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Chef's Corner: J. Grant Werner

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Chef's Corner: J. Grant Werner

Our regular profile of one of the outstanding chefs in the Fox Valley - including recipe!

Colonial Café, with seven family restaurants across the Fox Valley, has been “Scoopin’ Fun Since 1901,” yet never had a corporate chef until early 2007 when J. Grant Werner was hired to do for Colonial what he had managed so successfully for nine years with Darden Corporation – developing menus, rolling them out to restaurants in the group and continually elevating their taste profile.

(Darden brands include some of the most recognizable and successful brands in full-service dining, including Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze, Capital Grille and others.)

“The proof of his talent and Colonial Café’s success is in maintaining local favorites and introducing new chef-inspired seasonal features that have kept us competitive in a down cycle across the industry,” says Clinton Anderson, fourth-generation director of operations for the family-owned Colonial Cafes, headquartered in St. Charles.

While working on his degree in marketing at Illinois State University, Werner worked as beverage manager for a Bloomington Red Lobster unit. After college it was off to the Culinary Institute of Orlando and then positions with Bahama Breese in Orlando and as a corporate trainer for Darden.

"Grandpa cooked, Mom cooked, my uncles cooked, I cooked....the whole family."

It was family and the family manufacturing business that enticed Werner back to the Fox Valley. “Ultimately, I learned that the sales, marketing and desk job demands of the business just weren’t for me,” Werner said.

“However, the warm feeling and great memories of 20 members of our extended family gathered for Sunday meals at my grandparents’ home instilled in me how important family food is,” he said. “Grandpa cooked, Mom cooked, my uncles cooked, I cooked…the whole family cooked.”

“I was all set to strike out on my own again, head to the Culinary Institute of Florence (Italy), and pursue a career in fine food when the Colonial Café opportunity became available…being able to work locally with a family-owned group and helping them to grow was very appealing,” Werner said.

Werner has focused efforts under Anderson management to build on Colonial Café’s reputation for diversified offerings with the emphasis on fresh foods. “Local produce, breads, and premium meats,” Werner emphasizes, noting that, for example, when a guest orders pot roast, it’s not something pre-packaged out of the freezer. Rather, it’s from roasts prepared daily in Colonial’s own kitchens. Same thing with the meatloaf. And the signature Morning Glory muffins.

This doesn’t mean that Werner doesn’t devote time to seeking the best of menu helpers, such as augmenting a prepared mix to produce a Colonial seasonal favorite – pumpkin pancakes, the feature recipe accompanying this column.

Whether it is developing new tastes in Colonial’s test kitchen at its St. Charles-East Café or playing to a hip crowd at its latest urban contemporary St. Charles-West café, Werner personally instructs and supervised the rollout of all new items to each of the seven units in the group, working to provide a consistent experience for guests at all Colonial Cafes.

Going into the fall/winter season, Werner suggests that guests look for fun and tasty new breakfast items, such as French Toast Tiramisu, an emphasis on new appetizers, including bruschetta bread and spinach-artichoke dip, plus fresh fruit smoothies and a new homemade soup program.

While not at one of the Colonial Cafes, Werner may be found playing defense for the Armored Saints, perennial champs of the ice hockey league in West Dundee, or spending time with Janele and their one-year-old son Tyler.

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Chef2.jpgPumpkin Pecan Pancakes with Cinnamon Butter
Yield - 16 Cakes Serving Size - 2 Cakes

Ingredients - Pancakes:
2 Cups Aunt Jemima Complete Pancake Mix
1 Cup Cold Water
1 Cup Pumpkin Pie Mix (Canned)
1/2 Cup Chopped Pecans

Ingredients - Cinnamon Butter:
1 Cup Whipped Butter (Room Temp)
1 Tsp. Cinnamon
2 Tbsp. Sugar

(Cakes) Combine pancake mix, water and pumpkin pie mix into mixing bowl. Stir with wire whisk until smooth. For each cake pour 1/4 cup of batter onto a hot lightly greased griddle, add desired amount of pecans to cake. Turn when pancakes begin to bubble and bottom is golden brown. Cook an additional 1.5 minutes.

(Cinnamon Butter) Combine butter, cinnamon and sugar into mixing bowl. Stir with fork until smooth, no lumps.

Serve pancakes with cinnamon butter and warm maple syrup.

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