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Friday, May 9, 2003 02:20 pm

Tradition with a twist

How Michael Higgins left his mark on a Springfield mainstay

Michael Higgins Creative approaches to Midwestern meat and vegetables
Nick Steinkamp

Taking advantage of the lull between the lunch and dinner crowds, Michael Higgins sits down at a white linen-topped table in the dim bar at Maldaner's, the city's oldest restaurant. As co-owner, Higgins spends his time buying, planning, and preparing food. Now he's taking a few minutes to discuss it.

With his glasses, gray mustache, and salt-and-pepper hair, Higgins could easily pass for the schoolteacher he set out to become. But after the California native worked in the food industry during college, he was hooked. He got a second degree in hotel and restaurant management, and moved to St. Louis, where he worked as an ice sculptor in the field of cold food presentation. He met his future wife Nancy, a pastry chef, and after getting married their job search led them to Springfield--and Maldaner's--in 1982.

"We thought we'd give it a try and move back to California in a few years," says Higgins. But as their roles at the restaurant gradually increased, so did their ties to Springfield. In 1995 they purchased the downtown restaurant, which was founded in 1884 by John Maldaner.

The restaurant, with its dark wood wainscoting, stained-glass light fixtures, and painted tin ceiling, is known for its creative approaches to traditional Midwestern meat and vegetables. Beef Wellington and pistachio-encrusted salmon are two long-time favorites. Higgins loves to experiment, even if some dishes don't turn out to be hits. "The smoked eel served on a potato pancake didn't work. I thought it was really good," Higgins says, laughing, "but I think the eel put it over the edge."

While being a business owner means his days are now filled with duties like paying bills, preparing for parties, and spending time on the phone with clients and suppliers, food is still Higgins' focus. He writes menus and can be found in the kitchen every night, preparing the special dishes he's become known for--often dishes tied to the growing seasons of such local delicacies as morel mushrooms and tomatoes. Higgins also works as much as possible with local farmers, who provide free-range chicken and organic eggs. In the summer months, he's a fixture at the downtown farmer's market.

The food channel, celebrity chefs, food magazines, and a more widely traveled public have all made his job a little easier, because customers are more knowledgeable about food and willing to try different dishes. "The more educated the population is, the more fun you can have," Higgins says. "It's our job to help our customers grow. The trick is to keep the comfort items for people. Not everybody in Springfield is from Chicago or St. Louis and not everyone travels. At the same time, you have an obligation to stretch. It's the balance game we play."

Higgins often doesn't get home until midnight, so there's not a lot of cooking at home. On Sundays, in his free time, he and Nancy enjoy looking at cookbooks and restaurant reviews. They also take weekend trips to Chicago or St. Louis to try new restaurants.

For a guy who spends so much time thinking about food, Higgins finds it hard to pick a favorite meal. The closest he can come is to name a few favorite meats: duck, veal, lamb. When going out to dinner with family or friends, he and Nancy like to try several dishes. He doesn't insist on fancy items--as long as the food's well prepared and fairly priced.

"I believe in honesty and value in what you sell," he says. "I try to look at food for the quality for my money. I'm just as happy with a cheeseburger. But if I'm having a $40 steak, it should be a $40 steak."

Higgins admits that he sometimes misses the incredible variety of foods and cooking styles available in California. But he also sees the value of a city like Springfield sticking to old favorites and taking time to embrace new tastes.

"Change comes slower to the Midwest but that's not necessarily a bad thing," he says. "We provide a little bit of a foundation."

Maldaner's is at 222 S. Sixth; call 522-4313 for reservations.

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