Chef Ezequiel "Zee", of Artistic Cuisine and Gourmet Pizzas, a restaurant and full-service catering business in Palatine, is driven by his passion for food and his desire to "mix it up, make dishes different."
Born and raised in the seductive port city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Otero embodies the city's multinational beat. Italian on his mother's side of the family and Argentinean/Spanish on his father's side, Otero unites his cultural heritage in his cooking. "I love the freshness of Latin flavor, but my heart is with Mediterranean food. I try to put a Latin twist on French, Spanish and Italian dishes," says Otero who attended Escuela Superior de Hoteleria y Gastronomia culinary school in Buenos Aires and worked at Hotel Llao Llao, a spectacular resort in Rio Negro, before bringing his "artistic" flair to this country.
What is your earliest food memory? Asada on Sundays with the family. Carne asada is like a barbecue. We had traditional gatherings of the whole family including cousins and we ate marinated, grilled meat and homemade raviolis.
What brought you to the Chicagoland area? My mom was born here; my grandfather worked for Morton Salt, traveled a lot and was transferred to Argentina. When I wanted to add a baking and pastry certification to my culinary degree, a couple of chefs I worked with told me that Kendall College in Evanston had a good program. It was a great school; I graduated in 2003.
What culinary work did you do after graduation? I partnered my catering business with a staffing company and performed chef services for special events. We catered an event for the governor and, in 2005, I donated services at a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina victims attended by Drew Barrymore and Jeremy Piven.
In 2007, you won two awards for your pizza in Palatine: Best Thin Crust and Best Specialty Pizza. What is the secret to a good pizza?
There are no secrets. I use a high-quality flour from Italy, water, olive
oil and yeast to make the crust. The key is to let the dough rest so the gluten will relax; this makes a nice crust. For the sauce, I use fresh tomatoes, olive oil and garlic. You need a high heat oven to get a crispy crust.
What do you most like to do in the kitchen? I really enjoy grilling and I love to bake bread like focaccia and ciabatta and make stuffed pasta like four-cheese ravioli. It's relaxing for me to make doughs and fillings.
Do you have a favorite ingredient? Tomatoes, they are so versatile. You can eat them cold, grill them or make gazpacho. You can do just about anything with them.
Do you have any cool culinary tools that you enjoy using? I have a smoking gun from Spain. You put hickory wood inside, light it and it makes smoke that can be used to flavor meat or salmon. On Valentine's Day, I served smoked mozzarella. I put the cheese on a plate and covered it with a smoke-filled vessel. It makes a nice presentation and adds flavor. I also like to use a French cutter that turns a vegetable piece, like cucumber, into small cups that can be used for serving.
What do you get the most requests for? Four-cheese raviolis and the empanadas are getting very popular. The pizzas are also doing well. Grilled Skirt Steak with Chimichurri Sauce, Grilled Tomatoes and Citrus Salad Grilled Skirt Steak with Chimichurri Sauce, Grilled Tomatoes and Citrus Salad
Do you have a favorite cooking memory? I really enjoyed working in the south of Argentina at a very fancy hotel. The area was famous for fly fishing. On Sundays, we had a big grilling. The guests would bring us their catch and we would cook it for them. We cooked everything, even 8-ounce trout, and we couldn't say anything. The kitchen staff found some of the catch very funny. Sometimes when the fish was cooked it looked like smelt.
What culinary tip do you have for home cooks? Don't be afraid to cook anything. You only need to follow a recipe in baking, that's a must. Pick ingredients that you like and think about how you can use them to put the dish together. Use fresh, seasonal ingredients if possible.
What do you like to do when you're not cooking? I like to play tennis, fish and read cookbooks. Actually, I read all kinds of books.
What do you enjoy most about being a chef? I can be so creative; that's how I came up with the name Artistic Cuisine. It's amazing what you can do with a pound of sugar, chocolate or a tomato. There's nothing more satisfying that a customer saying, "Wow, that was excellent!"
Tell us about this recipe? Grilled Skirt Steak with Chimichurri Sauce, Grilled Tomatoes and Citrus Salad. The secret to good grilling is to use high heat to get good caramelization on the outside of the meat. If you are grilling a porterhouse steak, you should start with high heat, and when the meat is golden brown, move it to the side of the grill and cook slowly until it reaches the desired temperature. It's always good to use a meat thermometer. I recommend 145 to 155 degrees for medium rare. Enjoy this at home or at Artistic Cuisine and Pizzas, 16 S. Bothwell St., Palatine, (847) 934-0400.
Grilled skirt steak
2 pounds skirt steak
2 large tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil
Cracked black pepper
Fresh thyme for garnish
1 cup olive oil
15 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 cup fresh parsley, minced (flat leaf is best)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon grapefruit peel, grated
1 grapefruit, peeled and pith removed
1 teaspoon orange peel, grated
1 orange, peeled and pith removed
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
½ cup honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Seasonal mixed greens
Prepare the chimichurri sauce by combining all ingredients in a bowl. The sauce may be used right away or stored in the refrigerator for up to one week.
To make the vinaigrette, place all ingredients in a food processor except the olive oil and a few sections of the grapefruit and orange, purÃ©e. Slowly add the olive oil and blend until the mixture is emulsified, season with salt and pepper. Garnish mixed greens with remaining sections of grapefruit and orange.
Set grill on high. Drizzle skirt steaks with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cook meat on high until caramelized on both sides and then lower heat and cook to desired temperature.
Cut tomatoes into four slices each, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill tomatoes for two minutes per side. Garnish with fresh thyme.
Serve steak with chimichurri sauce, grilled tomatoes and citrus salad.
Chef Ezequiel "Zee" Otero, Artistic Cuisine, Palatine
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