Call it kismet, serendipity or just dumb luck. Little did Chef Tim Michitsch know, three decades ago, that getting lost on the way to an amusement park would establish a longtime partnership with Farmer Lee Jones, The Chef’s Garden and the Culinary Vegetable Institute.
Chef Tim is director of the culinary arts program at Lorain County Joint Vocational School in Oberlin, Ohio. His students will help prepare a pop-up dinner on August 24th at the CVI with LCJVS graduate Chef Scott Schneider, Chef de Cuisine at New York’s acclaimed Ai Fiori, leading the way as guest chef.
“I met Lee back in 1985,” Chef Tim said. “I’m from the east coast, from New York. I was living in Washington D.C. and I came to Cleveland to help open up a high end restaurant in Playhouse Square. I said sure, I don’t mind traveling across the country.”
On a fortuitous Sunday, Chef Tim and some friends made plans to travel an hour west to Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky.
“I said okay, give me directions, I’m new to the area,” he said. “But I went the wrong direction, got lost on the backroads and came across a little farm stand, and that’s where I met Lee. I bought a bunch of stuff and I never went to Cedar Point. I went back home and cooked. Over the years I’ve just formed a relationship with Lee.”
That former Cleveland restaurant, Cuisines, was located in the Hannah building in Cleveland’s theater district when a fire in the hood system forced it to close. After a stint at Impromptu bakery and a private club on the city’s east side, Chef Tim wanted something deeper and more meaningful in his career.
“For some reason I thought about getting into education,” he said. “Working with kids is probably the best thing that you could ever do. Just to see growth. You see growth in children.”
When the CVI opened in 2003, it quickly became an extension of Chef Tim’s classroom and teaching kitchen, and a rich source of practical, real world experience for his student chefs. Since then, they’ve often been seen ensconced in the bustle of the open kitchen, lending a hand wherever they can.
Farmer Lee Jones said the farm’s longtime partnership with Chef Tim and his students is a symbiotic one, and that the Culinary Vegetable Institute and The Chef’s Garden benefit from it just as much as the students do.
“They always come in more prepared and more willing to learn than any other high school teams that we’ve ever met,” he said. “And it really stems from the leadership of Chef Tim Michitsch. And it’s evident in the competitions. They go to the competitions and they win, nationally, over and over and over again. Because he pushes them. He brings them up to their level of ability. Instead of them getting by, he pushes them to achieve what he knows they’re capable of.
“Every time I’ve had an opportunity to talk to those kids over the years, I’ve said, ‘You may not realize it right now, but you’re working under one of the best in the business.’”
Oversized prints of Chef’s Garden vegetables line the walls of the on-campus restaurant where Chef Tim’s students prepare meals that are open to the public, as an homage to the farm’s generosity and contributions to the culinary arts program.
“Lee and Bobby Jones have invited us up for tours of the farm, to let the kids go picking and everything,” he said. “We’ve always been a part of it. Lee and Bobby and Mary and Barb and Bob, Sr. have always been very good to us. When we do a scholarship dinner, Farmer Lee says ‘Send them whatever they need.’”
Farmer Lee said he feels “an opportunity and an obligation” to support the next generation, to support the world’s future chefs.
“It helps them understand quality and what the difference in product is and how they might be able to use better ingredients, by using them proportionately,” he said. “And it’s an opportunity to be able to teach kids and see them mature and develop and come into their own.”
“And regardless of where they go and regardless of who they buy from, it’s a way to instill how much love and how much energy and effort and resources go into producing a beautiful amazing plant,” he continued. “You don’t disrespect the plant’s life by not using 100 percent of it.”
Junior Megan Ratha said that working alongside professional chefs at the CVI is a chance to learn and contribute in a way she’d be unlikely to experience in a different high school setting.
“I helped at Twelve Days of Christmas and they had a whole pig head in the oven,” she said. “It was really interesting to look at! And I helped with one of the desserts. It was origami chips, and we attached them to wood. At points I felt like I was in the way just a little bit, but then other times I’d be useful. And you get to learn how to properly clean stuff and properly store stuff. It’s helpful.”
Former student Chef Jessica Krause, now banquet chef at Cleveland’s Jack Casino, said those experiences definitely made an impression.
“At a young age, when I was in high school here, we used to do demos and do stages and stuff like that when they had guest chefs,” she said. “Being young, and being able to experience that ─ if you’re passionate about the industry, it puts a desire in you to push and be better and to strive for greatness.”
Farmer Lee agreed. “These kids have gotten the opportunity to work with some of the best in the country,” he said. “It’s so exciting to see one of Tim’s students come back now as a grown, professional chef and he’s running the dinner. I know for Chef Tim. It’s gotta be like, you know, these are his kids, and for him to see them grow and mature and hit the levels that they have all over the country is really, really inspiring.”
Farmer Lee’s observation is accurate. Chef Tim can’t mask his emotions when talking about the success of students like Scott Schneider.
“I’m so proud of Scott and where he’s at,” he said. “It’ll bring tears to your eyes.”
That kind of development and progress in pursuit of goals is what keeps Chef Tim motivated to give his all for his students. He said he never grows weary of seeing them succeed.
“To watch a kid grow ─ that’s why I got into education,” he said. “Just to watch a child grow through 11th and 12th grade is unbelievable. I’m with these kids 4 1⁄2 hours a day, so I’m more of a parent teaching life skills, sometimes even more than culinary skills. Because, if they don’t have those life skills, it doesn’t matter what I do in the kitchen.”
Retirement, though, is imminent for the longtime educator, and Chef Tim said he can look back on his teaching career with no regrets. “I wouldn’t change direction or course at all.”