Recipe for Success

By Lynn A. Wade
Herald-Tribune

Nevada, Mo. - A young Michael Richardson stood before the refrigerator, assessing its contents, hoping he was up to the task before him. The chef at the East Gloucester, Mass., restaurant was gone on an extended errand, customers were coming and there was no soup - a vital staple of the restaurant's menu.

Carrots. Fresh thyme. Cream. They seemed like appropriate ingredients; so, starting with these he went to work, eventually ending up with a soup that one customer liked so well she brought him a gift, saying whoever had made the soup deserved the recognition. On that fateful day, Richardson learned he had a natural knack for cooking.

So began the culinary career of the man who has now been Cottey College's director of food services for 14 years, bringing an ever-evolving menu of tasty treats and succulent staples to the students, staff members, and occasionally to folks in the extended community who sample his recipes and made-from-scratch works of culinary art at special events.

He was a financial partner in the restaurant where a soup became a career - not the cook at all. Richardson has no formal schooling in the culinary arts - he's self taught, which he admits takes years of dedication, trial and error, and practice; and an active, consistent effort to learn from others and to keep an eye on trends.

After leaving East Gloucester came a seafood restaurant in Charleston, S.C.; work as a sous chef at a French restaurant, and a tour of duty with an international caterer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "We would work for all kinds of people. There were beautiful estates, where we would serve the meal, with the servers in white gloves. There could be a plated meal for 200 people." Richardson said. The experience also familiarized him with cuisine from around the world, providing him with another layer of expertise he would eventually put to use in the kitchen at Cottey.

Perhaps his favorite experience, though, was working on the El Presidente yacht.

On the yacht, he served a dinner to 30 restaurateurs from Rome, Italy. "And here I was, an American kid in my 20s. I researched the cuisine of the area. I really loved it. The head chef was a big bear of a guy. He came up and gave me a big hug," in appreciation of the meal, which had brought a taste of home to the guests, who were missing their homeland.

From there he moved to Dallas, and worked at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, a restaurant with a celebrity draw. "That's where I learned what five-star cooking is supposed to look like," Richardson said.

Opportunity knocked once again, and Richardson developed a line of flavored nut products. Sales at the business, at first a tiny purveyor of pecans, grew to 60,000 pounds of pecans and 40,000 pounds of almonds in the fourth year. But soon afterwards, the wholesale price of the nuts soared. Along with a high-interest loan, the price of materials put pressure on the still developing business, and Richardson sold the line to a Chicago company, but went on to develop more specialty products himself.

Meanwhile, he and his wife Lorraine had started a family. They wanted to raise their two children, Rachel and Parker, in a healthy, small-town environment, so the timing was right when Richardson spotted a small ad in a trade magazine for a chef at Cottey College.

"It said they were looking for someone with culinary experience. That wasn't very common then," at institutions where large numbers of people are regularly served, Richardson said; and the ad piqued his interest.

At the time, Cottey was looking for a change in the dining room fare, and Richardson was up to the task. A writer at "Express," an in-house magazine for then Allen Foods, which has since become part of a larger food service conglomerate, interviewed him shortly after he took the Cottey job. "I really like the way they put it 'taking the institution out of institutional cooking,'" because that's Richardson's goal.

He wants to make dining for students as much like a home-cooked meal as he can, but there's also a variety of foods on the menu to tempt the international palates of some of the students as well. For example, miso, a Japanese rice soup, is often served for breakfast. The rotating menu may feature an omelet bar, for example, where students can create their own meal. The idea is that it will be more like "when you get up in the morning, maybe you just feel like an egg or something." Buffets a re popular with students, and are often available for lunch and dinner as well.

Most items emerging from Cottey's kitchen are made from scratch, which Richardson said adds to the home-cooked flavor and helps keep supply costs down. When leftovers are substantial enough to do so, they are donated to local organizations."I urge the students to take only what they need, because the excess goes to help someone else," Richardson said.

Nevertheless, food costs have risen and, over time, the staff has gotten better at estimating how much will be needed to feed the students, so such donations have trickled off over the years but still occasionally occur.

Many of the students are from small towns and have generous scholarships to attend, but some are well-traveled and want trendy foods like those available at chain restaurants found in larger cities might offer. "I try to keep up with the trends," by making trips to other areas and sampling new foods, then creating a similar dish, adapted to feed a large crowd. Others are looking for typical "fast food" fare, like hamburgers and fries. Still others - international students - are looking for ethnic foods from their homelands. There's a suggestion box that's well used, and most often does contain suggestions, not complaints, he noted.

But it's not just the food that brings Cottey's food service its unique flavor - it's the staff, Richardson said. Apparently, students agree - above the doorway that leads from the kitchen to the Raney Dining Room at Cottey is a huge greeting card signed by dozens of Cottey students, expressing their fondness for and appreciation of the staff. Richardson has a full time staff of 17, not including himself, plus 38 part-time student staff members, who all work together to make the dining room a welcoming place for the students. Some staff members even serve as sort of surrogate mothers for some of the students.

"I literally couldn't do any of this without them (the staff). I plan the menus, I direct things. They execute it, and they do it very well," he said.

As for the student staff, he said, he's always amazed at how diligently they work, and at how well they interact with those they serve.

On occasion, his eclectic background and the willing assistance of those staff members allows him to offer students some additional culinary opportunities.

Each suite of students has the chance to reserve the Centennial Room, a formal dining area, for what's known as "suite dinners" Suitemates select the evening's menu from a larger, fine dining menu compiled by Richardson. He prepares the entree himself, and staffers help with the salad and other dishes.

"I do a lot of asking, afterwards - what would they change, was there something they would have liked to see on the menu that they didn't see so I can adapt the menu - but what they say the most is that the hardest thing was making a choice among so many choices," Richardson said.

And every now and then, Richardson's duties go beyond serving the students.

"About a half-dozen times a year, there'll be events for the board of directors, one of the president's events," Richardson said. Most recently, a commencement dinner attended by HSH Prince Radu of Romania was prepared, with a special menu.

During the first week of the summer break, he taught a short session on Mediterranean cooking that featured tastes of Spain, France, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel.

"It's really a hands-on kind of class. They roll up their sleeves and do the cooking. I'm just there to help," he said. One day, he hopes to have the opportunity to teach cooking to local people, and there's even a Cottey cookbook in the works. Because the dining room is private and meant for students, those with direct Cottey connections and their guests, there are many who don't get the chance to sample Richarson's recipes. He hopes that, too, one day will change, with the help of yet another project he's been working on as time permits.

"I've been asked for years to do a Cottey cookbook," Richardson said; and right now, he's in the process of adapting and testing recipes to make them "something anyone could look at and do to serve four to six. They don't always translate if you just reduce the amounts of things, so there's a lot of testing that needs to be done." Still, he's been working with local folks on formatting the work and hopes the cookbook will one day be published. If and when it is, proceeds would be used for scholarships, he said.

Credit: Nevada Daily Mail