A family obsession with food helped transform Michael Schlow from the boy who sketched fictional restaurants on family vacations into an award-winning chef with five acclaimed restaurants in the Boston area and Connecticut.
Schlow, 44, who operates a strict curse-free environment in his kitchens, said his philosophy on success in the restaurant business is to keep things simple and not challenge the patrons.
"My job is not to educate the guest; my job is to provide for the guest, so it's a very simple rule," he said. "We're not cooking for the critics."
Nevertheless, Schlow won a James Beard Award for "Best Chef in the Northeast" in May 2000, and was named one of Food & Wine Magazine's "Best New Chefs in America" in 1996 and won the magazine's "Best New Restaurant" award in 2000.
He recently expanded his empire to include the new Alta Strada at the MGM Grand Foxwoods Casino in Ledyard, Conn.
Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Schlow gave up a baseball scholarship and a 92-mile-per-hour fastball for a place at the Academy of Culinary Arts in New Jersey.
He was raised by his mother and stepfather, who later adopted him and who Schlow considers to be his father.
"When I was a little boy, my father and I would sit and sketch out these fictitious restaurants in the Catskill Mountains of New York with a retracting roof," he said. "We would sit there -- and I don't know how, as a 10-year-old boy, I would even think about this, but I would have this room that you would come into at the very beginning of your meal and you would sit and have an hors d'oeuvres. And I was 10 years old.
"I wasn't sophisticated," he added. "I was a jock. I played sports. But I loved to cook since the time I was little. There was always something that pulled me to this business."
He credited the support and guidance on morals and ethics of his father, Ned Cohn, an attorney now living in central New Jersey, with helping him get to the success he enjoys now.
"He brought me up in a very interesting way in that he was both liberal and strict at the very same time," Schlow said. "I don't know how he did it, you know. I really don't. But he figured out a way to do this, where he gave me just enough room to grow.
"Part of what he also taught me is that you never count somebody else's hours, you never count somebody else's money, and, are you happy with your own success or your own doing -- but never consider yourself a success and always work harder to become better," he said. "And that was a lesson that still, you know, at this age, still, I practice it every day."
It's those values that have led Schlow to think of himself not necessarily as being a success, but as someone who has a lot more to accomplish.
"I've enjoyed my life tremendously. I told my mother when I saw her recently that if, God-forbid, something happened to me; I lived a great, great life up until this point," he said. "And I've had my troubles and sorrows like anybody else has, but overall it's better than anything I could have ever dreamed of."
At 14, his father helped Schlow get a job as a dishwasher, something he said not enough American kids do anymore.
"I don't know if they think the work is beneath them, but that's how I started in the restaurant business," he said, describing the place as a little bit like the restaurant on "Cheers" with burgers and beer.