Revolver Restaurant is single-handedly responsible for my food obsession. Sure, I read all those food conscious books, such as Fast Food Nation; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Food Matters and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, all of which got me interested in rethinking food.
But I didn’t feel passionate about grass-fed beef until I tasted a dry-aged grass-fed strip steak for the first time—at Revolver. I wouldn’t have ever imagined I would crave sweetbreads until I had the perfectly juicy ones on Revolver’s menu one fateful New Year’s Eve. I would have never guessed that I would be inspired to cook with local vegetables, like kale, beets, and brussel sprouts, if not for the countless dishes I have devoured in the warmly lit dining room of Revolver Restaurant in Findlay, Ohio.
The chef behind the restaurant: Michael Bulkowski.
As I make my New Year resolutions to bake my own bread, to start canning my own soups, and to use rutabagas, I want to pay homage to the person who helped develop my palate and my appreciation for local foods—Chef Michael Bulkowski. His passion for food translates as excellence in the kitchen, and his cooking is a cornerstone in my progression as a food enthusiast. I have eaten in several fine dining establishments in several “big” cities, and afterwards I always wish that instead I would have been eating Chef Bulkowski’s food. He uses fresh, local ingredients to create meaningful, innovative dishes. I know many chefs share this vision, but I have yet to meet one that can compare with Bulkowski’s talent.
This month’s From Palate to Plate happily features an interview with Chef Michael Bulkowski and reviews of Revolver and his newest venture, The Big Jerk. Check out how one down-to-earth Ohio guy who is bridging the gap between fine dining and fast food.
When Chef Michael Bulkowski (pictured with his wife and fellow co-owner Debi) of Revolver Restaurant and The Big Jerk in Findlay, Ohio, pulls one of the sleek orange dining room chairs to our two top, he seems as he always does—totally chill. He’s one of those guys who are so cool he doesn’t know he’s cool. And if you told him he was cool, he’d probably laugh and shake his head, humbly. But, as he folds his hands underneath his black apron with white pinstripes, the first thing Michael says is “I’m pissed. A party of 10 didn’t show tonight and didn’t think to cancel. Dude, some people are rude.” He shakes his head again. When I volunteer to interview him at another time, he smirks and shakes his head: “No way. I’m glad you guys are here.” My husband Dan starts shooting the breeze about music with Michael, who fidgets with his cell phone, as I gather my notes and questions, and I can tell by the way he’s leaning forward and nodding that Dan’s thinking the same thing I am—“How cool.”
Chef Michael Bulkowski interview with Amanda McGuire
When did you become chef? Actually I mean a cook? When did you start cooking?
I was just out of high school, not digging college, and the only job I could get was in the restaurant business because it’s the only industry in the world that needs people all the time. And I just fell into it and saved enough money to get to the next show, the next concert. But the next thing I know I got serious about cooking, so I packed up the car and headed to Las Vegas. It’s something I needed to do to grow-up and stop floating around. But I hated Vegas, so I moved to Vermont, then Chicago, and that’s when I really got serious.
It is hard to be serious about this business when you’re working with people who aren’t. You start thinking, “No one else cares so why should I care?” You need to be around people who care so you get something out of it or else you’re just some guy running the microwave station at Applebee’s.
Do you see yourself as a mentor to the young chefs and line cooks that work in your restaurants?
This is the way I was taught, and this is what I believe in: it’s not my job to teach people how to cook. It’s my job to teach them how to do my food. It’s their job to extract the knowledge and the information and the things that they want to learn. Obviously, we’re all more than willing to share everything in the kitchen with each other. But my job is to make sure people cook the food in my restaurant the way I want it served. The whole idea of the chef/mentor/apprentice thing—I’ve never really seen a place where that exists.
They talk about it a lot on TV, so I’ve been wondering…
No, they do. Don’t get me wrong. I worked for Shawn McClain for eight years and he was definitely my mentor. But he didn’t come to me and give me advice and tell me what to do. I made out of it what I wanted out of it. As a chef, and as I saw with Shawn, you don’t have time to stop and individually take on everyone in that kitchen and help them, so it’s the line cook’s job to get the knowledge from the chef. In my eight years under him, I probably learned just as much from the other cooks in the kitchen as I did from him. We learn from each other. People come in from other restaurants and show you something new. That’s how it works; that’s how people get better. You work in a good kitchen where the cooks have all worked in other good kitchens, and suddenly everyone’s on the same level. I think it’s different here because most of the cooks haven’t worked in those kinds of kitchens. There’s definitely a greater knowledge gap. And some want to close that gap, and others want a paycheck. I’m fine either way. Just as long as they do what I want them to do. That’s how it should be. You make your own destiny.
Speaking of Vegas and Chicago what do you think is the difference between diners there and the diners here in northwestern Ohio who have a whole different mindset and values set regarding eating, especially at restaurants? It seems people in “big” cities are willing to spend more money on fine dining, so I’m wondering what your experience has been like here in Findlay?
It’s like being on an island, my own Findlay Island. But at least we let people into that island. I want any diner to feel welcomed in my restaurants.
When Dan and I tell people we ate at Revolver most ask how we can afford it. But we don’t eat fast food—ever. We don’t buy Starbucks every morning. We cook at home a lot, even when we don’t feel like cooking. That’s what I tell most people, but how would you respond?
They could eat 4 meals at Cheddar’s [a local chain restaurant that’s similar to but cheaper than Applebee’s] for what you just spent on dinner at Revolver.
True, it’s cheaper but the cost is higher if you consider poor labor conditions, the use of factory farm meat, the negative health effects from eating low quality food. The list goes on. So wouldn’t people rather eat at places like Revolver?
I don’t know…I’d love to figure it out, but I don’t know.
Maybe the answer would frustrate us.
I had this great idea this summer to hold a Food, Farm, and Film Festival where I’d get some cool chefs to cook some good food and have a farmers’ market downtown on Main Street. And at night we’d show some of the edgier documentaries like King Corn and other films most folks probably won’t watch on their own. But with the economic crash, funding was gone. They did have a film festival here, but I have no clue who put it on. Probably not farmers.
You know, that’s what we are, though—we’re farmers here. I grew up on a farm; my grandfather was a farmer. It absolutely influenced the food I cook.
The more I get involved in the local food movement the more I want to support businesses that use local foods. What percent of the menu at Revolver comes from local foods?
At our peak in August and September, we could probably push upwards to 80-90%. There’s always things that we’re not going to get locally— sometimes out of habit but mainly out of cost—like bulk onion, carrots, or celery. Depending on the season, we determine what are the most important local items to feature, and the local proteins we use year round.
Seasonal food influences the menu at Revolver, but music does too. You named the joint after a turntable for crying out loud. What connection do you see between food and music?
Music sets the mood for the diners, right? On New Year’s Eve, I never start the tunes until the first course goes out. Then everything starts at once. Same as with food, there’s always certain music for certain seasons. I like Tom Waits in the Fall/Early Winter when the street lights start to flicker on early and people brace themselves against the wind. Winter is definitely Radiohead. Spring is Jam Bands. In Summer anything goes. Music is definitely what inspires me. My dream is to plan a meal where each course is presented song by song, like a mix tape. That’s not impossible, right?
No. That would be my dream come true. What do your average customers think of the music choices?
Only a couple of people ever say anything about the music. Maybe just you two. I even put the featured musician on the menu. I guess you just have to be a music lover.
Well, what kind of customer feedback have you gotten about the food at Revolver?
You would probably know better than me. I don’t hear anything unless something’s undercooked or under seasoned. And that’s fine with me. I don’t want feedback. When we first opened I wanted to know what everyone thought. I was asking customers all the time, but too much feedback clouds my vision, so I try to avoid it. Maybe I sound like an asshole, but that’s the truth.
Then what do you think of food critics?
Most critics think food is about fashion, not flavor. It’s not cool when critics don’t see a chef’s vision or when they only critique the vision, not the taste of the food. Good critics focus on the food. I’m not really all that into critics, but I know they’re necessary. They keep restaurants in business.
Where did the concept for The Big Jerk, your newest venture, come from? By the way, the name cracks me up.
Debi named it. I’m still not sure I like the name yet. But I’ve had the idea for a long time, even before I opened Revolver. The Big Jerk is actually based on the Subway model—no hood or grill. I wanted to keep it simple but pump out high quality food. I’m using some of the local foods I use at Revolver like the pork. But to keep the costs down at The Big Jerk, I’m buying most of the foods in bulk.
Is the menu inspired by the local college and bar scene? What crowd are you hoping to draw with this fast food/late-night establishment?
The menu has a Caribbean Asian vibe. I like jerk. So I make jerk—with other things I like. I’m hoping to catch the late night drunks and stoners, but also people coming home from second shift. And people who want good fast food. It would be awesome to steal Taco Bell’s crowd when the bars close, though.
I was thinking about the differences between Revolver and the Big Jerk, and I thought of them as Revolver being older, wiser, sophisticated sibling, and The Big Jerk as the punky younger sibling.
Or better yet, Revolver is the Beatles. The Big Jerk is the Dead Kennedys.
You better be playing The Dead Kennedys over there.
Oh, I am. And anything else I feel like. But definitely the harder stuff.
What advice do you have for home cooks?
Read. Buy books. When I did a cooking class, I did a while section on what books to buy. There are definitely some books that are really going to help people and there are others that will just make it worse. Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page really help people pair flavors. Simple things like that really help. All you’re really doing when you’re cooking is taking different flavors and applying different techniques. So once you get down your flavor combinations and your techniques you can do a bazillion things. Flavor combinations are half the puzzle. Old books like Julia Childs’ are still good stuff. Taking classes is always a good thing too. Just elementary level classes. Learn how to braise. Any cook that’s worth anything knows how to braise. That’s a key thing that most home cooks don’t do and it’s so easy.
Dude, you get to cook great food, work with great people and listen to great music. You have to love your job.
I’m doing what I love to do, but I never asked for the additional burden or financial stress that comes with opening restaurants. I knew I was taking it on, but it didn’t register until it was too late. I’m doing what I love but it’s hard to enjoy sometimes. Does that make sense? Sometimes I think I should have taken a job at the country club; I would have more time with my family and I could embrace that part of my life more. Hindsight is 20/20; you really shouldn’t go there if you don’t have to. All will work out. But I couldn’t do anything else. I can remember sitting there when we moved home and I hadn’t worked for a year. I told Debi I can’t fucking take this, and she said go get a job at Blockbuster. I can’t fucking work at Blockbuster. I cook. But when I think back on it now, I should have gotten a job a Blockbuster. I could go into work every day, slouch off, and not worry about anything. That would be nice.
At Revolver expect to find an exciting, ever-revolving (pun intended) menu and a featured musician each week of the year. This fine dining restaurant’s name is derived from the record player, and the music played over the stereo throughout dinner service has more than likely inspired the dishes coming out of the kitchen. For example, Miles Davis’ On the Corner no doubt led to the creation of a daring dessert: grapefruit crème brulee with fennel biscotti ($6).
Since 2006, guests have been appreciating Revolver’s casually modern dining room that seats about 40 guests as well as other welcoming aspects. Framed pictures of friends decorate one of the exposed brick walls, and votive candles flicker delicately on the tables. The gorgeous and gracious co-owner Debi Bulkowski conscientiously tends to the front of the house and, like a ghost, folds guests’ napkins the millisecond they leave the table. All of the staff are attentive and knowledgeable, especially regarding the extensive wine and beer list that is hand selected by the chef himself.
While the fresh décor and the unobtrusive staff are draws to this independently owned and operated culinary oasis in Findlay, Ohio (95 miles from Detroit, 150 miles from Cleveland, 90 miles from Columbus), the main attraction is the simplistic-yet-complex food. Co-owner and Chef Michael Bulkowski resourcefully features seasonal local fruits (think pawpaw crème brulee, $6), vegetables (imagine organic greens with local pears, maytag blue cheese, hazelnuts, and pear dressing, $5), and proteins (picture local pork loin with savory bread pudding and chorizo broth, $19) —all grown and raised in the surrounding farmland counties. Chef Bulkowski’s vision stems from his experience working so intricately on the launch of the contemporary vegetarian fine dining restaurant Green Zebra, in Chicago’s West Town. He began working his way up from line cook in Woflgang Puck’s Spago. Then he moved to Chicago where he gained an acclaimed experience as Sous Chef to Chef Shawn McClain at Spring. Motivated to open his own restaurant, Bulkowski returned to his hometown, where he lives with his wife Debi, daughter Willough and son Erro.
A complimentary amuse-bouche kicks off every meal at Revolver, and ours was no different. The apple cider faux caviar with crème fraiche and a petal of arugula awoke and cleansed our palates with its sweetness and freshness. While it was tempting to make a meal of the starter courses (all priced at $5), I ordered the tart and perfectly smooth sweet potato and gala apple soup with arugula pistou, and, honestly, I considered ordering a bowl to-go for lunch the next day. My husband’s bowl of potato gnocchi with serrano ham broth and root vegetables didn’t disappoint; the gnocchi was boiled and seared, which translated into delicate crunch. (And I must admit during a previous visit I ordered the southern-inspired buttermilk fried chicken thigh served over a bed of braised dinosaur kale; this hearty appetizer was crispy, sweet, tangy, and succulent all in one bite.)
The main courses only exceeded the expectations set by the first courses. The roasted half chicken (pictured) was perfectly juicy in its truffle jous, and the earthiness of the accompanying brussels sprouts was absolutely joyful ($24). The grilled local hanger steak felt like home on the tongue, and the heat of the horseradish only accentuated the beets and fingerling potatoes ($18).
My husband and I figured why stop there. For dessert, warm angel food cake bread pudding with Clementine ice cream and a mug warm, perfectly spiced eggnog—a heavenly endnote for a brisk, snowy Ohio evening. If you’re looking for something a little lighter to end the meal, the Dragon-Snap hot tea with raw sugar cubes is fragrant and delectable.
Unintimidating, fun, and thoughtful, Revolver is the perfect, unrushed gourmet dinner for anyone seeking to a break from the countless chain restaurants in the Mid-West and wanting to taste high-quality culinary food at a decent price. If you’re already a fan of Revolver, declare it on their Facebook page. If your wallet is tight, consider a meal of starters. And if you’re from out-of-town, seek this out-of-the-way gem.
110 East Sandusky Street
Findlay, Ohio 45840
Modern Mid-western Cuisine
Accepts Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express
Dinner Check: $$$
Monday – Saturday from 5:30pm-10:00 p.m.
Big Jerk Review
If you see a penny on the green and orange tiled floor in Findlay, Ohio’s The Big Jerk, don’t pick it up. Most likely it’s a joke—a joke that will be on you.
We are, after all, talking about a late-night take-out-and-delivery joint named The Big Jerk.
Through the glass window storefront patrons will be lured to this locally owned and operated fast food restaurant by the big wave mural with a cut-out window to the kitchen. (The cook adds a head to the surfer’s body when he pops up behind the window to grab an order. This place is alive with humor.) On the electric orange wall closest to the cash registers one can find the menu; each dish description with its price floats in its own modernly off-kilter layered bubble.
Owners of Revolver Restaurant in Findlay, Debi and Michael Bulkowski, opened their newest restaurant venture, The Big Jerk, at the end of this past November, and it is as very bit sassy in theme as the food is in flavor. The Caribbean and Asian inspired menu offers Asian meatball sliders ($1.50 or, if you’re drunk, The Big Jerk might try to sell you 3 for $5.) These perfectly tender one-bite sandwiches put to shame any fast food chain’s burger. For a twist and some additional heat, order one with Jerk’s homemade chili mayo and red cabbage slaw. The coconut curry chicken soup ($3.25-$5) builds heat with each bite. The crunch of the bean sprouts and the succulence of the chicken are a delectable combination. This is a soup I will crave—daily. If you’re looking for something with a little less heat and more delicate flavors, the traditional ramen noodles Shoyu ($6) is the ideal choice. The broth cooks for 24 hours before it makes it into this exquisitely salty-sweet dish (pictured). But the showstopper of the entrees is the pulled pork sandwich Jerk Style with red cabbage slaw ($5.50). If Jerk Style isn’t your thing, the Thai BBQ won’t disappoint. Sandwiches can be ordered with chicken or pulled pork, and for another fresh layer of yum, add the jicama slaw to any sandwich instead of having it on the side. Don’t forget to end your meal old school. For dessert, Twinkies or Ho-ho’s ($.75).
With such high quality food and low prices, expect The Big Jerk to give every late-night restaurant a run for its money. Even early-night folks will enjoy fresh, fast meals. Our order was at the window in less than five minutes. Feel like staying in? A flat $2 delivery fee is applied to any local order.
Perfect for those coming home from second shift, bar-going college students, and those who just plain want healthy fast food for dinner, The Big Jerk is open Tuesday-Thursday 4 p.m.-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 4 p.m.-3a.m.
The future of The Big Jerk promises video games in the waiting tank as well as beer carry-out and delivery. But even more, The Big Jerk promises to be a big success.
227 ½ N. Main St.
Findlay, OH 45840
Take Out or Delivery only
Accepts Visa, MasterCard
Dinner Check: $
Tues-Thurs 4-10 p.m.
Fri & Sat 4 p.m. – 3 a.m.
Chef Michael Bulkowski’s Egg Nog
¾ cup sugar
4 egg yolks
1 qt ½ and ½
1 t Allspice (whole)
1 t Fresh grated nutmeg
1 stick Cinnamon
1 cup Dark Rum or Bourbon
Toast spices in a 4 qt pot over medium heat. Carefully add liquor, especially if you are using a gas stovetop. Then add ½ and ½. Steep for 10-15 minutes. Whisk together sugar and yolks until pale yellow. Slowly add ½ and ½ mixture to yolks. If you want more booze, add before serving. Top with freshly grated nutmeg.
When I tried this recipe, I found it to be way more flavorful than any store bought mixture I have enhanced. And it was exceptionally easy.
Apart from obsessing about food and wine in Connotation Press and on her blog The Everyday Palate, Amanda McGuire also writes book reviews which have appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Literary Magazine Review, and Mid-American Review. Her poems have appeared in Noon: Journal of the Short Poem, The Cream City Review, 27 rue de fleures, So To Speak, and other literary journals. She teaches at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.