Miga’s new executive chef bridges Asian, Midwestern cuisine
October 15, 2018
It’s one hour until Miga’s Thursday dinner service. There aren’t any customers in the Champaign Asian-fusion restaurant yet, which has no available reservations, but the kitchen is bustling to prepare for the night.
The kitchen is small, made smaller by clear plastic tubs of panko, shining stainless-steel countertops and large black pots bubbling with miso soup. The four people in the kitchen work fluidly in separate divisions to sharpen knives or butcher cuts of beef while occasionally busting out a dance move to whatever song is playing – Taylor Swift or classic rock are common choices.
The large freezer door swings open, and Executive Chef Blake Biggs emerges with a Styrofoam cooler, which wouldn’t look out of place at a backyard barbecue, balanced on his left hand.
Blake pulls out forearm-length black cod fillets and begins to delicately portion them. He glances at the red digital clock over the kitchen door: 4:15. He nods and returns his focus to the fish. If he’s concerned about time, he doesn’t show it.
Between working his own station on the line, which he does for half the week, Blake circles the kitchen and surveys the other staff members, swapping jokes or pointing out something they need to finish.
He seems comfortable. He’s no stranger to working quickly on a line and finessing for fine dining.
When it comes to his current position, however, Blake is still learning. Luckily, he loves to learn.
“I think that’s what keeps me motivated: just further expanding my knowledge of other cultures and culinary traditions,” he says. “As soon as that desire to stop learning dies, then you kind of tell. You kind of lose feeling for it and you kind of lose the soul of what you’re doing.”
Miga, 301 N. Neil St., hired him as its executive chef in August 2017. Blake, 29, is the former sous chef at Bacaro, where he started as a line cook and worked for more than five years.
When he joined Bacaro, he and current owner Drew Starkey were both line cooks and grew to be good friends. Bacaro was a leap from his previous restaurant job – he worked at Scotty’s Brewhouse in Indianapolis before moving to Champaign.
“I went from flipping burgers and frying wings to fine dining,” he says.
Whitney Biggs, Blake’s wife and Pharmacy Clinical Services manager at Walmart, says he was being underutilized at Scotty’s, even though he enjoyed working on the line. She knew what he had learned in culinary school – he is trained in classic French technique – and always thought he could do more.
“It was a huge departure, but one I always thought he’d enjoy because I knew it would be a challenge for him,” she says, adding it was the best career decision he’s made. “Bacaro ending up being so huge in helping him grow and develop into the chef he is now.”
Blake says Bacaro gave him the longest day he’s ever had – going to bed at 7 a.m. and waking up at 10 a.m. – as well as the oddest ingredients, but one part of the transition stood out as the hardest.
“Not knowing anything; I went to culinary school and I had cooked, but not knowing how to fully grasp everything they were doing and the ‘new’ was the biggest challenge,” he said. “Working with faster food, you have to be fast. Working fine dining, you have to be fast, but you also have to be perfect. Every time.”
When Chef Jae Lee left Miga, Blake came highly recommended, and Whitney says he knew it was time for a change. He was nervous about leaving Bacaro for a competitor, but it was an opportunity for an upward movement that may not have come otherwise.
“Drew would always be the chef, and if Blake wanted to get into that executive chef position, he was going to need to expand and push himself outside of his comfort zone,” she says.
Though he has now worked at two of the premier fine-dining restaurants in Champaign, transitioning to Miga was not without its difficulties.
His first hurdle was changing menus. The previous executive chef, Lee, had been with Miga since it opened and had developed several signature dishes. When Blake debuted his first menu, it was inevitable that some of those old dishes would be gone. Some regular customers left, too.
“It’s never fun, as the new executive chef, to have people who are like, ‘I’m never coming back to Miga because you got rid of this,’” Whitney said.
Blake tried to bring some elements of these favorite dishes into his menu, but they weren’t well-received.
Butterfish, he said, was the greatest failure of his career. The fish, a miso-sake marinated escolar, was a carryover from the old menu, but he wanted to prepare it differently. He made it into a “ssam,” a traditional Korean dish that had lettuce wrapped around the fish. It didn’t take. He tried a different preparation, and customers still didn’t go for it.
“I don’t know, something about it, it and I just didn’t get along,” he said. “I think it was almost like I was trying too hard to be what it once was, and people saw through that.”
Customers who gave Blake’s menu another shot may have gotten more than they bargained for in terms of service. Rather than staying in the back of the house, holed up in the kitchen, Blake will come out and talk to guests – especially the regulars.
“He’s got a good rapport with a lot of guests,” said Jared Decker, head server at Miga. “If he knows they’re coming in, he might make them their own appetizer or special dish. He’s really personable.”
Once, Blake made a birthday cake for a single table because it was a customer he knew. Fulfilling special requests is not a Miga policy – it used to be just the opposite. Chef Lee would refuse to accommodate, even for dietary restrictions.
“He’s really chill back there, so it’s nice to not have someone with such a high-strung ego that it overtakes our guests,” Decker said. “People come and they spend a lot of money, and they expect to be accommodated with simple things. Just simple things, simple requests.”
Miga’s menus typically feature East Asian ingredients that guests may find intimidating, and refusal to alter any part of the dish – in addition to the heftier price tag – alienated many guests.
Decker said the addition of more recognizable dishes, ones that are based on meat and potatoes or include local ingredients, have made the menu more accessible to guests in the area.
The new fall menu, Blake’s second since he was hired, includes sweet potato croquettes with catfish, roasted cauliflower and braised rabbit leg with grits.
“He came in with his own menu. We didn’t expect him to make the old chef’s food. Being the executive chef, he had free rein to come up with his menu,” said general manager Jen Kropfel.
The main components are recognizably Midwestern, but Blake has not eschewed Miga’s notable flavors. The cauliflower is prepared with yuzu koshu, the rabbit with dashi radish and the sweet potato with caramelized lemon.
“You could tell he spent a lot of time learning about some new flavors that he probably had not been used to working with in his past experience,” Kropfel said.
As the executive chef, all menu decisions fall on his shoulders, which is the biggest difference from being a sous chef. Through talking to Miga’s owner, Jin Park, and doing his own research, Blake came up with a menu that satisfied his guests but was also his style.
“I got to work with a lot of things I never would have worked with before otherwise. That’s kind of opened my eyes to a whole, new style of cooking. I learned a lot there, and I’m still learning here,” he said. “It’s great.”
In some ways, the food was familiar to him even though he had never worked with the exact ingredients before.
Yuzu koshu may seem exotic, but it’s just salted citrus rind and chile. Miso and soy sauce are both salted, fermented soybean. Blake found many parallels between the ingredients he grew up with and the ingredients he uses now.
“Where I’m from, everyone pickled. They grew their own stuff and pickled and preserved. Sour corn and stuff like that,” Blake said. “There’s a lot of similarities that I think people don’t recognize or realize are there. You can use ingredients, say the Asian ingredients I have here, in a way in which I would use back home just to develop a different flavor profile. That’s kind of what I’ve been working toward.”
Blake was raised in Casey, Illinois, a town of about 3,000 people about an hour and a half southeast of Champaign. It is best known for its popcorn festival and a variety of “big things” – a giant golf tee, wind chime and rocking chair – that weren’t installed downtown until Blake was out of school.
It was in Casey that he first became interested in food.
Both of his grandmothers were cooks. One was a lunch lady, so he grew up surrounded by food. Every Christmas since he was a kid, he would make cinnamon rolls for his entire family. Last year, this meant cooking up at least three dozen pans of rolls.
“All my childhood memories were of being at either of my grandmas’ houses. We were either growing and cooking our own food or just around the dinner table and everybody was happy,” he says.
It wasn’t until a high school foods class that he realized cooking could be a career option. The class showed the creative side of food, and it gave Blake a push toward his current profession.
He didn’t go to culinary school immediately, however. He enrolled in a nearby community college before deciding he didn’t want to return and transferring to the Chef’s Academy at Harrison College in Indianapolis.
“At first, I was completely blindsided and shocked because he had really never done much cooking that I had ever known of,” said Whitney, who has been in a relationship with him since they were both 17.
She remembers pictures of the things he made in the foods class, like elaborate gingerbread houses, and they would watch Food Network together, but she never anticipated he would go to culinary school. When he decided to enroll, she said, “All right, go for it. If that’s something you think that you would really love, why not?”
They were in Indianapolis together at the same time while she went to pharmacy school at Butler University. He would bring her the food he was making in culinary school, and she realized being a chef was a challenge he enjoyed and was suited for.
“As a chef, he has a constant quest for knowledge,” she said. “Having that desire to constantly learn more and push himself to do different things is probably his greatest strength as a chef.”
Their Champaign home is filled with cookbooks – her family always knows what to get him for Christmas – and she says he reads through all of them for inspiration.
What she didn’t understand was the difficulties of being in a relationship with a chef, difficulties that have mounted as his career has advanced.
“When everyone’s out for Valentine’s Day, he’s at work. New Year’s Eve, he’s at work,” she said. “At the time, just being 19 or 20 years old, had I known then that he would be gone a lot, selfishly I would have said, ‘Why don’t you do something else?'”
She said they have adapted to “new normal” by celebrating on different days when he isn’t working and by making the most of their time together, even though they have nearly opposite schedules.
“She’ll stay up and hang out with me, and I’ll wake up early to hang out with her,” Blake said. “We’re both driven to the point where we understand each other really well. She knows I’m busy, I know she’s busy, but the time we get to spend together is really nice and special.”
Whitney said they usually try to go out to eat on Sundays – it’s their shared day off of work. Sakanaya is a frequent spot, along with Maize, Hickory River or just Jimmy John’s. After cooking every day, Blake doesn’t want to bring work home. Turkey sandwiches and one-pot meals are the most likely at-home meals.
It also helps they know each other so well, a benefit of their lasting relationship. Even 15 years later, she still laughs about their time in their high school’s musical, “Damn Yankees,” where they first got to know each other.
They would drive in circles around Casey in his black Ford Ranger, blasting Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
“This person is really fun and doesn’t care what other people are going to think about him,” Whitney thought as Blake sang along with Freddie Mercury and brought his 7-year-old brother along with them.
It’s not uncommon to hear Bohemian Rhapsody coming from Miga’s kitchen on a stressful night – Blake says it’s his favorite pump-up song.
He prefers to keep the music on. He’s not a fan of barking orders.
“That has its place, and it’s worked wonderfully for years, but you have to know your audience at some point. So we’ll turn on some music and we’ll dance around and cook some food,” he said.
His laid-back attitude is great for the kitchen and servers. They don’t need to worry about getting yelled at for substitutions. For Blake, it’s all about keeping stress levels down or risk burning out.
“It’s one of those things where if you let it get to you, it will get to you. If you let the small things bug you, it’ll eat you alive,” he said.
Whitney helps him through the managerial difficulties of being an executive, and he’s gotten more positive feedback as the days have gone by.
He’s also gotten more comfortable with calling the shots and putting new concepts on the menu, even if it means failing.
“Being the sous chef, you have a safety net,” he said. “Here, it’s more – this is me, this is my way, I guess. That would be the major difference. It’s been fun learning.”