Theo Michaels gave up a successful corporate career to follow his heart into the world of food after reaching the semi-finals heats of Masterchef UK in 2014.
Gathering fans at every turn with his infectious smile, hospitable manner and engaging demeanor, matched with his new found passion for food Theo ran his own sell-out pop up restaurant in Hertfordshire, cooking an 8-course taster menu championing modern Greek cuisine inspired by his family and travels (this still has a waiting list of over 700).
His private chef experience, creating exclusive dinner parties for private clients as Executive Chef for Elsewhere Events received recognition by The Financial Times and Telegraph in 2017. Both services won the regional ‘Best Lifestyle Service’ award.
With two hit cookbooks about mug meals already under his belt, his new endeavour Orexi! is set to become a best seller, with its delectable Greek and Cypriot recipes with a twist.
GCT recently had a chat to the affable father of three about swapping corporate for cooking, how his travels have influenced his food, his experiences on Masterchef and his new book Orexi!
Where were you born and raised and where do you live now?
I was born in London, UK, spent 5 years living in New Jersey, USA but ultimately raised in the UK and now live just outside of London in Hertfordshire.
Tell us about the first time you went to Cyprus and what impression it made on you?
My mum was born in Cyprus and comes from Strovolos. My dad’s family come from Yialousa. My first trip was a whirlwind of visiting relatives, eating too much and having my cheeks pulled, I loved it. As a child it was an entirely new world from the streets of London, the biggest impression was the zest for life and the passion of the people. The notion of living life on your own terms, speaking your mind and the warm embrace of hospitality has stayed with me ever since.
Have you always had an interest in food? Tell us about the journey of giving up your career in the corporate world to become a chef?
As many of your readers will appreciate, food for the Greeks is entwined in our culture and lives. It’s a thread that weaves through most of my memories; moments shared around the dining table, hanging around the kitchen while my mum and aunties cook, trying to avoid smoke in your eyes whilst standing next to the fourno slowly cooking souvla. I’ve always loved not just food but the moments it creates.
My background was very much corporate, I’ve owned a couple of businesses that I started from scratch and ended up running two recruitment businesses for about 15 years. I started to lose some of the passion for the business I was in and it was participating in Masterchef that I reignited a passion and I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do. As soon as I appeared on the show I made the decision to resign from my position and follow my heart into the world of food. It took a good four months to extract myself from the company and I left with no real plan, it was more a case of just seeing how things worked out. I’ve been lucky, and the harder I work the luckier I get. Like any vocation in life, there are the ups and downs. I love cooking and the theatre of cooking that we create for our events but it’s hard work, physically and emotionally. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What led to you applying for MasterChef? What Was the biggest highlight from appearing on the show? What was the biggest challenge?
I remember it well. We had just arrived back from a vacation and I was dreading having to go back into the office the next day. Sitting in the garden I stumbled across the application form for Masterchef and just thought, why not? So I completed the application form and forgot about it for several months until one day I received a phone call from the producers.
What did you learn from the whole MasterChef experience?
I learned a lot about food and thinking about it professionally; tastes, textures, colours. But also about execution, creating a dish that not only looks and tastes good but is cooked well and served hot. The reality of cooking professionally is very different from spending 20 minutes making a dish look perfect just so you can post a picture on Instagram. Most of the time when we have a busy service cooking for 150 people, there’s no time to be faffing about taking pictures. It’s about the food and serving it.
What inspires you?
Everything! Inspiration comes from the most random of places; a picture, overhearing someone say something, a scent you catch, other chefs… But what inspires me is my parents, my wife, and my kids.
What are your favourite foods to cook?
If you would’ve asked me this question four years ago I would’ve come out with some longwinded recipe, the reality now is something simple. A delicious BBQ of souvla with all the trimmings, a grilled piece of fish, something simple, clean and delicious. Humble food.
Being a father of three, how do you ensure your kids are getting nutritious meals they all enjoy, especially when so many kids are addicted to junk food and processed food?
That’s a tough one and I often fail. With three kids, all with busy lives sometimes you cheat with a ‘healthy’ snack (usually fruit or one of the healthier kids snacks). But one thing we always do is eat together. We’re lucky enough to have most of our evenings together as a family so we all sit down and eat the same thing. We don’t ever cook ‘grown up’ food and then serve the kids something else. This is good as it means they always eat a healthy home-cooked meal and hopefully will grow up to do the same with their kids. It’s about the food but also about having an hour a day that we all sit down together, no phones or iPads or toys and try to talk.
Tell us about creating your two books about mug meals? How did you come up with the idea?
I can’t take the credit for the idea. Joanna Lorenz, my publisher at the time, had the idea of cooking in mugs and at first, I was dubious. Microwave cooking has lots of negative connotations, but then I thought if I’m going to do it let’s just treat it like another appliance in the kitchen and still cook how I normally would, which meant all fresh ingredients and it ended up being a best-seller.
What can people expect from your new book Orexi! What is your favourite recipe in this book?
This is an entirely new book and I’m so excited about it! Published by Ryland Peters & Small, they are a brilliant publisher and instantly got the idea. Orexi! is a selection of Greek and Cypriot-inspired recipes, some are twists on a classic (beef short rib stifado) others are new dishes that I love (vegetable ribbon tempura with pomegranate molasses and tahini dressing). The philosophy behind Orexi! was to create easy, delicious recipes that are inherently Greek but accessible to anyone and maintain that one special ingredient of Greek hospitality throughout. This isn’t a book for meals for one. One of my favourite recipes is my kid goat kleftiko with chili minted peas and feta. It’s one we make a lot at home as it totally hits that notion of putting a load of food on the table and everyone helping themselves, it’s very social.
What is your favourite element of all the work you do?
This sounds a little ‘needy’. But it’s usually at the end of the night when we finish and the guests give us a round of applause or people come up to say how much they enjoyed the food. That’s what it’s all about. Pleasing people, creating memories, I feel privileged to do that (I say ‘us’ as cooking for people isn’t a one-man job, you need great servers, attentive staff, the right ambiance, it’s the whole package, it’s never just a plate of food).
Tell us about Elsewhere Events?
When I left the corporate world I started off doing a pop-up restaurant (I created an 8-course taster menu, the philosophy was elegant village food from Cyprus and Greece) and some private chef nights. It was during one of my intimate private chef nights that the owner of Elsewhere Events was a guest and at the end of the evening said we should talk about joining his company to head up the entire catering function. That was two years ago! Elsewhere Events basically create alternative events, incredibly creative and offer an alternative to the usual. Most of our clients range from 100-200 person corporate festivals or smaller corporate retreats at one of our venues which include a 12th-century chateau in Provence, France, a beautiful manor house in La Clusaz, France or our 16th-century manor house in Norfolk, UK.
What would you choose as your last meal?
Probably a BBQ of some kind, lots of grilled fish and meat, sunshine, good wine and friends and family. That’s all I need.
Orexi! By Theo Michaels can be purchased from all good bookstores, Amazon or by visiting TheoMichaels
Follow Theo on Instagram @theocooks