Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.
Michelle Matiya, 42, grew up in the Chicago suburb of Woodridge, where as a youngster she helped her German-Bohemian grandmother prepare family recipes for Sunday suppers. But it wasn’t until she moved to North Carolina on a lark at age 18 and ended up lending a hand in a restaurant kitchen on New Year’s Eve that she had an inkling she wanted a career in food service.
“I got a phone call from my boyfriend’s boss, who asked me to come down and cut bread and help the servers,” Matiya said. “It was a busy night. It was my first restaurant back-of-the-house experience. It was awesome. I loved it. I was hooked.”
Today, Matiya is the executive chef for the Conrad Indianapolis, responsible for planning and preparing meals through the high-end hotel’s banquet operations. Captaining a staff of 17, Matiya oversees thousands of events per year—such as weddings, business breakfasts, conference luncheons and meeting buffets—for attendees ranging from five to 400. (According to Conrad officials, the hotel’s kitchen prepared food for no fewer than 6,700 separate events in 2010.)
Matiya previously worked as executive sous chef for the Conrad Miami, where she ran banquet operations. Although the responsibilities weren’t as glamorous as working in the kitchen of the high-profile hotel’s restaurant, Matiya learned that it had its advantages.
“Sheer dollar-wise, banquets are where the hotel makes its money,” Matiya said. “I discovered along the way that it was good to be over the department that was making the most money."
Anxious to work with renowned British chef Jonathan Wright, who had been tapped as executive chef of the Conrad Indianapolis, Matiya applied for the position of executive sous chef before the 23-story tower opened in 2006. Impressed but not swayed, Wright instead offered her a job as head of banquet operations.
“I was angry at the time, but I said to him, ‘I’ll take the job, and I’ll prove to you that I have what it takes to be your executive sous chef,’” Matiya said.
However, the Conrad’s featured restaurant, du Soleil, struggled in the early going. Conrad executives eventually decided to turn over restaurant services at the hotel to independent operators, which currently include ground-floor offerings Capital Grille and Tastings. Wright departed, and Matiya took over his position while continuing to primarily run banquet operations.
Contrary to the popular image of a chef, Matiya doesn’t spend all of her time either paging through recipe books or working the line as meals are assembled.
“A big part of what I do now is purchasing—pricing out my own food, researching the product, bringing in my own product, maintaining my inventories,” Matiya said. “And at the same time, I have a budget that I need to make. So, while my favorite part of my job is to be in the kitchen cooking, just as important as that is managing the financials and turning a profit for the owners.”
In the video at top, Matiya boils down her responsibilities and what it takes to succeed in the kitchen. For her, that does not include a degree from a culinary school; on-the-job training was the basis of her education. She holds forth on what a wannabe chef should consider before taking the plunge into the demanding and time-intensive world of food service.
“The kitchen is super-stressful,” she said, “We have deadlines. If you have 300 people who are eating at 7 o’clock, you need to be ready to feed those people at 7 o’clock. It doesn’t matter if this mushroom didn’t come in, or one of the cooks called in sick. You have to make it happen. That is the bottom line.”
What does she do to relax? “I like to watch the birds. Feed the squirrels. Anything that doesn’t have a timeline on it, I can do,” she said. “When I’m on vacation, don’t tell me when to wake up. Don’t tell me what time we’re going for a meal. Just let it happen.”