Column: CoMo chefs dish on their careers, favorite recipes

Harold’s Doughnuts pastry chef Melissa Poelling: “Food is something that calls you, not the other way around.”

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Every second store downtown offers a distinctive dining experience, all the way from the busy-but-enjoyable Shakespeare’s to the soft and classy Sycamore. Variety is something that Columbia is never short on.

No one is more closely attached to food than the people who prepare it. A chef is at the heart and soul of any meal that reaches the table. And while Columbia’s scrumptious food continues to leave customers hungry for more, there lies a unique story behind each dish — the chef’s story.

Patience and passion can make a culinary revolution. Many chefs in Columbia have cooked almost their whole lives and have seen their restaurants blossom in business and popularity.

Mike Odette, chef and co-owner of Sycamore since its opening in 2005, has been a staple in the Columbia scene for a long time.

“I’ve been cooking and baking professionally for almost 30 years, but before I started cooking, I was a Mizzou student,” Odette said. “It was around my seventh year as an undergrad, having switched majors from chemical engineering to French, when I dropped out of school for good.”

He then started off his culinary career with no restaurant experience in the small Café Europa, and 30 years later, he is now the co-owner of one of the top-rated restaurants in Columbia.

“I learned to cook by washing dishes, and haven’t looked back since,” Odette said.

Jared Agre, a full-time employee at Shakespeare’s for two and a half years, has been cooking since high school.

“I have actually liked cooking for a good portion of my life,” Agre said. “When I first came to Mizzou, I was doing hospitality management because I wanted to actually open up my own restaurant. When I was in high school, I did a cooking competition. So I think I always had a passion for cooking.”

Agre’s favorite part about working amidst the hustle and bustle of a renowned pizza place in Columbia is the rush of responsibility that comes with working on the oven.

“My favorite thing is when I get the opportunity to work on the ovens, because of the responsibility that comes with it,” Agre said. “You have the last say. I like calling out the names, especially when customers get creative with it.”

To Agre, the customers and employees of Shakespeare’s are a family.

“I think my favorite thing about working is not only the people who work here but also the people who come here,” Agre said. “The best part is making people happy with what you do. Shakespeare’s motto is that we like to throw a party for our customers. We’re all one big family.”

Melissa Poelling, “doughnut magician” at Harold’s Doughnuts, has a very adventurous, “little bit of this and little bit of that” approach on food. Her take on cooking is refreshing and optimistic.

“Food is something that calls you, it’s not the other way around,” Poelling said. “Being in the kitchen brings me so much joy and happiness, and I just gravitate towards it. I absolutely love cooking, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Watching her customers smile ear to ear at just a glimpse of chocolate is another reason why Poelling loves what she does.

“I love desserts because the return on investments is so much,” Poelling said. “People are so excited about deserts. People see a piece of chocolate cake and they are over the moon.”

To improve her craft, Poelling will practice the same pastry over and over until she reaches perfection.

“When I try new things, I get in a loop with my pastries,” Poelling said. “You never know what it is until you get there. I turn out one every day, sometimes two until I am satisfied. I have looped on chiffon cakes, chest pies and right now it is madeleines.”

Odette has a passion for the craft similar to his Columbian cohorts.

“I love the craft of cooking, the physical part, and working with my hands [and] when those efforts bring undisguised joy to people,” Odette said. “That carries over to my home cooking too. I’ll cook dinner at home for my family after working in restaurants all day and still love every minute of it.”

Columbia as a city also has a huge role to play in these chefs’ world.

“I’ve had a blast watching Columbia's food culture evolve over the span of my career,” Odette said. “Thirty years ago, you couldn’t find a salad that wasn’t made from iceberg lettuce. We didn’t see arugula, polenta or goat cheese until the late ’80s, and now we have restaurants growing their own vegetables and making their own charcuterie. Our culture’s food vocabulary has exploded. Columbians are especially food literate and great fun to cook for.”

College students also play a big role in Shakespeare’s overall place in the local community.

“Columbia has such a good young population, because of the colleges, and this is a college restaurant,” Agre said. “If you just want to read, study, just to come kick it with some friends, or grab a couple drinks at the bar, it’s a great place. The legacy that Shakespeare’s has cements it in Columbia.”

Columbian chefs are daredevils when it comes to their favorite dishes, and the chef’s choice depicts the food culture here in CoMo.

“My favorite is peanut butter and chocolate donuts,” Poelling said. “I mean really, it’s a healthy breakfast, minus the frying and frosting. Honestly, in four steps I can get an apple fritter to a salad.”

For Agre, his favorite dish on the menu is, of course, a pizza.

“My favorite pizza is pepperoni, black olives and pineapples,” Agre said. “I know pineapples on pizza is a huge deal right now, but I enjoy the blend of the spice from the pepperoni, the saltiness of the black olives and the sweetness of pineapples.”

For Odette, the question is almost impossible to answer.

“I would never admit having a favorite dish, per se,” Odette said. “[It’s] kind of like having a favorite child. But I did manage to knock out a passable paella over the weekend.”

Sweet, spicy and sour — the chefs of Columbia have conquered it all. Their delicious journey into the kitchen has ignited happiness in hearts and hunger among stomachs across the town. These are the true food heroes, armed with their aprons and chef’s hat, always winning us over with new delicacies.

“There is a lot of freedom here; there’s a lot of willingness to try new things,” Poelling said. “We have a wonderful, diverse customer base. We also get to try things we don’t normally get to do because of the influx of international students at Mizzou. We are excited to try new things.”

Edited by Katherine White | kwhite@themaneater.com

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