MICHELLE: I always notice when I go into restaurants that I rarely see the chef or the owner – the “wizard behind the curtain.” You see more of a commercial scene where you’re watching the servers go back and forth or the managers walk around, but you really don’t know who’s back there in the kitchen making your food, calling the shots, and making sure everything is going out the way it should. I feel like making myself a presence in the restaurant as an owner and an executive chef is extremely important. People want to trust the person giving them their food. It’s an intimate situation, making the food that someone is consuming and putting into their body. It’s a big responsibility. Maybe a part of me wants that instant gratification of someone saying, “Mmmm… that’s really good” or that nod while they’re eating.
DROOLDISH: So you enjoy seeing them interact with their food?
MICHELLE: I definitely enjoy seeing that. I’m that person who wants to know – I’m excited and anxious to know what they think.
DROOLDISH: Well, and it makes it personal, too. Your restaurant and a couple others – we’ve met the chef. It makes it personal because they clearly care about the food, they care about the business, and they care about the customer. But I understand about the restaurants you’re describing. You sit, you eat, you leave, and it’s like you’re at a feeding factory.
MICHELLE: Yes, it’s very commercial. You know, I’ve seen both front and back of house at restaurants. Knowing what’s going on, it really gives you a different perspective. It makes me want to be more open about my kitchen – how we’re preparing things, how we’re serving things, how we’re putting it all out there. Because you want people to trust you. You want people to know that you care about their food.
DROOLDISH: Yes, cooking is that age-old expression of love. You’re feeding someone.
MICHELLE: Exactly! Feeding people is very intimate and you want them to trust you and know that you care.
MICHELLE: Yeah, close enough to share beers! Close enough to say, “Hey, what’s that roll? What’s that dish?”
You know, when I opened the restaurant, it was very minimal. I took everything in my savings and every penny I had and I paid every salary for the first few months out of my own pocket. The restaurant is small, it’s intimate, it’s personal, because that’s what I had to do to start it off. It wasn’t about what it looked like or how commercial it could be. It was about the food and how you felt when you walked in. It was about how you feel when you left.
DROOLDISH: so what made you decide to go ahead and be a head chef and head out on your own? What triggered that?
MICHELLE: You know, I grew up in a big city. Everybody was hungry; everybody had big dreams. I wouldn't say that I was poor, but I definitely wasn’t well-off. That type of upbringing - you dream big, you know, because you’ve got nothing else to do but trying to take your life to the next level so that you can be better than what you came from.
I'm here in Corpus because I had my children here. And I was thinking to myself, how much further can I go here? How many manager jobs can I get, or executive chef jobs, in this town? I'd gotten the farthest levels I could. I needed to grow. I needed to take a chance. And it's working out and it's amazing - it's like living a dream and it's very surreal. The business is still very vulnerable, but it is better than punching a time clock for somebody else's dream.
DROOLDISH: You're just wrapping up your first year successfully and you're growing and business is good. You guys are busy – congratulations! That’s huge! I know you’re probably aware that most businesses fail within the first year, so making it to that mark is a pretty big deal. What are your plans to keep the momentum going?
MICHELLE: Well now that we have been able to execute our first menu, create more menus, more dishes, perfect our systems, perfect our dishes, make our team stronger, train myself more, and keep people around me. I don’t want to be a turnaround kind of restaurant. We want people to be there because they care, I want people who want to grow together and make a strong team. I want to avoid the turnover and basically make our team like a family. People need to feel like they can make their mark.
"And it's working out and it's amazing - it's like living a dream and it's very surreal. The business is still very vulnerable, but it is better than punching a time clock for somebody else's dream"
MICHELLE: Creating something new and wowing myself… making new food, making sauces, or something that was totally accidental. You’re like, “Damn, that was good! That's going on the menu.” Or seeing the face of one of my chefs when they create something and are then commended for it. I really feel like I'm here to be the leader for a lot of us that just want to create more or just want to make their mark. I want to feed everybody's creativity. I want to be happy. I want us to make some awesome food and I want my staff to have those feelings like I had when I was creating that food and getting commended for it.
DROOLDISH: That's great, you know, it’s great. So, you're dedicated sushi restaurant and the sushi is amazing. What do you offer when a group comes in, but some of them don't like raw fish? What do you offer for them?
MICHELLE: I try to tell everybody that we are 99% sushi, but you know, telling me that you don't like sushi is like saying you don't like a sandwich. There is a sandwich for everyone. There is a sandwich you will like. You have to find something that appeals to their palates. You ask questions, like, “Do you like raw, fried, spicy, mild?” Then you create something for them that they can eat that is still sushi, even when they don’t know they like sushi. Sushi is rice. It’s definition is so broad. It’s such a universal food, but you’ve got the Great Divide. Some people are just like, “No!”
DROOLDISH: Well, some people don't realize that sushi doesn't always mean raw.
MICHELLE: And the right combination of sauces, flavors, and textures on raw fish can make it totally disappear in their mind -take that mental block away that is a raw product they're eating.
“The tower” is a Sashimi dish and is built up in such a beautiful way that so many people are eating and loving it - older people, young people - all eating the tower and they're not realizing that it's sashimi. It's a sashimi dish. You're eating raw fish. That's right, you know, they're going to order that Tower and then order their two fried rolls. They’re eating it like it’s a beef dish or something or not realizing that it's just the right combination of flavors, textures, and sauces - all balanced ingredients - that make the difference.
DROOLDISH: The tower gets a lot of love. Is that something your regulars often get? Do you have a lot of customers who are regulars?
MICHELLE: Yeah, like 75% of our customers are regulars. I mean, we have so many people that come back and that really support us and really bring us through the slow seasons.
We have the regulars that come in weekly, twice a week, twice a month - they just really feel our genuine love for food and they feel at home and they come in. If they don't have their South Texas Sushi, they feel like they’re missing out. When they come back a month later, they're like, “Oh my gosh, I've been away so long!” I love it, you know. Our regulars are what has gotten us through this year.
I can recognize many of their faces and some of their names, but even when I can’t recall their names, I know them by their food. I used to be a bartender, so if you don't know their names, you know their drink. You're like, “Tonic with a Twist?” Now it’s the same with food.
DROOLDISH: Right now you're BYOB, which is a huge deal. People love that. Do you have any plans for a liquor license, or are you going to keep offering BYOB to your patrons?
MICHELLE: As long as we stay in this location, we're definitely going to be BYOB. It's fun and it keeps us away from focusing too much on the sales of alcohol and keeps us focusing on the food.
MICHELLE: Wow, you know what, my day is filled up. Getting kids up and ready, making sure they have what they need for school for the day, getting myself to work, making sure that everything is prepped and we have everything for the day. I have a break between 3 and 5 so we can take a break and re-prep the line and so I can run home and make dinner for my kids and see how their days are going, see how homework is going, touch base with them, and then run back to my restaurant. It is a constant balance of multitasking and having to prioritize.
But they see my dedication and my drive for this restaurant and they know that it’s not only a creative outlet, but it's for their future, too. They know my need to be creative. It’s funny, my creativity was something I was just born with, but I didn't know I would be a chef. When I was young, I thought I was going to be an artist. I went to school thinking maybe I would be an actress on TV. I had no idea that my cooking ability was going to actually be my profession. I didn't know you could make money cooking. My family, we all cook. My mother was a cook. The first thing she taught me about being self-sufficient was how to cook. I was 8 years old. She was working; both of my parents worked and I was the oldest daughter. It was a way to survive and then became a way to create. It became a way to nourish the family. It really changed my perspective when I went to culinary school. I went to a community college, not some big fancy place. At the time, I just needed to learn a little more so I could move up in pay grade. But it opened my eyes to new techniques and so many other things. The professional cooking world is so different than home cooking. If you're a great home cook and you love it, then you really understand the professional world of cooking techniques, it’s a dynamite combination.
I wasn’t even a cook when I went to culinary school, I was a server. And I was a terrible server and made terrible tips. You would think that the professional cooking world would welcome women, but it was hard to get to the back to the house. It took a long time for me to get there and when I got it, it was total fluke that I got the job. The company I worked for was opening up a little sushi bar and they were desperate – they had nobody to run it. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I'm done with school! Put me in their coach! Put me in there!” I was head sushi chef in the first 3 months I was there. I made it my own and I felt empowered. I struggled my way up the ladder trying to get in there because everybody was trying to knock me down. It felt like such an accomplishment!
DROOLDISH: So, final question… What would be your last meal be, if you had to choose?
MICHELLE: South Texas Poke. It’s something that I could not afford most of my life. I saved up all week long when I was working as an hourly employee just so I could go out to sushi once a week. Now when I want to treat myself… I just love it.