Star of the award-winning national PBS cooking show, “Fork in the Road”, Chef Eric Villegas was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and now calls Okemos home. In late 2007 Ann Arbor’s Huron River Press released a companion cookbook to the popular show, aptly named Fork in the Road with Eric Villegas. The recipes in the cookbook reflect Eric’s travels throughout the state. He regularly meets Michigan growers, bottlers, producers, and farmers, and purchases their products to use as ingredients in his recipes, forming the basis of both the show and the cookbook.
BMN: What is your favorite Michigan memory?
ERIC: There are so many, but I guess I would have to say, we have a Lake Michigan home in Charlevoix--Just sitting on the veranda with my mother, who passed away a few years ago, and my father, and sister. Sitting on the porch, watching the sun drop into the lake with some Michigan sparkling wine. In fact, I wrote part of the book there.
BMN: How do you think your Michigan roots have impacted your life and career?
ERIC: It has given me a great sense of self-worth and kept me grounded. I trained in the south of France and my father was a third generation physician from South America so I have a varied pallet. I got to travel to a lot of great cities of the world and was exposed to different cuisines. I came back after exploring these beautiful cities & lands and realized it is all about the people. Michigan has the hardest working people. There is a strong feeling of self here. I love doing what I do, being a mouthpiece for Michigan, but I don’t just do it for myself. I believe Michigan is next to nobody for what we produce and we have a responsibility to the farmers to spread the word. By growing up in Michigan and living here my entire life, I recognize what can happen when you have an economic powerhouse and don’t take care of it.
BMN: What foods or beverages do you think of as being quintessential Michigan?
ERIC: For beverages, Vernors and Faygo, although Vernors isn’t made here anymore. Faygo still is. Of course there are the great wines from Leelanau, and hard apple cider. That is seeing a big resurgence. My favorite is J.K. Scrumpy’s made by Jim Koan at Almar Orchards (Flushing)…oh, and Divine Vodka. And there’s a rye vodka being made in Traverse City now too (True North Vodka). There are flavored vodkas. It’s about time somebody looked at using this incredible bounty of fruits we have for other things besides eating out of hand…not that that isn’t great!
As for food, for me, it’s planked whitefish. I guess from my youth growing up. I remember the first time I had it. I was sitting in front of that enormous fireplace at the Weathervane restaurant in Charlevoix. It was winter and no one was there. They brought out this charred plank. It was a beautiful filet.
BMN: What are some less commonly known Michigan ingredients?
ERIC: Everybody should be using Michigan beet sugar. Culinarily-speaking, there is no difference between cane and beet sugar when it’s refined. People shouldn’t even have to think about it, just do it. There’s also Michigan white shrimp. Russ Allen created the first indoor saltwater shrimp farm in the world. People will be surprised at shrimp coming from Michigan now, but then, one day that will change. Can you imagine Italy before tomatoes?
BMN: What are your thoughts on the Buy Michigan Now campaign?
ERIC: It’s the way we should be. I wish we didn’t have to ask people to do it. We should just all be doing it. Keeping your money in your neighborhood is a good idea. Even if you don’t care about the freshness that comes from local ingredients, it just makes sense.
BMN: How can people find the show?
ERIC: I love saying this: they should check their local listings. It’s a PBS show and airs in various timeslots all around the state. We’re in many other states now like Tennessee, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. I’m proud to say California was the first outside state to pick us up. They want to see what Michigan agriculture is all about. Incidentally, the book is the culmination of the first 4 seasons. Season 5 premiered March 29th.
BMN: What Shout Out do you have for your friends and fans in Michigan?
ERIC: Think global. Buy and eat local.