Michael Luther, 46, is the executive chef and co-owner of Bridge Street Social in DeWitt. Luther is also the owner and manager of Red Cedar Grill, as he’s been for the past six years.
Before his foray into the restaurant business, Luther was a commercial banker for 20 years. He sat down with City Pulse to talk about his journey as a restaurateur and chef, and his approach to his job and life.
How did you get into cooking? I have always been interested in food; it was kind of a hobby. I went through a couple of mergers, and my wife and I decided we were done with that. So, six years ago, we bought the Red Cedar Grill and then we opened Bridge Street Social about two and a half years ago with Justin King. I’ve been involved with this ever since, and have slowly grown into the chef role. I’m self-taught; I do a lot of studying, a lot of practicing and it’s become what I do now.
Do you still own the Red Cedar Grill?
How does that work with balancing both?
It’s not easy! Red Cedar Grill is in Williamston. There are its challenges, but luckily I have some great people. My sous chefs do a great job and give me some great leverage to bounce around between both. Technically, my role at Red Cedar Grill is similar to what it is here. There, I am the owner and the general manager along with the executive chef. Here, I just kind of manage and I do a lot of the bookkeeping and financials, as well as run the kitchen. Justin is really more the general manager here and runs the wine program. He runs the front of the house here, whereas at Red Cedar Grill — I’m responsible for all of it.
In terms of writing the menu, where do you draw inspiration from?
When we opened, we kind of set a theme, “Bouncing around the Mediterranean with a nod toward the American Southwest.” Justin kind of came up with that catch phrase. We don’t really necessarily produce dishes from any of those regions, but it’s really the ingredients and flavors we apply to our dishes.
Our Mediterranean isn’t what you see around town, it’s just some of the ingredients that they use that we apply to other things like tahini or olives or lamb, or pita — that sort of thing. But there are also influences from Spain and France. You’ll occasionally see traditional stuff. We always have a quesadilla on the menu, but it’s not just chicken and cheese — we’ll do tahini, hummus and goat cheese, or something more unique.
What are your roles and responsibilities here aside from cooking?
My main responsibilities here are food development and menu development. The menu that we have here is something that I’ve put out. We do special features, and that’s our sous chef, Zach Skiver, who runs with that. We collaborate on the menu, but a lot of it comes directly from me.
Obviously it’s a collaborative effort. But when you’re thinking about menu planning, what inspirations are you and your team drawing from?
Zach, our sous chef does so much to keep things rolling. Zach’s influences are along the lines of people like Grant Achatz. My influences come more from guys like Julio Ortega, Jose Andreas, Rick Bayless. It’s looking at their stuff, reading their cookbooks and trying to figure out what to do with ideas from the past. We are by no means cheap, but I do believe we offer a value and we try to keep our prices at a level that we think fits the market.
Right now on the menu, everything is under $20. Which, might not sound cheap, but considering that we do everything from scratch, and we’re doing it every day, we feel that we offer a pretty amazing value for what’s on the menu.
Most people don’t think of bankers and accountants as creative people. Chefs, totally opposite. Since you’ve done both, do you think you’ve always been creative?
My wife is amazingly artistic. She decorated this restaurant, she built the tables. I had never considered myself that. For me personally, I do have a bit of a creative side. I can, at least when it comes to food, think creatively.
One of the biggest struggles that I’ve had, and still have at times, is making food look pretty on the plate. Working with Zach has been a huge help, because he’s really good at that. He’s taught me a lot.
As a banker, I got creative in terms of how I structured a customer’s loans, or how I structured his finances. But never in a way that I would consider “artistically” creative.
With the food, I know that Justin is a sommelier and wine is a huge push for this restaurant. Do you partner up on that front in regard to pairings? How does that work?
It’s something I’ve learned. I can get the basic pairings, but Justin has an interesting philosophy behind it. He told me, you produce your food and we’ll find wines to go with it. I asked him, should we work together on what would go well with certain things? And he said no, wine goes with anything, it just depends on what a person wants. He’s not that rigid. He’s pretty forward thinking about things like that. I think he calls it the “democratization of wine.” He wants it to be available to everybody, regardless of what they’re eating. Eat what tastes good. Drink what tastes good. That’s his approach.
Favorite and least favorite things about the job?
Favorite is probably two things: working with the group of people that I get to work with and knowing that on any given Friday night, I gave 300 people a cool experience.
My least favorite is that it’s strenuous. I marvel at chefs who are still doing it at 60. I’m 46 and it’s tough. It’s physically and mentally tough, you just get worn out. So, that’s probably the hardest part. I don’t like working 14-hour days, but I know that it’s for a good reason; it’s for my business. It’s better than someone telling me to work for 14 hours. That’s always harder.
Bridge Street Social 107 S. Bridge St., DeWitt www.bridgestreetsocial.com (517) 668-1837
Red Cedar Grill 150 E. Grand River Ave., Williamston www.redcedargrill.com (517) 655-3766