Chef Michael Kloeti Interview
(Michael's on The Hill)
He’s been recognized as Vermont’s first chef of the year and the Vermont Restaurateur of the year. His cooking has taken him from one side of the United States to the other, not to mention Australia, Indonesia and the Caribbean. We are talking about Chef Michael Kloeti. Michael is the owner of Michael’s on the hill, his own restaurant.
Q - Your restaurant would appear to be catering to the upper echelon of society in Vermont. Would I be correct with that observation?
A - Yes. Special occasions. People that really want to have a great time. I do have a good local following, but yes, definitely New York, Montréal clientele.
Q - Why did you choose the state of Vermont to open a restaurant in? Why not some place in New York City or Los Angeles?
A - Well, I guess the whole thing is the way Vermont thinks, there is more of a state of mind. It’s like live and let live. That was very important to me. It was definitely a family reason. I want to raise my family in an environment that I’m very comfortable with. If it’s good for you I can’t disagree with it. Vermont is kind of like Switzerland (were chef Michael is from) in some ways of believing and thinking. You still have so much space everybody can live their lives without involving anybody else and if you do, you involve them with your friends.
Q - You don’t have that hustle and bustle in Vermont.
A - You don’t. You have it once in a while but, there’s also time to cool off. For business, you’re not going to become a multimillionaire up here running a restaurant but, you have time to relax and reflect and be with your family and have a life.
Q - You’ve worked in restaurants from New York to Hawaii.
A - Right.
Q - Do you learn something different from each restaurant? How to prepare different foods?
A - Yes. I’m always telling people the training happened in Switzerland. The ground walls were built in Switzerland to become what I would consider the kitchen soldier. Do not create, just follow and execute exactly what the Chef and Sous Chef are telling you to do. Then I came to the United States and worked in Lespinasse in New York City where again you’re the kitchen soldier. You do what the Chef tells you to do. You do not create. You execute. Then I went to Hawaii. New York City, unless you work in a four-star restaurant, you don’t have a life. You work. That’s it. That’s what you want to do. You want to build yourself a career. That’s it. You don’t have a life. Then I moved to Hawaii, kind of as far away as I possibly could. I didn’t have my permanent green card yet so I wasn’t able to leave the United States. So, that was about as far as a way and what a big change. It was just to relearn how to live again. There’s fishing out there. There’s hiking and swimming and snorkeling and scuba diving, but, you still do a fantastic job and in some ways balance that out. It’s very hard to do an excellent job if you don’t have it to balance out on what you do in your private time.
Q - Where were you in Hawaii, Honolulu?
A - No. It was Lanai.
Q - Do they have a big tourist trade there?
A - Oh, yes. It’s all tourism. It basically used to be the Pineapple Island. Two resorts were put on the island, but, because it was just those two resorts there was never that much tourism on the island. They wouldn’t overrun the island. So again it was definitely two upscale resorts. In one of them Bill Gates got married there.
Q - It has to be very upscale if he got married there.
A- It was very secluded. That was the beautiful thing about it.
Q - Along the way you must’ve made some pretty good money. I’m assuming it takes a lot of money to open your own restaurant.
A - After Hawaii we had to make a decision, what do we do? If you need money that’s when you talk about Los Angeles and New York City. So, we moved back to New York. Lived right outside of New York City. Edgewater, New Jersey. I worked at the St. Regis Hotel as the executive chef there. Chef de cuisine is what I was called. Basically everything but Lespinasse. Lespinasse was still in the St. Regis hotel. There was a lot of politics going on at that time. I was hired as a sous chef to run one of the outlets there then the thing went down and then I became the Chef de Cuisine. It was definitely a learning experience, but in that learning experience you make a whole lot of money because you’re in New York City. So, we put the money aside and decided three years after that that we really wanted to move to the countryside.
Q - How long did it take you from the time you entered the food business to the time you opened your own restaurant?
A - Cooking, I started when I was 15 but, I started dishwashing when I was 12, we opened the restaurant 11 years ago (2002). I was 32. So what is that? 20 years of restaurant experience, not all in cooking. I started dishwashing. Pot washing, then worked my way up. Then finally learning how to cook in Switzerland with an apprenticeship and then worked my way up the ladder.
Q - I once had a restaurant manager tell me dishwasher is the most important person in the restaurant because he knows what’s left on the plate and what isn’t. That’s true isn’t it?
A - Right. By the way, this kitchen is set up; the waiters come back from the dining room and see I am actually cooking here. I’m not a pencil pushing chef. I’m actually on the line cooking, but, I can see when the waiters come back that immediately if something is left on the plate. I ask what’s going on? It’s either there so full they can’t eat it and I say, well fantastic, or maybe the bread pudding was a little dry or something wasn’t properly done. You can see exactly what you just said.
Q - How did you get to be named as one of the top chefs of America?
A- Well, I think it’s actually the peers that say that. They make phone calls. They call around and ask the chefs in the area who would you think is one of the best chefs in the area. They called me and said who would you nominate you can’t nominate yourself of course. So, you nominate other chefs. Then I guess the ones that get the most votes get the title. I’m assuming that’s what it is because they called me and said give us four or five chefs that you respect and think there doing a great job in Vermont.
Q - When you’re recognized as one of the top chefs in America that gives you bragging rights, but does it also translate into more restaurant business?
A - For me, the way this restaurant has been growing, it’s been growing every single year, it’s word-of-mouth and, no matter what advertisement goes out, and it is great advertisement to, it’s still word-of-mouth. When you had a great experience here, you’re going to come back. If you had a great experience, you tell your closest friends. But of course if you had a bad experience you’re going to tell 100 friends. But, that’s how Michael’s on the hill has been building and building and building and the relationships with the farmers so I can use more and more and more local product.
Q- Do you get any famous people into your restaurant?
A - I’m coming from the St. Regis hotel where you were told to never, never mention who was there. So, there’s not a lot of famous people come here, but we do have our fair share of famous people coming because they do vacations. Some of the famous people live in Canada or have a house in Canada. Some people have houses up here (Vermont) but, I don’t really want to mention names of who’s coming by and who’s here. It can cause quite a stir too. Some people are quite disrespectful when it comes to the privacy of famous people. It was kind of upsetting that night because a person came in that had nothing to do with the incident. He was a young kid that had too much to drink felt like, just because you’re famous you owe me an explanation. He was just with his wife having a nice meal. Leave him alone.
Q - Some restaurants have separate entrances and separate rooms for famous people. Do you have that?
A - I do. A famous person of the caliber of Frank Sinatra doesn’t always travel alone. There’s always a posse with them.
Q - That’s right.
A - Whether their handlers or servants or whoever they have with them make them happy, they’ll make the famous person happy. Somehow it seems like the posse is more important to satisfy than the famous person himself. So, we had this famous person and we thought we should probably put him in the back room with his entire group and they’ll be happy. Well, what happened is they walked in and we got them in the back and it’s a beautiful room. We moved them basically away from everybody else. I think it was his wife that didn’t like it at all so she wanted to have a table right on the porch. It’s an enclosed porch, but, everybody has to walk through. Everybody pretty much can see who’s there. So, it depends on the famous person. Some people like to be seen. Some people don’t. If they don’t they let us know and we can definitely handle the challenge of doing that. At the St. Regis Hotel we had lots of famous people, political and movie stars. That was our goal to keep the privacy of these people. For me I’ve got my favorites. Some of those famous people are so down to earth and nice and kind and polite and others are just so wrapped by it (the fame).
Official website: michaelsonthehill.com
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