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Chef Michael Ponzio, Executive Chef of Medinah (Ill.) Country Club, fell in love with the traditional culinary experience of Italian dining at a very young age.
Ponzio, who comes from a large, Italian family, grew up in a suburb just outside Chicago. So naturally, his first inspiration in the kitchen was his grandmother. She introduced Ponzio to classic homestyle cooking and later provided guidance and instruction in perfecting the basics.
Cooking became not only his skill, but his passion.
Ponzio went on to receive his education in Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago. In 2002, he joined the award-winning team at Spiaggia as a sous-chef working closely with Tony Mantuano. His skill and technique grew immensely during that time.
From there, Ponzio continued his journey in learning how to master the Chicago culinary scene at restaurants including Volare (Benny Siddu), Cenitare (Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand) and Rosebud Restaurant Group (Alex Dana); where he worked as the Director of Culinary Operations. He also consulted for a number of years for Portillo’s and sits on the Culinary Advisory Board for Smithfield Foods and a culinary school.
He has traveled all over the country and to several parts of Italy studying everything from handcrafted pastas and pizza to gelato and regional delicacies.
In 2011 Ponzio authored a cookbook, CIBO: Anybody’s Guide to Italian Cooking.
Ponzio is currently the Executive Chef at Medinah CC. Medinah, a world-ranked Platinum golf club, provides time-honored club dishes for the traditionalists, as well as progressive plates for the adventurous foodies.
Since starting at Medinah, Ponzio and his team have worked hard to bring real food to the members. The first project to start the process was examining all of the ingredients used on their menus. Ponzio changed the steaks to an antibiotic- and hormone-free, humanely killed beef. He introduced Amish chickens and natural Duroc pork to the menus. He eliminated all frozen fish. Those improvements alone received such great feedback and interest that he wanted to keep building.
He started looking at what they could do in-house. The culinary team began tapping trees to harvest 100% pure maple syrup. They built a 900-square foot, all-natural garden for the freshest produce possible (see “Cultivating a Culinary Garden,” C&RB’s Chef to Chef, April 2017) They also built a USDA certified chicken coop that houses 40 hens to produce eggs daily for the breakfast menus. As they continued with these experiences, more and more projects came to fruition.
An introduction of healthy bowls and smoothies at the poolside café became a large portion of the sales. All of the menus on property now incorporate gluten-free options and a whole new protocol for member and guest allergies has been established. Healthy options are available on all the kids’ menus and everywhere else. Ponzio believes it is his responsibility as Chef to offer members the best options and quality possible.
One of Ponzio’s strongest beliefs is that food should be real. He believes being healthy isn’t about fad diets or the latest trends, but about respecting and paying attention to the products you consume. Gone are the days where the only salumi you could find are made from cheap cuts of meat and loaded with nitrates. Fish doesn’t have to be mass-farmed and there is a large number of great varietals to choose from every season. Ponzio believes that if we take a great piece of beef, not pumped with saline, hormones and other enhancers, pay attention to what the cow is fed and how it is raised to slaughter, we shouldn’t have to add anything but salt to make it taste fantastic. That is real food and that is what the Medinah kitchen prides itself on producing.
When he’s not in the kitchen, Ponzio spends his time with his wife and three children going to farmers’ markets, traveling and nurturing his passion for food and wine.