2012 New Orleans Rising Star Chef Michael Stoltzfus of Sweet Olive

2012 New Orleans Rising Star Chef Michael Stoltzfus of Sweet Olive
April 2012

2012 New Orleans Rising Star Chef Michael Stoltzfus has lived in close proximity to food (and seafood) his entire life. He grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where seafood is as much a religion as a dietary staple. Son to a dairy farmer father who also grew corn and wheat on the side, Stoltzfus had a front-row seat to the production of food at its most basic level. Food was in his environs, and in his blood. So it's no surprise the chef's journey was that of a self-made cook.

Like many a self-made professional, Stoltzfus never went to culinary school, or college for that matter. Though he came close, the decision to steer clear of academia proved pivotal. Just a few weeks before kicking off his first semester, Stoltzfus's mother decided to open a bakery. She asked her son if he wanted to help out and earn a little cash. He did, and a love affair with cooking was born.

Stoltzfus might have opted out of formal schooling (an increasingly popular choice), but he had formal training aplenty, including a post-Katrina stint at New Orleans' beloved Restaurant August. Today, Stoltzfus is chef and owner of Coquette, which he opened with partner Lillian Hubbard in late 2008. He's also executive chef of the newly opened Sweet Olive at the Saint Hotel, overseeing not only that restaurant's menu, but the hotel's bar menus, catering operations, and room service. And Stoltzfus uses this prodigious creative output at both the hotel and Coquette to emphasize local and seasonal products, which once again surround him, feeding both his creativity and culinary heritage.

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

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.