Believe in yourself and take some risks! You will get knocked down. You will get told you’re not good enough. You will mess up. But don’t stop. Take a gamble every now and again, put yourself out there, and go for it! You never know what you can achieve, until you try. The food industry is extremely tough, but you just have to be a fighter to get through it. Keep going, and don’t let yourself get discouraged when you hit a road bump. Challenges and setbacks will happen, but you can’t let that stop you. Just keep cooking!
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michael Silverstein.
After filming the 10th Season of MasterChef on FOX, Michael decided to move to Austin, Texas to pursue his passion for cooking and live out his food dreams! Chef Michael has secured his spot as one of the best cooks in America. Now, as a published author, private chef, and TV personality, Chef Michael Silverstein is passionate about the power of cooking to improve one’s life. After his personal journey losing over 80 pounds in one year on the Ketogenic diet, Michael hopes to share his keto recipes with the world through his new Cook Book, “New Keto Cooking”. His cookbook, “New Keto Cooking”, hits shelves worldwide December 8, 2020, and features a modern take on healthy eating. While Keto is a powerful weight loss tool, Chef Michael also believes that the benefits of a low-carb lifestyle are much more extensive than weight loss alone and works hard to create food that anyone would love, regardless of their nutritional goals.
These recipes strike the perfect balance of being easy and approachable for the home cook, while still using finer ingredients and smarter cooking methods that refine flavors and set recipes apart from other Keto collections.
Chef Michael is enthusiastic about teaching others how to cook healthy, delicious meals and firmly believes that anyone can make incredible food at home. He also offers private classes and 1 on 1 coaching for those interested in learning how to become a better cook. Michael has been featured on NPR, Delish, Good Day Austin, Pittsburgh Today Live, and more. When he’s not in the kitchen, he enjoys biking, playing piano, traveling and exploring the Austin food scene. He spends his free time at home with his fiancé, Jacob, and their rescue dog and cat.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
When I was 13 years old, I got my first job at a local Italian restaurant where I grew up. I didn’t even have a work permit yet, so I was relegated to rolling silverware into napkins, and getting paid under-the-table. Since I was too young to be working there ‘officially’, I was set up at a little station in the back of the kitchen, and that’s when I was exposed to what being a chef was really about. I remember watching the bustling kitchen run through a dinner service in absolute awe. If there is a single moment in my life that set me on a course toward a career as a chef, it was that moment. I still thrive in stressful environments and crave a certain level of intensity in anything I do, and I think it all stemmed from that first job.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I’m pretty focused on cooking Keto, and while my private chef business is not Keto-focused, as a food writer and blogger, my recipes are almost exclusively Keto and low-carb. While this has definitely become a big part of my career, it wasn’t exactly planned. I only started cooking Keto for myself — I desperately needed to lose weight. When I hit 30 years old, I was over 300 pounds. I was worried about my health, so I decided to make a change in my life. I started the Ketogenic diet, and naturally, as a chef, started developing Keto food that I just wanted to eat. I was losing weight, feeling good, and creating some yummy Keto food, so I was encouraged to share those recipes online to help others find the same success. I started an Instagram where I posted photos and recipes of my Keto creations, and quickly started garnering a small following. From there, I was noticed by MasterChef, and next thing I know, I’m cooking for Gordon Ramsay, and the rest is history! Now, a published cookbook author and blogger, my career has taken several twists and turns, and I’m so grateful for getting to share my food in so many different ways. I know people see Keto as a fad diet, but I create recipes that are just a bit different than the “diet” food you may find online. I make real, chef-inspired Keto food, and I hope to keep sharing that and helping people stay healthy while eating deliciously as well.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
I think it’s safe to say that competing on MasterChef was the most interesting (and insane!) experience of my life. While on set, obviously I was known as the Keto guy, and I think I was really underestimated because of it. There was an episode where we competed at creating a Tarte Tatin (essentially a French upside-down apple pie), and I don’t think any of my competitors were particularly threatened by me in a dessert challenge, since I don’t typically cook with sugar or flour. What they didn’t know is that I’ve spent a ton of my life baking (I’ve only been Keto for 2.5 years). To everyone’s surprise, I won the challenge, beating out all my competitors. Ramsay was particularly impressed. I combined pears and apples with some warm spices, such as toasted cardamom and ginger, and he commented on how perfect the crust was as well. I don’t think anyone expected the Keto guy to win the baking challenge. While, of course, I was proud of my underdog win, it really reminded me that you can’t underestimate people, especially in the kitchen. I try to give everyone around me a chance to prove themself, and save judgement for later. It’s an important lesson I’ve taken away from that and try to apply to many facets of my life now.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Well, I’ve never been to culinary school, and that’s always something that I feel haunts me as a chef. I’ve spent years studying food on my own, as well as learning from mentors in the kitchen. I know I can cook right alongside any trained chef, but it definitely gives me a lot of insecurity that I’m self-taught. Rather than letting that make me feel small, it only pushes me to learn more and hone my skills in the kitchen that much more. I think taking a “weakness”, and using that as a motivator, not an excuse, has helped push me to be better and grow continuously in the industry. I’m constantly motivated to learn more and improve, and I believe that’s made me a better chef.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
This may sound strangely obvious, but hear me out: It’s all about FLAVOR. I love modern cuisine, and I constantly try to elevate my food. In fact, most of the private chef events that I cook are multi-course tasting menus, and typically involve elevated cuisine. I think a lot of chefs today get so caught up in making the found sound exotic and creative that they forget to just make it yummy! I love eating at as many top-rated restaurants as possible wherever I am, but sometimes I leave those restaurants a bit unsatisfied. Yes, as chefs we should always be creating and pushing food to the next level. Yes, we should be experimenting with new flavors, and ingredients, but food should never be “fancy” at the expense of flavor. I am constantly finding this balance in my dishes and working toward finding the sweet spot between elevation and comfort. Food should make us happy, first, and that happens by creating dishes that feed the soul with absolute yumminess.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
I live for BBQ! I don’t think there is anything in the world quite like real Texas BBQ — fatty brisket, smoked sausage, ribs? That’s all I need to be happy. But if it’s not Texas BBQ, it’s Korean BBQ! Yes, I know these are two VERY different cuisines, but equally “perfect” in my humble opinion. My last meal will either be Texas-style brisket or endless Korean BBQ.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
This may sound strange, but I actually dream about food. I wake up with ideas and write them down in the Notes app on my phone. Even throughout the day, I just think about food and various ingredients and combinations. I can visualize what I want to make. That said, my daily inspiration comes from just walking the aisles of a grocery store or farmers’ market. Just stumbling upon a new or unusual ingredient gets my gears spinning, and a dish will form around that ingredient. In the bigger picture, I get really inspired by food of all different cuisines from around the globe, and work hard at learning dishes and culinary techniques used around the world. Hopefully I can start traveling again soon as well, as that’s a big part of how I get culinary inspiration.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
I’m now working full time from home as a food writer and blogger, so naturally, I’ve already started working on a second book. I never expected to enjoy writing so much, but there is something extremely satisfying about writing recipes for people. Knowing my food is ending up on a family’s dinner table brings me a lot of joy and gratitude, and I hope to keep doing that. I’m also working on starting a podcast in 2021, as well as continue doing online cooking classes, as it’s such a nice way to connect with people around food face-to-face. My instagram account (@chef-michael.keto) is where I continue to provide information for future classes, recipes, etc, and is the easiest way to stay up-to-date with the latest projects.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
The burnout is REAL. I get it. I left the restaurant industry and went into real estate for 5 years. Fortunately, I found my way back, and I’m so glad I did. I think the trick is to make sure you are continuously challenged. For me, when I’m not challenged, I’m bored, and therefore I lose motivation and passion. If you are not growing or being challenged at work, you are likely to feel like you don’t have a purpose, and that’s the worst feeling in the world. Keep growing, and you can avoid the burnout. Also, take breaks as needed! Don’t forget to take care of yourself!
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Don’t do it for the money. You have to live and breathe cooking, because being a chef is not going to get you rich. Do it because you love it; because food is your heart and soul.
2. No matter who you are, or how good you are, know this: There is still more that you don’t know about cooking than what you do know. You can always learn more, grow, and improve. Stay humble.
3. Find your niche — Not all careers in cooking are the same, and it’s a much broader field than you may realize. The experience of cooking in a small restaurant is completely different than in a hotel, or a Michelin star restaurant, or at a catering company, etc. Find what you enjoy and lean into it! Find your style and find the environment that suits you the best.
4. Being a good chef is about much more than just cooking. Dive into all facets of the industry. I put myself through bartending school and worked as a bartender, I’ve worked in the front of house as a server, I’ve run a Coldstone Ice Cream shop, I worked on my own as a private chef, and much more. All these experiences have made me a more well-rounded chef. Learn about all sides of the industry, and you’ll have a much better handle on the entire operation.
5. Believe in yourself and take some risks! You will get knocked down. You will get told you’re not good enough. You will mess up. But don’t stop. Take a gamble every now and again, put yourself out there, and go for it! You never know what you can achieve, until you try. The food industry is extremely tough, but you just have to be a fighter to get through it. Keep going, and don’t let yourself get discouraged when you hit a road bump. Challenges and setbacks will happen, but you can’t let that stop you. Just keep cooking!
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment? [Cookbook?]
Try my bacon-fat fried crab cakes! I cooked a version of these for Gordon Ramsay and he called them a top ten crab cake he’s ever had in the world. So naturally, I had to make a Keto version for my cookbook, and it’s one recipe you MUST try.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Regardless of how you feel about a Keto diet, or whether you want to lose weight or not, there is simply no reason why the standard American diet needs to include so much flour and sugar. I want to prove that food can be just as tasty without flour and sugar, and if that message could spread even beyond just the Keto community, I think we’d see widespread improvements in our health. I’m on a mission to make really amazing food that is just a bit better for us, without sacrificing flavor or satisfaction. Small changes can yield big results over time. I want to help people feel better, and I believe that starts with the food we eat.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!