Interview: chef Miles Thompson (Michael’s Santa Monica)

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Nobody can say that Miles Thompson’s trajectory has ever hit a plateau. In 2014, Star Chefs named him a Los Angeles Rising Star. This fall, Jeff Gordinier honored Thompson as Esquire magazine’s “Rising Star of the Year.” The native of Westchester County, New York, first started cooking professionally at age 13. In 2007, he relocated to Los Angeles to pursue acting. Thompson rejoined the kitchen brigade, working for Alex Becker at Nobu Los Angeles, which shifted his focus back to cooking. He worked with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo at Animal and Son of a Gun before developing contemporary Allumette (his first restaurant) in Echo Park. After relocating to Healdsburg to work at SHED, and helping launch Christophe Harbour on St. Kitts, he returned to L.A. in 2016 to work for Michael McCarty and son Chas at iconic Michael’s Santa Monica. I recently interviewed Thompson, who explained his career progression and upcoming plans.

Joshua Lurie: I read that you originally moved to L.A. to become an actor before joining the line at Nobu. What was the decisive point did you decide to give up acting for cooking? Also, in what ways have your acting lessons helped you in the kitchen?

Miles Thompson: There wasn’t a specific day or moment, but a few months after I moved to L.A., I was feeling restless with acting. I remember going on auditions and feeling bored waiting between these opportunities. I’d been acting since I was 11 and it had grown to feel monotonous. I wanted to do something that was productive, creative, and allowed me to work in a team environment to accomplish a common goal everyday — working in service at a restaurant is all of these things.

I definitely draw upon my acting background in the kitchen. I studied improvisation during my entertainment career and the ability to improvise and think on your feet is essential in the kitchen — one day an ingredient you ordered might not arrive and you need to be nimble and open to considering a different possibility for a dish. Learning lines and preparing for a role is similarly mirrored in how I prepare for a service — getting my mise en place ready, etc. It sounds esoteric, but as a chef, it’s also important to have the same spatial awareness you need as an actor to choreograph your moves with others in the kitchen. It’s a tight space and the entire team needs to be working in concert to be successful.

JL: What do you find most satisfying about working in restaurants?

MT: I would have to say that right now, and particularly at Michael’s, the culture of working in a modern restaurant is incredibly satisfying. It’s fun coming into the kitchen everyday where I’m surrounded by all these people who share a common love of food and are excited to share ideas. I feel very alive in that culture. The bonus is getting to serve the dishes we are creating to guests.

JL: What are some hallmarks of a Miles Thompson dish? Tell me about your general approach to building a dish, and the most recent dish that made the menu.

MT: The genesis of all the dishes on the menu are the products. For example, right now we are getting these amazing young chickens from a small farm, and my approach is thinking about how I can accentuate the natural sweetness of that young bird. I don’t want to battle the ingredient; the goal is to build around the shining star element of the dish and extend its qualities through supplementing elements on the plate. A general hallmark of mine is also to include multiple forms of acidity. For example, we have a Japanese sweet potato on the menu right now that features several different forms of acid. There’s nori yogurt that brings an element of lactic acid, wakami dressed with a raspberry leaf ponzu that contains rice vinegar and lemon juice, and then a hazelnut aioli with sherry red wine vinegar that I age in a juniper barrel. The varying levels of acidity within the dish get your savory glands going in a way that will continue to make it surprising. Texture is also at play here, but not in the traditional sense. It’s more a gradient of textures from soft to crisp — there’s the seaweed that offers a more distinct feel providing juxtaposition to the creaminess of the yogurt, super tender yam and the yam’s crisp skin. Seasoning is a given. I season everything from the base up, so I don’t need to use finishing salt at the end.

JL: In 2014, Star Chefs named you a Los Angeles Rising Star. This fall, Jeff Gordinier named you Esquire magazine’s “Rising Star of the Year.” What will it take for people to acknowledge you’re arrived, and are no longer rising?

MT: I hope to always be rising. When you’ve arrived somewhere, in a sense, it means you’ve made it and there’s nowhere else to go. I want to always be on an upward trajectory; it means there is still room to grow and improve. It’s cool to be acknowledged for that growth.

JL: What would be on the table for a dream meal from your current menu?

MT: In no particular order: the buckwheat sourdough bread; the broccoli with dates, fermented sunchoke and fried soft egg; the Japanese sweet potato; the pici with pork & veal ragu, Pecorino fulvi and black pepper; the cabbage with caramelized onion vinaigrette, huckleberries and dill; the hamachi collar with baba ganoush, mirza melon and marjoram vinaigrette. And for dessert, the roasted barley pot de crème.

JL: What should diners expect to see moving forward at Michael’s? What else is possible in your collaboration with the McCartys?

MT: Right now I’m working on applying Old World and more traditional techniques into the way we craft our dishes at Michael’s. Essentially throwing back to a legacy that pre-dates California cuisine with methods of preparing ingredients that could be informed by historic European or even Japanese techniques. We’re going to be curing olives using a traditional approach that involves wood ashes we are sourcing from Bestia, salt and alkaline (baking soda). In terms of the possibilities with Michael McCarty, we’re constantly challenging ourselves to think about ways we can improve the experience at Michael’s. That’s where our focus lives.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

Absolutely love this approach — “I don’t want to battle the ingredient; the goal is to build around the shining star element”. Fantastic read. Definitely put this guy on our radar.

[…] Miles Thompson is doing great things at Michael’s in Santa Monica these days, and he sat down with Food GPS to chat about his love […]

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