His kind…is a dying breed.
He was raised and taught his craft, during a time where it was thought of as a trade, a menial, blue collar job, not a profession, not a career, and certainly not one with any cachet or celebrity.
Ditching his paper route at a young age, Chef Michael Keys set out on a culinary journey as a teenager in junior high school.
Now, at the age of 54 he’s still doing a different kind of “paper work” while delivering a “different” kind of goods.
He still loves to cook, to lead, and to create delicious dishes that are inspired by this many food passions.
We wanted to get to know this man of two schools, both old, and new.
So, we sat down together recently, to talk casually about where he started, where he is now, and where he’s culinarily headed in this new year or 2024.
The basics, are a culinary degree at Macomb College Culinary Institute and LOTS of hands-on and management experience, both in restaurants, and in large corporate food service operations.
But rather than recite his bio or plot his career on a time line, we just threw come random but relevant questions at Chef Michael, to get to know him a little better, because the food he creates in the Cattleman’s kitchen in Centerline, Michigan, speaks for itself.
Q. What was the greatest lesson you learned from working with a National Food Service Corporations like Continental and Compass?
A. Validating purchasing costs, and realizing that unlike Cattleman’s, where I am responsible for creating all of my product specs, then researching product costs and doing all of the buying, at the huge, national companies, they have purchasing directors, and you can’t control the quality or negotiate costs with your vendors.That’s all out of your hands. You just make food from what they allow you to buy and from whom. It’s a different world.
Q. You can smell the aroma of smoke even before you enter Cattleman’s Centerline store. What got you interested in smoked meats and barbecue?
A. I guess it was a transition coming out of my first “culinary crush” of Cajun cuisine back in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I was just coming out of high school. I was actually planning on going to school in Chef Paul Prudomme’s culinary school in New Orleans! But I saw that era ending as I started my culinary education at Macomb Culinary Institute. I segued over to barbecue just after and I never looked back. And, unlike Cajun cuisine, the love affair with barbecue in America, has never stopped.
Q. What is the most important or useful cookbook you’ve ever owned?
A. When I was in the “New Orleans” phase, there were this 3 book series that you bought from an Ad on TV. It was all part of a TV program called “Great Chef’s”. Shows like The Great Chefs of New Orleans, The Great Chefs of Italy. It was one of the very first travel series cooking shows on TV and I remember buying the entire book set that they produced. A lot of the recipes were really great and the photography was wonderful. Another one of my first cookbooks was The Sauce Bible. And that book is still around. I see it in a LOT of kitchens and I even have a copy of it at my house in Clinton Township.
Q. What is the most commonly asked question your friends ask you, about being a Chef?
A. What do I love to make? My answer is always….Money.
Q. If you weren’t a Chef, what would you be?
A. I really don’t know? It’s the only thing I’ve ever done? It all started with a job, scraping the floors, then washing the pots and pans at a bakery at 14 and VanDyke. After a while, they let me “crumb coat frost” cakes. Next thing you know, I was the “crumb coater”. Later, at that job, while I was still in junior high school, I’d go into work at 2 am to light the ovens with this long wooden match, make and fry donuts until 6:30 or 7 am, and the, I’d go right to school.
Q. Are there some ingredients that you just don’t choose or prefer to cook with?
A. Sliced BLACK OLIVES. Everyone knows that about me. Kalamata olives, vine ripened olives… fine. But I learned years ago that sliced black olives are ripened in the can with a chemical additive that I just hate! They smell and taste like formaldehyde.
Q. What is your favorite, go-to, “fast food”?
A. Buddy’s Pizza is that’s considered a fast food? I grew up at 15 and VanDyke and we’d go over to the Buddy’s on Chicago and VanDyke on Friday nights, it has a lot of great memories. I can make a great pizza and we do here at Cattleman’s but there’s something about Buddy’s that I’ve always loved. Even their salads.
Q. Mystery Basket competitions are everywhere nowadays. Especially on Reality TV Cooking Shows. What would be your mystery basket ingredient from hell?
A. Wow? I’ve done plenty of them over the years. Any meat, no problem, but probably Tofu. I’ve never embraced the meatless thing. I’ve got nothin’ to do with that…
Q. If you told you had to change from American cuisine, or the barbecue that you love, to a completely different cuisine, such as Hispanic or Asian or Caribbean etc. Which cuisine would you choose and why?
A. Mexican / Hispanic for sure. I just love cilantro, cotija cheese, fresh citrus with a light chicken broth, Tinga de Pollo, Chicken Tortilla Soup, where you refine that stock over and over. The flavors just light up in your mouth. Some people think that Mexican food is Taco Bell but there is so much more going on (with Mexican cuisine). Mexican would be an easy fit for me, it fits my cooking style and techniques.
Q. What would you say is the THE most misunderstood thing about Chefs?
A. The is glamourous. Like “oh, you’re a Chef? That’s awesome! I love it, but it was hell just starting out. I missed every holiday, every weekend, finally, when my boys started playing varsity football and wrestling, I said, enough is enough and I finally made my life and my family a bigger priority. When you’re in the stands and you hear your kid’s name being announced to the crowd, I don’t care what level of school you’re at, that’s a HUGE thing.
Q. You’re given your choice to work any station on the line in a high-quality restaurant, What station would you choose and why?
A. Sauté. I just love the flash in the pan. Bangin’ 30 pound of perch in sauté pans. How busy it is. I want to be in the thick of it. But, expediting the food off the line, and getting it all orchestrated, is one of my very favorite things in the world. It’s not ON the line, but it’s a riot! To take control, to oversee it.
Q. When you are out to dinner, which can you tolerate less. Poor food, or poor service?
A. Poor food for SURE. I’m smart enough to know when there’s poor (or slow) service, order that extra beer cuz you know you’re not going to see your server for a while.
Q. What are 3 things that just drive you CRAZY when you go out dining?
A. Personal hygiene and dirty rest rooms a server’s hands. Excuses, or owners that seem oblivious to issues that are obvious.
Q. Did you have a Chef mentor as you advanced in your career?
A. Definitely a few. Chef Jeff Wolfe, Chef Ray Hollingsworth, and in the later part of my career, Chef Dan Lowry who was VERY instrumental. Even coming here to Cattleman’s.
Q. Do you watch any programs on the Food Network? And have you learned anything as a Chef?
A. The Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy. I like the way he digs into things, the recipes, the culture. The other one, and I tease myself about this show because it’s a “bit” over the top, is Chef Erin French’s Lost Kitchen series on the Magnolia Network, she’s got this restaurant / resort in Freedom, Maine that you have to win a lottery to get in because it’s only open one day a week. She has some fun stories and recipes. I would love to do something like that someday.
Q. Michigan has such a short growing season, if you had to pick your very favorite month to use in your recipes, when would it be?
A. October, when the last crops are coming in. The heirloom tomatoes, late fall carrots and corn. The winter squash, like butternuts and acorns, or the late season melons like musk melons. Man, crack one of those open and putting some hot sauce and lime on them…..mmmm.
Q. What inspires you to walk into your kitchen each day here at Cattleman’s?
A. The staff. Knowing that I’ve cultivated a great staff and to watch them execute. Walking in the door and seeing that everyone is on their game… That’s what makes me tick.
And Chef Michael’s kitchen at Cattleman’s does, tick. Like a fine watch.
Next time you stop into Cattleman’s Centerline Store, drop by the Prepared Foods department or the Smokehouse Café and say hello to Chef Michael. He’ll always take the time to answer your cooking question or turn you on to something new that he and his staff have just created.
For Chef Michael, whether it’s new school, or old school, “school” is always in session.