For the first of our Chef profiles, eatdrinkTC sat down with Chef Myles Anton of Trattoria Stella to learn more about him, how he came to be a chef and his thoughts on food & cooking.
His Start in Cooking
“I started line cooking in a restaurant when I was 15 in a little tiny family restaurant right near my house in Detroit,” Myles began. “I worked all through high school and loved it. I went to college in a pre-med program for a couple of years, but that didn’t work out. I came back home and didn’t really have a clue what to do. I was sitting at a coffee shop talking it over with a friend and he said ‘You’ve always cooked, why not take that to the next level?”
That sounded like a good idea, so Myles enrolled in Oakland Community College’s culinary program. Shortly after enrolling, he was in the right place in the right time to get a job at the Townsend Hotel. He started out making sandwiches, and soon rose to be the sous chef. All the while, however, he was going to culinary school.
“I would go to school from 8 in the morning to 3, and then go straight to work until 1 in the morning. I got in to trouble because I wouldn’t show up to class occasionally, just oversleep because I was exhausted. In my baking class, my instructor said ‘If you miss class another day, I’m going to fail you.’”
So Myles didn’t miss another class, and by the time he was 27, he had his culinary degree and was tapped to be the chef to open D’Amato’s in Ann Arbor where he met Paul Danielson. “I was the chef, and Paul ran the front of the house,” Myles explained. “The restaurant didn’t provide parking, so you’d park in a neighborhood a half a mile away and hope you didn’t get a ticket or in the pay lot across the street. If you stayed late enough, the guy at the lot would leave, so Paul and I would sit after work and have a drink and talk. We always said, one day we’d work together and open a restaurant.”
Trattoria Stella & Traverse City
Paul married Amanda and moved to Traverse City, and about a year after moving Paul called and asked Myles if he’d like to be the chef at the restaurant they planned to open. Myles said sure, and as the opening date was about a year out, he took a job opening a restaurant in Maine. He spent the better part of a year building his skills and building connections for seafood that are still paying dividends including the “unstoppable” scallops Stella is serving for the three months they are in season this winter.
He then moved to Traverse City and the three opened Trattoria Stella in Building 50 at the Grand Traverse Commons. Myles said, “There’s a lot of really good restaurants now, but when we started 10 years ago there weren’t a ton of people doing this. It really gave us a chance to shine and establish ourselves. Also, we were in this weird building that no one ever went to. That made us a destination which was cool, and I think that played in our favor once the word got out.”
He continued, “Summers are just out of control and allow us to have a full management team. We don’t kill ourselves here. We’re a big restaurant for that reason alone: so that we can have lives, spend time with our families and pay people properly.”
We asked Myles what he liked about being a chef in Traverse City, and he said, “I love the size of the town. I live close and can walk or bike to work. I don’t have to get in my car and drive on a highway 45 minutes to work every single day and then drive home 45 minutes. Food, work, life – everything’s close.
“I love it in Traverse City, and I’m really grateful that we’ve been able to establish what we have here. All the producers, the artists, the winemakers, the farmers, the chefs – everyone is constantly raising the bar and it keeps people coming here. It allows me to do what I do, provide for my family and employ people and that’s the bottom line.”
Farms & Local Food
For Myles, the farms and farmers are a big part of it all. “We worked with just a couple of farmers when we started out, but over 10 years I’ve developed a lot of relationships to the point where all our needs are pretty much taken care of in the summertime. These farmers just load me up. Craig Schaaf of Golden Rule Farm is my heirloom tomato guy and also grows my carrots and my beets. He grows 4,000 pounds of beets and stores them for me all winter and brings beets and carrots as I need them.
“We just got 80 chickens for Restaurant Week from a new farmer, and I get 6 servings out of each one. And Cherry Capital Foods is invaluable. What they’ve done is make it very easy for me to fill gaps. We’re a big restaurant, and even in the winter we go through a lot of food. ”
We asked Myles about his feelings on the importance of local food, and he said, “I feed it to my kids, and that’s most important. Knowing where your food comes from is a big deal, and it just tastes better. Hands down, every single thing.
“Put celery from here and celery from California side by side and it’s so spectacularly different. It blows my mind every summer when celery rolls in. I share it with all the staff and say ‘You gotta taste this.’ And it’s because it didn’t get stored in a warehouse, shipped halfway across the United States in a truck, sit in another warehouse, put in another truck and come up here. The difference is spectacular.
“Every time someone comes in and has heirloom tomatoes here, they say ‘Those are the best tomatoes I’ve ever had. What did you do to them?’ I put salt, and a little olive oil on them and that’s it. I’ll put them up against any tomato – that man is a genius.
“Our farmers have helped us get the notoriety we have because our food tastes great and I don’t have to do much to a lot of it. I try not to.”
He shared that seasonal food plays a big part in how the menu develops at Stella. “I won’t pick up a cookbook for a month, and then we’ll plan an event and I’ll get into it for a whole week. But a lot of times and especially in the summer, what shows up drives the menu. In late July farmers are saying ‘I got this’ I got that’ and I’m saying ‘Bring it, bring it, bring it’ and all of the sudden I look around and say ‘What am I gonna do with all this food?’
Like any chef, Myles continues to take time to hone his craft. “I’ve been to Italy four times,” he said. “Through research and reaching out to a lot of people, I’ve been able to visit kitchens and wineries, work with chefs, and eat incredible food. They have produce like we do and have been making these recipes for a thousand years. We touch on charcuterie a little here, but besides learning about it and doing a little here, am I really going to make a better prosciutto than a guy who learned it from his grandfather who learned it from his grandfather? There’s a balance. We have a lot of local but we bring in a lot from all over the world.
“I love pasta, and every time I go to Italy I pick up another pasta. The last time I went, I stayed with a family in Reggio Emilia. I worked with the the woman who is in charge of the food for an annual festival and spent all day with 25 of them, making all these raviolis for the whole family. One was a butternut squash ravioli with Parmesan Reggio and a lardo tomato sauce, and I run it here now occasionally.”
Advice for Young Chefs
“Go work in a restaurant for six months,” Myles recommended. “I don’t take out the trash anymore, but five years I was still doing it. There’s a menial aspect that I don’t think a lot of people can grasp, especially with television and the pop culture that’s going on with cooking and chefs. There’s sweeping, washing dishes and hard work. When everyone else is having fun, we’re usually here and working late.
“Last Saturday I was at home and watching movies with my kids and I was joking with my wife and said ‘Hey, what is this – the fifth Saturday that I’ve been home in a year?’ and she said ‘Maybe four.’”
What Myles and his team at Trattoria Stella are doing with food is extraordinary in the eyes of no less than the James Beard Foundation. For the fourth time in five years, they have selected Myles as a semi-finalist for Best Chef in the Great Lakes.
Myles says that anyone can be nominated for the Foundation awards, and that all he knows beyond that is that they’re looking for consistency, inspiration and changing the food world. “This year I’m on the list with Brian Polcyn, my hero. That man? That’s amazing, but what blew me away even more was when Guillaume (Guillaume Hazaël-Massieux, La Becasse), Randy (Randy Chamberlain, blu) and I were all up for the award. I thought ‘That’s giant – there should be ticker-tape parades for us!’ There wasn’t much attention then, but over the last five years, it’s all changed. People really get it now.”