HE WAS ON TRACK to become an electrical engineer, but Jimmy Schmidt caught the cooking bug while studying briefly in France. He ended up in Boston, working under the tutelage of the legendary Madeleine Kamman; from there he headed back to his Midwestern roots, where he ran the show and racked up the kudos for Detroit's London Chop House. In 1985, he opened his first Rattlesnake Club, in Denver; he next duplicated the popular concept back in Detroit, then Palm Springs. Today his portfolio consists of the Detroit restaurant and a new venture, Morgan's in the Desert, at the fabled La Quinta Resort & Club in Palm Springs. An early farm-to-table champion, Jimmy Schmidt founded the Chefs Collective in 1991. We caught up with him between meals recently basking in that desert heat.
RH: Walk us through what you're doing at Morgan's. How does it compare to your other restaurants?
Schmidt: It's similar in that it's my usual cooking style. The focus is on local ingredients, foods that are in season. The Coachella Valley is such a great agricultural resource; it's tremendous what we can get. How is it different? It's fine dining, but it's not a white tablecloth restaurant. Some tables are covered, some aren't. It's a relaxed, casual, comfortable living room-type environment. The whole look of the room is rustic, a throwback to 1926 when the resort was founded by W. H. Morgan.
RH: You've been chanting the local and sustainable mantra for years. That must pose some hurdles for a restaurant like Rattlesnake Club during Detroit winters.
Schmidt: When it's winter in Detroit, we go to a lot of hearty foods and root vegetables. When it's nine degrees in Detroit, you feel like eating heavier, more substantial foods. In Palm Springs it's winter, too, so people eating a little heavier than they would in the summer, but local products are what you would find in the summer in the Midwest- — sweet corn and strawberries, mangos, papayas — just about everything. Berries come from a few miles away from a farmer who grows them until they are fully ripe. They're gorgeous. We've been working on developing relationships here for the last seven years.
RH: One of your cookbooks focuses on healthy cooking practices, and you invented Life2Go, a functional beverage. How did you initially get interested in health?
Schmidt: With fresh foods, the fuller the flavor something has, the more nutrients it has. So if you really like great ingredients, you're really interested in nutrition as well. I've been involved more deeply in sports nutrition for about 15 years. I started playing around with it myself when I started cycling, then I got involved in crewing on ocean-racing yachts and took care of their dietary needs. Then I worked with the GM racing crews.
RH: What exactly is a functional beverage?
Schmidt: It's a patented beverage that has the right blend and structure of protein and carbohydrates so the body can absorb it more efficiently. It pulls along all the amino acids, electrolytes and vitamins used in metabolism of energy. In simple terms, it's like getting everything in the oven at the right time to bake.
RH: Are you known for a signature dish or two that you can't pull from the menu?
Schmidt: In Detroit we sell porcini-crusted filet. It's put into a vacuum chamber and tumbled, then grilled and finished with porcini and wild chanterelles. Some version of that dish probably is always on the menu.
RH: What ingredient captures your imagination at the moment?
Schmidt: Something I'm having a lot of fun with is salt. There are a lot of different sea salts out there, also salts flavored with spices, wine reductions or other ingredients to make other flavor blends. So when you're seasoning at the end, it's more than just a sprinkling of salt. The salt might have flavors from chilis, or vanilla, or herbs or wine. It allows you to build more layers of flavors in the dish. It really makes the flavors pop.
RH: Where do you get inspiration for your menus? Walk us through the creative process.
Schmidt: The ingredients are my inspiration. The raw ingredients — figs, fennel, garlic, all the great citrus out here, fabulous mangos — as well as the wines and beverages. For our wine dinners, will take a new wine and say, “which dish would be great with that wine?” and that will be the inspiration.
RH: Who in the business, living or dead, do you admire most?
Schmidt: Probably my mentor, Madeleine Kamman. We've maintained a relationship since the late 1970s. Even though she's retired and out of the public spotlight, she's still eating, drinking and thinking about food 24/7.
RH: What change for the better have you seen among the dining public?
Schmidt: I'm really excited that people are more aware of using local and fresh ingredients. I think that's exciting not just because we're using local resources, but also because of the carbon footprint. Shipping things from around the world is great, but at the end of the day using more local ingredients is going to be better for everybody.
RH: Do you have any guilty pleasures, food-wise?
Schmidt: Chee-tos. That's about the only weird thing. And I love sea salt caramel ice cream and other salty sweets.
RH: How do you like to relax? Any room for vacation?
Schmidt: I unwind with my kids. I've got two older kids who are 22 and 20. The younger ones are 8, 2 and 1 — all boys. They're a handful, but they're great.
We like the national parks — they are great for the kids. We spend a lot of time at Joshua Tree National Park, which is fabulous for hiking. The Mojave Desert is really cool. We hit Hoover Dam last year. There's a whole myriad of parks down the Colorado River. We probably spend more time up at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Michigan. My kids and wife spend lot of time there.