his original dishes.
McKee likes to tackle new styles of cuisine by purchasing a cookbook and then following the recipes until he masters the techniques and flavor palates.
“Learning new techniques is not hard,” he says. “If you can read and follow the steps, you can really make anything in the world.”
Last year his challenge was pasta and pizza. Other years he has taken on French, Mexican and Thai cuisines.
“I am very good at Mexican food,” McKee says.
He was fortunate enough to eat at Mesa Grill when it opened in Las Vegas. The chef and owner, Bobby Flay, came to his table and signed McKee’s copy of Flay’s first cookbook. The experience inspired McKee to master the Southwestern style of cooking.
Although he begins by following other’s recipes, McKee then makes dishes that are his own.
After working with cippollini onions, McKee created a cippollini appetizer. He first browned the onions in butter and then gently braised them for two hours in veal stock with a dash of balsamic vinegar and some pomegranate molasses. He then toasted slices of rustic bread to use as the base. He spread a smoked onion jam on the crispy bread, added a thin slice of pate and then gently topped it all with the tender cippollini onion. This was just the beginning of a meal he was making for friends recently.
One of the challenges of gourmet cooking is finding the best ingredients.
McKee relies on the Internet to help him secure many ingredients. He orders prawns, crab legs and lobster tails from a port outside of Anchorage, Alaska.
“I got 24-ounce lobster tails from there for our Christmas Eve dinner,” he recalls.
He orders hard-to-find Thai spices from a store in Oregon, and gets fresh duck and foie gras from New York.
“I have found that the best shrimp comes from a place in Louisiana where they catch it at night, put it on ice, and it is at your door the next afternoon.”
Locally, he enjoys shopping at Whole Foods in Naperville and Standard Market in Westmont.
McKee always tries to make meals that include ingredients new to his guests.
“It is a challenge for me. Sometimes I spend a whole week planning a dinner,” he says.
His next challenge for mastery is sushi and other Asian foods.
McKee shares two recipes. As a Texas native, he offers his all-purpose barbecue sauce inspired by his “favorite barbecue joint in Texas.” Then for a challenge, he offers his recipe for poblano peppers stuffed with smoked sweet potatoes, goat cheese and cilantro served in a yellow pepper sauce.