Michael Wise was destined for the restaurant business.
Michael Wise was exposed to the restaurant business from an early age — growing up in Florida as the son of a chef, it was an experience he could not avoid. Both parents were in the industry, and they even owned a few restaurants of their own. Of course, they put their son to work as soon as he was old enough. What Wise didn't realize, though, was that his father was doing it to dissuade him from going into the industry.
"My father always put me to work doing really tedious things," Wise recalls. "I started working for him when I was nine or ten years old, and I have this one memory that always sticks in my head. He'd have me tie asparagus together with a leek for string. He made me do all of these tedious, old-school things to thoroughly discourage me from going into the industry."
These days, Wise's dad is happy with his son's career path, with the young chef having worked his way up from those humble asparagus-tying beginnings to his current role as chef de cuisine at the charming Southampton spot Edibles & Essentials (5815 Hampton Avenue, 314-328-2300)
. Wise, too, is pleased with the direction his life has taken, even though it's not what he had originally intended. His plan was to become an architect, and after graduating from high school, he left Florida to pursue those studies at Idaho's Boise State University.
Wise was at Boise State for about two-and-a-half years, but left the program and moved to the ski resort town of Sun Valley. Though he relished its beauty, the cost of living was exorbitant, and he needed to figure out his next step. When his partner's father offered to move the pair to his hometown in southern Illinois, Wise figured, "Why not?"
That move would prove fateful in jump-starting Wise's career in the restaurant business. When he arrived in Illinois, he got a job as a barista but quickly moved to the kitchen after asking the owner to pick up some shifts. The experience awakened his passion for food and knack for cooking, which he would further develop when he got a job at a Thai restaurant.
Wise had always loved Thai food — at an early age, he'd join his mom at Thai restaurants — so he jumped at the opportunity to take a deep dive into the cuisine. Though he came to the restaurant fairly inexperienced, he caught on quickly and soon was working shoulder to shoulder with Thai cooks who commanded his respect.
"I learned a lot there, especially how important working hard is," Wise says. "I was the youngest person there at 24 or 25 years old. There was this one guy who still worked there in his 70s. He'd be there all day, lifting these heavy pots and woks, and it made me realize, 'How can I complain when there is this guy 30 years older working next to me?'"
Wise worked at the Thai restaurant for a year before moving across the river to take a job at Three Flags Tavern in St. Louis. When that restaurant closed, he moved on to Juniper and then Olive + Oak before settling into his new role at Edibles & Essentials this October.
As chef de cuisine, Wise works side by side with owner and executive chef Matt Borchardt — a boss who is both willing to collaborate and encouraging of Wise's creative freedom. You may see some Gulf Coast influences in dishes added to Edibles & Essentials' menu; Wise admits he misses his native region's excellent seafood. However, don't expect him to leave for the ocean anytime soon.
"I actually had a close encounter with drowning once," Wise says. "I have no desire to return to the water."
Wise took a break from his new chef duties to share his thoughts on the St. Louis culinary scene, his love for animals (he briefly worked for Stray Rescue) and why you will only see real-deal butter in his kitchen.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I'm a huge animal lover and rescuer.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Being presentable and looking my best.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To be able to travel anywhere at instant speed.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Thai street food — especially a food truck.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Jesse Mendica [Olive + Oak]. Everyone knows she's an amazing chef, but they don't know she's also an amazing person.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Anyone innovative and not afraid to cook from the heart.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Chile peppers. They're deceptively small but pack a punch.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Architecture or interior design.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Margarine. I mean, what the hell? It doesn't even decompose.
What is your after-work hangout?
Work — or local bars on the east side like L.C.'s Pub. I'm very casual outside of my career.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Sour Patch Kids. They just satisfy a need, but I'm always looking for acidity in food or elsewhere.
What would be your last meal on earth?
I love Thai food. It would be laarb ghai or a beef salad. I'm not going to lie, foie gras would be my first choice, but I've opted out of eating it for ethical reasons.
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