Seasoning is critical.
Seasoning is critical.
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

On the Line: Eric Mickle Of Orange Hill

If there's one take-away from my interview with Eric Mickle, it's that Orange Hill is more than a restaurant with a view. You have a management team educating themselves on wine (and earning their Level 1 Sommelier status). When you sit in the lounge, bartenders are social and knowledgeable about what they do. And Mickle's education and experience translates to meals where quality is not measured by how many components you add to a dish, but by the quality of using fewer ingredients.

Most people believe being a chef is just about cooking. But that's not true, is it? What is the toughest responsibility you've had outside of cooking?
It isn't about cooking for me anymore. Now, it's all about education and training. It's about teaching my team to do what it is I want when I am not there.

The hardest thing for me has been walking into, essentially, construction sites on new restaurant build-outs and being out of my element; yet still having a vision for what it was we needed as a kitchen. For example, working with a contractor who doesn't understand why a faucet being four inches higher allows me to fill up a stock pot on the stove, versus filling it at the sink and dragging the thing over.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it's true.
We all yell. I came up in a very old-school fashion of being scared to make a mistake or ask the wrong question. There are some guys who are still like that; I used to be like that too, but the industry is changing and it's becoming a mellower field because it has gotten so popular to be a chef. The spotlight is on us now, so we have to evolve.

Most recent food discovery.
Not really a discovery, but I have started to use a lot more aji amarillo lately. I've added it to ceviche or made vinaigrettes out of it. It's got a great balance of hot and sweet.

Let's talk about your time at Four Seasons, since you were there for a while. How is cooking for a restaurant in a hotel different than a stand-alone restaurant?
If you ask a hotel chef what makes their job harder, it's that the customer is there longer and more demanding. You must deal with the amenities and all kinds of other things. If you ask the restaurant chef what makes their job harder, it's tougher to predict business levels, since you don't have a built-in business like in a hotel, so costs tend to matter more in private restaurants. Both are hard and have their ups and downs. It's all about how you deal with those and the people you surround yourself with. To me, it's all about the team.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Taste and season, taste and season, then taste some more. In the restaurant, we are constantly tasting and adjusting the seasoning of the food. It changes throughout the cooking process.

What was the turning point when you decided to focus on foodservice and attend Art Institute of San Diego?
I had already been at the Four Seasons for some time at that point, and knew this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I recommend working in a kitchen to anyone thinking about going to culinary school. It's expensive to work for a year or two, getting your butt kicked. But if you still want to do this, and you still go home and write menus and read cookbooks, then invest in the schooling.

Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
I love ink up in LA. Mozza also has a close place in my heart, having worked for Mario Batali. Union in Pasadena is great.

Where did you grow up, and where do you currently call home?
I grew up in San Diego, and grew up a lot, professionally, in Las Vegas. I call Anaheim home now.

Is there anything you'd like to learn how to do/make?
Tons! I'd like to perfect making bread. I would love to learn how to pull noodles, make an authentic paella over a wood fire, be a craft bartender— the list could keep going. All of these things take so much time to really study and understand that you can't possibly learn them all. I worked a pasta station for years at Vivace at the Four Seasons, and for Mario Batali in Vegas, so I can confidently say I am good at pasta. That's what is great about the work we do; you can always learn something new from someone.

You've worked with both Michael Mina and Gordon Ramsay. Could you tell us about any of the skills/lessons that either of them taught you?
Michael taught me how to truly be a chef and not a cook. I was held to a standard that was not always easy to reach, but we pushed. And the only way to do to that was to learn to let go and see the bigger picture of what was at hand.

Gordon taught me how to deal  with the spotlight and the attention that comes with it. You are always under the microscope of the public opinion when you work for someone like that. And both taught me how to advance my food— Michael with the use of spices and heat, and Gordon through restraint. Sometimes the best ingredient was the one you left off.

Hard to beat that view.
Hard to beat that view.
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

What's your favorite childhood memory?
I always enjoyed Christmas Eve. We never did a big dinner (us kids being too excited), so we did a sort of tapas night for dinner. Eating all these different types of food always sparked my imagination.

What other skills do you have outside of the restaurant?
This is all I have ever received a paycheck for in my life. I like to play golf, and I am a huge movie and pop culture buff, but those aren't skills.

Hardest lesson you've learned:
To delegate tasks, but not the responsibilities. You always need to check back in and follow up.

Favorite meal growing up:
I grew up eating very well. My mom was a great cook when I was a kid. She would bake and cook all day, but any time we barbequed I got to help, so those were my favorite.

You're making breakfast. What are you having?
I don't eat breakfast, unless you count a Starbucks on the way into the restaurant as breakfast.

You have a whole day to yourself; what would you be doing?
I rarely have a whole day off to myself. I have three great kids and a loving wife who I will be spending my time with, most likely going and walking around Disneyland, or just hanging out at home.

Listed among your skills I found modern cooking techniques like sous vide cooking and using hydrochlorides. Do you use either of these techniques on your menu?
Not quite yet but soon. I would like to sous vide some of our steaks; I feel it results in an even more tender product and we can add some aromatics and butter to give them more wonderful flavoring. As far as hydrochlorides, that is all the new age powders and stuff that gets a bad rap nowadays. But all it means is that they are water soluble powders. I am sure we all have one at home, such as cornstarch. They can be used to enhance our cooking. I certainly don't suggest basing ideas around a particular technique, but use techniques to enhance the product we are giving to our guests.

Last thing you looked up online:
I was looking up plateware for the restaurant right before this.

What would you like to be doing if you weren't in this business?
I love movies, so I would like to say being a director, which is kind of what I do every day at the restaurant. I push people to see my vision for what we can make for others to enjoy.

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