Although she loves the art of cooking now, Michelle Bailey is not one of those chefs born to the range.
Her first kitchen job was making sandwiches at Subway. She took a job as a short-order breakfast cook "just to pay the bills." She was knocking around, not wanting to waste her parent's money on college.
"When I got my first job in a professional kitchen, I was like, 'Oh wow, there's a whole world out there,'" she said.
She's become something of a master of that world.
At age 31, she is executive chef of Season's at Highland Lake, and is the reigning Western North Carolina regional champion in the Fire on the Rock "Got to Be NC" cooking competition, beating Asheville chefs from big-name kitchens.
During the competition, organizers give chefs North Carolina-grown secret ingredients, which they must use in an appetizer, entrée and dessert. Bailey and her Season's team won the first round, semifinals and regional finals and will represent Western North Carolina in the state competition in November.
"For the first battle, we got locally grown mushrooms and Krupnikas," she says. Mushrooms she loved. She had no experience with Krupnikas,a spiced liqueur. She won any way, and won twice more, making dishes out of Guilford County grits and muscadine juice, then three varieties of Lusty Monk mustard and Beulah's Bavarian Pretzels.
After training at Asheville-Buncombe Tech's culinary arts program, Bailey got a job at the Market Place in downtown Asheville, rising to executive chef. She left that kitchen for a catering job but missed the fulltime restaurant work.
"I saw that they needed help here and it was a big property and they had both (catering and an all-day restaurant)," she says. "So I figured there would never be a dull moment out this way and there hasn't been so far."
What does she like about the Flat Rock gig?
"The most important thing to me is we're cooking seasonally," she says. "That has a big impact not only on us and the quality of our food but on the environment. I try to use local products as much as possible, even though that means we're dealing with maybe 25 vendors instead of four. There might be one vendor we only buy trout from, or one we only buy grits and cornmeal from. There's one vendor we only get goat cheese from. I think getting quality ingredients in the door just allows you to be a better chef, and allows the diners to have a better experience."
She describes her approach as open and collaborative.
"We like to have fun in the kitchen," she says. "I like for everybody to have a little bit of input and we come together and make the best food that we can. We like to make things that might be a little bit unusual to folks. We've got a dish right now with some pickled figs on it. We like to pickle fruit sometimes. We like to smoke all sorts of random things. We have a smoked red pepper relish on our fried green tomatoes right now."
Season's serves more than 900 diners on Thanksgiving Day and about 600 on Christmas Day buffet style. After serving 150 to 200 plates on a Saturday night, Bailey says, "You're hot and sweaty and people were happy with their food. There's a big sense of camaraderie in our kitchen."
A success, she jokes, is "any Saturday night when the place doesn't catch on fire."
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