As he stirs a simmering mixture of roasted mirepoix, shredded confit duck and lima beans, inked images of branches of bone seem to snake above his temples and across his shaved head.
Mike McElroy has lost track of his tattoos. Like many of his memories, he said, “They just kind of blend together.”
But this one, this elk skull on the back of his head and above the fray, watches over everything, which – at this moment – includes confit duck cassoulet. It sold out when he ran the dish as a special, so – on this recent Friday afternoon – he was preparing to run it again, then add it to the regular menu.
Confit duck cassoulet is just one of the menu changes McElroy has made since starting as executive chef at Casper Fry in early September. After some 20 years away, he’s come home to Spokane, a town he left as a troubled youth, a kid who’d rather be drinking and drugging and skateboarding than going to school. And he’s brought everything he’s learned about cooking Creole, Cajun and soul food – as well as whole animal butchery, smoked meats and classic French techniques – with him.
McElroy comes to Casper Fry, which specializes in Southern-inspired fare, with an understanding of the cuisine of the South and Inland Northwest. He was born and raised in Spokane but earned his culinary chops in kitchens from Florida to California – with longer stints in Louisiana and Texas, where he got clean.
McElroy, the third executive chef at Casper Fry in 4 1/2 years, is three years sober come January. Two and half months in, his boss, Casper Fry owner Deb Green, is impressed with his experience, demeanor and candor – especially about his past.
“Mike’s very humble,” Green said. “There’s no pretense. He’s really genuine, honest, laid-back. I get the feeling Mike’s a big teddy bear in a bad-ass costume. He is calm. He’s collected. He’s cool.”