Chef Mike Gulotta
Until recently, as in our trip to Memphis last month, I didn’t know Mike very well. For example, I didn’t know he had some mad line dancing skills. Sure, I had met him and we have hung out at different food events and I’ve eaten at his restaurant, MoPho, which is actually our very first stop when we are in New Orleans. I had always thought he was a nice guy and Bryan was obviously a big fan of his food. They met while cooking at Fig in Charleston for an event several years ago when Mike was working with John Besh’s restaurant group. All that aside, I didn’t get to know the real Mike Gulotta until a couple weeks ago when we were all together for Kelly English’s fundraiser.
Mike is incredibly talented, and even though he sometimes seems very serious and just a tad sarcastic, he’s a ton of fun to go dancing with and he has a slightly goofy side… photos from our amazing experience (because it was an experience) to Paula & Raiford’s Disco coming soon. In short, he’s genuine and I think you’ll see that come through in our conversation.
Recently, Mike was named 2016 Food and Wine’s Best New Chef and was also nominated by The James Beard Foundation for Best Chef – South. Obviously, he’s on to something! If you are ever near the The Big Easy, I highly recommend a stop at MoPho, you won’t regret it!
Q & A
Jennifer: What is something that you’ve learned over the course of your life? It doesn’t have to be restaurant or food related necessarily, but something that you felt was an important lesson.
Mike: I guess, and it’s one that I’m still learning how to do now, it would be to take the time with individual people and not take anyone for granted. That is one that I’ve been noticing a lot lately. You get a lot more out of pretty much everything if you just pay a little closer attention. Whereas, I for a while, was so busy trying to run someone else’s restaurant back in the day that I kind of passed over a lot of people. People would come up to me and be like, “ah, man, I remember working for you!” and I’m like, “I don’t really remember…” So now I consciously try to spend a little more time working on it. Some of my sous chefs are better at it than I am and they spend more time getting to know the staff and sometimes I don’t do that as much and I think that I should.
Jennifer: That’s a tough one. I know that you guys are so busy and restaurant life is so chaotic, all around not necessarily just in the restaurant but outside of it as well. Are there any instances outside of the restaurant that you feel the same way about? For example, Bryan has mentioned several times that he wished that he would have spent more time with Kennedy when she was a younger because back then he was working in the restaurant a lot more.
Mike: Right, I have two young boys and I have to try to spend as much time as I can with them, but at the same time, I want to work hard now so that when I get further along I can hopefully spend more time with them when I get things a little more situated…
Jennifer: It’s kind of a catch 22.
Mike: it IS a catch 22… it has to happen. But it’s also sort of a new world thing, you know? The old mom and pop restaurants, if the kids wanted to see their parents they had to go to work in the restaurant.
Jennifer: Our kids will all work in the restaurants.
Mike: Yeah. My family owned a bike store, I saw my mom because I worked in the bike store. That’s the way it worked. But, I was raised in a family ownership situation where I was used to that. I have found that people that didn’t grow up with that say things like, “you don’t spend time with me,” but I’m running a business, that’s the way it is. What counts is how you spend the time together when you do have it.
Jennifer: Exactly and it can be hard to balance that. One way we have tried to find balance is by having dinner together at Reef when we have all the kids so that Bryan can kind of sit down and we have a somewhat normal dinner. Speaking of challenges, what’s a current challenge you are dealing with?
Mike: I don’t know when the restaurant bubble is going to burst. I think that’s everyone’s fear right now. Tipping is just one symptom of a much larger problem. Which is just the inequality in the pay scale in restaurants. The servers are fine with the tipping it’s the back of the house that isn’t. They don’t make nearly as much money and there’s no health insurance. It’s really a big blind side that no one talks about. If you want to be an independent restaurateur you’re not going to automatically have health insurance you’re not going to automatically get good pay. That’s why it’s a young man’s game. But now the problem is that the young men and women that are up and coming are realizing that it’s not sustainable and they’re not going into. So the older guys, like us, that are pushing and pushing are finding that now we have these restaurants but there aren’t any younger kids who want to come work in them like we did when we were the younger kids.
Jennifer: Yeah it’s a different environment.
Mike: It is, so I don’t know what the answer is. There has to be some kind of education across the board so that people understand what food actually costs. But with the rise of fast casual and things like that, I don’t know where the independent restaurant owner fits in. So, I think that there’s going to be natural thinning of the heard but I don’t know when or how. We just have to hope we’re not one of the ones being thinned.
Jennifer: Ugh, yeah and it’s so stressful.
Mike: *laughs* Yeah…
Jennifer: How do you deal with the stress of being an owner/operator?
Mike: I try to run. I don’t have a ton of time to work out. So, I run when I can. I’ll do pushups and sit ups when I can. I Don’t really have money for a gym membership so, I borrowed an old curl bar from my step father. When I have time, I will do that for an hour.
Jennifer: Right… It takes a lot of time to be successful at what you do, but when you are successful it leads to so many other things like awards and exciting opportunities. Which brings me to your recent award. Congratulations on being named on of Food and Wine magazines Best New Chefs 2016. How excited were you when you got that call?
Mike: It was weird. I was seriously elated for like that one day. Then it was really stressful because I couldn’t tell anyone.
Jennifer: Isn’t that the worst when you can’t tell anyone the exciting news?
Mike: Yeah, but it was more about, how do I prepare and what is actually going to happen. Am I going to be able to use this to my advantage? Unfortunately, I’m not really one of those people that are good at celebrating. It’s another problem I need to work on. I’m always thinking of the next thing. Everyone always says to me “why don’t you sit back and celebrate and soak in what you’ve done?” I think, it’s because there’s always so much more to do, I guess. Which probably isn’t a healthy way to look at things and is something I need to work on. I know that there are just as many people who received the best new chef designation and then they didn’t use it for anything. It was great when they got it but then they just went back to the restaurant and some people are like that. I would like to hope that I can use it for more. So now it’s like, how do I actually do that?
Jennifer: Of course, you want to use the award as a springboard. I definitely get that. I’m sure you will find a great way to do that. You’ve already done some very admirable things in the food community.
10 quick responses to a topic
- Ice tea: Unsweetened.
- Social media: Ugh. It is both amazing and taxing.
- Okra: Fried.
- Line cook: Investment.
- College football: Didn’t really grow up with that.
- Home: Restaurant.
- Tipping: Really tricky because we’ve built a culture around it.
- Booze: Only when I’m not in my restaurant.
- Sous Vide: For very specific things.
- Memphis: Kelly English
Thank you so much Mike for taking the time to chat! I’m definitely looking forward to our NOLA trip this summer so we can swing by and grab a bite!
Next week, we have Hugh Acheson; chef, writer, restaurateur and judge from Bravo’s Top Chef joins us! Then, after Hugh, we will feature one our dear friends and favorite bourbon maker, Julian VanWinkle with Pappy Van Winkle. Julian and his lovely wife, Sissy, were just here in Houston last weekend. We hosted two amazing bourbon tastings and a wine dinner with Paul Roberts of Colgin Cellars that raised funds for Southern Foodways Alliance. Paul, who was the youngest to ever achieve the Master Sommelier title, is lined up too… It’s going to be a busy month!