James Beard Award Winning Chef Michael Schlow: “Let’s start a movement to dramatically improve school lunch”

…Dramatically improve school lunch. It is an embarrassment, and unacceptable, that the average public school budgets around $1 per student for school lunch. Go to a supermarket….can you make anything with good nutritional value for $1? Of course not. Kids in school need a good meal in order to have proper nutritional intake in order […]

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…Dramatically improve school lunch. It is an embarrassment, and unacceptable, that the average public school budgets around $1 per student for school lunch. Go to a supermarket….can you make anything with good nutritional value for $1? Of course not. Kids in school need a good meal in order to have proper nutritional intake in order to be able to concentrate and learn. $1 per student is ridiculous.

I had the pleasure to interview James Beard Award Winning Chef and Restaurateur. With restaurants spanning the country, Michael Schlow is one of the most influential and respected chefs in America today. His ability to capture a variety of global cuisines and techniques has led to appearances on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Nightline, and The Food Network. Michael’s been the recipient of many awards including being named “Best Chef in the Northeast” by the James Beard Foundation. His restaurants have been recognized as some of the best in the world by Esquire, Food & Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, Gourmet and more. He also authored “It’s About Time, Great Recipes for Everyday Life.” Originally from Brooklyn NY, Michael has made his home in Boston, MA with his wife Adrienne and his two daughters Petra and Axelle.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What inspired you to become a chef (or restauranteur)?

I’ve loved to cook from the time I was little…but cooking at home and cooking for a living are very different. I was first smitten by the restaurant industry with my very first “culinary” job, which was as a dishwasher, at age 14 at a local restaurant called The Newsroom. I loved the interaction between the restaurant and the guests, the teamwork amongst the staff, and the notion that we were making people happy. It was easy hard work but I loved it, and it was easy to become inspired to do more within the industry.

What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?

From the first time I stepped into my very first kitchen I’ve felt lucky, like I had found what I was supposed to do with my life. While the journey has had its bumps along the way, I’ve been so lucky to have found a job that I don’t consider to be work. Even when times are tough, I love what I do to such a point that it’s not work. I’ve had the great pleasure of having worked with some of the best, most talented people in the business, was lucky enough to meet my wife and some of my best friends through restaurants, I’ve traveled the world, eaten amazing food, and yes, of course I have met my fair share of assholes along the way, but it’s been a beautiful ride so far and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?

I’m not sure I have a “specialty” but the food that I am most comfortable cooking and is my “go to” cuisine would be Italian, especially pasta. After my training at Sapore de Mare, I have always been enamored and drawn to simple yet gutsy pasta dishes, one where the flavors are so bold and so on point that they create an instant memory.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?

So many funny and interesting stories. Every day brings something new. I’m not sure I could pick just one story, but here is a kind of funny one.

I was on a strict budget with the opening of one restaurant and we didn’t have any money left over for art. I wasn’t married at the time (my wife Adrienne is a mixed media artist and now does the art for most of our restaurants) and had to figure out how to put something up on the walls that would be interesting. I am a rank amateur photographer, much better with food shots than anything else, but I set out on a bit of a journey and took a bunch of photos that I hoped I could do something with. I picked the best ones, bartered with a framer to have them professionally framed, and then can up with the crackpot idea to create a fictitious artist named “Christian Boyd”, whom I would credit as the artist that gifted the art to the restaurant. When the pieces came back to the restaurant, I secretly signed all of them as original Christian Boyd’s, numbered them, and hung them on the wall. I even went so far as to make a website for the artist to give him legitimacy. The real fun came when a guest came in, admired one of the pieces, said they had been searching for a Christian Boyd, and offered me $5,000 for the piece.

Much as I wanted to take the money, my conscience would not allow me. My mother brought me up better than that!

What is your definition of success?

Definition of Success? Tough to truly define, but I know it’s not measured by how much money is in your wallet. Money matters, everyone needs it to live, but it’s not how I define success.

Success at work, for me, is more about happiness, fulfillment, teaching, mentoring, seeing progress, creating jobs, watching people grow, and making your guests and your staff happy.

Of course I would like to make a lot of money, who wouldn’t, but being happy at work and knowing you are doing your very best is what starts to define success.

What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?

I’ve had many failures, it’s impossible to truly learn without them. I’ve closed restaurants that didn’t work for one reason or another, and it’s always crushing when something does not go the way you intended but it never slows me down from continuing to hone my skills and try to improve. My Dad always taught me that it was okay to fail at something as long as you acknowledge the mistake, learn from it, and make sure you understand how not to repeat it. Good words to live by.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

It’s a busy time for The Schlow Restaurant Group. We opened Adachi by Michael Schlow in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham MI. This Japanese-inspired restaurant is off to a really great start and we are looking to do more in this market. We are opening an Alta Strada and a Tico with Delaware North at Boston’s Logan Airport next year, and are getting ready to launch a new project that will get us into the Fast Casual arena of the industry. All of that and our continued work with Eataly, Sunset Marquis, The Carlyle, Glover Park Hotel, and our restaurants is keeping everyone very busy.

What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?

The most important piece advice I can give to aspiring chefs is a cliché, but it’s the truth: Work for the best. Don’t worry about money or title. Worry about your education and the foundation you are building. Don’t be in a rush….if you want to be a great chef, you must learn your skills through repetition and have impeccable habits. This takes time. Don’t worry about what the contestants on this season of Top Chef or Beat Bobby Flay are doing. Worry about the foundation you are building and whether or not you are in a learning and challenging environment.

If you’re not, find one. Work for the very best.

What is the key to creating the perfect dish?

There’s no such thing as perfection, but hopefully you can come close. The “perfect dish” always requires the best ingredients, which doesn’t mean the most expensive ones. Ingredients that are at their premium flavor potential are necessary to make food that tastes create.

Next component, usually, is restraint.

The best dishes, for me, are the ones where the flavors are given the proper space to shine and be highlighted versus competing for center stage.

All great dishes need to have great technique, proper seasoning, beautiful presentation, and should be texturally interesting.

It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?

Food does bring us together, every day, The table is the cornerstone of our co-existing with one another, whether it be a weekday dinner, holiday, or celebrating something special. Food unites us. Growing up, the dinner table was where we learned about manners, patience, politics, how to argue, how to forgive, how to behave…..good or bad. So much of who I am today is a direct result of the “family table”.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Five things I wish I knew before I opened my first restaurant:

I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life. It’s the only job I’ve really ever known. There are so many facets that go into creating a great restaurant and the best operators and establishments are always learning, and always evolving.

I love being in this business. Nothing compares and nothing has made me second guess my career. But, if there were 5 things that I wish I knew before I opened my first restaurant, they would be:

1. Simply having excellent food is not enough to create a great restaurant. Attentive, well-informed, friendly service is the most important ingredient to success and even then, there are no guarantees.

2. Patience and mentoring are extremely important. Leading by example and giving clear communication is the only way to retain the very best staff.

3. All kitchen equipment is secretly scheduled to break down the week the warranty expires.

4. I wish my crystal ball would have informed me that traditional retail would someday go mainly towards e-commerce, forcing landlords and developers to look to the food and beverage industry to fill the vacancies. This has created a shortage in the labor pool, higher rents, and increased competition.

5. I wish I’d known that I would get to meet the greatest people, travel the world, and have such a full life due to the restaurants. But knowing all that would have ruined the ride.

You are a person of great 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.

I’m not sure I am a person of great influence, but thank you for the compliment. There are a few things directly related to food that if I could l really inspire change, I know would have a major positive impact, at least in this country.

1. Dramatically improve school lunch. It is an embarrassment, and unacceptable, that the average public school budgets around $1 per student for school lunch. Go to a supermarket….can you make anything with good nutritional value for $1? Of course not. Kids in school need a good meal in order to have proper nutritional intake in order to be able to concentrate and learn. $1 per student is ridiculous.

2. Come up with a program that takes all the “imperfect” foods left behind on farms across the country and figure out how to get the food to people that need it. Estimates say that 25–35% of all produce grown in this country doesn’t make it to market and that 1 in 5 people in the country don’t know where their next meal is coming from. There has to be a way to connect these people to all the food that is not being sold.

3. Inspire and incentivize organic farmers to continue to grow wholesome, GMO, organic foods versus giving subsidies to large farming corporations to keep prices down.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?

As I mention above, I consider myself to be very lucky. I’ve have had the great pleasure to cook for some of my heroes, people I have always wanted to meet and share my passion for food with. My reason for wanting to cook for them never has anything to do with their fame. Celebrity has never been what makes someone attractive….it’s what they do, how they approach life, and how they treat other that makes them interesting.

In no particular order, some people I have not met but would love the opportunity to cook for are: The Pope, Alice Waters, Mark Cuban, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Neil Young, Tom Hanks, Banksy, Steve Martin, Martin Scorsese (who will hopefully bring Robert De Niro with him) and Dick Hoyt, who runs the Boston Marathon while pushing his son Rick in a wheelchair.

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