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Chef Mike Molloy Comes Full Circle at Don Cesar

Helping his parents prepare dinner while growing up, Mike Molloy, executive chef at The Don Cesar, discovered what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. His passion for cooking took him through culinary school and then various positions within the industry. Now he’s come full circle by returning to the St. Pete Beach, Florida, hotel where he began his career. Connect spoke with Chef Molloy about his new position, trends in the industry and what many people—even aspiring chefs—don’t know about the job.

Do you think hotel restaurants get an unfair rep sometimes?

Unfortunately, people have this idea that hotel restaurants are overpriced, really not that good and you’re better off just going down the street to something else. I was with Wyndham for five years, and our corporate F&B director was very much in tune with making sure that each restaurant was not given the “it’s just a hotel restaurant” label. So I’ve always had it instilled in my head that I have to be different and set high standards for myself. I try to treat them as free-standing restaurants that happen to be in a hotel.

What kind of food or beverage trends have you noticed in meetings and events?

Mike Molloy Vegan TunaAs far as trends from a food standpoint, there’s a big trend right now with vegetable-based foods. I do an action station with vegan tuna. I take watermelon, compress it, roll it in a sesame seed mixture, and freeze it in liquid nitrogen. Then I slice it and serve it with some seaweed salad and a little bit of sweet soy. It looks just like tuna. So your eyes and your brain tell you that you’re eating tuna but your mouth tells you that it’s not, so it’s very interesting and different on the palette. It’s always a wow-factor.

What’s a good way to blend F&B and teambuilding?

Action stations and teambuilding competitions “Iron Chef-style” where you break people up into small groups and allow them to prepare their dinner for the night. They get to experience a little bit of the culinary world and at the same time, they’re having fun and interacting with their colleagues.

What are some common mistakes you find in F&B programs during events?

The biggest mistake that I see in operations is that the chef just isn’t organized. Banquets and events are 85 percent planning and 15 percent execution. It starts with the order. If your menu has a lot of intricate pieces, some of those ingredients may take three to six days to find, source, and get into the hotel. There’s also a lot more paperwork involved than most people would think. Everyone thinks that you’re in the kitchen 24/7, but there’s a ton of paperwork that needs to get done in order to make sure that you plan properly.

What’s one of the most challenging things about working in this industry?

Staffing. Finding the right people is not like it was when I first started. Now, a lot of people see the Food Network and the big celebrity chefs, and they don’t realize how much hard work actually goes into it. It took me seven years to become a sous chef and 15 years to become an executive chef. A lot of people are coming out of culinary school, thinking they’re going to walk into the kitchen and become an executive chef, and it just doesn’t work like that. So finding the right people has become more challenging. They are out there, but it takes time to find them.

Any other advice that you would give younger chefs in the business?

I hate to say it, but in this business, it takes time to make good money. There are a lot of cooks who come out of culinary school and they chase dollars. So my advice is put your time in and learn as much as you can. There are only two reasons you should leave: 1.) you’ve absorbed and learned everything you could and there’s no more room for growth or 2.) it’s just a bad environment and you’re not learning anything. Otherwise, coming into a hotel with multiple outlets and a large culinary operation is invaluable. You can’t trade that for anything.

Are there any chefs you look up to or mentors that you have?

Absolutely. I opened up the Gaylord National as the senior executive sous chef and that’s where I worked for one of my mentors. I thought I knew everything about a banquet operation and when I got there, I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. The executive chef there, Rigoberto Lemus, really took the time to train me and show me how to run the operation. I learned so much from him.

What’s your favorite food to make at home?

I really enjoy cooking short ribs, and my family loves them too. Grilled short ribs with a whipped potato, some broccolini or grilled asparagus, and I’m a happy guy.

If you weren’t in the food business, what would be your other career?

I’d probably be in the automotive industry. I love working on my car. Or maybe I’d be lucky enough to be a professional golfer. But I really enjoy what I do. I love this industry. I knew I wanted to be a chef when I was a little kid and I know for sure that I’ll retire from this business.