From Our Kitchen: Meet Executive Chef Michael Wendt
Q & A with Executive Chef Michael Wendt
Favorite food: Tacos! Or anything Mexican
First food you remember cooking: Eggs and chorizo
Savory or sweet? Both, but if I had to pick, sweet
Favorite dessert: Fluffy white cake with strawberry frosting and strawberries. YUM!
Dream restaurant: A destination and farm-to-table restaurant in Riverdale serving both regional New York cuisine with Latin-Caribbean fusion.
Chef Michael Wendt is not your typical executive chef. Sure, he shares an undeniable love for food and daydreams about seasonal ingredients such as mustard greens, freshly sprouted radishes and spring ramps (that’s a kind of onion for those who don’t know). But one thing that sets Chef Wendt apart from the others is his ultimate goal in his professional life.
“I’ve realized that I don’t want to be a Michelin star chef,” chuckles Chef Wendt.“Over the years I’ve come to understand that I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Using fresh, sustainable ingredients and creating seasonally-inspired dishes is what brings me joy. I am so happy.” It’s obvious that Chef Wendt speaks the truth. When talking about even the simplest of foods, he can’t help but smile from ear to ear.
“Ultimately, this is what I have always wanted. To be in the greatest city in the world, close to my family, and teaching others what I’ve learned, all while creating a whimsically-elegant atmosphere with Deborah.”
But as this former California kid recalled with me, he wasn’t always sure cooking was his path. “In fact, no one in my family cooked! It wasn’t until I visited my aunt’s house as I child that I learned about cooking from scratch and how delicious my food tasted when it was made with real, wholesome ingredients.”
I sat down with our new Executive Chef this week to learn more about his culinary journey, and how he continues to be inspired by sustainable, fresh fare-both in and out of the Deborah Miller Kitchen.
Born on the 5th of July in Los Angeles but raised in Carson City, Nevada, Chef Wendt was given a cookbook by his aunt on his third birthday, and the rest is history. After meticulously studying every inch of the book, Chef Wendt taught himself how to cook eggs; his earliest food memory is standing on a step stool cooking scrambled eggs over a hot pan. Although he took to cooking like a fish does to water, it wasn’t until he was 12 years-old that an extraordinary cooking opportunity presented itself. Coincidentally, one of his father’s best friends was a successful chef in Nevada, and who was also catering his father’s engagement party. As if it was yesterday, he recalled the handful of hours he spent in the kitchen helping the head Chef prepare chicken cacciatore, sausages, stuffed peppers and giant berry trifle for the engagement party. The food was an absolute hit and everyone could not stop talking about how talented young Chef Wendt was. It was at that moment that Chef Wendt realized he not only had a knack for cooking, but that he wanted to turn his passion into a lifelong career.
At 23, Chef Wendt enrolled at the famed Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts school and studied cuisine, pastry, bakery and wine courses, all while understanding the “business” side of the restaurant industry. While at Le Cordon Bleu, Chef Wendt became instantly inspired by a man he still revers today: Chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry. This was my “Aha moment,” recalls Chef Mike.
On a mission to become the next Thomas Keller, Chef Wendt partnered with Top Chef Neil Frasier, and the two worked at LA hot spot BLD for three years. After BLD, he got his wish and worked alongside accomplished Chef Rory Hermann at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, in Beverly Hills, California. In 2012, Chef Wendt received the “Core Value Award” for his work as the Chef de Partie at Bouchon. Accomplished and more inspired that ever, Chef Wendt decided to move his talents east and headed to New York City where he worked at the refined, farm-to-table Narcissa restaurant on the Lower East Side, and later at the Upper East Side’s The Writing Room.
In whatever off time Chef Wednt had, he spent it at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Tarrytown, New York. It was there that he learned about the importance of sustainability, the beauty of seasonal cooking, and the how to successful create regionally-inspired menus. From understanding its impact on the environment, to ethical, conscious cooking, Chef Wendt realized that his purpose as a chef was to bring awareness to sustainability through his work in the culinary arts. This year, when Chef Wendt started at Deborah Miller Catering and Events, not only was he able to practice his sustainable, seasonal cooking for clients and guests, but he was also able to teach others this skill in the kitchen.
Although cooking in California was a dream come true, Chef Wendt believes that the change of the seasons is what gives him the inspiration to come up with fun, festive and seasonally-inspired bites that ultimately find themselves onto a plate of passed au d'oeuvres.
“I am truly living my dream now,” said Chef Wendt. Every day I come to work and am so unbelievably happy. I can’t stop saying it because it’s true. Working with Deborah and the rest of the team is such a fun, collaborative and all around cool experience in and of itself. I can’t wait to showcase the new spring menu and experience another New York City spring and summer with everyone.” And in Chef Wendt terminology, he means creating seasonally inspired, sustainable yumminess. Cheers to that!