By MARILYN MCMAHON
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Where to start.
That’s the dilemma when it comes to writing about a multifaceted person like Michael Hutchings, a Santa Barbara resident since 1981 who is leaving town next week to live in Charleston, S.C., with his wife,Christine Dahl.
During his almost four decades here, Mr. Hutchings became well-known for his culinary expertise. As Chef Michael, he managed restaurants, owned a restaurant, hosted television cooking shows and ran an upscale catering business.
He is also a talented musician and a sculptor.
In fact, music was his major while he attended Cal State University Fullerton, where he played the flute in chamber groups, the orchestra, wind band and was a featured soloist.
Before that, he was a music scholarship student at Fullerton Junior College.
“Music was going to be my career, but I grew up in a modest home, the oldest of six kids. We lived in West Anaheim, a few miles from the Matterhorn at Disneyland. There was no money for college. I needed a part-time job while I went to school. I applied to Disneyland and became a soda jerk at Cafe Orleans,” said Mr. Hutchings. “Then, I was promoted to the Earl of Sandwich restaurant and then, to Club 33, the private club for members.”
It turned out to be a major turning point in his life when he began to work with Rudy Stoy, Club 33’s executive chef.
“I asked him questions. He mentored me. He let me run the kitchen. I learned the craft. I got hooked,” said Mr. Hutchings. “I was getting great feedback. It began to look like a more realistic career path.”
In 1978, he went to Europe for a three-year work experience to further his training as a chef.
“Initially, I traveled to France, first Paris, then to Monaco and then on to Loyette, a small town outside of Lyon. There, I worked at a one-starred Michelin restaurant called La Terrasse for gratis. The time was well spent learning French-country style cuisine. Trips to the Lyon farmers market introduced me to the great European food products,” he said.
In the fall of 1978, he went to London to work at Le Gavroche, Britain’s first three-starred Michelin restaurant.
“I had intended to stay only a year at Le Gavroche as I had my wife and year-old child with me at the time,” Mr. Hutchings said. “After two months, Chef-Owner Albert Roux asked me and my family to dine with him at his home. After dinner, he suggested that he would like to put me through their full training program and upon return to the states, back me in a restaurant venture in America. How could I refuse!”
He ended up working for Albert and his brother Michel, who founded Le Gavrouche in 1967, for three years, and during that time, they sent him to Paris to train at Le Pres Catalan, on to Chapel’s Restaurant in Mionnay and then the famed Restaurant Troisgros.
“It was like finishing school and has been a reservoir of ideas ever since.
That three-star sojourn was the foundation and mindset I brought to Santa Barbara when I moved here in 1981 to become executive chef at a popular restaurant called the Olive Mill Bistro in Montecito where the Montecito Inn is now,” said Mr. Hutchings.
“Owner Paul Vercammen recruited me to head up and modernize their menu offerings. Paul realized that he needed to upgrade the standards at the Bistro. I must say that I was shocked at the food standards at the bistro. Mind you, I was fresh from a three-starred Michelin experience.” Within two months at the Olive Mill Bistro, he was putting his imprint on the menu, and the clients and press began to notice. Julia Child started to dine there and called him out to the dining room to meet her and her husband Paul Child, who were entertaining winemaker Robert Mondavi and his wife. “Years later,I had the privilege of being around the TV production of ‘Dinner at Julia’s,’ a TV show that was produced in Santa Barbara. For one episode, I took her out hunting local chanterelles. Her comment off-camera was, ‘A blow against fungaphobia.” said Mr. Hutchings.
In 1984, he opened the highly successful Michael’s Waterside restaurant across from the Andree Clark Bird Refuge, and when he sold it in 1993, he took over food operations at the Santa Barbara Polo Club.
“I ran that for several seasons and can tell you how to take care of a grassy field of play!” he said with a chuckle.
In 1995, chef Albert Roux invited Mr. Hutchings to head up a culinary team at the Nations Bank headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., where he gained experience in Southern food specialties like shrimp and grits, blue crab cakes and Brunswick stew.
“As fate would have it, Santa Barbara called me back when my dear friend Chef James Sly contacted me to suggest that I apply for a chef position at Birnam Wood Golf Club in Montecito. I was hired and after a year, decided to do upscale catering in Santa Barbara and did so up until deciding to retire this year,” said Mr. Hutchings.
As if his chef duties didn’t keep him busy enough, he also began to design sculptures in 2012.
“I got the itch to start sculpting when I went on the Internet to look for pieces to buy. Some of mine are very abstract with a very organic feel. Most are made of copper with accents of glass and stones like jasper, agate and jade,” he said.
In addition to creating his artistic designs, Mr. Hutchings continues to play the flute, “mainly for my own pleasure and to keep my lips from becoming flabby.”
When asked how he decided to relocate to Charleston, he said, “I have two of my five adult children in the area and six of my fourteen grandkids. We have purchased a lovely home on an estuarial lagoon full of birds and other wildlife. In fact, we can catch shrimp and local crab from our back porch.
“We plan on still being active in the food community as Charleston is noted as a food lovers city. My son-in-law, Clint Wood, manages a country club and has already planned for me to do a Julia Child tribute dinner and for my pastry-chef wife Christine to upgrade their dessert menu. We look forward to exploring the East Coast from Maine to the Keys in Florida. “Proximity to Europe means we will be off to Spain, France and Italy on cultural and culinary journeys. Current plans are to continue the production of my popular cooking show, The Santa Barbara Chef, which will be on Amazon Prime in late February.”
High points of his career as chef include his participation in numerous charities. Among them were the Arthritis Foundation, Girls Inc., Teddy Bear Foundation, Braille Institute, Boys and Girls Club, Carpinteria Arts Center, Camerata Pacifica, Music Academy of the West, Mental Health Association, Santa Barbara Zoo Foundation, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara Humane Society, Assistance League of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Rescue Mission and Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to name a few.
Although he will miss his adopted hometown, Mr. Hutchings said he is looking forward to joining a flute choir, getting back to sculpting, fishing, biking in the Carolinas, long walks and birding with his wife, being with grandkids and enjoying the music and food scene of Charleston.
“Santa Barbara and Charleston have very much the same vibe when it comes to food, music, culture and good museums. We even have a palm tree in our backyard,” said Mr. Hutchings, who will be celebrating his 71st birthday at a farewell party on Sunday.