After graduating from Tokay High School in 2005, Michelle Minori moved to San Francisco to embark on a culinary career that would land her in the finals rounds of a televised culinary competition: “Top Chef.”
Minori decided to make the move to attend The California Culinary Academy Le Cordon Bleu, hoping to surround herself with an elite group of culinary experts who would help develop her as a chef and teach her to hone her skill set.
“When you want to the best you surround yourself with people that are better than you. I knew it would be hard, but I wanted to be around people that would make me work harder and learn quicker,” she said.
After graduating with honors from Le Cordon Bleu, Minori began her culinary career working at illustrious Michelin-star restaurants throughout the city. Minori, who is classically trained in French and Italian cuisine, developed an eclectic cooking background while working at Aqua, Acquerello and La Folie.
“Being in a Michelin restaurant, I learned a lot of discipline and how to refine my techniques. But I don’t discount my experiences in casual dining, because from there I learned to appreciate food and understand its importance,” she said.
Minori’s ability to capture the integrity of a dish is rooted in her desire to spotlight her adaptability and exhibit her culinary dexterity.
Minori’s hunger to be in the kitchen became clear at a young age. As a child, her father taught her how to garden, and instilled in her the importance of quality, fresh ingredients.
“As a chef, I have a deep appreciation for the pristine taste of fruits and vegetables. Having lived in Lodi, I know what quality produce tastes like, and I have a profound respect for farmers,” she said.
Being from an agricultural community taught her to honor the ingredients she uses.
“I always cook with a ton of herbs. I love learning about them and how to utilize them in different types of cuisine,” Minori said.
Her favorite is cilantro because of its global influence in Mexican, Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine.
“When I incorporate herbs into a dish, I like to learn about the dish and its history. When you look at dishes today they are not new, they are reinvented, and I think that’s what is so unique about cooking,” Minori said. “Learning the history of food and how it is all connected is very important to me as a chef.”
As a competitor on “Top Chef,” Minori utilized her knowledge and her palate to get through the intensity of the show’s competitions.
“Being on the show, I learned to rely on my extensive knowledge of cuisine to help me get through challenges when the secret ingredient was not something I had heard of or used,” she said. “In the bullion challenge I had to really rely on my palate ... It’s always hard to work with something you are not familiar with, but you have to make it work.”
Although Minori placed in the bottom of that round, she was able to cook her way through the rest of the contest to become one of the final five competitors.
She credits her success in the kitchen to her culinary influences, Ron Boyd and Suzette Gresham, who helped her find her culinary identity.
While working for Gresham at Acquerello, Minori was able to tap into her Italian roots and filter her devotion to fresh pasta and dynamic sauces.
“Gresham was a mentor for me, and she was someone I found to be deeply inspirational because she really taught her chefs and empowered the women in her restaurant,” she said.
Working in top-rated restaurants, Minori has been the target of sexism from male colleagues on occasion, she said. But while fine dining tends to be a male-dominated field, Minori said, she refuses to comply with the status quo.
“I tend to be soft spoken, but I am not afraid to be outspoken and let my opinion be known,” she said.
Minori hopes to one day create a program for underprivileged youths and women, and teach them how to cook and source food so that they have the opportunity to break down barriers as well.
Although Minori is not looking to stop cooking anytime soon, she is hoping to slow down and start a family.
“I have worked so hard for 13 years, it has not allowed me a lot of quality of life. I think it is time to start to rest and take care of myself,” she said. “I think in the future I would like to open a restaurant, like a café or an Italian restaurant, and I would like to lay roots in back in Lodi.”
In the meantime, she is hoping to make Lodians proud and represent the city well.
The remaining episodes of “Top Chef” can be seen at 8 p.m. each Thursday on Bravo.