CHEF MIKE BAGALE
THE BOUNDARY-BREAKING CULINARY TALENT ON MELDING GLOBAL FLAVORS, VIBRANT COLOR, AND POWERFUL NUTRITION FOR SAKARA
Chef Mike Bagale cooks outside the lines. It was this brazen passion for disrupting the food world with art and flavor that drew us to this world-renowned chef, and join forces to create our first Artist In Residence. The soulful and spirited co-creation intersects Sakara’s nutrition philosophy with the artistic vision of the planet’s most talented foodies and creators. If we are the ultimate choreographed dance of nutrition, quality, eye-feasting, and taste, we are honored to have Mike collaborate on upleveling the groove.
Chef Bagale comes to us fresh off a world tour, where he explored new textures, flavor combinations, and medicinal ingredients in Asia and Mexico. Until recently, Bagale was blowing minds at the three-Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago, where he was Executive Chef under Grant Alchatz, turning food-meets-high-art experiences for lucky diners. (His green apple edible taffy balloon garnered endless "oohs" and "yums"). This summer, he brings that delicious risk-taking to Sakara's menu.
We got to watch him in action in a Brooklyn kitchen—grill a pineapple with finesse, toss a heap of the most potent medicinal mushrooms in his own Japanese wok on ample heat, and turn a classic Sikil Pak recipe on its head (hint: add avocado. So simple, so genius)—and listen to him riff. We talked early inspirations, risk-taking, the importance of quality, mushrooms that make you live forever, and how food should be art, love…and medicine.
P.S. Ready to indulge in some delicious art delivered to your door? Sign up for Sakara signature meal program featuring Chef Bagale’s innovative, delicious dishes.
Was food always your passion? What was food like growing up?
We ate very simply growing up in Texas. It was very meat and potatoes, green vegetables, and milk. Never fancy. My father was always busy with work and my brother and I were in school and played football until the evening. So our meals were designed around affordability and functionality. Salt was iodized and the food was always typically wildly under-seasoned. As I grew older, my desire to taste and explore new flavors led me to cooking at home at a young age. This is when my creativity began to emerge.
The first time I had really high-quality bread and butter in a French restaurant, I was probably six- years old. I was extremely fascinated at the amount of satisfaction that only two ingredients could provide when handled properly. This was a pivotal moment in my life that I later realized was the essence of great cooking.
I could watch something blossom and translate it on a plate. I'm inspired by architecture. I'm inspired by shadows. Color palettes are huge for me… [and I think] How can I put that onto a plate?
I got into food because I originally wanted to get into film. I wanted to write, and I wanted to direct, so I've always been good at conjuring images and storylines, and what-if situations. For me, it was all about translating that into an environment. Art is a medium, and cooking became that new form of art.
I wanted to use my creativity to create a dining experience. Alinea was a perfect example of it's not just food, it's a dining experience. In that experience, what can we do to evoke emotion, create surprise, wonder? With the balloon that I created, ultimately, infectious laughter. You walk in, you come out changed in a certain way. It sounds really pretentious, but the reality was, that was the expectation as well. Every diner that walked in with an expectation: "Okay. Show me what you're going to do. Blow my mind." It was a challenge because some of the best creativity is not forced. It happens naturally, you let it flow. But at the same time, it really kept my brain alert and it allowed me to take big risks. Those risks, are what made me successful as a chef.
For me, inspiration comes from the first day of spring. I could watch something blossom and translate on a plate. I'm inspired by architecture. I'm inspired by shadows. Sometimes I could be in a magic hour in a certain part of Brooklyn, and the way the shadow scheme is, I could be like, "This would be really cool if I could put this into a room." Design, fashion, culture. Color palettes are huge for me. How can I put that onto a plate, which is more literal in terms of art and design, but I take from everything.
And how did Alinea become part of your story?
I was an executive chef of a hotel in Florida, Four Seasons. I was in my early 20s. It laid the foundation, but I wasn't content with my career as a whole. I wasn't satisfied. The Alinea book had just come out, and I was like, "What the f**k is this shit?" I was a good technician, but I needed to learn more, so I literally quit my job, drove up overnight.
First I had to fly to Alinea and tryout, right? It was a two-day tryout. I got offered the job, went back to Florida. Quit my job, drove up, didn't have a place to stay, anything. But I drove up there to be their meat chef de partie, which [was like] pick up three Michelin dishes in three-and-a-half hours of prep time, including all the dietary restrictions. If you f**k it up, you're fired, period. Eleven months in, I got promoted to sous, and then eight months after that I got promoted to chef de cuisine, and then I got promoted to executive chef. It was the first time in my life, though, that I ever felt anxiety, and that's the truth. My whole life, I'd always just kind of been young and charismatic, didn't have any real issues that made me feel anxiety. Then I walked in that place and I was like, "I'm going to fail. I can't do this." I had a moment: four in the morning, after work, just looking at myself in the mirror having one of those talks with myself, and said, "You can't quit.” And I didn't.
When Michelin went to Chicago, it was immediately awarded three Michelin, which is probably the most prestigious award by definition. It was ranked as number six in the world on San Pellegrino. It's won all the James Beard awards. The accolades are there. For me, it was my finishing school. It was like going to Harvard grad. For the entire length of the process, I was always learning something, which sounds ridiculous. The stress is ridiculous and not sustainable for too long. But I was learning about myself, and guest service, and how to make the experience different, you know.
All the things that were risky were the things I enjoyed the most, and were the biggest accomplishments.
What’s the most valuable thing you took from your time at Alinea?
I learned about the value of risk-taking. All the things that were risky were the things I enjoyed the most, and were the biggest accomplishments. When I went to Alinea, the day-to-day routine as a creative director there was nothing but risk-taking. Which ultimately meant failure, lots and lots of failures. The cool part about it is, from a guest perspective, nobody ever saw that. They only saw the final product, but leading up to that was complete anxiety-inducing, stressful moments of self-doubt and lots of dishes and concepts going into the trash. But, coming to terms with oneself, that became very rewarding. That meant development was happening, right? You could say, "Okay, that didn't work, but I know why it didn't work." Then you've got a product on the back-end that wasn't necessarily what you anticipated going in, but it was way better because you developed it. Those risks have helped me transition into this concept with Sakara. Going plant-based and rethinking the way that food can be served, and the way that people can perceive food has been part of my repertoire for a long time. This plant-based focus is something that I've been doing more as a personal lifestyle plan, but now doing it professionally, and being able to serve it to a lot of people is a challenge that is really exciting.
When did your love for food evolve into your love for food as medicine?
Probably the last five years, I've been really focused on it. I still enjoy drinking, of course, everything quality, but what I do is I eat as healthy and as conscious as I possibly can. Going to the market and grabbing two Asian pears, some kohlrabi, and a bucket load of greens to wilt, and it’s simple and delicious.
Food is medicine from the basic standpoint that you know, as a human being, you have to eat to survive. When you really appreciate what that means, you start to care a lot about what goes inside of your body. You start reading labels. You start caring about whether it's preservatives in things, and why. Again, it's kind of scary, the culture that we live in, in the domestic United States where you have to, because there’s concern about what you may put into your body. Also, habitually, as a young chef, I was a big drinker. I was tasting everything and without really considering what it was, just out of habit, eating it all. After I stopped doing that, the way that I felt, the clarity that I had in my brain, the energy that I experienced, the weight that I shed...I just felt incredible, and it was only because of cherry picking fresh vegetables, being conscious about what I drank and eliminating less quality alcohol. I carved my own path overnight into a healthier diet, or a healthier way of eating.
It took a combination of that awareness being pushed over into the Western world, coupled with my traveling. I got the exposure that I needed and the practices, and began creating those habits in my daily regimen. Historically, I'm admittedly really bad at... I was really bad at dieting. I was kind of creating content to blow minds, so to speak, as a habit in the restaurant. I realized that it wasn't the best thing for my personal diet. I really wanted more energy. I wanted more stamina. I wanted better blood circulation. I wanted my brain to be more focused. So learning about these ingredients has evolved me and my daily practices.
If you pick something perfectly ripe, in season, you don't really need to do anything to it. You just have to eat it.
What made you connect to the Sakara philosophy?
In each one of the meals, Sakara focuses on nutrients, texture, color. It was all of the substance I was looking for, in my own daily meals. And they did it in a very, very thoughtful way. So, for me, it was kind of a no-brainer or an awesome opportunity to create my own interpretations using my own background with textures, and flavors, and emulsions. And how can I create all the things that I want to eat, and I want other people to eat, and in vibrant new ways, I think.
Everything that Sakara does, image-wise and food-wise and style-wise, is kind of really synonymous with what I hope my brand to be in line with. I'm really excited about producing dishes and plant-based food that is really, really delicious. That's something that I've learned over the years just cooking at home, and that is by not defying seasonality. It's mind-blowingly delicious. It's creative, but it's not sacrificing flavor, and that's what I want to showcase. I want people to be able to eat the food and say, "Wow, we haven't had this flavor combination before, and we didn't realize it was this ridiculously healthy."
Can you share a little about your love of quality?
The search for quality is fundamentally probably the single most important thing a chef can do. It's nothing new. That responsibility to source and the discipline to make sure that you're finding the best ingredients is critical. You're growing them properly, being aware of where they're coming from. You want the most organic food you can get on your plate, because at the end of the day you want the best inside your body. I think that awareness comes full circle and becomes a habit. As a chef, it's important to cherry-pick your ingredients. If you pick something perfectly ripe, in season, it's that whole Alice Waters approach where you don't need to do a lot to it. In fact, you don't really need to do anything to it. You just have to eat it.
How do you play with texture and flavor?
Flavor balancing is a term used to described what flavors work together, essentially. As a young culinarian, I always used books for that, as I was learning. Like, avocados go great with lime. Pineapple goes great with basil. As I've grown more experienced in utilizing, it's a really fun way to be creative. There's a lot of substitutions that can be made with everyday ingredients. If you don't like citrus, you can substitute pineapple. If you don't like nuts, you can substitute maybe that umami, earthy mushroom thing to kind of pull back. Knowing that bandwidth of what works and what doesn't work creates huge opportunities to rewrite really approachable dishes.
What are some medicinal ingredients that stand out for you?
It's hard to pinpoint any particular one, but I like maca a lot. I like tocos a lot. I love medicinal mushrooms, so reishi, chaga, cordyceps. Lion's mane is probably my favorite, and Sakara introduced me to that a few years ago. I take that for my brain and for my blood circulation. But, as you can see in the kitchen, and what I operate with daily is I have a regimen that I take every day. I love turmeric. I have turmeric cocktails all the time. A lot of adaptogens too. I take pitaya, moringa, spirulina, green and blue. Love to play with everything.
My point is, I'll eat really healthy and conscious and light most of the time, and then I'll go to Hong Kong and I'll eat roast duck for three days and drink Japanese whiskey and feel good about myself for a little while.
Talk to us about the process of creating your menu for Sakara?
It's constant research and development, and each dish is its own little world. It all is one focus at a time where it's constantly molded and it changes, so it's a really, really lengthy process. One that focuses on throwing away bad ideas and reinstituting good ideas. The evolution of the entire process is hundreds of hours in the longevity of it. Having tastings and having other people weigh in, and change, it's constant change to finally say, "Okay, this is a product that we want to show off. These are the ingredients, and this is why it works." It's not just about making food tasty. Again, it's about the vision as a whole and saying, "Wow, not only is this delicious, but this is introducing the medicinal ingredients that we want, and it's innovative." A lot of what I'm doing in this kitchen is innovating.
One of the dishes in particular that I created for the Sakara program was my interpretation of a Sikil Pak. A Sikil Pak is a very traditional Yucatán, Mayan condiment that focuses on pumpkin seeds, fresh citrus juice, coriander, and some chili, which in itself is pretty healthy. So what I've done with this was use it as a vessel. It's another great opportunity to say, "Okay, this is a condiment. This is something that is delicious and seasonal and vibrant. What else can I do to impart other ingredients, and how can I use those basic ingredients in terms of fat, richness, nutty components, and infiltrate other things?" Medicinal mushrooms go into it. Extra ginger goes into it. I put avocado in mine, which is a healthy fat.
What can Sakaralites expect?
I think what clients can expect with these meals is something new. It's technique driven. There's going to be explosive flavor combinations. I'm really proud of the fact that I've researched and traveled and have found new, cool ingredients to introduce into the meal plans. It's going to create texture, flavor, vibrancy. A huge focus on medicinal ingredients, and something that hasn't been done before.
Being an artist in residence is really humbling and special, and important to me because I always want to be perceived as an artist. Obviously, being a participant in something that is thoughtful and amazing, right? Like, I want to produce something that people say, "Wow, that was a great collaboration. That made sense." There's a reason behind it which fuels creativity, and that's what I want to bring to this collaboration.
What does legacy mean to you?
The word legacy to me means more about contribution than it does about accolades or anything of that nature. What did I give back to the community, and how was it received? Every day I think about what I could be doing better as an individual, and use my talents to offer something new and beneficial to the community around me.
BONUS: More from Chef Mike Bagale