With gratitude to his parents for exposing him to the joys of fine dining in early childhood to supporting his desire to cook professionally, Michael Selig, Clinton Presidential Center director of Food, Beverage and Events, has cooked for presidents, prime ministers and Prince, as in the “Purple Rain” pop icon Prince.
By Brigette Williams :: Photography by Jeff Smithwick
Talk about your culinary start? Wow! I started washing dishes at Minute Man on Rodney Parham in Little Rock. It’s now a Wendy’s.
What was your early exposure to food like? I was fortunate in that my parents took me to Jacques and Suzanne’s where I’d sneak and peek into the kitchen. While studying sociology at George Mason University in Washington D.C., I worked at the highest grossing Chili’s in the country. That’s where I learned the speed and sanitation process.
So, food was, is, your passion? Yes. I decided to go to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. I returned to D.C. working in the Hyatt Hotels. It was such an incredible melting pot. I was able to learn to make sushi from a guy from Japan who would pop me in the back of my neck with the bamboo roller if I wasn’t bringing rice up the right way; I worked with a guy from Panama and a lady we called Mama from Vietnam so I learned grassroots cooking from indenginus people.
What brought you back to Little Rock? My wife Jennifer and i were working for Hyatt hotel in LA. We came to Little Rock to visit my dad and we never left. We both had interviews with Linus Raines, then executive director of the Excelsior Hotel (now the Little Rock Marriott). I was going for executive chef. So, that’s where it started for me at Josephine’s (the Excelsior’s fine dining restaurant). It was the second AAA restaurant I worked, so now I was starting to make a name for myself.
But, you left the comfort of a hotel to go out on your own? I opened Vermillion Water Grille in the Rivermarket in 1999. We were one of the first open kitchens in Little Rock. I then opened the Vermillion Bistro in west Little Rock in 2002. After awhile, two restaurants was too much. I had enough. I spent a quarter of my time at Vermillion, a quarter at the Watergrille and the other half driving I-630. I had a family … it was seven days a week. So I closed them both.
What’s the difference between owning your restaurants and managing Café 42 and events at the Clinton Presidential Center? Opening night at the Water Grille we had Robin Williams and Barbara Streisand … we actually had bouncers, can you imagine? But two months ago here we had former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain. Another night it could be a wedding or a banquet. But what’s nice here is I can break away from it to attend the father/daughter mass with my daughter, Marin; I can take a break this weekend and spend time with visiting in-laws. I loved having a restaurant, but this is really nice. And, I’m sure my kids, Marin and John Griffin, appreciate the difference.
So, what’s your attraction to working in the food industry? I’m really good at it. Really good. I don’t do it here, but at Vermillion where the menu changed seasonally, I’d walk down the grocery store aisle and select foods and go back and mix and match foods in my mind, go work it out and it would end up on the menu. The action of cooking on a line, cooking for 1,000 people; making sure the food is hot and has great flavor, that’s what it’s all about.
You sound like an adrenaline junkie? When it comes to food, yes! Every day we get busy between 11-2, we’re jumping. You’re seating people, delivering and picking up plates … and you ask, “How was it?” and they say, “Wonderful, I didn’t think I could get this level of food at a presidential library” or “this is the best food I’ve ever had.” It’s the rush. It’s a creative thing. There’s eye-hand coordination. It requires great decision-making skills that have to be made quickly and often times under pressure.
Describe Arkansas’ culinary scene? I think it’s great. Even back to Jacques and Suzanne’s, I think we’ve had our share of good restaurants per capita. Just go back to the old Bruno’s restaurant, Mexico Chiquito, when Peter (Brave) opened his, and Paul (Novicky) and Scott (Swander) did Spaule’. You can now pick a section of the city and pick several great restaurants within each. Midtown, downtown, the Heights, I think everyone’s doing a great job.
To learn more about Micheal’s food thoughts and to hear his playlist visit aymag.com/food.