From Washing Dishes to Running Restaurants

Michael Schlow has built a successful enterprise based on family values.

October 21, 2008, 4:13 PM

Nov. 11, 2008— -- 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."

Cooking With Family Values

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.

"I was lucky enough to work my way up from dishwasher to bus boy to host," he said. "They would let me tend bar once in a while on a slow night and, really, I stayed there all through high school. And I got to see the man who owned that restaurant recently and it was just such a privilege. He came in and saw the restaurants I'm involved in now and he was really proud, and it made me proud, as well."

As children, Schlow and his siblings were encouraged by their mother to sample "anything and everything" -- from food to conversation. Schlow said his mother told him that all he ate, up until he was five years old, was hot dogs and cheese, but after that, he became very adventurous.

"She would bring out all kinds of stuff, and she was very cutting edge about what she was wanting to make at home," he said. "And the dinner table was very much the center part of my childhood. All throughout my childhood and my teen years ... we ate dinner together as a family.

"The person I became as a man, good or bad, politics, religion, the ability to argue, patience and perseverance -- all those things, you know, really stem from my parents' kitchen table," he added.

His mother introduced the family to Szechuan and Indian food, and her enthusiasm led all the children to enjoy cooking, as well, Schlow said.

Separating Fantasy From Reality

While the actual experience of running a restaurant was quite different from a 10-year-old's drawings, Schlow said his life has become more amazing than he could have imagined.

"The fantasy of -- you know, as a 10-year-old -- of this restaurant, didn't include things like broken glasses, complaints, long, long hours," he said. "I just had this feeling of, 'Oh, I'll go in and whip up a soufflé and pour a glass of champagne, maybe.'

"In real life, it's a "very, very hard, grueling business," Schlow said. "But for me, it doesn't feel like work."

And it's not just the guests Schlow wants to impress. It's his goal to make the restaurants a fun and enduring experience for both customers and staff. As a result, the staff at Schlow's restaurants have track records of staying for a long time.

With more and more chefs trying to make it in the celebrity arena, Schlow said there are two very different types of chefs.

"There are the ones that are going out and marketing and pushing in front of the camera," he said. "And they also, many of them, still do cook and do a great job of that.

"And then there's still many, many instances where you have chefs of one restaurant, one singular restaurant, and they are still all about cooking in their one, particular place," he said. "And hopefully, good food and good service gets people coming back more and more."

The continuing popularity of the Food Network and Bravo and cooking shows, in general, has helped consumers become more aware of good food. And that, Schlow said, is leading Americans to finally take food seriously.

"You know, we're a fairly young country. In Spain and Italy and France and Germany, food is taken so seriously," he said. "There, chefs are really stars and have weekly shows. And we're just starting to catch up."

Schlow said he's not sure what the catalyst was that kick-started Americans' obsession with celebrity cooking, but it's only happened in the last 15 to 20 years. Even now, there's only a handful of real celebrity chefs.

"It's a term that I don't personally like," he said, "because I think they put that label on people just because you've been in a magazine or the television once or twice -- the real celebrities, you know: when Julia Child was alive, Jacques Pepin, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay." He added Rachel Ray to the list, as well.

Enjoying a Chef's Life

For Schlow, food is everything.

"A day doesn't go by where I don't read something about it, do something about it, think about a new dish -- and obviously, I'd like to eat every day, too," he said. "That's important. For me, it's my life. It's everything, and my vacations are centered around food.

"When you come to my house, there has to be food on the table, somehow," he added. "When you come to my restaurants, I don't want you to leave unless you've tasted something. Even if it's just a cookie, you're not walking out of here without tasting something."

Schlow is inspired by travel and competition with himself. He said he's very competitive with his brother, and when he's creating a dish, "I always think, would he appreciate this, would he like this? Or would he snub his nose at it and say, 'You're not as good as you think you are.'"

Schlow said he not only wants to live up to guests' expectations, he wants to surpass them.

"It's easy to say, but hard to do because you don't know -- everybody's tastes are different," he said. "That part is very interesting to me, at the same time. But as far as self-competition, that's the greatest motivator. I am my own worst enemy, I am my own worst critic. And I just keep pushing to do better."

That kind of work ethic was tiring at first, but it's become a way of life. Schlow feels great, despite not sleeping or exercising as much as he should.

"I eat pretty well, though," he said. "I don't eat junk. I don't eat fast food too often. Once in a while I'll cave in, but for the most part, I eat very healthy foods, and I'm on my feet all day. ... And I don't think I'm tired because I'm at a party all day long. The energy and the adrenaline that's running through the kitchen, through the front of the house, it's exciting."

Schlow said that each of his five restaurants -- the one in Connecticut and four in Boston, including another Alta Strada -- is unique, and he puts a little something different into each one.

"At Radius, my job is, it's a very personal kind of cooking that I do here, and what it is, is I'm attempting to cook the food that I would want if I were sitting in a four-star restaurant in the city of Boston," he said. "With Via Matta and Alta Strada, those being Italian restaurants, my job is not so much to create as it is to re-create."

Check Four-Letter Words at the Door

Being a chef is about 30 to 40 percent cooking, Schlow said, and the rest is good habits, a good lifestyle and making changes for the better.

"Kitchens are such a tough place, and growing up in New York City kitchens with cursing and kicking and punching -- and that's just dishwashers, forget about your chef yelling at you," Schlow said. "I wanted to create something that was different. I wanted my team to walk away and say that was done right, and that's the way I want to do it in my kitchen."

Hoping to make an impression on the people he works with, Schlow has instituted a no-cursing rule.

When his restaurant Radius had been open for about three years -- its 10th anniversary is in December -- two separate families came to talk to Schlow about their 15-year-olds. One was privileged, the other blue-collar, and both children said they wanted to forgo college in favor of attending culinary school.

"So, the family came to me at different times and said, 'Is it possible for -- you don't have to pay them -- to have my child come and spend some time in the summer in your kitchen?'" Schlow remembered. "I said, 'Sure, absolutely. We could do something like that.'"

Schlow told his staff that he wanted this to be an eye-opening experience for the teens, but that cursing was going to be forbidden, to create a better atmosphere.

"Growing up in the Northeast, it's the most sarcastic place in the world; and I think a lot of us think, if we ain't cursing, we're not funny," he said. "Take curse words out of your daily language and all of a sudden, it's kind of silent in my kitchen."

To enforce the new rule, Schlow collected $1 for every time someone cursed.

"The deal is, you can curse in the office if you're ranting and raving about somebody, and you can also curse if you hurt yourself. Pot drops on your head, you're allowed to curse, fair enough," he said. "The first year, I collect $1,200. I end up throwing a giant barbeque for the kitchen staff with their own money."

But now it's a way of life in his kitchens, and he said it has eliminated stress and made for a more peaceful work environment.

"Outside of the kitchen, I have a mouth like a trucker," he said. "But, you know, no offense to truckers, but it's worked out really, really well for us."

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