White Horse Inn executive chef Brentton Stinson worked his way up from a high school job at Buscemi’s to top position at historic restaurant in Metamora.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Viviana Pernot
What some people think chefs do: Travel around the globe, eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, create pretty plates of food on Food Network, make tons of money.
While that may be the case for a few in the industry who are catapulted to rock star status, in reality, it’s more like work 18 hours a day, shove in random bites of food while standing over the sink or garbage before the next rush, and earn around $10-$12 an hour, which is not enough to live off. And let’s not even get into the intense working environment and culture.
The difference between fantasy and reality is a topic Brentton Stinson, who lives in Metamora, can talk about for hours, he says. The White Horse Inn executive chef says the job is “not glamorous.”
“It’s long hours. You don’t see your people, your friends and family. When they’re all (celebrating holidays) you’re in the kitchen, with your nose to the cutting board,” he says. “Or at 2 a.m. you’re standing there cleaning the kitchen after everyone’s gone home.”
Despite the demands of the job, cooking helped Stinson, 32, get out of a professional rut when he was younger. His first kitchen job was at a Buscemi’s party store, a half stocking/half cooking gig when he was about 16. He went to Central Michigan University a while and then came back home, working a few pizza jobs on and off as well as construction.
Then a friend called him about a job at Great Oaks Country Club in Rochester. He started working in prep for banquets, and while at the country club he met two chefs who helped him learn the craft and became mentors. He learned what it took to become a cook, not a chef, he emphasizes.
While there, he also had the opportunity to work for the North American International Auto Show, an experience that helped hone his skills. He worked for the event every year between the other jobs.
The auto show and Great Oaks are the “foundation of my resume,” he says. “Between the two places, I was able to display my ability to cook.”
Being a chef is more than just knowing how to shuck an oyster or finely dice a carrot; it requires being a leader in the kitchen, commanding a crew every night to create food customers will enjoy. As Stinson moved on to different restaurants, he found himself being called upon to step up. At Sips Gastropub in Macomb County, he served as sous chef when the executive chef was fired, and management promoted him. Stinson didn’t want the job, but agreed to do it until they found someone else. They never did, and eventually they closed.
He then went on to Kickstand Brewing Company in Commerce Township. They were opening and needed help. Again he went in as sous-chef and again the executive chef was let go. He was reluctant to take on the role, but friends and colleagues encouraged him to go for it.
All these experiences helped him build confidence to take the next step in his career at the historic White Horse Inn in Metamora.
When seeking a new chef, they wanted “to find a chef that was level-headed, mature and willing to work as part of a team — rather than find a culinary prima donna that was difficult to work with,” says Linda Egeland, who co-owns White Horse Inn with her husband Victor Dzenowagis. They also wanted someone with culinary chops. But more specifically, Egeland says, “someone who understood what we were trying to accomplish with our menu and using that as a foundation (to) develop new items or daily features that went beyond those boundaries but stayed true to a basic philosophy.”
Before taking the reins at White Horse, Dzenowagis and Egeland, who live on an 80-acre horse farm in Metamora, owned and operated five Metro Detroit restaurants. They felt compelled to buy it after the restaurant closed in 2012.
“It was the anchor of a small country town — the kind of country town that was all over Michigan 100 years ago — but now, there are very few original small village downtowns left,” Egeland says. “If the (White Horse Inn) was torn down, the rest of the downtown would eventually succumb to the decay and apathy that so many other small villages have fallen prey to, and we were determined to not let that happen in our hometown.”
It wasn’t an easy journey. Built in 1850, the neglected building filled with spoiled food and lacking heat and electricity had fallen into disrepair. They remember walking into the building, which was like “walking into a giant ice box that smelled like rotten cabbage, dirty socks and skunk.”
The cost of the renovation was north of $3 million, Egeland says. They secured grants and tax credits from the Metamora Downtown Development Authority, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the National Park Service for about $1 million.
They put a lot of care into restoring it. “Everything looks handmade because most of it was handmade by local craftsman using local materials,” she says. Unique features include the Community Room floor that resembles a cross-section of a giant tree and was created by Metamora resident John Yarema; a massive field stone wood-burning fireplace that always has a roaring fire during the winter; and eye-catching artwork such as an oil painting by local artist Weatherly Stroh and a one-of-a-kind charcoal mural of horses by French artist Jean-Louis Sauvat. The latter is a focal point of the restaurant, Egeland says.
The hard work has paid off. “Thankfully (we were) able to see past the dirt, disrepair, and structural problems and envision something that has become a truly one-of-a-kind destination,” Egeland says.
Stinson says Egeland and Dzenowagis have vision. And as a chef, working at White Horse gives him the opportunity to put his personal stamp on the menu, whether it’s a wine event or a new fish dish.
Makes 2 servings
8-10 ounces parrot fish (You can find this at a fish market specialty store, or substitute any kind of whitefish if you can’t find parrot fish)
For the Wild Rice
1 cup rice
2 cups water
1 Tbsp. butter
1 tsp. curry
1 tsp. granulated garlic
½ tsp. annatto seeds
Pinch lemon pepper
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. fresh cilantro
Pinch fresh sage
Pinch fresh parsley
1 tsp. lobster base
1 tsp. olive oil
For the Vegetable Medley
1 oz. each asparagus, green beans,
broccoli, roasted garlic, shallots,
sundried tomato and grape tomato.
For the saffron citrus butter cream sauce
1/4 pound butter
1 large shallot, minced
1 Tbs. fresh garlic, minced
½ cup white wine or sherry
1 quart heavy whipping cream
1 Tbsp. lobster Base (or desired
amount for flavor)
2 oranges, zested and juiced
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. cornstarch mixed with 1 cup water
¼ cup Thai chili sauce
1 tsp. fresh thyme
1 tsp. fresh parsley
1 Tbs. fresh cilantro
Saffron for desired flavor and color
(can substitute annatto seed powder)
Red pepper flakes to flavor
Fresh Pico De Gallo
1 fresh tomato, small dice
1 jalapeno, small dice
¼ cup red onion, small dice
¼ cup cilantro, minced
Lime juice and honey to taste
To make the wild rice, add all ingredients into a sauce pot. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer, about 35 minutes until water is absorbed.
To make the sauce, melt butter in sauce pan over medium-high heat. Sauté shallots until fully white. Do not caramelize. Add garlic sauté for a few minutes, deglaze with white wine or sherry and let alcohol evaporate. Add cream and bring to a near boil, turn down heat. Whisk in lobster base and juices. Slowly add cornstarch slurry until desired thickness (you may not need all). Whisk in all other ingredients. Set aside.
To make the vegetable medley, sauté the vegetables in olive oil until tender, about 5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with white wine and add lemon juice.
To cook the fish, add butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Season the fish with salt and pepper and place into pan flesh side down. Sear for 3 minutes, then flip and cook another 3 minutes. Serve with vegetable medley, wild rice and top with pico de gallo.
Watch SEEN in the Kitchen to see how to make the recipe:
The White Horse Inn
1 E. High St., Metamora