A year into his role as executive chef at Toasted Oak, Ken Miller is not afraid to change things up at the nearly-decade-old Novi restaurant — even if it means ruffling a few feathers.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Viviana Pernot
Growing up, Ken Miller would watch his grandparents make knoephle, a German soup dumpling. As he got older, his grandfather taught him how to cook and make pasta by hand.
That came in handy for his first homecoming dance when he made homemade fettuccine Alfredo for his date. With a love of food fostered in him at a young age, Miller would go on to culinary school and work at top kitchens in Chicago and Detroit.
“A few years ago, I wanted to see if there were any old family recipes, and that was the first one they gave me. ‘You gotta know how to make kniffles (they told me),’ ” says Miller, 27.
After a lesson on the phone with his grandma and trial and error, he’s created his own version of the dish with sausage and sauerkraut at Toasted Oak Grill & Market, where he’s the executive chef. Just like how his grandma passed it down to him (no written recipe, just verbal directions), he’s passing it down to his cooks, adding to the whole rustic and homey vibe he’s trying to cultivate at the Novi restaurant.
With an extensive wine list, new American brasserie menu, and sleek and sophisticated décor, the restaurant located in the Baronette Renaissance Hotel has been a popular spot for higher-end dining over the years. Yet Miller says in recent years it’s gotten a bit “stagnant,” hence his desire to breathe new life into the restaurant going on its ninth year of business.
“(The knoephle) actually became our most popular item in our pasta section right now. It’s really cool that something I grew up eating, (now) so many people are enjoying it,” he says.
The pasta section is just one of the new things he’s brought to Toasted Oak since taking the helm last July. He hasn’t been shy about putting his stamp on the menu, even if it means ruffling some feathers by taking the beloved cornbread off the menu. After a month of angry reactions from customers, including one gentleman who wanted to speak to him personally in the dining room, Miller brought it back.
While more casual vibes and family-style dining are hallmarks of what he’s trying to build at Toasted Oak, that doesn’t mean lower standards for this chef who boasts plenty of experience in fine dining. After the Flushing native graduated from high school in 2009 and went to Saginaw Valley for a year, he moved to Chicago to study at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts at age 19. He worked in the Windy City for nearly five years at hot spots such as the two Michelin-starred Acadia when he decided to come back home.
He worked at a restaurant in Flint during the water crisis, a challenge for restaurants that had to use water filters for everything from making ice to washing dishes, when he was approached by the former food and beverage director at Toasted Oak to apply for sous-chef. He got the job and after a year and a half in the role, he learned that Thomas Lents was coming to Detroit to open The Apparatus Room in The Foundation Hotel. While in Chicago, Miller was interested in working for Lents when he was at the luxurious two Michelin-starred restaurant Sixteen in Trump Tower but Miller went in a different direction when he accepted a job at Italian restaurant Cicchetti in Chicago instead.
He got a second chance to work for Lents and was the first person hired in the food and beverage program as sous-chef at The Apparatus Room. He helped open the restaurant and then when Toasted Oak came calling with the executive chef position, he faced a difficult choice between being a part of downtown Detroit’s growth or seizing “an opportunity to take a restaurant (and) really mold it in to something new and different.” He started as executive chef at Toasted Oak in July 2017.
And people are starting to take notice of the big plans Miller and food and beverage director Ferris Anthony have for the restaurant.
“We’ve lost a few people (angry that Toasted Oak got) rid of fried calamari — you can go to 700 restaurants in the city and get that,” Miller says. “…but we’ve started to attract more people. We just had people who drove two hours to eat here. We see more and more people coming in from Detroit showing interest in what we’re doing. So it’s exciting.”
Sausage and Dumplings
This is a hearty meal appropriate for cool summer nights or even the dead of winter. Either way, this is comfort food at its finest.
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tbsp. reserved juice from sauerkraut
1 cup Guernsey whole milk, cold
1 tsp. salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
Bring a pot of liberally salted water to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Stir the beaten eggs and sauerkraut juice into the milk until completely incorporated. Combine the salt and flour in a mixing bowl and stir lightly with a fork. Slowly incorporate the wet mixture into the dry while stirring constantly. Try to avoid overmixing the dough, and pay special attention to breaking any lumps that may form. The dough should be fairly loose and close to a batter consistency, but will still stretch.
Dip a regular-sized spoon into the hot water. This will help release the knoephle into the water. Using the side of the spoon, drag a half spoonful of dough up the side of the bowl and dip into the simmering water. If necessary, lightly shake the spoon to release. The dumplings will sink to the bottom at first, but should float after about a minute. The dumplings are cooked after floating for about 1 ½ to 2 minutes. Remove from the water using a slotted spoon and allow to rest on a small tray.
Sausage and Dumplings Ingredients
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 lbs. smoked sausage (kielbasa or Polish sausage is best), sliced about ¼-inch thick
36 knoephle dumplings
4 cups sauerkraut (reserve juice for knoephle)
1 green apple, shaved thinly
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large pan over medium heat, melt the butter until foamy. Add the sausage and knoephle, and sauté until the dumplings start to gain some golden brown color. Add the sauerkraut and mix gently. Once the sauerkraut is heated through, add the shaved apple and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a large serving bowl and enjoy immediately!
Best served with friends or family and a glass of dry riesling or a German-style Pilsner or Kolsch. Bonus points: Serve with crusty bread and good butter. If you wish for a bit more sour flavor, add as much or as little of the sauerkraut juice as you like at the last second.
Watch SEEN in the Kitchen to see how to make the recipe:
Toasted Oak Grill & Market
27790 Novi Road, Novi