Executive Chef at the Detroit Club
For Kirk McKinney, Executive Chef at the Detroit Club, the passion to build a professional life in the kitchen began at the age of 13, baking bread and pizza dough in suburban Detroit. From that moment, says McKinney, “I was hooked.” “To me, the kitchen is home.”
After attending Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, McKinney returned to Michigan to hone his skills under the tutelage of Milos Cihelka, America’s first certified master chef, at the Golden Mushroom restaurant in Southfield. For a young cook, the experience was extraordinary. “The food was beautiful and amazing,” says McKinney. Chef Milos had a superhuman palate.”
Soon, McKinney purchased a popular breakfast restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, adding his name to create McKinney’s Golden Harvest. As a business owner, his knowledge of the industry accelerated. He sold the restaurant after six successful years and used the proceeds to design, build and operate the Great Lakes Diner Company, which flourished for another five years. The menu was basic, but McKinney insisted on the finest local ingredients and meticulous preparation in every dish. “The comfort food we shared with our guests was my way of reconnecting them … and myself ... with a home-cooked meal.”
Ironically, that focus on a home in the kitchen meant travel, and lots of it. McKinney’s career led him across the continent, and halfway across the Pacific Ocean, to the four-star Four Seasons Hualalai on the big island of Hawaii, as well as opening several restaurants, followed by a culinary manager/operations manager at the Hard Rock Café International.
Though he enjoyed his Hawaiian employment, he realized that the most efficient way to excel was to finish his formal education at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. During that time, he was offered an externship with legendary chef Daniel Boulud at his world-class New York Restaurant Daniel. “It was, quite simply, the opportunity of a lifetime,” says McKinney. It was there he fell in love with French technique and discipline.
McKinney’s previous experience in Hawaii had made a deep impression, and it was to there he returned, following graduation from the CIA, for an opportunity to be the opening chef for Merriman’s in Kuaui, a casual- and fine-dining restaurant with mission to deeply integrate with the local community and promote a farm-to-table operation. “Eleven farmers brought produce to our restaurant every day; some of it was still warm from the hot Hawaiian sun,” says McKinney. “Lamb was a stone’s throw from the restaurant. We had fishermen pulling up to the back door with fresh Mahi and Yellowfin Tuna.” McKinney reveals the depth of his passion for his craft when he recalls the experience. “Preparing a menu with food so fresh … so local … was like a prayer. You gain certain responsibility and respect for food and farmers when you see where your food comes from and who is out there every day in the elements caring for produce and livestock.”
Returning to his native Michigan, McKinney accepted an offer to bring a fresh concept to the existing Epic Bistro and Central City Tap House in Kalamazoo. While successfully managing the two restaurants, increasing profitability and converging the two separate entities into a single streamlined restaurant duo, McKinney had the chance to share his impressive culinary skill set with nascent chefs as he taught three classes at Kalamazoo Cooks, a local culinary school.
Having met his goals in Kalamazoo, McKinney chose to return to the big stage in New York, beginning at the Highway Diner and Bar in East Hampton. From there he became the opening chef at SUITE 36, a 6,000 square-foot multi-purpose food and beverage venue with seven separate menus, all of which he created.
Next, McKinney accepted a one-year appointment in the U.S. Virgin Islands to rebuild potential to two restaurants, the Cruzan Beach Club and the Sunset Grille, both operated by the St. Thomas Restaurant Group; the job was followed by a return to New York and an executive chef position at the Olive Tree Café and New York icon Comedy Cellar.
There, McKinney revitalized an aging culinary operation, bringing it to new profitability and popularity. “The Olive Tree was a fun gig,” says McKinney. “It was rewarding to prepare inviting and homey fare for the guests; the bonus was to get to know some of the most successful comics in the nation. Where else would I get the chance to cook for Chapel, Seinfeld, Schumer, Rock, CK, Attell just to name a few.”
The nexus of exceptional food from an efficient, healthy kitchen and the love of home and family coalesced in the chance to return once again to Michigan, to be closer to family and to open Cove Lakeside Bistro in Portage, Michigan.
McKinney took over the kitchen at The Detroit Club just a few short weeks before opening. “It was a huge challenge, “he said, “I’ve opened and rebranded many restaurants in my career, but none with the history like there is here at The Detroit Club. We have a responsibility to those before us to build on the foundation they built for us. My goal is to bring together old-world elegance and new world cuisine. We have assembled an amazing staff here. Not easy to do when there are new restaurants opening every week in Detroit.
“With a granddaughter in the Detroit area, and the rest of my family near, suddenly I had a chance to bring all my passions … for food and its possibilities, for family, and for home … to an exciting project unlike any I had ever undertaken,” says McKinney. “I live in downtown Detroit, a short drive to the club. It’s a transformational time to be in this city, and an opportunity to bring my decades of experience to the kitchen of The Detroit Club,” he says. “I’ve come full circle, back home.”