If you love what you do, you simply can’t imagine doing anything else. This is definitely the case with Chef Michael Minden, executive chef and owner of Michael V’s in Bixby.
Going to his restaurant is always a treat for me and while the food is spectacular, I adore Chef Michael and his wife, Carol who runs the front of the house and is often the smiling face that greets customers as they walk through the door.
Over the past few months, I have had the privilege to write about Chef Minden on numerous occasions. On this particular day, we sat down at a table in the bar and talked while I shamelessly devoured a piece of his triple chocolate cheesecake that is beyond delicious; it should be illegal, but more on that in a later article.
Minden has always loved food. His father barbecued a lot and he knew that he wanted to work with food from an early age.
He started working as a dishwasher at Holleman’s Fried Chicken in Hollywood, Florida when he was only nine years old.
“My sister worked there and they needed someone to wash dishes, so I would go in and wash dishes for them.”
During the six or seven years that he worked there, he held several other jobs including chicken washer, chicken cutter and was eventually promoted to manager.
After that he worked at little ranch house restaurants in Hollywood Florida.
Although he hated school in general, he went to Sheridan Vocational School when he was a senior in high school and learned a little more about cooking
“I didn’t give a damn that Columbus was here in 1492 because I wasn’t.”
However, he was so passionate about cooking, he sailed through their program and became the valedictorian of his class.
After high school he went to The Culinary Institute of America, which was located in New Haven Connecticut on the Yale campus. He didn’t know how he would pay for it since his father was traveling salesman. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way and he was there from ’69-’71.
It was during culinary school that he discovered that he really loved every aspect of the business. From baking to garde manger and even ice carving, he loved it all.
While he was at the CIA, they had a career day and Walt Disney World was there. Minden interviewed with them and was hired to be part of the opening team of 6000 employees on Oct. 1, 1971.
He started as a prep chef, but eventually worked his way up to chef de cuisine. He says that it was the best experience of whole life.
When he was promoted to sous chef, the executive chef and his mentor, Hungarian born chef, Gary Reich, told him that he would only have to work half a day.
Thinking that this meant four hours instead of eight, Minden questioned him about how they could possibly get everything done in four hours.
Chef Reich explained that since there were 24 hours in a day, half a day would be twelve hours.
“Work ethics were totally different than they are now. When you were in a management position, you worked until the job was done. There was no whining about being tired.”
Interestingly enough, Chef Reich had been the personal chef for both Howard Hughes and President Johnson.
Anyway, after Minden had been there for 10 years, Reich told him that it was time for him to leave. Afraid that he had done something terribly wrong, Minden asked him about it.
The chef told him that he was very talented, but it was time for him to experience other things since he had only worked at Disney.
Chef Reich added, “You’re always welcome back, but the experience you’ll get meeting and working with other people will do nothing but help your career.”
After that he went to Boco Raton Hotel and Club for one year. From there he went to Sea Palms Golf and Tennis Resort on St. Simon’s Island as the executive chef.
He eventually ended up opening his own restaurant, Cragsmere Manor in Mentone Alabama with a couple of friends.
“We took an old house and turned it into a thriving restaurant in hillbilly country.”
Unfortunately his partners were not foodies and after about a year they were more interested in other ventures.
He later joined the Marriott Corporation in Charlotte, North Carolina and helped open that restaurant That’s where he met his wife, Carol. He was working as the sous chef at the time and she was the Director of Catering.
They then moved to San Antonio, where he was the executive chef at the Gunter Hotel.
After that, they moved to Austin with Marriott and worked in healthcare division. Marriott then transferred them to Dallas where he ran the food service for Baylor Medical Center, preparing 6000 patient meals per day.
“We did the most incredible catering that I’ve ever done because they would bring in clients to impress who would potentially donate money to the hospital.”
From Dallas, they moved to Austin with Marriott and took over Breckenridge Hospital. Looking back on that experience, he said it wasn't a good one at all, so he moved on.
They then moved on to St. Louis where Carol was the Assistant Food and Beverage Director for Adam’s Mark Hotel while Michael was traveling a lot for Marriott.
Carol was promoted to the Food and Beverage Director for the Adam’s Mark, so they moved again – this time to Columbia, South Carolina.
Eventually, Michel’s frequent traveling was beginning to take a toll on them. He would be gone from two-six weeks and it was getting very old, indeed.
From there, they moved to Tulsa because Carol was offered a job as Food and Beverage Director for Doubletree.
Meanwhile, Minden was getting burned out from traveling and it was affecting their marriage.
Since Michael could not find a job, he continued with Marriott.
It came to this attention, however, that South Crest was being built, so he submitted his resume and he was hired immediately.
He set up food service and café, which was named Michael’s Café. They did a lot of fun things, including something called wok and roll, where he would stir fry and then serve it with an egg roll.
After a year, South Crest was bought by corporate America and he got an opportunity to work for Chalkboard for 8 months.
Little did they know, their lives were getting ready to change for the better.
During a Chamber function in Jenks, he and Carol met Sherry and David Swanson, who owned Back Street Bistro. Minden told him how he would love to own a restaurant like that because it reminded him of his days at Cragsmere Manor.
About a month after that meeting, he learned that the restaurant was for sale. He and Carol fell in love with it and eventually bought it after negotiating back and forth a little. They took it over on Michael’s fiftieth birthday and they ran it for seven years.
One day they were reading the newspaper and learned that the Remy family was building the Palazzo Shopping Center in Bixby.
Michael contacted them and after a bunch of negotiations, they agreed to build Michael V’s.
They opened in 2006 and are in their ninth year. While they are definitely known for their coconut cream pie, the restaurant is successful because the service and food are consistently the same.
“You can come in and get something today and then come back in six weeks or six months and it will be just like you remember it."
His favorite thing to eat would no doubt be a New York Strip steak with onions, mushroom and a baked potato, but his whole outlook on food changed when he had a massive heart attack four years ago.
“I have totally changed the way I eat. I now eat lot of salmon, tuna and salads.”
He says that his favorite herb is tarragon because he loves that licorice flavor.
He also says that he wants food to taste like what it is.
“If it’s salmon, I want it to taste like salmon. I am not big on blackening because the spice masks the natural flavors."
He also likes some of the classic dishes like Oscars and Marsalas as well as comfort foods like meatloaf and chicken fried steak and pot roast. However, he doesn't eat these dishes often for health reasons.
If he could cook anything for anybody, it would be his dad.
“He is no longer with us and he never really saw this and I would love to do that for him. Anything I would cook for him would be really special.”
“My passion is cooking and I absolutely love to cook. I love to please people with food.”
Those words pretty much sum up this talented chef who has also cooked for President Carter and for/with French Chef, Paul Bocuse.
If you have never visited Michael’s V’s, located at 103rd and Memorial, make plans to go soon and be sure to save room for a piece of coconut cream pie .