So, you want to be the next Mario Batali or Rachael Ray? How about the next Iron Chef? Have dreams of making it big in the culinary world? Well, young Grasshopper, maybe you should think about going into a culinary program to see if a career in the kitchen is right for you.
“The reality food shows are deceiving. They do not give you the real picture of what it is like to work in the food industry,” Mike Armstrong, owner of Michael’s Café and Bakery in east Toledo said. “First, the average work week is 50-60 hours. I realized that up front. Think about it. The times you will be working are the times when other people are playing like holidays and weekends. If going out on Fridays and Saturdays is important to you, don’t even dream of going into the business.”
Armstrong knows well of what he speaks. Growing up, Armstrong said he always enjoyed eating and with it, he began to enjoy cooking what he ate as well.
“I have always loved to cook,” Armstrong said. “As long as I could reach the stove I could cook. When I was six, my dad built me a stool so I could fix my own eggs in morning. My parents preached to us to find something that we would enjoy doing for a long time. I liked cooking and eating so, when I was at Clay High School, I decided to go into the culinary program. When I was a senior, I made the decision to become a chef. It sounded like cooking would be more fun than going to college and learning how to teach.”
Armstrong said what he learned in the Clay program gave him more of a handle on the food industry itself. Going through the program, he understood what it would take to make a career out of food.
“Any experience you get is helpful,” he said. “Susie Johnson was our teacher and she made sure that we had a wide variety of experiences. We did small catering jobs and we were exposed to different aspects of cooking.”
Armstrong said that in his senior year, they were required to work 15 hours a week in a local restaurant.
“You have to get out and work in the food business,” Armstrong said. “You have got to have a job where you can make a living. I worked the grill and made sandwiches. I got to see different aspects of the industry. I got a job at the Sheraton where I did prep work and that allowed me to get a look at some of the aspects of the hotel food business.”
After graduating, Armstrong went on to earn his associate’s degree in culinary arts from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), located in Hyde Park, NY.
The newly minted chef went on to work at La Bretagne, in Stanford, CT., as a sous chef, then became the head chef at Shawn’s Café, in New Haven, CT.
In 1980, Armstrong and his wife, Laura, his high school sweetheart, moved back to Oregon.
“I wanted to run my own business so that is when I started catering,” he said. “We ran the catering out of our home on Pickle Road for a few years. I talked to zoning and we built a commercial kitchen in our house. They approved the zoning variance for it and the health department approved it.”
Armstrong then began running St. Michael’s Center, on Navarre Ave., in Oregon, and started catering from there. The home-based commercial kitchen is now long gone, replaced by a family room.
Michael’s Café and Bakery opened in the Weber Block in 1992. He and Laura, his wife and partner, now employ 22 people, full time. Their children did not follow in their father’s culinary footsteps.
“The food business is hard to get into unless you have a passion for it,” Armstrong explained. “The whole key to the business is that you really have to love cooking.”
Although he went on to get additional training after high school, Armstrong said it is possible to break into the culinary business without a culinary degree.
“Quality has always been the key and that was taught to us at Clay,” he said. “Quality was the real issue taught to us. You have to do work that you are proud of and work like you are the owner. It takes a lot to run a business. You have to make a fair profit, give the customer what they want, pay your employees and the bills, taxes, etc. The cooking is the easy part.”
Of his employees, only one is a culinary school graduate.
“College is important but just as important is working with your eyes open,” Armstrong said. “You have to work in as many operations as you can and learn as much as you can. There is a lot you can do without a college degree. If you have the determination you definitely can make it. You are more valuable if you care about your job. That is more valuable than a college graduate who does not care.”