Chef Michael Rossi Takes His International Career to a Down-Home Restaurant
Written By: Marissa Wright Follow Chef Michael Rossi’s Culinary Journey to The Ranch
Photographed By: John Gilhooley
Expert Name: Chef Michael Rossi
Credentials: Executive Chef at The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon
Favorite Book: “The Flavor Bible”
Chef Michael Rossi, executive chef at The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon, was raised in the city of Orange playing sports, experimenting in the kitchen with his brother David and enjoying his grandmother’s Italian cooking. He went on to tackle culinary school and followed it up by working with some of the industry’s biggest names — both domestically and abroad — while collecting techniques and finding his voice through flavors. When speaking, Chef Rossi conveys the passion he has for food, and that passion also comes across in the delicious food he prepares.
A strong believer in the Confucius quote, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life, ” Chef Rossi loves fresh, seasonal ingredients prepared to taste how nature intended. That’s why he loves The Ranch. Located in an industrial part of Anaheim just minutes from Disneyland, The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon is executing farm-to-table cuisine on another level thanks to The Edwards Ranch Estates’ bountiful and organically raised produce. Using their own farm as a supplier, Chef Rossi and his team can have ingredients picked at peak maturity and on a plate within hours. So much more than a meal, dining at The Ranch is a lesson in how food should taste. Coupled with a staggering wine list, craft cocktails made with ingredients also sourced from the farm and whimsical desserts by Chef Rossi, it is hard to not be blown away. All it takes is one visit to The Ranch, and you’ll see this praise is well-deserved.
Q: I see that you come from a large Italian family; did that contribute to you getting in the kitchen?
Michael Rossi: Yeah, of course. My dad is the oldest of six kids and my brother, sister and I are the oldest of the grandkids. Now there are 48 of us — 24 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren. It sounds almost cliché, but on Sundays my grandma would have the church choir over, and she would have her family. Then as the grandchildren started coming, it was a given that Grandma would cook Sunday supper. There were the huge bowls of pasta, and she would start making pizzas. There would be like 30 pizzas coming out of the oven, and that’s just kind of how it was. It was always centered around family.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
MR: It was something I gravitated to and the weird part about it was I didn’t even know there was a such thing as a culinary school. When we were growing up, my brother David and I played Little League and my mom and dad both worked, so we would just cook stuff. We’d be frying wontons and taquitos when we were 10 years old. When I found out there was something to do professionally with it, I was excited. We didn’t have the Food Network or the internet. It definitely wasn’t something that was “cool.”
Q: After finishing at the top of your class in culinary school, what led to your next move?
MR: I wanted to learn about Asian cuisine and the whole Pacific Rim because I thought it was interesting, so I went to work at Roy’s. When I was working in Maui, we changed the menu every day. All the sauces would change with each fish; all that underlies would change with every sauce and fish. It would never be the same. It was like a vacation and it was the coolest place — this was like 1996, 1997. Roy was really hot at the time, and he was especially hot at this pan-Pacific fusion cuisine of mixing traditional French techniques with Asian ingredients. We would have people coming in four days in a row.
Q: How did you make the jump to the Border Grill with Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken?
MR: I was accepted to another culinary school in Italy, so I came home but had around five months before I was leaving. So I drove up to Santa Monica, knocked on the front door and said, “I want to come work with you.” I had heard a lot about the restaurant and wanted to be a part of it. I worked the ceviche station and then the taco station, but I was the only white guy in the kitchen. I had to figure out how to get it done when even the tickets came in Spanish. It was pretty intense.
Q: Sounds like it helped prepare you for dealing with more language barriers while you were abroad furthering your education at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners. What was it like being a young American chef in Italy?
MR: I was really lucky to have attended this chef school in Asti, Italy. After you go through the traditional, regional Italian cuisine book-type part of it you go on to an internship of sorts and work where they place you within the country. I asked to go to Southern Italy because I have some family that’s from the south, so I went to work in Pompeii, and it was like an eye-opener. I worked 60 days in a row. The restaurant itself was one of the only in Southern Italy with a Michelin star despite so much good cuisine. I thought I was going back there for good. It was when I was there (the second time) that we received our second Michelin star. It was really cool, and that was the stepping stone after going to culinary school.
Q: How do you balance creating seasonal menus that reflect your style while also staying true to the steakhouse fare that guests of The Ranch have come to love?
MR: I would say we are an American regional cuisine restaurant that’s driven by the produce that’s available at our farm today. The hardest thing about being a chef and the easiest part of being a chef is showcasing product when it’s available and really using it when it’s the best. It’s hard when you have 600 pounds of tomatoes arrive on your doorstep, but the joy of using it all is in how you use it. The inspiration is always the product.
Q: So you wouldn’t throw The Ranch into the category of steakhouses?
MR: The interesting thing about it was when I came to The Ranch five years ago it wasn’t defined. Edwards had a name — The Ranch Steakhouse & Saloon. He had already trademarked it and then we [Michael & David Rossi] sat down with him and we said we don’t know if we wanted do a steakhouse because we’re going to pigeon-hole ourselves. Ironically enough, we changed the name to “Restaurant” but everyone thinks we’re a steakhouse because we serve a lot of steaks. The Cowboy Ribeye was something that we talked about, and now we can’t even keep them in the house. Our servers don’t talk about it, they don’t try to sell you it, but we still serve a ton of them. It would blow you away.
Q: Besides highlighting the amazing produce that is grown here, what else can guests anticipate when visiting The Ranch?
MR: My brother David oversees the pastries, and he really does just about everything else, too. He does all the curing and smoking we do in the restaurant. We make our own bacon. We make our own pancetta. We make all our own sauces — like barbecue sauces and hot sauces. Everything that we can make from scratch we make. That’s kind of David’s focus. It’s made the journey a lot more fun because we do it together and we’ve both really geeked out on it.
Q: How would you describe your leading style in the kitchen?
MR: I hate to talk about myself this way, but I guess I’m a teacher with my staff. We have 1, 000 tasting spoons in our kitchen, and if someone is tasting something, everybody comes over, grabs a spoon, tastes it, and then we talk about it. Does it need more acid? Does it have enough salt? Is there a balance? Is it hitting every part of your tongue? That’s the part of a restaurant you need to teach your people because you can’t cook everything and consistency is the hardest thing. Cooking is so unpredictable — like these tomatoes are amazing, but some days they’re not and you need to add a little more of something to balance it. That’s what cooking is all about — showcasing the product by letting it be itself, but also giving it other characters or roles in the show so it can be complete.
Q: How do you know what the right ingredient is to take a recipe to the next level? Is it instinctual?
MR: I have about 600 cookbooks — I’m obsessed. I have a constant need to learn something new, but I rarely look at recipes. To me, it’s about flavor profiles and ingredients that are going together.
Q: How would you describe your food in 10 words or less?
MR: Balance and layers of flavor. I think it’s important when you take a bite that it hits everywhere on your palate. When somebody tastes the food at The Ranch, they get it. They taste what we tried to have them taste. If I’m looking for balance and layers of flavor, I want you to taste it, too.
Memory Lane: On his first day working at Border Grill for Food Network’s Too Hot Tamales, Rossi had to make 15 gallons of guacamole for their food truck. He still uses the same recipe 20 years later because it’s how guacamole should taste.
Chef Rossi’s 4 Rules for Cooking:
1. Don’t be afraid of salt
2. Use fresh ingredients
3. Don’t overcook your meats or fish
4. Taste your food while cooking
Well-Known Chefs Rossi Has Worked With:
1. Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s Restaurant
2. Gino Angelini of Vincenti Ristorante
3. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill
Native Knowledge: Michael Rossi decided to attend the California Culinary Academy after visiting the San Francisco institution at 23 years old.
The Ranch Restaurant & Saloon
1025 E Ball Rd
Anaheim, CA 92805
714.817.4200 | www.theranch.com