SamB’s Restaurant in downtown Bowling Green has been bringing popular dishes to the community for over a half century — since 1972.
Chef Matt Lawrence has one recipe that he does not need to keep secret — risotto. SamB’s owner Jim Farrell says it is a favorite.
Originally a northern Italian rice dish with a history dating back to the 14th century, the rice is cooked with broth until it reaches a creamy consistency.
“It is certainly one of those dishes that comes under the classification of cucina povera, or poor man’s food,” Lawrence said. “There is a little technique behind it.
“When you can take something as simple as a grain, like rice, and transform it into an actual center of the plate meal, you know you have a winner.”
There are way too many variations to count. The dish he presented to the Sentinel-Tribune was shrimp and scallop risotto, but the recipe is chicken risotto.
“It’s on the menu but it’s not something that is so difficult that a home cook couldn’t make it, or even make an adaptation of it,” Lawrence said.
“It could be chicken risotto — risotto is sort of a blank canvas. You just have to make the risotto from Arborio rice and then from it is really up to the home cook. You can add mushrooms, different vegetables, or whatever they want.”
Lawrence says if you want your own variation, just ask the chef. It’s likely he will be able to cook to your order.
“We can make it up to order when the customer comes in — a little bit more chicken stock, a little bit of white wine, heavy on the cream, lots of Parmesan cheese to get that cheesy rice going — that’s really all it is, is an Italian form of a cheesy rice,” Lawrence said.
“Every cuisine has a version of cheesy rice and we seer jumbo sea scallops, jumbo shrimp, we present it artfully on the plate, we finish with a little bit more parmesan cheese, and we just add a simple butter sauce for a little extra flavor, and that is the dish coming at you.”
For Chef Lawrence, who has been at SamB’s for five years, Italian cuisine is a favorite, but he admits the menu at SamB’s includes multiple cuisines.
“I think Italian is one of the ones I lean heavily on only because I was with the Mancy restaurant group for 10 years,” Lawrence said.
“I was the second chef at Mancy’s Italian for most of those, but I feel I don’t like to pigeonhole myself either,” he continued.
“I think that I like to work with seafood especially, fresh fish, and fresh ingredients, salad techniques, and I can do a little French, I can do a little Spanish, I can do a little bit of everything, like Asian, you know.”
Lawrence says he’s “worked in the gastro industry more years than I care to remember, and I kick myself in the butt every year that I get older, but here we are.”
His interest in food began as a child growing up in Lansing, Michigan.
“I credit my mother (Tammy) more than anything. She put a lot of responsibility on me when I was younger,” Lawrence said.
“I had a younger brother and a younger sister, and both the parents worked, so she would make dishes in advance for me to heat or finish, so that was my responsibility growing up,” Lawrence continued.
“So, she’d say, ‘At this time, make sure this casserole or whatever gets in the oven, cook it for this long,’ and whatever I needed to do beyond that — add a couple cans of cream of mushroom soup or something — who knows?
“It’s been so many years now, so I think that’s one of the reasons why I stuck with food over the multitude of things I have done and tried.”
Lawrence learned his craft in the kitchen, not in the classroom.
“I had the opportunity to travel a little bit when I was younger,” Lawrence said. “I worked with some real good talented chefs that showed me and I was always a little more self-driven than a lot of people where I would take the time to read the same textbooks that these guys are reading in school.
“I would buy the books and read them, and you know, what I could practice from the book, I would take to work with me and work on those different things.
“I had the opportunity to work in Boston for a while, DeKalb, Illinois, Savannah, Georgia, Bonita Springs, Florida, so I did some traveling working in different restaurants, country clubs and that kind of thing, learning.”
Farrell and Lawrence must be doing something right — they have both succeeded in this business for decades.
“On a regular basis, we get a lot of regular customers in here, and when you see the same customers coming in here every week, week-in and week-out, that’s how great it is, that is more than enough compliments for me,” Lawrence said.
“There are a bunch of people — I can’t name them all. They come in every week, they come in multiple times a week sometimes, and if it wasn’t good, they wouldn’t do that.”
1 tablespoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups fine diced yellow onion
10 cups chicken stock
2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
5 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into pieces
1 3/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese
Combine 1 tablespoon salt and the chicken broth in a medium stockpot. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
In a separate medium stockpot over medium heat add olive oil and diced onion. Sweat the onions until translucent, sprinkle in the salt. Next add the Arborio rice and lightly toast the grains of rice. Add the wine and slowly reduce until absorbed. Next add enough of the hot chicken broth to cover the rice and simmer stirring frequently. Let the Arborio rice absorb the liquid and check the rice for tenderness. If still a little under done add a few cups of liquid at a time until is rice is al dente.
Once rice is al dente stir in the Parmesan cheese, butter, black pepper and any additional salt to taste.