Madison Street's Rob Michaels dishes on dumbing down menus, the pitfalls of parsley, and pork heaven
Filipinos are renowned for their unwavering hospitality, for unleashing food feasts that swell the belly, for ensuring that no host allows her guests to leave hungry. "We're known for providing food to friends and family. That's how we show our love and friendship," explains Rob Michaels, who was born in the Philippines, which has a food-obsessed culture that he credits with shaping his career path -- that, and the non-Filipino family who adopted Michaels when he was eight, introducing him to a brand-new world of food in a rural community in southern Illinois.
"My adoptive mom is a really good cook," says Michaels, the chef de cuisine at Madison Street. "We had a family meal every single night, where we always had a protein, starch and vegetable on the plate -- but no candy, because that wasn't really allowed in the house." Breakfast was definitely allowed, though, and Michaels would share space with his mom, hunched over the stove, making breakfast for the family. Savory crepes, he remembers, were his forte.
The chef's first restaurant job, though, wasn't slinging hash browns, flipping flapjacks or rolling crepes -- and it was a gig that he got by default. "I was managing a hotel in Charleston, Illinois, and the cooks wouldn't show up for their banquet gigs, so I just jumped in to help wherever I could," recollects Michaels, who moved on to take an executive-chef position at a Hilton Garden Hotel restaurant in Effingham, Illinois -- a town, he jokes, that may have one of the worst names ever.
He oversaw the kitchen there for six years before meeting a girl who was living in Denver and eventually following her back to the Mile High City. "I moved here because of a girl, now my girlfriend, but I was ready to get out of town, anyway, because the food scene in southern Illinois was really stagnant," explains Michaels. He didn't have a Denver stint lined up, but after a quick layover in sales to generate some coinage, he landed a slot on the line at TAG, Troy Guard's culinary kingdom in Larimer Square. "I'd researched the restaurant and knew that I wanted to work for someone who could teach me everything I didn't know -- and Troy was that person," says Michaels, who ultimately became the day lead line cook before Guard approached him to run the kitchen at Madison Street.
"I love the direction that we're going with the menu here," says Michaels. At some point, he'd like to add a few Filipino dishes to the board while continuing to highlight the seasons and "spotlight fresher, more local ingredients." Ideally, he says, "I want to make Madison Street more food- rather than drink-focused. I want it to be a restaurant with a bar rather than a bar with a restaurant."
In the interview that follows, Michaels dishes on dumbed-down menus, Denver's "unicorn chef" and the clean-plate club.