Forest’s executive chef has built a name for himself and is looking to grow with an upcoming restaurant in Detroit.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Viviana Pernot
Nick Janutol always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. But before he became the executive chef of Forest in Birmingham and worked at Michelin-starred restaurants, he had other plans.
His family enjoyed the finer things in life, so he was interested in opening a cigar bar or a wine shop.
“We had so many family parties (that revolved) around food and drink and having a good time,” says Janutol, 33, of Grosse Pointe. And then he discovered cooking.
After graduating from Grosse Pointe North High School, he moved to New Jersey where his aunt and uncle bought an Italian restaurant. He did a little bit of everything, so it gave him a taste of every aspect of working in a restaurant. While working at the restaurant he also worked at his uncle’s insurance company as an intern during the day.
“I hated working in a cubicle,” he says. But he loved restaurant life so that got him started on the culinary arts path. Before going to the legendary Culinary Institute of America in New York, he went to Wayne State University for a year and a half and worked at Beverly Hills Grill to get more industry experience.
After graduating, he got a job at Eleven Madison Park in New York, which is consistently ranked one of the top restaurants in the world. That experience was very “eye-opening,” he says. “The culture there was different than anything I’ve ever witnessed (in Detroit) or in Chicago or in any kitchen I’ve worked in.” Everyone worked toward a common goal and tried to help each other grow, push each other and hold each other accountable. At the same time it was very competitive, which was appealing to Janutol, who says he always wanted to work for the best. “Everyone was trying to work as hard as they can and prove that they’re the best so they can go up the ladder,” he adds.
From there, he went to Chicago where he worked at some of the top restaurants and met his mentor, chef Matt Kirkley, who helped him get a job at the Elysian Hotel (now the Waldorf Astoria) where he worked as sous chef. While there, the restaurant, Ria, nabbed not one coveted Michelin star but two within its first year of opening.
After that he worked at L20, another two Michelin star restaurant. After a while, he was at a crossroads: Either stay on the same path for the next several years in Chicago working for someone else or go off on his own. The entrepreneur in him lured him back to the Great Lakes State.
He heard from James Rigato, the chef of Mabel Gray in Hazel Park and a former co-worker of his from the Rugby Grille in Birmingham, that Forest Grill had a chef opening. After interviewing for the job, Janutol knew this was the next step and came back home.
After Janutol worked as chef de cuisine for a couple years, another door opened. Samy Eid, whose family owns Phoenicia in Birmingham, was a customer at Forest Grill and had expressed interest in buying the restaurant if it ever came up for sale, Janutol recalls. Not long after that, founding chef Brian Polcyn sold the restaurant, and Janutol was elevated to the executive chef role.
For the past three years, Eid and Janutol have worked hard to revamp the restaurant’s brand, now simply Forest.
“It’s been a slow evolution, but deliberate,” Janutol says. At the restaurant, he likes to manipulate ingredients, coaxing bold flavors in unexpected ways but with restraint. For example, the black rice dish has a roasted tomato and sesame oil puree folded into it “so it has this great umami and texture and flavor. But really all it is is just rice and tomatoes. But the depth and the simplicity in it, it’s kind of what we go for.”
They’re also opening a new downtown Detroit restaurant called Leila’s, a Lebanese spot slated to open in late spring or early summer next year in Capitol Park. Janutol will oversee the two restaurants.
The restaurant will have a charcoal grill and pita oven for making fresh bread. Janutol describes it as a more youthful version of Phoenicia. It’ll have some of the same staples that made Phoenicia famous, but will have other dishes that are eclectic and inspired by their travels around Lebanon.
When Janutol moved back to Michigan, his five-year goal was to run several restaurants. He’s well on his way.
1 lb. King Arthur organic bread flour
8 oz. whole eggs
In a mixing bowl, use the well method to make the dough. With a fork, slowly stir the eggs into the flour until mass begins to form. At this point, knead in the remaining flour by hand for a minimum of 10 minutes. Let the dough rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before using.
20 oz. pressed ricotta
2 oz. whole egg
1 oz. Parmesan, microplaned
1 pinch salt
5 oz. King Arthur organic bread flour
1 lemon, juiced and zested
Nutmeg to taste
To make the filling, press the ricotta overnight in a perforated pan or strainer to achieve the proper consistency. The following day, combine all the ingredients in a stand mixer and whip until emulsified. Place the filing in a piping bag and chill in the cooler until ready to pipe.
4 quarts water
1 oz. kombu
3 oz. dried bonito flakes
Combine water and kombu in a sauce pot and bring to a simmer. Continue to simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the saucepan from heat and add the bonito. Let steep for an additional 20 minutes. Strain and cool.
2 ¼ cup dashi
2 ¼ cup cream
Combine and reduce by half. Season with fresh lemon juice.
Roll the pasta dough to 1 mm in thickness and punch circles that are 2.75 inches in diameter. Consolidate the circles and cover to prevent drying. Pipe an acorn-sized ricotta ball on each circle. Fold the pasta in half like a taco and seal, removing all the air. Bring both ends together (so the pasta resembles Pacman) and overlap the ends. Seal by pressing together. Place on a semolina-lined tray and reserve.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Once boiling, drop the tortellini into the water and cook for 4 minutes. Remove the tortellini and place into a sauce pot with the dashi cream, and boil for an additional minute and a half mounting in 1 tablespoon of butter. Season with lemon juice and serve with shaved truffle.
Watch SEEN in the Kitchen to see how to make the recipe:
735 Forest Ave., Birmingham