Cooking at Home with Michael Keon
Everything about Michael Keon’s condominium perched atop a brick, stone, and terra-cotta office building in the arts district of Portland sparks conversation.
The elevator doors open directly into the 4,700-square-foot fourth floor suite and you can’t help but notice the toddler swing hanging from the rafters. It’s there to keep a friend’s toddler happy when they visit, he says.
There are two towering antique streetlamps standing in the far corners of the open floor plan. They are painted a faded white like the walls but still stand out, even among the periodic pops of color the furniture offers. Keon tells of how he had the light fixtures shipped in from a favorite construction salvage warehouse in Chicago. And he recalls how he insisted they be used in their full height when he was working with the design and build teams of Caleb Johnson Studio architects and Asa Gorman Builders, respectively, to transform the commercial space into his domicile about three years ago.
There’s also an imposing six-door meat locker that reaches half-way up the sitting area’s wall and serves as a resting place for a larger-than-life-size photograph of Johnny Carson. Keon says he plans to convert the vintage enamel and chrome container into a modern red wine fridge. On the opposite wall sits a bright orange Big Chill retro refrigerator that currently holds mostly beer and white wine. He had bought the refrigerator for a previous kitchen, in a previous home, and it had passed to new owners through the sale of the house. He recently bought it back when he’d heard they were getting rid of it as part of their kitchen remodel.
Standing in front of his 10-burner Blue Star range—which, the story goes, had to be lowered into place by a crane through a hole in the roof—Keon points to the restaurant-style pass-through opening in the subway-tiled wall of his oversized and very-well-kitted-out galley kitchen. From in front of the stove, he nods in the direction of the pass through, explaining that the opening not only lets him see through to the pantry shelves, but also further on through a well-positioned window down to Matthew’s, a favorite Free Street watering hole. The bar happens to back up to 576 Congress St., the inaugural location for Keon’s and business partner Anthony Allen’s ever-growing OTTO Pizza empire.
While Keon still believes there are few ingredients that don’t work well as a pizza topping, as OTTO Pizza has grown to include seven locations in southern Maine and six in eastern Massachusetts and all the employees required to pull that venture off, his time is more consumed with business-related duties than with cooking professionally.
But he still likes to throw killer dinner parties.
The perfect number of guests is seven, Keon says. He himself takes the eighth seat at the long, wooden tabletop fashioned from a single two-inch slice of a large tree, the lighter wood ebonized with a vinegar and steel wool finish and supported by salvaged piano legs.
“Having eight at the dinner party means you have enough people to keep the conversation interesting throughout the night but not too many that you as the host don’t have a good chance of talking to each and every one of your guests.”
Keon describes his cooking style as rustic, simple, devoid of complicated technique or presentation that requires tweezers. The Lowell, Massachusetts, native got his start cooking for others aboard a commercial fishing boat out of Kodiak, Alaska. He was a deckhand on a huge vessel that was targeting Pacific scallops for about 10 years. He got tired of the cook’s uninteresting food. And he was also frustrated by the crew’s practice of pitching more interesting by-catch like king crabs, halibut, and ling cod back into the sea in favor of canned slop brought aboard at the start of their two-week voyages. So, he started cooking the allowable by-catch for dinner.
When Keon returned to Boston, he landed a job at South End institution, The Franklin Café, the spot, with its tiny kitchen that Keon credits as his true culinary training ground. From there he eventually graduated to running his own place, called Keon’s 105 Bistro, in Haverhill, where he met Allen, and the pizza plan was hatched and executed with aplomb here in Portland.
A consummate host who considers his home kitchen an open one, Keon enjoys when friends belly up to the white quartz countertop just to watch him cook as much as he does to have them join him behind the line. While he prefers to do the heavy prep well before the guests arrive, so he has the bandwidth to enjoy his friends, he reserves several small projects—like rolling out pasta or plating soups—for eager sous chefs who want a piece of the culinary action.
The food, like Keon’s personal history and his choices in décor, also warrant conversation. He will typically serve three to four savory dishes, and each tells a story. Take the cod cheeks, for example. He buys them at Harbor Fish Market on Custom House Wharf.
“They are not always in the case, when they are, I buy cod cheeks because they are both unusual but still familiar enough that people will give them a try,” says Keon. He likes to explain that the cheeks taste like cod but have the consistency that remind him of the scallops he used to fish for in Alaska and off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He grills them and serves them with a red pepper romesco sauce spiced with African piri piri chili peppers (see recipe) that were introduced to the rest of the world by Portuguese explorers.
He’ll almost always serves some sort of soup, but certainly one with a story. While traveling in the northeastern Italian Bolzano region, Keon became enamored with canederli, dumplings made with stale bread that has been moistened with milk and bound with eggs and a small amount of flour. The canederli are made beautiful by seasonal, local ingredients ranging from fresh spring herbs to sweet, cellared beets, depending on the season.
“They are peasant food, created from what’s in your fridge before your guests arrive, cooked simply in and served with good homemade broth,” says Keon, who flavors his dumplings with sweet Italian sausage and shredded fontina cheese. He cooks them gently in roasted chicken stock that gets reduced to a sauce before he serves the canederli (see recipe).
“It amazes me how you can produce an entire hearty course, even a meal, out of two ounces of meat,” says Keon. But then again, that’s also the formula for a good pizza.
Keon’s dinner parties, however, always include a full-portioned meat course. One of his favorites is a spin on the chicken and waffles he came to know and love when he traveled to the early SXSW conferences in Austin, Texas (see recipe). He prefers to use chicken leg and thigh quarters because they offer more flavor and moisture than breast meat. While the meat is not deep-fried like tradition calls for, Keon does sear the skin in a bit of butter before flavoring and flaming them with good bourbon (like Hudson Baby Bourbon by Tuthilltown Spirits in upstate New York) and finishing them in the oven. Keon sweetens the sauce with Maine maple syrup and swaps out the waffle for his own cornbread.
Just as he’s done most of the prep work by hand before the guests arrive, he most often does all the clean-up by hand once they’ve left. He has an industrial dishwasher available, should he want it, but it could be reasoned that he takes the manual route to allow time for reflection on the conversations sparked by his décor, his friends, and his food.
1 cup stale bread, chopped in small cubes
1½ cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons each minced leeks and celery
4 ounces sweet Italian sausage (out of casing)
Parsley, to taste, chopped
¼–1 cup flour and/or Panko breadcrumbs
⅓ cup shredded fontina cheese
2 quarts chicken stock
Grated Parmesan, to garnish
Soak bread in milk for at least 1 hour.
Cook the celery and leeks in the butter until slightly brown. Add the sausage and sauté, stirring until the sausage is fully cooked and slightly browned.
Put milk-soaked bread in a large bowl. Add the eggs, sausage mixture, and some chopped parsley and mix well. Start adding flour/Panko to the mix until you have a texture that’s sticky but firm. It needs to hold the shape of a ball. Add Fontina cheese.
Dust hands with flour, scoop up mix and roll into small balls (about 1 rounded tablespoon each).
Drop balls into boiling chicken stock and cook for 10 minutes. Remove balls from stock and reduce liquid by half.
Place 3 balls in each bowl and cover with reduced chicken stock. Sprinkle with Parmesan and chopped parsley and serve.
1 large red bell pepper
1 pint grape tomatoes
1 clove garlic
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
¼ cup roasted almonds, chopped
¼ cup roasted hazelnuts, chopped
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon sweet, smoked paprika
Dash cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper, to taste
Char the red bell pepper over a flame until it’s blackened all around. Place it in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside to cool for 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 350°. Put tomatoes and garlic in a pan with 2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper; toss, and place in oven for an hour (occasionally toss the tomatoes).
Once red pepper has cooled, remove plastic wrap and peel off the charred skin.
Put bell pepper, tomatoes and garlic, and their oil in a food processor with nuts, sherry vinegar, sweet, smoked paprika, cayenne, and lemon juice.
Start up the processor and slowly pour in remaining oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
Roasted Chicken Legs with Bourbon-Maple Glaze
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 chicken legs with thigh bone removed (air dried in fridge with salt and pepper)
½ cup bourbon
½ cup maple syrup
2 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley and thyme
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat oven to 350°.
In a skillet, melt butter and oil and place chicken legs skin side down. Sear the chicken legs; flip once and sear the other side. Holding the legs in the pan with tongs, pour off excess fat into a dish before putting pan back over the flame. Pour bourbon over the chicken, then return pan to the flame; tilt the pan to ignite the whiskey.
Once flame subsides, add maple syrup and chicken stock to the pan, bring to a boil, and throw the whole pan into the preheated oven for 35 minutes. Remove pan from the oven, transfer the chicken to a heatproof platter and return to the oven to stay warm.
Place pan with cooking liquid on a high flame, bring to boil and reduce to a thick syrup. Take the syrup off the heat and swirl in a tablespoon of butter. Divide chicken among four plates and drizzle sauce on top. Garnish with chopped parsley and thyme.
Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.