John Wojnarski was recently named the estate chef at Black Star Farms in Leelanau County.
A 2012 graduate of Traverse City’s Great Lakes Culinary Institute, he had worked at the winery in the two years leading up to his promotion. Here, he shares his thoughts about his new job, being a winery chef and how wine influences his menus — either for pairing with food, or as an ingredient.
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. I started at Black Star as the inn chef, pastry chef, events and, now, estate chef. Before that, I was sous chef at 7 Monks (Traverse City) and before that, sous chef at The Boathouse (Old Mission Peninsula. Before that, I worked at Heritage in Richmond, Virginia.
Q. What appeals to you about being a chef for a winery?
A. Just the ability to gain firsthand knowledge on the hows and the whys of making and applying that to our food. Just like the pizza at our café, we take grapeskins and seeds — they’re dried and ground up — and actually use those as a flour substitute in the pizza crust. We do use flour, too. It’s a nice balance, just for textures. We top it off with (Black Star’s) Red House Red in the crust — instead of using water, we use red wine. It’s just the coolest thing about working in a winery, from drinking the wine to using in the food … (crust is red).
Q. How important is wine to a meal?
A. Honestly, it can make or break it, personally, for me. You don’t have to have wine with a meal, but it really can elevate the flavors, the profile. It makes it fun.
Q. How do you make wine tie in with food?
A. We incorporate wine into food, compotes, by reducing wine. In Belgian waffles, we use hard cider to get air into the batter. We can incorporate it into our sauces, brines, marinades, vinaigrettes; if something has water in a recipe, we can substitute with slow-reduced wine. Honestly, as creative as you can be, you can incorporate it.
Q. Any tips?
A. My biggest tip is if you’re making a wine reduction, it’s low and slow. You don’t want to go over 160 degrees. Once you reduce it too quick, the wine reduction becomes bitter, so it should be as low and slow as you can go, stirring occasionally. To make 2 cups’ yield of reduced wine, start with 4 cups, medium-low heat, with a little bit of bubbles on the perimeter of your pan. That heat should never be high enough where you could scald that wine.
Q. What’s your favorite type of wine and why?
A. I guess it depends on the season and what food it’s going with. I have a Cab Franc that’s an easy go-to … I love that dry, medium-body, long-leg wine. I also love Gewürztraminer wine, the floral bouquet.
Q. Give us an example of one of your favorite food and wine pairings.
A. It depends on what we’re serving, what vegetables, whether fish, steak or pork. Our Pinot Grigio with fresh roasted asparagus when it comes into season, then throw some nice whitefish in there — you can’t go wrong. In the fall, I get into roasts, more comfort foods, and that’s when I break out the Cab Franc. In the wintertime, I get a little sweet, late-season Riesling or Gewürztraminer. That’s when my family eats a lot of pierogi — Polish-influenced foods.
Q. What are you most excited about in this position?
A. I’m looking forward to expressing my team’s vision of food and pushing people to try classic favorites with modern twists and techniques. I’m a big fan of Escoffier, who’s prominent in the culinary world. It’s fun to pick recipes that have been used over 100 years, taking things we’ve learned and trying to make our own, modern-day recipes.
Q. You started this new job in the middle of a pandemic. What are you looking forward to as things get back to normal eventually?
A. Just getting to see people’s smiles when they take those first couple bites. For me, food is an expression — we live to eat, so I like to express myself through food and then have people enjoy those moments.
Q. And last, what’s your best wine memory?
A. I was in my mid-20s (around 2015), sitting on my first night in Paris, enjoying my first bottle of White Bordeaux, escargot and a baguette. It was almost overwhelming, but so eye opening, how the wine, the ambience and the food can impact your life.