By Chester Simpson
#5 Cameron Street
Old Town Alexandria
Born and Raised on Long Island, New York, Chef Michael Wagner graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1995, then relocated to Miami in the early 1990’s. While here, he worked his way through various high profile Miami kitchens along-side local legends such as Mark Militelio (Mark’s Place), Jonny Vinczencz (Astor Place/Johnny V), Tim Andriola (Timo) and Chef Allen Susser (Chef Allen’s). Realizing a life-long dream of opening his own restaurant, Chef Wagner concentrated his efforts on developing the menu, concept and décor for Lola’s on Harrison, a namesake to his late grand-mother. After working for such groups as the Fireman Hospitality Group and Blue Ridge Restaurant Group as their Corporate Chef, he is now taking his talents to Blackwall Hitch where he recently opened the Alexandria outpost.
When did you first become interested in cooking? Why did you decide to pursue a culinary career?
My story might be a little different than the typical chef. Even though my Grandma (Bobby) and my Mom are great at home cooks, I didn’t spend any time with them in the kitchen growing up. I was a very active youth who couldn’t wait to be outside playing sports and food was something that was on the table, not an activity I participated in preparing. After attending the University of Maryland on a tennis scholarship, I really didn’t have a clear direction what I wanted to do with my life. This seems very in line with many kids that attend school without any clear direction. All I knew is that I didn’t want to be behind a desk and work the “typical” 9-5 office job. My final year at school, I had a roommate who worked in a local restaurant and he would cook in our not-so-user-friendly kitchen. He was talking me into just looking at culinary schools once I went back home to New York. I said to myself, “Why not?” After many road trips checking out schools on the east coast, my last stop was the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Once I entered the main building and had a chance to walk around the premises, I was in awe. I remember leaving that trip and coming home to tell my parents I wanted to sign up for the culinary program. That decision was a little out of left field but, as always, they supported it. Once I started school, I knew in my heart that I found something that I am deeply passionate about. This profession is in alignment with many of my creative personality traits and a great outlet to express myself to the world.
Who have been the biggest inspirations for your career?
I graduated in 1995 where we had a rough winter in the northeast. Growing up all of my life in New York, I felt like this was an opportunity for a major change in my life. I decided one freezing cold morning that I wanted to live in a warmer climate and not have to scrape ice and snow off my car anymore. At that moment, I literally packed up my Jeep Wrangler and drove down to Florida to start a new life. Before making the trip, I secured a position at Chef Allen’s which, at the time, was a top restaurant in the greater Miami area. Allen Susser, who was the chef owner, was very well respected in the community and this was an amazing opportunity to work with a James Beard Award winning chef. My first day was a little rough and I wasn’t sure I was going to last through the shift. Chef said to me, “Mike, go into the walk-in and grab the boniato, yucca, mamey, jackfruit, lychee, etc.” These were all very foreign ingredients for me – remember I grew up in New York. If I can’t even identify them in the walk-in, how can I even think about cooking or preparing them? Well, this was just a test of my product knowledge of fruits and vegetable indigenous to the area – which I obviously failed miserably. At that moment, I was truly inspired to identify and prepare these ingredients and work side by side with an amazing culinary team that supported me every step of the way.
What dish on the Blackwall Hitch menu are you most curious to see how it is received by your diners?
Why do “Veggie” burgers and/or sandwiches always become the step-child on just about every menu? We have created something different…a little outside the box. Our sandwich contains ingredients such as sundried tomatoes, white corn, scallions and goat cheese. We serve it on a brioche bun with smoked paprika spiced mayonnaise and lots of fresh arugula. I am always curious to hear feedback from our guests-especially from a very unique menu item that even a meat lover will crave.
What do you do to insure that the quality of the food going out to customers is of a high standard?
It all starts with creating partnerships with your vendors and setting the standard of quality even before any food enters the building. We have installed a checks and balance system within the restaurant to ensure that any product that has been presented to our guests has been tasted along the way from preparation to final plating. We are sourcing local products when available and offering our guests the best resources that are in the surrounding area.
If any chef in the world could prepare you a meal, who would it be?
This is a great question and I spent a lot of time trying to think of who and why a chef of my choice would prepare a meal for me. I have come to the conclusion that I am fascinated by the creativity and thought into molecular gastronomy. I personally have never worked under a chef that had the skilled techniques into this forward thinking cuisine, but I am intrigued. That is why I selected Grant Achatz who, in my opinion, is an American pioneer in this style. Approaching food in a new perspective while challenging my brain and senses, has me wanting to be catered by the best. His restaurant Alinea in Chicago is usually at the top of self-proclaimed foodies bucket list.
What is your guilty food pleasure?
My guilty food pleasure with any doubt is sea urchin – Uni. Once I trust a restaurant to serve me the freshest and highest quality Uni, they have a customer for life. Each bite of sea urchin is full of a creamy and briny flavor that melts in my mouth. It leaves a lingering ocean taste that has my eyes rolling back in my head. It’s a fact that Uni has a “euphoria-causing chemical” ingredient (albeit in very small quantities) similar to what you find in some illicit drugs. So the few people who really enjoy this delicacy as much as myself, share the feeling of pure joy. No matter what is going on in my life, eating a small piece of Uni always transforms me to my happy place.
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