Chef Profile: ‘Going the Extra Mile’

Chef de cuisine Stephan VanHeulen brings palpable passion to the penthouse kitchen at Cygnus 27. Photo by Michael Buck
Chef de cuisine Stephan VanHeulen brings palpable passion to the penthouse kitchen at Cygnus 27. Photo by Michael Buck

This article is from the December 2018 Grand Rapids Magazine. Available on newsstands now or via subscription.

Two hours before dinner service commences, Cygnus 27 chef de cuisine Stephan VanHeulen has deftly inspected the kitchen, marveling at the diver scallops — gorgeous, pearly pink and way more substantial than anything you can buy at a supermarket; smelling the exhilarating earthiness of the fluffy hen-of-the-woods, royal trumpet and white beech mushrooms; and tasting the whipped root vegetable purée. But it’s the massive octopus with eight tentacles, a dangerously delicious beast, that stopped him in his tracks.

The Spanish octopus — so unassumingly named on the menu — anchors a plate of striking contrasts. The snow-white plate first is dramatically brushed with a jet-black squid ink vinaigrette followed by a tangle of two octopus tentacles, fried fingerling potatoes, dehydrated kalamata olives, pimentón oil (smoked paprika-infused oil) and fresh watercress. “Octopus is one of my favorite things,” VanHeulen said. “It really speaks to the kinds of creative showstopping dishes that I love to make.”

Oh, yes, it’s all drama around here. Perched on the 27th floor of the Amway Grand Plaza, Cygnus 27 feels like a freewheeling dream with gorgeous vistas of Grand Rapids coupled with over-the-top delectability that makes you wonder — how did the chef do that? No snotty, stuck-up attitude here; the restaurant vibes with Spain’s swankiest flavors and culinary characteristics that VanHeulen harnesses into a dazzling newness.

The montaditos de salmón (citrus-cured salmon) makes your eyes dilate because you’ve never seen a presentation quite like this. A trio of baguette slices, black from squid ink, showcases a fennel pâté, pickled mustard seeds, fresh greens, and salmon — razor-thin and draped out like a delicate ribbon. “I want it to be very beautiful and memorable, so I’m passionate about the flavors on each plate,” he said. “Everything here is 100 percent housemade, and that is something that is really important to me.”

Oh, and it’s beautiful, all right; Instagrammable beautiful — his shaved cucumber salad turned up as one of the Travel Channel’s 12 Instagram-Worthy Restaurant Dishes in June, and it’s easy to see why. The prettiness can’t be denied with its “cucumber slices twirled into little rolls, sweet teardrop peppers, radishes, salsa verde and coconut cheese, which is a faux cheese made of coconut milk and sprinkled on the top,” VanHeulen said. “It’s 100 percent vegan and easy to share.”

After graduating from Lowell High School in 2004, VanHeulen moved to Grand Rapids, working two to three restaurant jobs at once, figuring it was a good way to pay the bills. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I fell in love with this,” said VanHeulen, who at 24 went back to school, enrolling at Secchia Institute of Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College while cooking full time at Courtyard by Marriott Grand Rapids Downtown. In 2013, with his fresh culinary associate degree, VanHeulen joined the banquet team at Amway Grand Plaza, where the hotel stages massive events. “You think that you know how to cut up a tomato, cut up a pepper, until you gotta do it for 6,000 people,” VanHeulen said. “It sharpens your basics like none other, and it’s a great learning experience.”

Not long after, in the spring of 2015, VanHeulen literally was moving on up — from the basement kitchens to the penthouse restaurant, 27 floors up in the sky. VanHeulen’s stellar cooking led to his promotion to sous chef, then to chef de cuisine after a brutal audition against ambitious chefs from New York City and Chicago who hungered for AAA Four Diamond mark of distinction prestige.

Taking the purest ingredients helps VanHeulen turn them into the most painterly dishes that you’ve ever seen. His whole roasted trout, sourced from Harrietta Hills, is dramatically wrapped with serrano ham, greens, watermelon radish and salsa rosa; his 16-ounce Sobie bone-in pork chop, brined and spiced rubbed, is cooked to perfection then shingled out on the plate with herb butter and bitter green salad; and those seared diver scallops with fresh herb risotto, sherry-glazed seasonal mushrooms, serrano ham crisp and lemon beurre blanc is every bit as haute bourgeois as you would expect in a penthouse restaurant.

“If it’s going on this menu, then I have to love eating it,” VanHeulen said. “This is joy, the kind of joy that should surround dining out. No matter what, I’m going the extra mile.”

You can find Chef Stephan VanHeulen’s recipe for Citrus-Cured Salmon in the December 2018 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine.

*Photos by Michael Buck

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