Questions & Answers with community faces
Michelle (Harrison) Rodriguez (34) is originally from downstate, but her family had a cottage next to the Frankfort Tacklebox when she was growing up, so Benzie County has always been a very special place that holds a lot of memories. She graduated from Farmington High School in 2005 and then went on to study at Western Michigan University, where she graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in business marketing and comparative religion.
Rodriguez spent some time in Atlanta at a marketing job before realizing it was not a good fit for her. She ended up going in a radically different direction: that same day, she attended a food truck festival and negotiated her way into a job offer for one of the best catering companies in the region. From there, she continued to work her way up in restaurants—despite not having any formal training—in other big cities like Austin, Texas, and Chicago, Illinois.
After traveling Europe for more culinary inspiration, Rodriguez knew it was time to settle down, raise a family, and be closer to her parents, Don and Karen Harrison, who now live in Lake Ann.
“I never thought I would ever live Up North, but after living in big cities and visiting my parents, I knew I was ready to live in a place with beautiful lakes and hiking trails, so I packed up my stuff and moved from my little 400-square-foot apartment in Chicago to a 900-square-foot log cabin right on [Grand Traverse County’s] Long Lake in 2012,” Rodriguez says. “It was peaceful, and I finally felt at home.”
Rodriguez has gone back and forth from restaurants to catering, and she now has 12 years of experience in the industry, having worked for several of Northern Michigan’s top chefs/restaurants, as well, including The Cook’s House and Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, Epicure Catering, and she was a chef at Black Star Farms for several years.
Although she loved working in restaurants, at a certain point, Rodriguez felt confident to branch off and open her own business—called Amor Comida—in 2017, and it has grown significantly since then. She spent years catering for big events of 200-plus people, but she feels like she now has more control over the quality of her food by specializing in smaller events and private dinners as a private chef. She supports local farmers whenever possible and creates each menu specially, working around any dietary restrictions that her clients may have. Her bread and butter, so to speak, is multi-cultural foods, such as Mexican, Asian, and Middle Eastern.
Rodriguez often finds herself working in Benzie County, especially at Lake Bluff, where she caters quite a bit in the private residences. Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Rodriguez as she was gearing up for her busy season.
The Betsie Current: What made you want to be in the food business? What do you enjoy about this line of work?
Michelle Rodriguez: Although I have known that I wanted to be a chef since I was a little girl, I grew up in a family with a business background, so I attended a university instead of a culinary school. But after working in marketing for a short time in Atlanta after graduating from college, I was itching to get out of the office and into a kitchen, so I ended up quitting my job in 2009; that same day, I went to a food truck festival, where I had a “life-changing lunch.” I remember ordering a cajun dish called etouffee, and the flavors were so incredible; I went up to the food truck owner and asked if I could work for him. He was so confused and said that he wasn’t hiring. He then asked me if I even had experience, to which I replied, “No, but I have a ton of passion.” He said, “Wow, that’s an incredible answer, you’re hired.” Little did I know that the food truck was a side project, and my new boss actually owned a successful catering company in Atlanta called Ultimate Culinary. He took me under his wing, and by the end of the month, I was helping to cater at a Paul McCartney concert. From there, I worked in numerous award-winning restaurants in Austin and in Chicago, including The Girl and the Goat, run by Top Chef/Iron Chef Stephanie Izard. Without working under these amazing chefs, I would not be where I am today. Since I didn’t go to culinary school, I had to ask a lot of questions, pay attention, and learn from my mistakes. That was the best way for me to learn and grow. Additionally, the chefs I have worked for up here in Northern Michigan have “big city talent” and even bigger hearts. Two of my biggest mentors are Jen Blakeslee of The Cook’s House and Stephanie Witala from S2S, and I am blessed that they send a lot of people my way. They are strong women chefs and have been in the industry longer than I have, so I really look up to them and I respect their advice. These days, I will go into peoples’ beautiful homes and cook in their kitchen, but I also will be up front and center, getting to know these people and having fun. You aren’t just hiring me for my food; you are also hiring me for my service and personality.
Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you?
Rodriguez: In the winter, I am blessed that I barely have to work. It’s my chance to breathe; however, I get inquiries all year long. So in my “off months,” I send out contracts/quotes and communicate with my future clients. Summer is absolutely crazy for me, but I like it that way. I have the ability to go to the beach during the day with my daughter, and at night, I go to my clients’ homes and make a beautiful four-course dinner. I love that every day, every group, is completely different from the next. It never gets boring.
Current: How did that change when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northern Michigan in March 2020? How has it changed since? How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next? Have you had any collaborations?
Rodriguez: COVID was strangely very beneficial for my business. Everyone had to cancel their large parties/weddings, but the bigger catering companies up here typically don’t take small events, so it seemed like there was a boom for me. I have networked a lot and am blessed to have a lot of people who recommend me for events like that. My business has tripled in the past two years. I used to have several other side jobs during the year to keep me busy, but now I am able to provide for my daughter and myself year round. I have worked super hard to get where I am today, and I now have opportunities I never thought I would have. An interesting collaboration this past March, without even applying—I got a call to be the temporary executive chef for Cirque Du Soleil, and so I packed my bags and left for Savannah, Georgia, two days later and stayed for two weeks! I get more and more traveling chef opportunities, and I am very happy about that. I was also one of the featured chefs for the Up North Pride dinner, which took place last month as a fundraiser for the upcoming Pride events in June and throughout the year, and the group of chefs I was with are all friends of mine or mentors, so it was an incredible experience. I love the community of chefs up here and am always looking to collaborate more; hit me up, people!
Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Rodriguez: First and foremost, I am a single mom, and my daughter is my world, so I love going on adventures with her. I miss a lot of time with her, due to the nature of my job, so I always make it up to her when things slow down. For instance, I recently took her to Philadelphia and Charleston for longer trips, and on shorter weekends, we will go camping or take day trips up to Petoskey. I am big into foraging—not just for mushrooms, but for all types of edible plants that people would never dream of eating. My daughter is a great foraging buddy, and she knows her stuff. Alongside our black Lab, Holly Berry, just being in the woods or out in nature is my happy place. It’s therapeutic and it’s a good reset to my day or week before I cater again. I am big into gardening, as well; I have my mother to thank for that. She’s been teaching me—sometimes against my will!—about plants since I was a baby. I have completely turned into her, which isn’t so bad; she’s an amazing human! I also love to travel by myself, when I don’t have my daughter. I love traveling alone, as I am not on anyone else’s timeline and go wherever the wind blows. In my twenties, I explored Europe by myself a lot. I went to France, Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, and then I spent a month in Spain. That’s where I get most of my inspiration for my food, through my travels and life experiences. Last year, I flew to Asheville, North Carolina, and spent five days camping on top of my vehicle deep in the Pisgah National Forest, which is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Another recent trip was to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I ate my way through the city. I then spent some time hiking in Ashland, Oregon. My last solo trip of 2021 was to Phoenix and Sedona, Arizona, where I hiked through the desert and went rock climbing, which is a big passion of mine.
Current: How have you seen Northern Michigan change since you started coming here as a child? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
Rodriguez: It has changed so much! Growing up, I remember frequently eating at The Cabbage Shed, The Cherry Hut, the A&W in Frankfort, and the former Coho Cafe. Back then, Northern Michigan and Benzie County were places for people to retire or vacation. Now, there are so many more options and fun things to do for the younger crowd—food trucks, breweries and wineries, and so many amazing restaurants. The problem is that this area has grown so fast, but the cost of living has increased significantly, so these businesses are having a major problem finding staff. My hope for the future is that we figure out a way to provide affordable housing, so people can actually work in the hospitality industry and make a good living.
Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Northern Michigan? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?
Rodriguez: The hardest part of being a private chef up here is that it is incredibly seasonal. I over-work myself in the summer but take time off in the winter. The most rewarding part of living up here is that we have such a strong community. Because it’s a small area, most of my business comes from word of mouth, which is a big confidence booster to know that I have so many people who I respect that are on my side, recommending me. I am self-taught and have learned a lot from these people over the years, so to be on the flip side now—working alongside them—is a huge blessing.
Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people to this area?
Rodriguez: Whatever it has been doing! This has become such an agricultural and “foodie” destination. The amount of young talent here amazes me. I lived and worked in big cities, such as Detroit, Austin, Atlanta, Chicago. I am glad I had those experiences, however, in those cities, you are one in a million chefs. Up here, you have a better opportunity to make a name for yourself as a chef, working on a smaller platform but still with big talent. As I said, this used to be a place where people would just vacation, or retire. Now, there are so many young families up here and so many incredible places to explore.
Current: What else does Northern Michigan/Benzie County need?
Rodriguez: Not to be a broken record, but affordable housing! Businesses are cutting their hours and shutting down because they can’t find people who want to work—or who can afford to work—in a restaurant.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?
Rodriguez: I frequently hike at Brown Bridge Quiet Area on the west side of Traverse City. It’s almost a six-mile loop, so not only is it great exercise, but it’s a beautiful spot. I ride my bike on the TART Trail a lot, and also on the Betsie Valley Trail. My older brother, unfortunately, passed away in a car accident 19 years ago in Honor, and we built a beautiful observation platform for him right off the Betsie trail, just as you’re turning the corner on the bridge to go from Frankfort to Elberta. It’s called the David Harrison memorial platform. I love to stop there when I’m riding that trail; I just close my eyes and remember him.
Current: What does your perfect summer day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?
Rodriguez: In the summer, I love taking my daughter to the Benzie area. We will spend the day playing at Frankfort beach and walk the pier. We will go get ice cream at The Cool Spot, get a hot dog at A&W, and then at night, I’ll take her to the Cherry Bowl Drive-In movie theater or we’ll find a pretty spot to watch the sunset. The summer sunsets in Frankfort just hit differently. So many fun things to do in the Benzie area. And we never miss the Frankfort parade on July 4th!
Learn more by checking out “Amor Comida Private Chef/Catering” on Facebook or @amor_comida on Instagram; you can also email Michelle@AmorComida.com or call/text 248-514-9299 for inquiries.
Featured Photo Captions: Michelle Rodriguez (34), a self-taught private chef, serves up homemade soup. She specializes in private dinners and small catered events, using fresh local ingredients whenever possible. Photos courtesy of Amor Comida.