By Carly DeFilippo
Less than five years ago, the stretch of Harlem between Central Park North and 135th Street was, in the words of Chef Mike Garrett, “a total food desert.” But in October 2010, as the Executive Chef of Marcus Samuelsson’s first independent restaurant venture, Red Rooster, Mike and his staff opened a fine dining establishment that would forever change not just the food of this historic neighborhood, but the culture as well.
In 2011, Red Rooster received a rave two-star review from Sam Sifton in the New York Times, but its influence went far beyond great food. The restaurant, whose cuisine pulled from the ethnic backgrounds of the neighborhoods’ many diverse communities, was a galvanizing force in introducing downtown diners to the emerging uptown scene. Today, Red Rooster is in good company—playing the wise, inspiring neighbor to such celebrated newcomers as The Cecil, Barawine and 67 Orange Street.
But back before Chef Mike was revolutionizing Harlem’s culinary culture, he was just a 17-year-old dishwasher in upstate New York. When one of the prep cooks didn’t show up for work, the executive chef asked, “Do you know how to make a burger?” One brutal day on the grill station taught the inexperienced young chef to never underestimate the nuances of any dish—no matter how simple it seems.
Mike continued cooking through college as a way to earn money, jumping from hotels to bakeries to restaurants. At the time, his professional goal was to be a radio DJ, but after relocating to Baltimore with a friend, Mike realized that, with a little education, his seven years of kitchen experience might prove to be more profitable. Soon enough, Mike was a new culinary school graduate, working his way up through Baltimore’s restaurant scene.
Eventually, Mike returned to New York, where he found work in restaurateur Pino Luongo’s famed empire. At Coco Pazzo, in particular, his interest in becoming an Executive Chef started to grow, as did his interest in exploring other lesser-known cuisines.
As any of Mike’s culinary students can tell you, he’s very passionate about Asian food, with skills that he picked up during stints at pioneering American sushi restaurant, Ringo (a predecessor to Masa and Kittichai). Eventually, Mike’s network landed him a spot in a very young Marcus Samuelsson’s three star kitchen at Aquavit—the then premiere Swedish restaurant in New York City. From 2004-2010, Mike worked under Samuelsson and Chef Nils Norén, graduating from junior sous chef to executive sous chef.
Throughout this period, Mike also found opportunities to open such restaurants as Merkato 55 and Aer Lounge—even spending stints at C House in Chicago. But once Red Rooster came into view, Mike knew it was time to go all-in.
Red Rooster was a massive success from day one. Catering to both the local community and serving as a hip “destination restaurant,” Mike juggled the desires of an almost impossibly diverse clientele. “On a given night, you would have Fab 5 Freddy, Citibank business partners, real estate guys, politicians, actors, musicians—all in the same restaurant. The impact on the local community was incredible.”
But even as he helped Red Rooster open Ginny’s, its downstairs supper club, and reinvent the upstairs menu time and time again, it became clear to Mike that his primary job as Executive Chef wasn’t cooking—it was teaching. And after years of working in fine dining, Mike was most excited to pursue his growing interest in simple, well-executed food.
In 2013, Mike joined the Culinary Arts faculty at ICE. As an instructor, he’s particularly adamant about reforming students’ bad habits. (His signature tagline—“control your energy!”—speaks to their tendency to cook too hot, too fast.) He’s also found time to explore his own artisanal hobbies, teaching beer-making or NY Jets tailgating classes for ICE’s School of Recreational Cooking. Yet whether he’s training future chefs or enthusiastic home cooks, Mike’s philosophy remains the same: “[ICE] is the perfect place to make mistakes and iron out the kinks—before you go and test run your skills in the real world.”
Want to study with Chef Mike? Click here to learn more about ICE’s Culinary Arts program.