Chef Chat, Part 1: Michael Pellegrino of Max's Wine Dive

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For the past year, Michael Pellegrino has commanded the reins in the kitchen at Max's Wine Dive. About two months ago, Max's changed its culinary program so that the menu incorporated a left and right side: the former housing the "Max's Classics" and the latter serving as the chef's creative playground. We visited with the San Antonio-born, Detroit-raised chef to discuss his inspirations.

EOW: How did you get into food?

Pellegrino: It came from my father, who loved food. Whenever we went out to eat, he would only want meals that he couldn't cook himself. So fortunately for us, we would end up going somewhere really nice. Being exposed to that as a little kid, it inspired me from day one to provide the same experience.

EOW: Sounds like you got into the industry at a young age. For our young readers contemplating a career in the culinary field, what words of wisdom do you have for them?

Pellegrino: Get into it as early as possible. I got to work for the award-winning chef, Jimmy Schmidt of the Rattlesnake in Detroit, when I was 15. I knew I wanted to be a chef, I got in there, I washed dishes, I bussed tables, I cut vegetables, I worked pantry and so by the time I went to culinary school, I was already exposed. So I try to tell everybody that if you want to be a chef, you must first make sure that you love it. You're going to work every night and weekend. You have to have a passion to be successful.

EOW: Sounds like a lot of sweat equity. Did you ever have days when you thought to yourself, "Man, I'm not sure if I made the right career choice?"

Pellegrino: I never had days where I said, "I don't want to do this." However, there were definitely days where I thought, "Man, this really sucks. Why didn't I become an engineer?" It was usually because everyone I knew would be off doing this or that but here I am stuck on the line cooking for six people at one in the morning. That's the sacrifice you make for the ultimate goal, but it's worth it.

EOW: Max's Wine Dive serves up Southern comfort food. Is it a challenge for you to write and execute these menus since you were raised in Detroit?

Pellegrino: No, because my family's from Texas, and we came back every summer. We would visit my grandmother in San Antonio. So I had plenty of exposure to Southern cuisine. Also, it's from my grandmother that I learned Mexican cuisine. I also have a lot of Italian influences from my father's side. Actually, it was because of my family, specifically my grandparents, that I moved back to Texas to go to the Culinary Academy of Austin. I believe that all chefs express themselves from what they've seen, been taught, and ate as a child. This combination is what creates each chef's flavor profile.

Come back tomorrow to learn the method to Chef Pellegrino's madness when he devises creative concoctions for the right side of his menu.

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