Philadelphia native Michael Millon began his cooking career at Twenty21, continuing to develop his skills at several restaurants in Boston and New York before settling back in Philly two years ago as Executive Chef of A Mano, which received a glowing three-bell review from Craig LaBan when it opened in 2016.
In our conversation, Chef Millon and I discuss the differences between cooking French and Italian, the merits of running a BYOB restaurant, and why he doesn’t feel compelled to use the term farm-to-table.
Justin Naylor: In Italy, there’s a stereotype that French cooking is fussy and cheffy while Italian cooking is simpler and more direct. Since you have experience with both, I’m interested in what you think of the differences, and why you decided to go in the Italian direction.
Michael Millon: I do agree with the stereotype of it being fussy and cheffy. But I actually learned to cook French first, over ten years ago. I didn’t really know anything, so I learned the French way – French flavors, French ingredients. I cooked French for a while, but then eventual starting doing Italian. It’s more ingredient-focused, as opposed to technique-focused. At A Voce in New York I really learned a lot, and I learned that I really enjoyed it – the style of it, the flavors. You can use spices; things can be spicy. While I was in New York, Chef [Townsend Wentz] came up and asked me if I wanted to do this [A Mano] because of my experience at A Voce.
JN: What’s a good example, a dish or an ingredient – something that would be done this way in a French way, and that way in an Italian manner?
MM: Sauces would be a big one. French, it’s all saucework. Reductions, stocks.
JN: Which then become an embellishment of the dish, at the end?
JN: So, they’re made separately, in advance, and they’re a kind of ornament, so to speak, to a dish at the end of the process.
MM: I feel like Italian cooking is more – to use a French phrase, à la minute.It’s in the pan, right there. Garlic, onions, a splash of this, a splash of that, some acid.
JN: I think that Marcella Hazan, whose books influenced me a lot when I started cooking, said that in Italian cooking there’s very rarely a sauce separate from the cooking juices of the dish. You’re not making something in advance as an ornament.
MM: Right, exactly. You don’t have a line that has rabbit jus, venison jus, all these different jus that are pretty much the same! I’m making all these, and I’m refreshing them every day, and it’s like, what is this all for, you know?
JN: One thing that got me interested in talking to you is, every time I’m here, I look back in the kitchen and you’re there. That itself seems pretty rare. I can’t help but admit that I have a bias – I think places that are most successful have a chef who has good taste and who is basically there.
MM: Doing the job.
JN: He or she might have helpers, but they’re there. You can’t just delegate taste, no matter how well you train someone, right? I’m curious if that’s still the case, if you’re still in the kitchen every night.
MM: Oh, yeah. Every day I’m on a station.
JN: Why have you made the decision to be there, in the lead, every day? Am I right that that’s unusual?
MM: I do think it’s unusual these days, especially with larger places. I think it’s more common in smaller, BYOB-type places like this. The profit margin isn’t too big, because we’re solely relying on the sale of food, we don’t have liquor to boost it up. I don’t think we would be able to afford someone to fill my role. It was structured that way, and that’s the way I prefer it. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t on a station every day. It’s too small of a place just to be walking around, checking on everyone. Plus, I like to cook; that’s what it comes down to.
JN: I often wish that I had gone to Vetri when Marc [Vetri] was doing all the cooking back there.
MM: I think he’s back there now.
JN: That’s what I’ve heard, now that he’s sold the other places.
MM: Good for him! Here, honestly – the people who work here now, everybody has great taste. The crew I have now, I could delegate everything. I could go on vacation and they’d be fine. But I just like to be with them, cooking. I was an executive sous chef for a long time, and this was the first step where I was the main guy. The level of integrity as a sous chef, as a line cook, to reproduce the same thing over and over again for someone else’s food is very rare, I find. If your name’s not behind it, and it doesn’t ultimately fall on you, I feel it’s easy to cut corners from time to time. So I think that me being here, we all work together. Leading by example, they all do the right thing all the time.
JN: You mentioned being a BYOB, and the tight profit margins. For those who aren’t familiar with Philadelphia and the BYOB phenomenon, could you explain a little about why that exists in Philadelphia and what some of the pros and cons are?
MM: The number of licenses is set, so they’re expensive and take a long time to process.
JN: In the city, it can be something like $800,000 for a liquor license, right?
MM: At least. From the time that Chef [Wentz] opened Townsend to the time that we opened here – about a year and a half later – the price had almost doubled. With all these places opening, I guess they just capitalized on it. Also, in PA restaurants have to pay retail price for bottles, and so they have to charge that much more.
JN: It’s crazy. So, if those are the cons, what are the pros? What’s nice about having a BYOB culture in Philly?
MM: Me, personally, I like that there’s no bar here. A bar opens a new door to trouble, I feel. It’s just more streamlined, it’s more of a relaxing atmosphere. People can bring their own wine.
JN: It’s actually cheaper, so they have more money to spend on food.
MM: They can have more of the menu. And personally – I’m the first one here in the morning, and I’m the last one to leave, because we’re closing the doors and we’re turning the lights off. If there was a bar, I’d be gone, and there would still be people here. I like turning the lights off at the end of the night. That’s a personal pro for me.
JN: Not to be too judgmental, but when people bring crap wine, do you guys cringe a little bit? When you’re making food of super-high quality, wouldn’t it be nice to offer wines of the same really beautiful, high qualitly from great producers?
MM: People bring in Tequila and lime, whatever they want. Me, I don’t care, as long as there are people in here eating and enjoying.
JN: Speaking of servers, do you feel like it’s harder to hire cooks or servers?
MM: Cooks. Oh my God, especially recently, with all these restaurants opening. Ten years ago, cooks were fighting for jobs. Now, if they don’t like it here, they can go down there and get paid $2 more an hour. These corporate places can pay well, and they offer benefits. It’s so hard to compete. I’ll be looking for somebody for two months, and can’t find anyone. Can’t even get a stage. Nothing. That’s why, right now, I’m pretty happy with the crew I have.
JN: Based on my experience eating here a few times, it seems like your bread is mostly or completely based on natural fermentation. Can you speak about your approach to the bread program here?
MM: I was working at Townsend before we came over here, and I wanted to make the bread here. I wanted to do a sourdough. There are different types of sourdough. Type 1 sourdough – that’s what we’re doing – is just making a starter from flour and water and letting it ferment. So it’s just yeast and lactic acid working together, as opposed to using baker’s yeast, which is quicker and probably easier. But I feel like the sourdough just has more flavor, and it’s more fun.
JN: Is it 100%? I know that some people include a small amount of commercial yeast.
MM: No, 100%. We’ve tuned into what time of night we’re feeding the starter, what temperature water depending on how cold or how warm it is in the building. It’s been 2½ years now. At the end of the night we’ll have the starter in different areas of the restaurant depending on what time of the year it is, to get the temperature we want.
JN: Did you acquire that knowledge from someone, or did you have to teach yourself?
MM: I taught myself. Just bought a bunch of books, read them, practiced, failed. More fails, and then we found this one that we’re pretty happy with. It’s very simple, but it’s consistent and it’s tasty. We don’t have much oven space.
JN: It’s still the foccacia?
JN: Moving on to pasta: when Craig LaBan reviewed you a few years ago, he was complimentary in a lot of ways, but he seemed particularly smitten with the pasta. Can you tell us a little about your approach to pasta? You’re making egg pasta that’s rolled out, and some extruded shapes as well, right?
MM: People come here for the pasta, so it’s got to be good. There’s a ton of Italian restaurants in the city; everyone does pasta. We try to do ours a little different, make it more interesting, with more textures. We always have five on the menu. We try to do five different doughs. I have one guy who’s been working here since the beginning, Enrique, who makes all the pastas by hand every day. He’s amazing, but he can only do so much, so that’s why we need a rotation of doughs. If an extruded dough comes off the menu, I have to change one of the other ones to an easier shape to make, to balance out his work so he can handle it all.
JN: For people who don’t know, pasta can either be rolled out and cut into various shapes or be pushed through a machine – extruded – to get shapes like penne, spaghetti, and rigatoni. Lots of places are rolling their own pasta, of course, but to be extruding is pretty unusual. You could make your fresh pasta and buy really high-quality rigatoni, lumache, or whatever. What convinced you to go the extra step to extrude your own?
MM: We acquired an extruder.
JN: That’s a good reason!
MM: In the beginning, a friend of Chef [Wentz] had an extruder that he wasn’t using. We were getting ready to open the restaurant. I said, Let’s take it. We did it at A Voce a little bit, but they were mostly hand-rolled with egg. Extruding is pretty much flour, water, shape. We tried drying them, but that’s pretty difficult.
JN: So you just let them be fresh.
MM: Yeah, we tried all different temperatures and times, but they would just crack or they wouldn’t dry.
JN: I know Marc Vetri has written about how that was the hardest part.
MM: Oh, man.
JN: Not worth it.
MM: I gave up on it, it was that hard.
JN: How is your freshly-extruded pasta different from high-quality, Italian-made, commercial pasta?
MM: Because ours aren’t dried, they have more of a chew to them. The ones you buy in a box, a ton of them are great. I have them at home. But they’re more firm, and then they’re overcooked. It’s like there’s no middle ground. With the ones we make – and we’ve been incorporating different things into the machine, like squid ink, egg sometimes – we can put our own texture on it, however we want to do it.
JN: Yeah, I was wondering why extruded pastas are almost never egg-based.
MM: I think just because it jams up the machine if you don’t have the know-how of different levels of water to add. But Enrique’s a master of his craft, he tinkers with levels.
JN: Where did he acquire his mastery?
MM: He’s 36 years old, and he’s probably been cooking since he was six. He’s just a good cook, all around. When it comes to making pasta, these are my recipes that I brought to him. He’s the one in there making them every day, it’s not necessarily me. If it’s humid downstairs, he’s going to add a little less water to the dough. He’s figured it out and fine-tuned it.
JN: People are surprised to hear just how differently egg pasta can be made in Northern Italy. In Emila-Romagna they make it one way, in Piedmont totally different. Is your approach to egg pasta whole eggs, or egg yolks, or a mix?
MM: We do a mixture of both. If we’re making ravioli, we do whole eggs because the egg whites give the dough more elasticity. For pappardelle, we’re just using yolks for the unctuousness of it. But yeah, we do a mixture.
JN: Have you had a chance to travel much in Italy?
MM: Never. Never been!
JN: Because you’re working too hard?
MM: I wanted to go this year; everybody gets a week vacation, including me. But I don’t think I could do it in a week. I would need two weeks. So we’re just going to Mexico instead, sitting on the beach.
JN: Because you have this Italian place, taking a week and going to Italy – you need a break from thinking about some of these things! It’s not so much a vacation to do research in Italy, at least for me.
MM: I’d say to myself Wow, I’m doing this wrong, and I’m doing this wrong…
JN: I think you’d actually find the opposite! I’ve often said that they’re doing such a great job in Italy, in general, but the best American places are as good or better. In America we have this desire to really excel and we know we need to improve, which in Italy is not always the case because the general level is already so high. That’s why bread in Italy is generally bad. Some of the best Italian cooking in the world is in the US.
MM: I’ve heard that. People come by the pass and say, “We were just in Milan and this is better,” and it’s like, “Thank you very much!”
JN: I’m not surprised they say that. The chance of having a bad meal in Venice, for example, is really high. But even mediocre places are pretty good by the average American standards. They have this beautiful basic level of good taste that Americans don’t have. I just think the best American places are really nailing it.
MM: I feel like our job is a lot harder, working with the ingredients that we have here, most of the time. I feel like the ingredients and produce over there is way better, right?
JN: Yes, in general, but even there – do you know Katie Parla, who’s based in Rome?
MM: I know of her.
JN: I’m sure she’ll come to A Mano to eat eventually, and she’ll be excited about what you’re doing, I think. She’s documented how in Rome, especially since the economic decline beginning in 2008, places sometimes can’t even afford to buy the best stuff. Like here, it becomes a business decision: do I serve the best stuff I can, or do I pay my bills?
MM: Exactly. Especially when – with the BYOB thing – it’s a fine line, the talent that we can have working here, the ingredients we can use.
JN: I’ve heard a lot of restaurateurs say that they don’t make any money on food; all of their money is made on alcohol sales. It’s depressing.
MM: It’s nice to be able to lean on that. But it’s also nice to not have that around, and to have to figure it out. I like the challenge of that.
JN: Since you haven’t travelled to Italy and don’t have those precise experiences and taste memories, what does inspire you to create the dishes you create? Do you feel like you’re making mostly traditional dishes, or dishes that are completely novel?
MM: We always start with an ingredient, and we never do something that we’ve done before. As the seasons progress, we never put the same dish on the menu that we had last year, because we always want to learn and teach ourselves. At this point, my Sous Chef Nora and I have been working side by side for four years, since I was at Townsend. She knows everything I know now. I’ve given her all the knowledge that I’ve built, and now we’re just learning together.
JN: Does that mean when there’s a dish that someone really loves, and they come back hoping to see it again, they’re out of luck? Is it ever going to come back again?
MM: So far we haven’t put anything back on the menu. We strive to make the replacement better than the thing that was before. If it’s not better, we take it off and we put the old thing back. That’s happened twice. We put a rabbit cacciatori on, and it lasted one week. The same thing with a porkbelly set-up one time. It looked good on paper, but once we plated it and ate it, no – this isn’t as good as the last one, so let’s go back to the drawing board. We took octopus off – people were unhappy to see that go, but when we first put it on, octopus was $3.99 a pound, and now it’s $7.50 a pound. It almost doubled. And it’s on every menu in the city, too.
JN: You mentioned that your menus always begin with ingredients. In the last year or two, I’ve been hearing for the first time some backlash about the term farm-to-table. Not necessarily the concept, there’s no criticism of that, but the term. I talked to Dan Richer about this last month, and he thinks the term farm-to-table is just gimmicky, market-driven. I’m curious what you think about that. Because if you’re doing something special, and getting ingredients from local farms and not Sysco, you want people to know that – without being too over-the-top about it, right? I know Marc Vetri has also criticized the term. What’s up with that?
MM: Yeah, I think it’s a sales pitch to get people through the door. You’re kind of tooting your own horn. If people come in and they sit down and enjoy what they eat, and they can tell it’s fresh, what’s the point in telling somebody that you’re farm-to-table? You should just assume we’re getting good stuff.
JN: So, you would resist putting it on the menu – where this particular meat has come from – the way some places have done? Or is there any value in that?
MM: I think there’s definitely value in that. We don’t resist it or anything. Us personally, the way the menu is formatted, the margins are small. We can’t really put in many extra words. So we just say “polenta,” and use the best we can find.
JN: How often do you change the menu?
MM: We change things pretty much as the seasons progress, one or two dishes at a time. Never the whole menu at a time, because we’re working with such limited space. Changing even one dish moves a bunch of things around, and changes everybody’s work a little bit. There’s so much thought that goes into picking one dish. And, at the same time, we’re always trying to do something we’ve never done before.
JN: How does a place like Chez Panisse change their menu every day?
MM: I have no idea. They do it every day? I don’t know if I’d be able to sleep! I feel like it would be really difficult to operate at such a high level if you’re changing everything every day. There have to be some misses, there have to be some failures. Even when we change a dish, the first time we put it up we’re often putting it up for the servers to try, and we’re eating it at the same time. We’ve eaten everything separately; now let’s put them together on a plate.
JN: The other extreme is a place that never changes. This is admirable in its own way; in Italy, there’s not much changing. You go to Rome, you go to Armando al Pantheon, and the menu doesn’t change, ever. They’re making these Roman classics. That’s admirable in its own way, but it could get stale. There’s a fine line between spontaneity and mastery. So I’m wondering how you know when it’s time to change the menu.
MM: We have a small team here, but you can tell when people have just phoned it in and they’re bored of a dish. If I’m bored, or if Nora’s bored, or if something becomes ridiculously expensive, we’ll just say, We’re done with this. Bibou changes its menu every week. They have a set menu, he’s there in his kitchen every day, Wednesday through Saturday. He takes Sunday off with his wife and his kids, and then on Monday and Tuesday, his team is back in there. On Saturday night, they’re writing the menu for the next week.
JN: We’ve touched on a couple of aspects of the business, like profit margin, alcohol, etc. Is there anything else you wish people knew about the business side of the restaurant? Because people have no idea what the profit margins are, they have no idea about the kind of attention that’s being paid in creating these dishes.
MM: That’s what I wish people knew – the amount of work that goes into creating food on plates every night, night after night. Like the fact that we get in here at 11 o’clock in the morning, but we don’t open until 5. I wish people knew that. The level of attention each person has on their particular tasks through the course of the day, how to schedule your work week in order to accomplish what you need to, so that everything is consistent. Consistency – to accomplish what I think we do here consistently – is really hard, and I wish people knew what it takes. The oregano we get in today could be really different from the oregano yesterday. It’s a balancing act.
JN: It’s not just hard work in terms of hours, but it’s also hard work in terms of sheer skill level, just as it is for a doctor doing surgery. It’s hard because there’s serious skill and talent on all levels, on the service end and on the line.
MM: Yeah, if someone can’t make it to work that day, if their mother got rushed to the hospital and they’re out of work that day, everybody else has to kick it up a notch to cover for that person. The multi-tasking part of it – you’ve got four, five, or six things going on at once, in the oven, on the stove, you’re cutting something on your cutting board, sometimes you have two cutting boards – I wish people knew more about that.
JN: Do you have a particular philosophy or approach to service here? In the kitchen, you have a defining philosophy. Do you have anything similar on the floor? How do you teach or train your servers?
MM: I feel like it’s the same in the front and the back, here. In all the restaurants I’ve ever worked, this is the closest the two teams have been. Often in restaurants, some people work in the front, some people work in the back, and they don’t talk. That does not happen here. The servers we have here have been doing it for years. Our General Manager, Lauren Vergara, she is fantastic, and she hired fantastic people to work here. She does her thing – I’m not the one out there. She gets all the credit for that. But they all have so much experience. It’s just a powerhouse. I have enough on my plate in the back. They do their thing.
JN: Which is more likely to be deficient at a restaurant, the cooking or the service? When you go out, do you find yourself thinking, I wish these dishes were a little better, or do you find yourself thinking, Man, these dishes are great, but I wish they paid attention out on the floor?
MM: It’s an interesting question. One of the best meals I ever had in my life was at 11 Madison Park. I went there assuming the food would be good, but what made it the best meal of my life was the service. They took it above and beyond.
JN: What was different about it?
MM: They knew we were coming from Boston, so they prepared a special Boston clambake for us, just for our table. It was my girlfriend’s birthday; we had a 10:30 reservation, and it’s a three-hour meal, so we were still there at midnight. At midnight – her birthday was the following day – they rolled a champagne cart over to the table at the stroke of midnight. I didn’t ask them to do that! Wow.
The food being of less quality than I would hope happens a lot when I go out to eat – that’s why we only go to places where we know it’s going to be good. I don’t want to spend money on the risk.
JN: What are the defects when you go out?
MM: Lack of salt, lack of acid. Those are the most common problems.
JN: One person I interviewed had an interesting, if controversial theory. She’s a cookbook author, not a chef. Her theory is that a lot of restaurant cooking is actually oversalted. She thinks it has something to do with the fact that restaurant kitchens are still dominated by men, that there’s a lot of ego. She thinks there’s a lot of stuff there that sometimes comes out in food that’s aggressive. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with that idea, but it’s interesting and worth considering, I think. There is the phenomenon of restaurant food where they’re so focused on the first bite knocking you over with pleasure that you forget it’s not just one bite, you have to get through a whole dish – and maybe by the end of the dish, it’s too aggressive.
MM: Yeah, that’s an interesting point; I learned that when I was in Boston. We had a lentil soup on the menu. If you’re making a soup and it has black pepper in it, and you go to have a spoonful and it tastes good – go eat a bowlful of that soup and your mouth’s going to be on fire with that much pepper. The chef in Boston told me that, and it stuck with me. I feel like, yeah, sometimes it’s overseasoned. You have six things working at once, and you forget that you salted that already. It happens. Or something goes unsalted, or oftentimes, especially with young cooks, it’s the stress of making something right. This doesn’t taste right – add more salt. That’ll do it. I think that happens a lot. I did it, when I was younger. The nerves.
JN: Just because you tasted it, and it wasn’t quite right, and the only tool in your box was salt? Maybe it needs acid, maybe it needs more time, maybe it needs less time, but salt is the instinctive reaction. That’s really interesting.
MM: Yeah, I think that’s the main one. I used to do it. But you learn over the years what things need, and when to hold back.
JN: When you do go out, what are you looking for in restaurants?
MM: Honestly, recently I like sitting at bars.
JN: Even though you don’t want to have a bar here!
MM: Yeah, I like sitting at bars and having a beer. As much as I enjoy dining at a table, if we’re going out once a week, I don’t want to get dressed up. I want to take it easy. Cost is a major thing. This industry doesn’t really pay very much. Oftentimes we don’t have time to go grocery shopping. If I’m spending $300 on dinner, what are we going to eat the next day? We still don’t have any groceries.
JN: [Laughter] I love it.
MM: [Laughter] You know? So.
JN: You mentioned the explosion of restaurants in Philly in the last couple of years, and how hard it is to find cooks, for example. How would you describe the Philly dining scene at the moment?
MM: I think it’s fantastic. There are so many places that are just great. My list keeps getting longer and longer, of places that I want to go eat. There’s all different sorts of cuisines from all over the world opening up. I don’t think it’s ever been better, from a diner’s standpoint. Even since I moved back four years ago, from New York, the amount of quality places that have opened has just been incredible.
JN: How would you describe the difference between living and working in restaurants in New York and Philly?
MM: Oh God, I hated New York. It’s 24 hours. I worked at Columbus Circle. Every day, I would get on the A train, and it would be like, am I going to be able to sit, or be jammed, standing up?
JN: Right, because you can’t afford to live close by.
MM: Right, and then the same thing on the way home. Just the grind of it. In New York there’s so many people who don’t live there; it never felt like home. When I moved back here, when I was driving the U-Haul back and I saw the skyline, I got goosebumps. You’re home, man. It was great. And it’s just friendlier here. When we opened Townsend, all the restaurants on the Avenue sent us flowers on the first day we opened, and cards. It was great.
JN: That’s awesome.
MM: In New York, A Voce was right below Per Se. There was a bar across the street called The Coliseum. That’s where we would go, and sometimes the Per Se team would come. They would just never mingle – it was very impersonal. And, cutthroat – everybody’s gunning for your job there. I like to cook; it’s not a competition for me.
JN: How did you settle on this neighborhood [Fairmount], and this particular building?
MM: This was all Chef [Wentz]. He found the space. It was a grocery store before, didn’t have a basement. He did all the work himself.
JN: That man’s a beast!
MM: It was an incredible buildout, the way this went from a grocery store to a restaurant. They dug out the basement with jackhammers, carried buckets of rocks. The summer before we opened, he was here every day. I was working at Townsend at that point, because I’m the one who freed him up there so he could do this. I’m not certain why he chose this; maybe just because the space was available. I feel like maybe this neighborhood needed another restaurant.
JN: Do you live in the neighborhood too?
MM: No, I live in South Philly.
JN: What is Fairmount like these days? Do you get mostly local people, or do people come here from across the city?
MM: I think from everywhere. In the beginning it was mostly neighborhood people. There was a lot of pushback; they didn’t really like the new guy on the block. It was a quiet little grocery store corner, and now there’s smells of garlic and onions in the neighborhood that I don’t think was very well-received in the beginning. The prices were too high, the portions were too small. But now I think we’ve earned our keep and we’ve earned their trust, so that we definitely have return guests all the time, neighborhood people.
JN: What’s the character of the neighborhood? Is it young, is it older?
MM: It’s quiet, definitely older; it’s families that have owned these houses for years. There’s not too many businesses over here like there are in South Philly, so it’s quieter. There are trees, you know?
JN: Was the open kitchen Chef Wentz’s idea, or was it a necessity of the space?
MM: He wanted it to be open. It’s more approachable, I think. It’s Italian. He wanted it to feel like a house, cozy.
JN: Is it your first open kitchen?
MM: No, A Voce was semi-open. There was a glass partition.
JN: How does it affect your work, having the open kitchen?
MM: Well, we have to stay clean. Not that we wouldn’t be clean if it was a closed kitchen. How does it affect our work? It doesn’t, really. I don’t use much foul language, so it’s not like I have to watch my mouth or anything. Everybody knows what they’re doing. I’m not a screamer. That’s a waste of energy, in my opinion. If I scream at somebody, they can go down the block and get paid $2 more an hour, you know what I mean? It comes down to that. Everyone knows what they’re doing. We often don’t talk.
JN: That’s what I’ve noticed, and I’m not the only one – other people have written about it. Compared to other open kitchens I’ve seen, yours seems like the most silent kitchen. Someone described it as “dancing,” in one of those articles. I thought that was exactly right. Kitchens have this reputation for being crazy, out of control, even if they’re not yelling or screaming. Maybe that’s less true of kitchens at a high level, but here it just seems effortless. Obviously that’s an illusion – it comes from skill – but it looks like this effortless dance back there, which I think people appreciate seeing.
MM: That’s good to hear. I can’t relate; I don’t know what it’s like from a diner’s standpoint, for someone who has never worked in a restaurant, but I guess it’s got to be pretty cool.
JN: I think so. People love to see it. Do you have experience with the screaming, yelling type of kitchen, or have you been spared that?
MM: I’ve worked with some madmen back in the day. Chef [Wentz] was never a screamer, but he comes from that era of screamers.
JN: So, it’s a real thing?
MM: Oh, yeah. They’ve got screaming in New York, screaming in Italy, screaming in France. I don’t get it. It’s just dinner! We’re not birthing children here or anything like that, you know? It’s just dinner. Sometimes you get really stressed out, a lot of anxiety, but you have to remember it’s just dinner. There’s no need; people don’t respond to screaming. We’re so laser-focused on the prep day, and ordering, and purveyors, and what we’ll need for the day and the week, that we never get to the point where things are out of hand, that would involve screaming. The problems are usually nonexistent.
JN: But that’s because of management and leadership; it doesn’t just happen.
JN: Especially with your New York experience, were you surprised about all the stuff that has come out in the past year about sexual harrassment in restaurants?
MM: I’m glad these scumbags are going down. It’s disgusting. I’ve personally never worked in a place where that’s going on, but I know of it. I guess restaurants are male-driven – or they used to be, but not anymore at all. I respect everybody who walks in the door, no matter who you are.
JN: Do you think that this cultural moment is going to lead to real change in restaurants, or do you feel like it’s just a blip? Because it’s kind of a toxic brew – you’ve got high stress, low pay. In a way, I’m not surprised that restaurants have really suffered from this. Do you think we’ve turned the corner?
MM: Absolutely. I mean, I would hope so. I’m just glad people are getting called out for that. No one should have to deal with that when they go to work. We’re all here to work.
JN: Thanks so much. I really appreciate your taking the time to talk today!