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Guest Chef Michael Cruz

Image of Chef Michael Cruz
Radicchio, Frisée, Escarole and Spinach tossed with a maple syrup vinaigrette provides the bed for the roasted butternut squash sprinkled with toasted walnuts, port-soaked currants and topped with warm goat cheese! Yes, it does taste as good as it sounds. Combining specialty salad greens with one of the most savory squash varieties of the fall season demonstrates both the chef’s inventiveness as well as the versatility of this wonderfully flavorful hard squash, beyond its usual typecast role as a supporting character in soups and casseroles. The dish’s ingredients treat the palette to creamy, sweet, tart and nutty in every bite.

The Home Depot Center is a 125-acre development in Carson, CA featuring state-of-the-art stadiums and facilities for soccer, tennis, track & field, cycling, lacrosse, rugby, volleyball, baseball, softball, basketball and other sports. It draws fans from all over Southern California. The American Express Stadium Club is a fine dining restaurant with a spectacular view of the 27,000 seat soccer stadium. During events, the Stadium Club is open to Luxury Suite and Club Seat season ticket holders only. As The Center’s Executive Chef, Michael manages the culinary needs of this entire complex from the member’s-only restaurant, to the concession fare at field level.

"The culinary challenge here, as opposed to a private restaurant, is that we serve season ticket holders and other regular fans who visit the Center’s eateries several times during a sporting season, so I must offer new menu choices with every event. That variety is defined to a large extent by the varying fresh ingredients that are available, or not, throughout the year. A normal restaurant might change its menu four or five times in a year, while we will introduce new dishes maybe forty or fifty times within the same time frame."

Chef Michael used the word “challenge” in explaining his culinary responsibilities at the Home Depot Center, but he also readily admits that he has been having way too much fun for the last ten years, ever since he broke from a successful career managing a recycling company to follow his lifelong aspiration and enrolled in culinary school. His wife, Suzanne, supported this career change (literally) which Michael recalls as being the most frightening and satisfying decision that he has ever had to make. Today he manages the kitchens of the Home Depot Center as well as travels the country to support special events for Levy Restaurants, a restaurant franchise company based in Chicago specializing in providing premium quality vending and food services to major entertainment and sports venues. Michael has been the chef behind the scenes at such events as the World Series, the Kentucky Derby and The Grammy Awards to name just a few.

“I have dreamed of being a professional chef since I was a kid in my mom’s kitchen. In fact, my mother’s cooking was and continues to be my inspiration for a lot of my recipes. Her approach to traditional Mexican cuisine is celebrated in many of my menu offerings.”

Be it a backstage buffet at the Emmys or a soccer game at the Home Depot Center, Melissa’s Food Service staff can always count on Chef Michael to come up with interesting culinary ideas that challenge us as his fresh ingredient supplier. There is no doubt that Michael made the right choice following his culinary muse when he swapped his corporate tie for a set of chef whites.

Butternut Squash Salad with Maple Sherry Vinaigrette
Image of Butternut Squash Salad with Maple Sherry Vinaigrette
1/2 cup dried red currants
1/2 cup port wine
1 butternut squash (about 2 lb.)
1 small red onion, sliced thin
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. maple syrup
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 oz. log fresh goat cheese
2 medium heads escarole, cut into ½ inch slices
1 small head frisée, cored and chopped into small pieces
½ small head radicchio, cored and rough chopped
3 cups loosely packed baby spinach leaves, stemmed
1/3 cup chopped toasted walnuts
4 slices cooked bacon, crumbled

For the Vinaigrette:
1/3 cup sherry vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon-style mustard
2 Tbsp. maple syrup
1 Tbsp. finely chopped shallots
1 cup peanut oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cover the currants with the port and let sit overnight. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut off the bulb end of the squash; reserve for another use. Peel the cylinder end and dice into ½ to ¾ inch pieces. In a bowl, combine the squash, red onion, olive oil, and maple syrup. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine thoroughly. Spread the squash and onions on an oiled sheet pan and roast, stirring occasionally, until the squash is just cooked through and the squash and onions are browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Slice the goat cheese into 6 rounds and arrange on a baking sheet. Broil until just soft, 2 to 3 minutes.

Combine the salad greens in a non-reactive mixing bowl; toss with ½ cup of the vinaigrette (see recipe below). Arrange the greens on six plates. Top each plate of greens with the still-warm squash and onions. Drain the raisins and sprinkle them, the toasted walnuts, and the bacon around the plate. Crown each serving with a round of warmed goat cheese. Drizzle a few teaspoons of the remaining vinaigrette around each plate and serve.

Combine the vinegar, mustard, maple syrup, and shallots in a bowl and slowly whisk in the oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
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