We interview our first American celebrity chef!
With appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Nightline, and The Food Network, he’s definitely made his mark on the other side of the pond. Asides from this he runs 7 restaurants and apparently has some time left over for family life…
We subject him to some rigorous (yet friendly) questioning – and Michael gives as good as he gets.
Birthplace: Brooklyn, NY
Fun Fact: Michael can juggle
Jack: What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the world of Michael Schlow?
Michael: I wake up at 7am, groggy, in need of coffee, greeted with said coffee by my smiling wife and 2 joyous daughters. Sometimes I cook breakfast and or lunch for them, sometimes my wife does it. Around 8am I start to look at the receipts from the prior night, email the restaurants (if necessary) and get my day started. Rarely do I get to the gym, but if I do, it’s in the morning.
First meetings are usually around 10am, then I try to be in one of the restaurants for lunch, working with staff, Executives, greeting guests, etc. I attempt to take a break between 4 and 630 to see my family, maybe make them dinner, before they go to sleep and then I go back to work.
Work usually ends around 930pm, sometimes later, and if my wife is asleep, I might stop off at my favorite sushi restaurant for a quick late night bite and a drink. Can’t fall asleep much before 1230am, so I may watch a few minutes of TV before going to bed.
You and your many restaurants are doing pretty well! (congratulations, I’ve heard how insanely hard that is…) Considering the failure rate of your average restaurant, could you give us an insight into how you’ve done it so well, and so consistently?
I’m not sure I have any sort of “plan” other than to think about what I would like when I go out to eat and how I would like to be treated….being in the restaurant business is pretty simple but it takes an enormous amount of time, effort, and attention to detail, but it’s not like we’re splitting atoms or doing brain surgery!
We attempt to create restaurants that transport our guests for whatever time they spend with us, never challenging them with items that might seem too exotic or wacky, treating them as if they were guests in our home.
Obviously you have to have an eye for business and understand the mechanics and economics of the restaurant because every penny really does matter and if you lose focus, for even a short time, you can fail easily.
How did you get started as a chef, and when did you know it was the career for you? Could you give us a little backstory? I read you’d originally planned to play baseball professionally?
I had toyed with a few different careers but I had always worked in restaurants as a way to make some spending money and also to put myself thru school. Realistically baseball was over by the time I was 20 (I got hurt) and I needed to find a true passion; my first day at culinary school, I knew I had stumbled onto what I was destined to do and I haven’t looked back.
My first job taught me a lot as my job was to basically do EVERYTHING! I got up early, took in all of the groceries, put away the liquor, rearranged the linens, helped breakdown meats, then went on the line at lunch time to get my ass kicked and be yelled at by the chef for not being fast enough.
After lunch, I would go home, take a shower, put on a tuxedo, and cook table side out on the dining room floor, making Caesar Salads, Steak Diane, and Cherries Jubilee….I did that 7 days a week for months and it was invaluable experience.
From there I would go on to work for the best chefs and restaurateurs that would have me, sometimes working for free, to build my resume and skills… I often slept on floors or in basements.
Sadly, there are very few young cooks that are willing to grab those experiences today but if you ask the great chefs working today, many started out the way I did….there’s no shortcuts if you want to be a chef.
I see that you’re a fellow food pornographer (or should that be photographer?…ahem) – your shots are quite delicious. Asides from good lighting, what’s the secret of good food photography, and how can I improve mine? (it needs some work…)
I’m a real amateur with the photography but I love it. I take the photos hoping the diners see the dish from my perspective, how I imagine someone looking at it before eating it, hopefully saying/thinking “Damn this looks good, I can’t wait to try it”
What’s the hardest dish you’ve ever prepared, personally?
That’s a really tough question because I think the hardest dishes to make are probably the simplest ones with the fewest ingredients; dishes like simple Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil. There are only a few ingredients in my version (no garlic or onions….just tomato, basil, some spices and olive oil) so there is no margin for error. If the pasta is miscooked or the sauce isn’t perfect, its rendered useless.
Same with sushi. There’s nowhere to hide.
If you are talking about degree of difficulty due to labour and time to prepare, it’s probably a dish I made at Radius many years ago, it was delicious but so time consuming. It was a “lasagne: (no actual pasta) of Braised Short Rib and lightly caramelized Macomber Turnips and was garnished with Apple Puree, Crispy Potato Rings, and Madeira…it took 4 days to make.
And the most memorable experience of which you were catering?
There have been many wonderful experiences that I have catered outside of the restaurants, but some of my favourites certainly circle around my love for music. Through food I have gotten to meet and become friends with some of my favourite musicians and I am lucky enough to often do something special for them before or after a show.
I’ve done this for The Rolling Stones, U2, REM, and Billy Joel.
If you could go back to the beginning and start over, what would you change or do differently?
Nothing… it’s all part of the ride.
If money were no obstacle whatsoever, what would you do with your career & business?
I’ll always work, I can’t see myself ever really retiring, but if money were really no object, I would open a restaurant with about 16 seats, all plush counter seats that surrounded the area that I cooked so I could interact with the guests during the meal; and the guests would have to buy tickets so I knew I wasn’t wasting food!
I would open 3 nights a week and cook whatever I thought looked best and the guests would all get the same thing… 15 small courses and only 1 seating, with lots of story telling and wine consumption. I’d be open every other month, 3 nights a week. That sounds like a lovely retirement.
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise. Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific culinary influences?
I’m a composite of a lot of experiences and a lot of people… I was taught early to take the best from the situation you are in and eschew what you find unnecessary or negative.
I have many chefs and restaurateurs to thank for my experiences, but if there was one person that I always look to for inspiration and strength, it’s my father, Ned. He recently passed away, but he’s the one that taught me about morals, patience, work ethic, responsibility, and integrity.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Something creative…a photographer or maybe an architect…
What’s your favourite regional cuisine?
Its a toss up….Italian or Japanese.
What’s your most ‘unfavourite’ food, and what don’t you like about it?
While I use garlic all of the time, I think it’s the most mis-used ingredient and I think it should be kept away from a lot of cooks. It’s powerful and can be wonderful, if used with restraint and care….it becomes my most unfavourite ingredient if it’s gotten into the wrong hands.
As for “finished” food, I would have to say I am not a huge fan of Lutfisk (Scandiavian Stock Fish Soaked Lye)…tastes like poison.
What’s your culinary philosophy, summed up in a sentence?
Keep it simple… mother nature has done most of the work, all we need to do is add a little acid, salt, and chillies to make a dish sing.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs and restaurateurs who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had? (including the whole building a thriving media career bit!)
It’s really simple…
…don’t be in a hurry to become the boss; work for the best chefs and restaurateurs that will have you and don’t worry about money. The education, the foundation, that’s what will eventually set you apart from all of your peers.
So many young chefs see this “instant” success, but will it be longstanding? It’s my opinion that you need to build a really strong foundation with which to build a career.
Don’t leave a job for a least 2 years…
…if you are working somewhere that you are not learning, you are in the wrong place. Education and a wealth of knowledge will always win in the end.
Where next for you and your businesses?
We are looking to expand our Alta Strada brand…it’s been very successful and we feel its something we can replicate yet keep it’s charm and authenticity.
That, and still looking for the perfect location to open a burger joint.
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions:
If you could be transformed into any kind of household appliance but retained your memories & ability to speak, which would you pick?
The Oven and Range in the kitchen…this way I could (gently) tell my wife how I would prepare certain dishes since she would now be required to do the cooking now that I’ve been transformed from loving husband to household appliance.
Even though she is an excellent cook, we definitely have different styles and this way I could make (quiet) suggestions.
If you were made head chef of Mordor, and tasked to prepare a five course banquet for Lord Sauron and the Ringwraiths, what would you make for them?
Hmmm…this is tough one since I have no idea what they might like to eat, but Mordor was based on a volcano in Stromboli Italy, so I guess 1 course would definitely have to be Stomboli…maybe stuffed with Spicy Black Forest Ham and Cheese.
Here’s the meal, in progression:
- Deviled Eggs
- Blackfish Ceviche with Hot Chiles
- Sliced Stomboli with Black Forest Ham and Cheese
- A proper Roast with Yorkshire pudding
- Warm Chocolate chip Cookies
And again, but now it’s a meal for The Sopranos (off of the TV show of the same name…)
I actually did get to cook for the entire Sopranos cast, the night before the final episode of the series. I was asked to prepare a meal that they would all be attending so I made real “Italian-American” food that I had grown up with in NY and NJ. (Ed: Well, I didn’t see that coming!)
- Pasta e Fagoli
- Meatballs with Spicy Tomato Sauce
- Fried Calamari
- Veal with Mushrooms and Lemon
- Rigatoni with Meat Sauce
- Sliced Steak
- Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Garlic
- Shrimp Scampi