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.
Six words to describe your food: Balanced, entertaining, colorful, thoughtful, rich and architectural.
Ten words to describe you: Creative, thoughtful, inspired, humble, analytical, spontaneous, physical, fast, patient and methodical.
Culinary inspirations: Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. When I was doing my business administration degree at college, it emphasized hospitality management, and we all had to choose a chef to write about, and I chose Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. The way that Keller crafts his food, the way he sources his products and the way he designs his plates all sort of helped me home in on my own creativity and gave me a deep appreciation for high-quality ingredients. Charlie Trotter's approach is very similar to Keller's -- but he gets extra points because he's an Illinois chef, and I'm from Illinois; he's a hometown boy. Troy Guard has been a big inspiration, too, mainly because of his intensity and his ability to micro-manage every single aspect of his restaurant. Micromanaging may get a bad rap, but when it comes to owning and operating multiple restaurants, micromanaging is a virtue. Like a lot of others, I'm inspired, too, by seasonal changes, along with my mother. In fact, it was truly my mother who got me started in the kitchen. It was where we spent our quality time. Luckily, she's a very patient woman who always had faith in me.
Best recent food find: Tabasco-braised short ribs from Argyll gastropub in Cherry Creek. Their short ribs have changed the way I cook short ribs for the rest of my life. Everyone loves short ribs, and you really have to go to Argyll and try theirs. They're so worth it, although inquire first, because, sadly, they're not always available. I do mine with sriracha sauce, and they'll soon be available periodically as a special, or maybe it'll be a menu staple; don't know yet. Best food finds always change, though. I just had breakfast at Jelly and love their corned-beef hash with over-easy eggs. Nice work, Jelly.
Favorite ingredient: Kosher salt. I love salt and use it on everything, because it enhances every flavor -- plus it cures. When I was a child growing up in rural southern Illinois, I even put salt on watermelon, because salt made it sweeter. My siblings didn't get it -- and neither did I at the time; I just knew that salt made it taste better.
Favorite local ingredient: Microgreens from Verde Farms. They're just perfect every single time. We use them a lot at TAG, and we're bringing them on board here at Madison Street. The flavor is so intense for such a little green. We get our beef from Fort Morgan -- it's Sterling Silver beef -- and it's got a great flavor. It tastes fresh, it doesn't shrink down when you cook it, and it's the perfect beef when you're making a burger on the flat-top.
Favorite spice: I use Chinese five-spice in desserts, pulled pork, soups and sauces. It's super-versatile and can be used in every application. I was turned on to it when I staged at Parallel 17 with chef Mary Nguyen -- she's a genius, by the way. When I staged, I did a Chinese five-spice duck breast Napoleon with crispy fried rice noodles and Thai apple eggplant. I think she was impressed.
Most overrated ingredient: I detest ketchup when people use it to cover up food. I like to use it occasionally in my own cooking, but I always put my own twist on it, and I use it to enhance flavors, not cover them up.
Most underrated ingredient: I love beets, and I'll do my best to use them as much as possible. I've got a beet salad on the Madison Street menu, as well as a Jack Daniel's bread pudding with a beet cream that resembles earthy-flavored chocolate.
One food you detest: I know parsley is used a lot, but my last restaurant used it as a garnish for everything -- and I mean everything. I'd ask the chef why he insisted on using parsley and he'd say that it made the food taste better. Wow, what a crock answer. I occasionally use parsley when I'm making herb mixtures -- but I use very little.
One food you can't live without: I can't live without pork and duck. Duck fat, duck confit, duck breast -- the list goes on and on. And pork is just heaven. I love pork and pork loves me. All you really need is pork. Enough said.
What's never in your kitchen? Hate. I make sure that we have a cohesive team where everyone is treated with respect. There is absolutely no hate in the kitchen. The kitchen is such a cool place to work, and when everyone is working together making perfect dishes, there is no hate. I have a great team here.
What's always in your kitchen: Soy sauce. I love the stuff, mostly, I guess, because it reminds me of my childhood in the Philippines. It's sort of a nostalgic food memory. A friend of mine in college introduced me to mushroom soy sauce that's sort of a darker, thicker sauce. It's so good that I searched all over the place for it and found it at Pacific Mercantile in Sakura Square. Seriously, it's a must-have.
Favorite music to cook by: I love listening to jazz music when I cook. It's soothing and has a cool vibe that makes me feel relaxed and like having fun. I also enjoy house music, especially mash-ups.
Biggest kitchen disaster: The New Year's Eve menu at a hotel restaurant I was working at in a small city in Illinois. The restaurant took on way more reservations than it could handle, so food wasn't getting out fast enough, and there weren't enough servers to run the food before it got cold. The whole thing was really poorly orchestrated, and the kitchen was a complete mess. We sandbagged the food, and I detest dumbing down menus for mass production. It takes all the love and creativity out of you -- and your food -- really fast
Hardest lesson you've learned: You can't please everyone, no matter how hard you try.
Last meal before you die: Chicken adobo, chorizo fried rice and lumpia, all of which bring back so many memories from my youth growing up in the Philippines.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.