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From Market to Menu: An Interview With Chef Mikey Stern of Michael's

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By Eli Sussman/Special to LAist

The shy and baby faced Chef Mikey Stern may know his own restaurant’s kitchen better than any other 28 year old executive chef in America. And with good reason: he’s spent more than a 1/3 of his life cooking at Michael’s the 3rd street Santa Monica institution.

Now in his 8th year, he began working at Michael’s straight out of culinary school and rose rapidly through the ranks of garde Manger, Saute, and Sous-Chef finally becoming the Executive Chef in 2007. Born and raised in LA, the graduate of William Howard Taft High School is quick to admit that he had no childhood dream of becoming a chef and didn’t really get into cooking until he was already in culinary school.

LAist recently joined the chef at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers' Market (located only 2 blocks away from Michael’s) to discuss his fall menu, talk about what its like to work on dishes via email with owner Michael McCarty and even try to get the reserved chef to contemplate his career 20 years down the line.

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Chef, explain where we are in the Santa Monica Farmers Market and what are you buying.
We are at Briar Patch. I’m getting some peaches and some squash for some new fall dishes.

Are you at the Farmers' Market every Wednesday?
Yeah and I’ll be back on Saturday to get more stuff but every Wednesday I’m here for sure. I’d say about fifty per cent of everything we use comes from the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. It’s a great place to just walk around and see all these different ingredients popping up so that’s inspiring just to come and see what’s new at the market.

How do you conceive the fall menu? Do you work on it alone, with the help of your sous chef or with contributions from owner Michael McCarty?
Well I don’t have a sous right now. Michael definitely gives me his input. He wants to see certain things on the menu. For fall he wants to see squab and quail…squash and the last of the corn.

We email each other back and forth. Sometimes he’ll call [me].

That is a unique working relationship to have the owner giving menu input over email but then not necessarily on site able to taste the dishes. Did that way of working take some getting used to in the beginning?
I’ve worked with Michael for 8 years so I know him pretty well. I know what he likes to see so it’s just trying to come up with new ways to present and prepare them. I did my internship [at Michael’s] out of culinary school and worked my way up to executive chef so I definitely know what he’s looking for.

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Where are you from originally?
Born and raised in LA. I went to Taft and then straight into culinary school after that.

Growing up did you think you always wanted to be a chef?
Oh I had no idea what I wanted to be when I was growing up. I never stuck to anything but then I went to culinary school and I got into it.

Did you envision yourself working in a restaurant that heavily relies on the Farmer’s Market?
I really had no idea. I had zero expectations. It’s definitely cool to have the market right down the street from the restaurant. Michael’s has always been market driven using local stuff as much as possible.

Do you have specific set booths that you go to every single time you are at the market to buy items for the restaurant?
Michael and I came together, we walk down and tasted everything and we basically have it down to where we know which people have the best tasting product that we are looking for. So someone has a Sharlyn melon that Michael goes crazy for. When these are in season I gotta have them. Right now we are using these in a dish with some Serrano ham and some fresh mint and olive oil as a starter.

Do you ever put something on the menu that you think is going to go over great and it doesn’t work? And why do you think a dish doesn’t work?
Yeah all the time. I think its because you go too far outside the comfort zone of the client. Our clients have certain expectations when they come to Michael’s. We have a vocal clientele.

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What’s your go-to cuisine? Something you always crave?
It’s gotta be Mexican food. I love Ciro’s. Lot of great memories there with family.

What’s it like to be a chef and not be able to have a traditional social life where you can go out at night? What do you do to unwind?
A lot of times I’m just hanging out with my girlfriend. I work so much and the times I have off I want to spend time with her. Also I hang out with my dog and we take him to the beach. You just get used to the hours. You’d be surprised how much sleep you don’t need.

What do you see as your future trajectory as a chef? Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
(Laughs) I have no idea! Cooking somewhere for sure. Definitely in the kitchen. The restaurant is fun. It’s always non-stop action. Even if it’s slow you can find something to do.

What's the most appealing thing about this gig for you?
Definitely making the clients happy. Getting a good reaction when they eat your food. A compliment goes a long way.

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Eli Sussman is one half of the Freshman in the Kitchen duo. LAist spoke with him in April 2009 about his own cooking adventures and philosophy.

Previously on LAist: From Market to Menu: An Interview with Chef Akasha Richmond; An Interview With Chef Ben Ford; An Interview with Chef Neal Fraser; An Interview with Chef Evan Funke.