This chef is as unpretentious as you can get and his down-to-earth personality comes out in his new cookbook. Sit back and enjoy swapping recipes with a good friend.
Chef Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink at Camana Bay is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy.
He dresses casually, often wearing jeans and his trademark Converse All-Star canvas shoes. Unlike many celebrity chefs, Schwartz speaks about cooking in common, unpretentious terms.
It’s not surprising then that his new cookbook, MICHAEL’SGENUINE FOOD: Down-to-Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat reads like recipes given from one friend to another.
Schwartz, who launched the cookbook in Cayman with a public interview session at Books & Books, didn’t have the formal training of culinary school, but learned his craft during 31 years in the professional kitchen.
His experience started in Philadelphia in 1979 in an Italian restaurant called DiLullos.
“When I was 15, my dad said ‘alright you’re going to get a job’,” he said. “He dressed me in black pants and a white shirt and he took me around to some restaurants and said ‘you’re going to get a job bussing tables’. It seemed like a good job, honest, simple.”
Schwartz said he went into DiLullos, got the job and started working immediately.
“When I got that job as a busser, I was immediately drawn the excitement of the restaurant business and that was the start of the career for me,” he said. “That was when I was 15 and by the time I was 16 into 17, I was full time in the kitchen as a prep cook and I worked my way up in this industry.”
Eventually, Schwartz moved to Florida and in 2007 opened up Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District of Miami.
The definition of the word ‘genuine’ was an important when it came to the naming of the restaurant.
“Everyone said just call it Michael’s, and I thought that’s really boring and there’s a lot of restaurants around the country called Michael’s,” he said. “We said ‘what’s different about what we’re doing’ and this word genuine popped up and it really became kind of a measuring stick for everything we wanted to be and everything we wanted to accomplish – free from pretence, authentic, real – those things were important.”
Part of being genuine for Schwartz entails using local produce as much as possible. He is at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement and a supporter of the Slow Food organisation, which advocates the usage of local, sustainable ingredients.
“For me, the whole Slow Food movement and the philosophy behind it is really common sense,” he said, adding that there are also taste benefits. “I would say that if you’re sourcing local product, it’s travelling less distance to get to you, therefore it’s fresher, therefore it tastes better.”
For Schwartz, good food is all about the ingredients.
“I have this stupid saying that the secret to good food is good food,” he said. “It sounds simple to a lot of people and especially chefs, who are guilty of kind of mucking things up by over-complicating food. But my philosophy… has always been that the secret to good food is starting with great quality ingredients. It’s not always the easiest path to take; good quality ingredients are usually harder to find and more expensive.”
Using good quality ingredients in a restaurant also requires flexibility because supply is not always predictable.
“Sometimes there could be lot of something and nothing of what you’re accustomed to having on your menu,” Schwartz said. “The formula that we’ve set up at the restaurant… allows us to turn on a dime and change the menu, which we do every day, and to key in on product that’s abundant, and available and fresh and local, and not rely on product that isn’t.”
Although he thinks organic growing practices are important, Schwartz doesn’t feel it’s the most important aspect of good ingredients.
“While I will always support spending money to support local agriculture or locally produced artisan products… organic is not the be-all, end-all product,” he said. “A lot of times there are small farmers or family farms that can’t afford to get the organic certification, which is expensive. I think more important than relying or hanging your hat on something that says organic, is getting to know the producer… making that connection, learning what they do and then deciding if that fits in with what you think is important.”
Schwartz said it took a little over two years from the time the publisher Clarkson Potter approached him about writing a cookbook until the time it was published.
“It was a pretty long, serious, drawn out process and I learned a lot,” he said. “What we found is it’s a whole different world, the whole process of writing a recipe properly.”
Schwartz said his friend, well-known cookbook writer Maida Heatter, taught him how to write a recipe properly and the importance of being detailed, something that isn’t in vogue with publishers these days.
“Publishers really want abbreviated recipes and we had to fight for some verbiage in the recipes [so readers could get] a sense of where you are supposed to be when you’re cooking from the book,” he said. “I think that that’s important.”
Schwartz said the recipes in the book try to capture the spirit of his restaurant.
“The good thing is we learned we didn’t have to dumb down the recipes,” he said. “The recipes are very simple and they’re exactly how we make them in the restaurant.”
To made sure the recipes worked, Schwartz said a lot of time was spent testing the recipes with home cooks, who don’t think like chefs.
“We cook very differently than the home cooks,” he said.
The result is a cookbook that supposed to be used.
“That’s one of the things we’re very proud of about the book,” he said. “It’s not a coffee table cookbook, although we feel the photographs are spectacular; It’s a cookbook that’s meant to be in your kitchen, dog-eared and stained from sauce, and the one you want to go back to because you made a recipe and it worked.”
Schwartz said there are a lot of cookbooks on the market now and that a lot of the recipes in those books just don’t work or won’t come out right at home.
“We didn’t want to be that,” he said. “The recipes are tested many times. But I always encourage people… to read the recipe through first, read the whole thing, and then to make it following the recipe.
“It’s really important for me to relay to people the importance of following a recipe.”
Advise to would-be chefs
Schwartz said being a chef wasn’t for everyone.
“I’ve met a lot of people over the years that love to cook and who think they would love to be in our business,” he said. “I always say ‘don’t ruin your appreciation for cooking by getting into the restaurant business’. Because what cooks do is cook the same thing over and over and over again. And what home cooks get to do is experiment and try different things and cook one or two things each night… so there’s a pretty big difference.”
Because of the notoriety of celebrity chefs on television, Schwartz said some people get the wrong impression of what its like being a chef and get into the business for the wrong reasons.
“It’s just not that glamorous,” he said. “I always encourage people who want to get into this business to work in the business before they decide to spend [on expensive culinary schools]. My advice to people is to go and work in a restaurant and then decide if that’s what you want to do.”
Schwartz said he loved being a chef, but he also said the job entailed long hours and working on weekends and holidays.
“I think it’s a great business; the only business I know, the only business I’ve ever been in,” he said. “But there are easier ways to make a living.”