With so many competitive food shows and critical chefs like Gordon Ramsay on TV, you might start to think that professional kitchens are never pleasant places to be. Well, chef Mike Odette runs a cool kitchen.
The executive chef and co-owner of Columbia restaurant Sycamore is a semifinalist for a James Beard Award this year, and he let Michael and I shadow him for three hours last week. He even let me stir the risotto.
Mike’s was the first active professional kitchen I’ve been in, but I was surprised how streamlined the whole process was, even though the chefs were prepping for several meals at a time. The chefs moved briskly but never seemed overwhelmed. They stuck to the list, bouncing between dishes without a hitch: zest oranges, wash potatoes, form crab cakes, disassemble ducks…
Sure, we entered the kitchen at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, not the most hectic time for a restaurant, but Sycamore had plenty going on. Besides daily lunch and dinner, the chefs were preparing for Saturday’s True/False filmmakers’ banquet. Mike had an extra chef on hand for the day, plus his son Harrison in a playpen. (Mike brings the one-year old in when his wife works 24-hour shifts at the fire station.) You can imagine Michael and I tried to be as small as possible, but the chefs never gave us a hard time about being in their way and they happily answered our questions.
Mike Odette never went to culinary school, but he spent years at the “school of hard knocks,” he said. After growing up Sedalia, Mo., Columbia seemed like the “big city.” It was here that he first tried Indian and other cuisines that now influence the menu at Sycamore. For the filmmaker’s dinner, Mike planned orange-mint risotto fritters, curry chicken phyllo turnovers, shrimp and andouille kabobs, and lobster Rangoon, among other appetizers.
He started learning about world flavors at Café Europa where he worked for two years. He then worked at Trattoria Strada Nova for nine years before taking a job at Cherry Street Wine Cellar. Nearly four years ago, Mike opened Sycamore with his wife, Amy Barrett, and friends Sanford and Jill Speake.
Sycamore has since ranked among Columbia’s top restaurants, and Mike’s James Beard nomination for Best Midwest Chef is sure to raise its profile. On the menu now are entrees like boneless beef short ribs braised in New Belgium ale with caramelized onions and thyme ($19) and orange-glazed smoked duck breast and duck confit with dried cranberry demi-glace and wild rice ($21).
“If I can be accused of having anything trendy on the menu it’s the pork belly,” Mike said.
That would be the slow-cooked cured pork belly with cabbage and apple slaw and cider gastrique. Mike was quoted in a local paper saying he’d serve that appetizer to the Beard Award judges if given the chance. He told me the pork belly is something that sets Sycamore apart from other Columbia establishments.
“It helps define the restaurant,” he said. “And it’s got sex appeal.”
As far as food fads Mike isn’t a fan of, he said, “I’m glad the foam thing has run its course.”
But Mike is on the bacon bus. “We use bacon in everything we can,” he said, adding some to a clam chowder with leeks and fennel.
Something that will always be in vogue is freshness. When Mike sends another chef out to get more produce from the Root Cellar market, which stocks locally grown goods, he calls out, “Ignore any signs that say ‘Use these first!’”
Mike raves about the eggs he gets from Julie Walker at Greystone Farm in Fayette. He gives back by saving organic vegetable scraps in a bucket that goes to feed the chickens there.
Mike and I also talked about the broadening food culture. “It’s better than it ever has been,” he said. He finds that it is a lot easier to write menus now because diners’ “collective vocabulary is growing.” Though people are still wary of the word “spicy” in a description, Mike says he doesn’t “need to dumb down the menu” for people in Columbia.
In my time in the kitchen, I was so in awe of everything going on, I could barely think of things to ask. I mostly observed. Watching Mike and the other chefs in action was great because everything they did was so fluid.
You can tell that the people working at Sycamore respect Mike, and he respects them. He says please and thank you when he tells people to do things. There was only one time he raised his voice. He came in carrying a huge pot, asking “Who turned my oven off?” He was frustrated but not rude. Erin fessed up and apologized, then the issue was put in the past.
Erin said Mike is more laid back than other chefs she’s worked under. Karlos said he wanted to work at Sycamore because he wanted to have a teacher, and he “decided Mike was the shit.”
Of course, it’s hard not to like a guy who makes chocolate-covered bacon, takes time to entertain his son between kitchen tasks, and lends you a book about risotto the first day you meet.
Michael will be doing a photo project on Mike for class, so expect to hear more about this friendly and talented chef.
PREVIEW/TEASER FROM MICHAEL:
Mike let me spend time with him at home — prepare to meet the ridiculously cute family in a few days when I cobble together the audio and make my final edit on the pictures (over 500 shot so far, and I’m gonna be in the kitchen Saturday night).