June 29, 2015
It's a bittersweet time here at Texas French Bread as we say our goodbyes to Michael Hamley, who has worked as our head chef since Ben's departure in 2013. Mike has decided that this summer is an ideal time to look to his next culinary challenge, and while we support him taking the next steps in his career, he will be missed.
It would be difficult to catalog the sheer volume and positive nature of changes Mike has helped bring about since he joined us in 2010 to work beside my brother and me on our dinner service. It's worth noting that Mike joined a dinner kitchen that we had organized (by necessity) for catering and our occasional supper club. Our lack of formal experience running this kind of show occasionally resulted in inconsistently long waits for dinner. Mostly though, the dinner service was an outlier, disconnected from TFB's core business serving lunch and baked goods.
Back then, our ad hoc kitchen was wedged in a back room space with the bakery ovens - a long walk from the dining room. Before dinner service, Ben Decherd would hoist a table from the dining room over his head and carry it to the back where it would serve as a rough countertop so we'd have a place to plate food as it came off the "line." I use that term lightly - it consisted of a "low boy" style refrigerator that worked most of the time and a solitary beat down 10-burner Wolf stove that we'd acquired when Granite Café closed. Six of the burners actually worked and the oven door would even stay on if you didn't slam it too hard; it also blocked the bakers' path to their ovens. We could be completely in the weeds on a busy Friday night when suddenly everyone would have to back away from the stove and wait for the bakers to maneuver heavy racks of bread between us and the stove on their way to the big walk-in style bread ovens that lined the opposite wall. Ah, those were the days my friends.
Mike came onboard with the line cooking experience that we lacked. His initial contributions involved streamlining our systems, and with his help, we began to cut down ticket times and get better organized - we began to operate more professionally. Over time, Mike began to bring his own creative influence to our menu, working with Ben Willcott to craft fresh new ideas for our dinner menu. But it would be another four years, and a promotion to head chef after Ben's departure, before we built our new kitchen and began to really address the crazy infrastructural deficiencies that came with the territory when we opened a restaurant in the middle of our working bakery.
I also think it's worth noting that Mike moved to Austin from North Dakota in 2008 and, though it would be hard to cite a specific dish on our menu, I believe that his cooking style has at least some of its roots in his cultural heritage. Mike is a member of the Métis people. The Métis are descendents of French fur traders and the native Ojibwe people, and, like the Louisiana Cajuns with whom they share a similar path, music (played on the fiddle, guitar, and even accordion) is an essential and defining element of their culture. Mike's family and friends played music together at every opportunity, and he grew up to be an accomplished guitarist and singer. When he decided to leave home, Austin seemed like a great place to seek his fortune.
But the French side of Mike's heritage was not to be denied and he found himself drawn more and more towards cooking - particularly the kind of cooking we were doing at Texas French Bread using real, locally grown, whole foods, handled with a minimum of fuss in a way that showed off the best characteristics of that food.
And this is fascinating because North Dakota provided him with precious little in the way of culinary opportunity. Mike has shared with me that his early experience of food (especially outside his home) was utilitarian at best. Still, he loved food and cooking and he was fortunate that his mom planted a summer garden and did basic scratch cooking in their home.
While Mike still regularly plays music both professionally and for fun, he has chosen to throw in his lot, not with those easy natural gifts that he learned growing up, but rather with the challenges of operating in a world he came to without a particularly strong background of knowledge and experience - a world that he learned about from cookbooks, by working his tail off in hot, uncomfortable kitchens, and because, let's face it - he's half French.
Mike leaves behind a legacy of signature dishes that have graced our dinner menu over the last several years. His pasta with chorizo and the country fried egg (poached, then breaded and fried) was delicious, as was the duck egg raviolo (a single raviolo that had a duck egg yolk tucked neatly inside). My favorite may have been his treatment of the black drum - served on celery root puree and topped with fennel confit and crispy fried parsnip strips. It was over the top. And I would be remiss if I did not note his development of our brunch menu, along with the systems and staff training, that have made our weekend brunch one of the focal points of our business.
Mike will go home to North Dakota over the summer, but he plans to return to Austin this fall (I don't know if y'all know this, but it's really cold up there starting in about September?). I will pass info along once we know Mike's next assignment. I would imagine that he will showcase a few of his signature dishes over the next two weeks, and I hope you'll come join us to send him off properly. We're going to miss him.