[UPDATE: Michael is now the cooking coach at Whole Foods Market Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia.]
One of the first cooking coaches to be hired by a Whole Foods Market store, Michael Kiss is WFM Rockville's full-time, living, breathing culinary encyclopedia. Check out our conversation with Michael -- and learn more about his no-nonsense approach to cooking, how he sets his "kitchen rhythm," and his most spectacular kitchen disaster.
Michael (far left) helps Rockville Store Team Leader Momar Gueye hoist the Cooking department chalk boards before the store's grand opening on April 12, 2011 (photo by Kate Medley); his scallops with romesco sauce (photo by Michael Kiss).
Q&A with Michael Kiss, Rockville Cooking Coach
Your role as Cooking Coach at Whole Foods Market Rockville sounds like a lot of fun -- how did you initially get involved as a team member, and how did it lead you to this role?
It’s huge amounts of fun! My love for Whole Foods Market started while I was a young line cook in Chicago. While waiting for the evening’s service to begin, we (the cooks) would talk about dream chefs to work for or dream kitchens to be in. I always wanted to be the guy running the cheese department at a Whole Foods Market. I finally joined the team in 2004. My first position was in the Silver Spring store's cheese department. Dreams are there for a reason!
When did your love of cooking begin? Were there any particular experiences early on in your life that shaped your approach to food and cooking?
I always loved watching cooking shows. Even as a little kid I preferred them to cartoons. And my mother and grandmother are both great cooks who shared secrets to amazing Pennsylvania Dutch recipes. I also think my love for variations in recipes came from our huge family reunions with grand tables of potluck dishes that were subtle competitions of family favorite dishes.
What excites you the most about the Whole Foods Market Cooking program?
I love sharing cooking knowledge and inspiring people to embrace cooking, but I am most excited to hear the stories of success from all of the great cooks I get to talk to.
Michael's insanely fluffy peach pancakes; his home-cured Canadian bacon (photos by Michael Kiss).
You taught formal cooking classes for many years -- what are some tips your students found most helpful?
First off, RELAX it is only food! But also be flexible, use your recipe as a framework. If the recipe calls for shallots, for example, and you cannot find any, just realize what the shallot is. It is something like an onion, right? So wouldn’t a scallion, or a leek, or a red onion, or a yellow onion get you in the right neck of the woods? The recipe will be slightly different but that's how we really learn how to cook: experimentation.
What is the first step to cooking well?
When I was a young cook, I would find a dish I liked and try to make it. I would make it over and over again, perfecting it, until I made it “my” dish. Then I started modifying it, changing ingredients or aspects of the cooking or timing. Who knew where it would go! This process helped me figure out little clues that made improving future recipes easier.
Why do you believe cooking with whole foods is an essential part of healthy eating?
I wholeheartedly believe in cooking whole plants. These ingredients can change your life. In January 2010 I weighed nearly 300 lb and was on the edge of my own health crisis. I joined a gym and change my lifestyle to include eating amazing grains, beans, and vegetables. I still eat meat occasionally but it has become a supporting ingredient, not the entrée any more. I am now at a healthy 225 lb, and my health stats have improved as well. My cholesterol alone is now under 165 and falling. I still eat great-tasting food. I don’t feel deprived and I have learned so many new cooking techniques along the way.
What music (if any) do you listen to in the kitchen?
I need energy in my music! Something I can set my kitchen rhythm to. I have really been into the Motown sound revival, like Mark Ronson or Graffiti6.
What is your favorite ingredient for Spring?
I am patiently waiting for my asparagus patch to wake up. But I am also keeping my eye out for garlic scapes and ramps from local foragers. We are also at the tip of watercress season here locally.
What cooking tool could you not live without?
A good pair of spring-loaded tongs. My fireproof hands. I can pick up anything with them as well as use them to mix, whip, and grab hot pans from the oven. We used to practice picking up dimes off of dinner plates when we were bored in the restaurant kitchens on slow nights.
What is your favorite regional or global cuisine (anything from North Carolinian barbecue to Northern Vietnamese)?
Actually, I am a huge BBQ fan. It is now a coveted treat since I make it something to travel for. I enjoy it so much more now. I recently went on a trip to Greenville, S.C. for a family event and I ate BBQ in every state between Virginia and South Carolina. I took pictures and made notes. It was a great trip and I learned some interesting variations between the BBQ styles in western North Carolina, Lexington and eastern North Carolina.
Describe your most spectacular kitchen disaster (we're guessing you have a good one!).
I had just started cooking school as well as just started dating Katie (now my wife). I wanted to make a special dinner for her. I made broccoli-stuffed meatloaf. Great idea in theory but I cooked the broccoli until it melted and tried to heap this primordial slime into a terribly overseasoned ground beef tube. But the part that keeps me telling this story is that Katie absolutely hated meatloaf and broccoli, but even with her two food nemeses combined, she still ate dinner with me and smiled. I guess she saw some potential in there somewhere.