Interview with Chef Michael Stoltzfus of Sweet Olive at The Saint Hotel – New Orleans, LA

April 2012

Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Michael Stoltzfus: At 21 I was about to go to college for graphic design. My mom opened up a bakery/café. I decided to work there for a few weeks, and I never left. I ran the kitchen from the beginning. I didn't know anything. It was horrible and great at the same time.

CH: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
MS: We source everything locally. We try to do local dinners with chefs.

CH: What's your favorite charity?
MS: We set up our own Feeding Tree charity. A few members of our staff go out to feed people at homeless shelters. Our manager spearheads that effort.

CH: Where do you see yourself in five years?
MS: Coquette has been open three years in December. We're opening another restaurant this week. It was supposed to open today, but we're waiting on a hood. We're hopefully opening [a] new restaurant this week. We take our time and make sure everything is solid. I want to do a bar that does good food. Right now it's about developing our staff. New concept is Sweet Olive, in a new hotel, the Saint Hotel. We're in the lobby, 60 to 65 seats. It's a little more Southern Louisiana influence as far as pulling ideas and reinventing them. We have a four-course menu, which turned into amuse, plated bread, mignardises, and desserts.

[Editor's note: Sweet Olive opened in February 2012]
CH: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
MS: Put your head down, listen, pay attention, and put your ego aside when you go into the kitchen. They think they know a lot more than they do and never grow. Humility is the key.

CH: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
MS: Competition is steep down here. There are a lot more young chefs with restaurants. Higher level of competition.

CH: What's the toughest thing you've had to do in your job?
MS: The business side of it. Going from being a cook and chef to running my own business is the hardest part.

CH: How did you know when you were ready to open your first restaurant?
MS: I started cooking at 21 and opened Coquette at 27. I had worked in seven kitchens. Coquette happened as a matter of circumstance. We weren't quite ready for it. The building and restaurant fell in our laps, so we went for it. I had always cooked for other chefs. Not having anyone there to help me or guide me was the hardest thing—to have food completely my own. It took a while to find what I wanted to cook and how I like to cook. I had never been a chef de cuisine before I opened. I always had someone editing and guiding what I was doing. [Opening] was fun.

CH: What does success mean for you?
MS: Being happy. Enjoying what I do every day. Not having money dictate what I do on a daily basis.

CH: If you weren't a chef, what do you think you'd be doing?
MS: I never thought about it. Maybe a farmer. My dad was a farmer, and I hated it growing up. Now I appreciate it much more.

CH: What challenges have you faced opened your second restaurant Sweet Olive?
MS: It was hard, learning to balance time and getting things set up. With the hotel, suddenly I went from owning my own restaurant to working with an entity and lots of other groups. There's 24-hour room service. But I have a great staff and my sous chefs do great food. I spend a lot more time in my car.