Michael Slabaugh first worked in a restaurant at a ski resort in California when he was a teenager. Despite managers “mistakenly letting 16-year-olds run the beer closet,” the experience laid the foundation for a career in the industry.
Slabaugh’s resume today includes a 10-year stint managing Nickel Charlie’s in Evergreen and a five-year period running a brewery-restaurant in Humboldt County, California. While he loves cooking and the industry itself, the restaurant life can be a hard one and is “especially stressful if you’re running a kitchen.”
There were times he considered leaving the profession, but when he joined DeSoto Grill upon its 2015 opening, he found a family. Now as a chef who works both in the kitchen and oversees the restaurant’s catering services, he feels perfectly at home.
Slabaugh sat down with Flathead Living to discuss his career and culinary philosophies. The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation.
How would you describe your approach to cooking?
I have a theory that your energy as a person goes into the food you make, and I’m relatively in a good mood all the time. I forget to be in a bad mood. You can only do so much with certain flavor profiles; there has to be something extra to it. Food’s food. There’s a perfect point where you can cook something — the balance you have with the palate — but it has to have something to become more than that.
My experience with most barbecue places is that they fail on the sides, completely fail. Scratch-made mac and cheese, giving extra love to the sides, that’s what I like to do. Soggy slaw, collard greens are bad. So my focus is on the sides.
I like to play with dimension and depth; cook everything separate and then have it come together. Fresh melon, fresh radish, things like that. Texture is definitely important.
In this industry, you have to be willing to break yourself to get people’s food right. It’s kind of insanity. Cooking, you can’t go into it for the money. It’s a weird party, kind of, with a weird family. You meet all kinds of interesting people. You just give people a good environment, they usually thrive.
What do you appreciate about working at DeSoto Grill?
There were times I thought, “I’m done with cooking,” but coming over here I enjoy helping them. I like Shawnna (Steele, DeSoto’s owner). I like the family environment. I like working with Shawnna. She’s here all the time. She works her butt off. It’s really easy to respect her. Being able to help and be part of this family, I enjoy that. It’s better than money. It’s a deeper experience than money. That’s what this is about here.
My favorite places are hole-in-the-wall places. The best tostada I had was in L.A. It was the energy there, this little family place. Those little tacos shops have a family feel to it, just like here.
What tips do you have for the home cook, the backyard grillmaster?
Attention to detail. Detail is everything. Cooking is all science and balance. Once you understand that, you can break the rules. Balance has to do with flavor: spice, tang, sugar brings down your acids, all of that.
People get stuck on traditions and then they’re just stuck. Take them and mash them together. Take chances. I’ve made some awesome things just taking a chance and trying it out. I’m not a big planner when it comes to cooking. I like to free flow. Just experiment, and if you’re going to do it, you might as well have a good time.
Cooking is a little bit easier nowadays with the internet. You can pretty much look up anything and at least get the gist, the basic idea, a starting point. Once you know the science, the rest is just ingredients.