Chef Michael Gottlieb
Ralph Brennan's Redfish Grill
To say that Michael Gottlieb was born in to a food family is putting it mildly. His great-great-grandfather founded its iconic, eponymous Savannah bakery in 1884. His two brothers are as deep in the industry as he is; one is a chef, the other is ‘the wine guy.’ They grew up at Gottlieb’s, and at age five, Michael was already bagging cookies. Before long, he was baking bread and in doughnut production, thinking it didn’t get any cooler than that. But by the time he headed off to culinary school at age 17, and his father offered to keep the business going for them, the brothers preferred to be ‘on the savory side’ of things.
Tagging along with his older brother, Laurence, Michael enrolled in the progressive Senior Access program at Johnson & Wales in Providence. Through school, they worked together at The Gatehouse, an acclaimed fine dining restaurant in Providence, and the young student’s first experience in a restaurant kitchen. “It was awesome,” he remembers, “I’m still running dishes we did there.” In a curious twist of fate, it was there that he first met Steven Marsella, a fellow new arrival in the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group family: nearly twenty years ago, the executive chef of Heritage Grill and Ralph Brennan Catering was executive chef at The Gatehouse.
Michael’s next post at The Inn at Perry Cabin on Maryland’s Eastern Shore took him deeper in to the realm of fine dining, where Mark Salter’s exquisite English-influenced fare made a major impact on the impressionable young chef’s approach to cuisine. Continuing on his rarified trajectory, Michael next joined Laurence, who was chef de cuisine, at The Inn at Little Washington. For four years they worked together under the intensive tutelage of Patrick O’Connell. It was there that Michael developed his passion for the art of service. “It’s engrained in my head, the china, the crystal, the presentation. I was expediting, and that exposure to the front of the house really sunk in, as much as the culinary training,” he recalls.
At that point, the Gottlieb brothers were ready to reinvent the family business. They returned to Savannah and opened Gottlieb’s Restaurant & Dessert Bar to great acclaim, Michael and Laurence in the kitchen, and brother Richard, the wine guy, running the front of the house. “It was a phenomenal experience, so early in our careers,” says Michael, “We received AAA’s 4-Diamond rating within a few months of opening, and were ranked with the likes of Guenter Seeger. We were invited to participate in all sorts of Food & Wine events. And it did really well. It was thrilling.”
When their lease was up, however, it was time to move on. Michael spent six months consulting with his brother in Jacksonville, Florida before heading to Beaufort, South Carolina. He developed an extensive restaurant concept for a rocket scientist [yes, an actual rocket scientist] who wanted a top-notch restaurant and gourmet market in his small town. When the economy went south, they scaled down the plans accordingly, and opened a casual eatery. Looking to get back to fine dining, Michael was in contact with Susan Spicer, who passed his name on to Haley Bittermann, Executive Chef of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group. She invited him down to Ralph’s on the Park. He jumped at the chance to be in New Orleans. Because Michael Gottlieb’s other passion is music.
Ever since he was a teenager, he’d made bi-annual pilgrimages to New Orleans to hear his favorite bands at Jazz Fest and at Halloween. “I already knew and loved New Orleans,” he explains, “Like Savannah, it’s an old place, with a rich history and a culture all its own – but a lot bigger. I knew this would be a place where I’d be happy and at home, yet still have lots of room to grow.” As chef de cuisine at Ralph’s on the Park, Michael happily absorbed the enlightened management style of his new employer, whose philosophy is compassionate, holistic, and family friendly – and counter to the approach of most old-school establishments he’d encountered in the industry. When the opportunity to become executive chef at the popular Red Fish Grill was offered to him, he gladly accepted it, trading an elegant dining room for his full creative freedom in a distinctly casual setting. “They’re being really good with me, letting me tweak the quality of the service items; we’ve already changed out the wine glasses and have other subtle upgrades in the works that I think even the most die-hard casual diners will appreciate.”
The seafood angle was also a bit of a departure from the chef’s usual sphere. “I’ll admit I had always considered myself a meat-and-potatoes guy. But I love fish, too, and love this chance to focus on it and expand my repertoire. Gulf seafood is killer. The crabs here are sweeter. The oysters are unbeatable. I still have great west coast seafood contacts I’ve made along the way, so I can pick up the phone and have net-caught Coho salmon here the next day for the ‘Visiting Fish’ section of our menu. And though I may never succeed in convincing the good people of New Orleans,” he laughs, “where I come from, their beloved Red Fish is called a Spot-Tail Bass. It’s one and the same fish… but whatever you call it, it’s always the top seller here.”
Michael’s signature style puts a southern twist on classical creole cuisine. “I like to pull tradition from everywhere,” he says. So on his menu any given day, you’ll find dishes that are familiar, yet intriguing. Like his Spiced Cream Cheese Encrusted Snapper with Wilted Spinach on Potato Rosti and Red and White Wine Butter Sauces, and his popular Seared Maine Diver Scallops with Corn Custard, Creamy Risotto with Bacon Dust, Parmesan Cheese, and a dash of Chili Oil. On the exotic side is his Tuna Two Ways, pairing a Pepper-Seared Tuna Loin with Asian Style Tuna Tartare with Chili Garlic Aioli and Wasabi Crème Fraîche. From closer to his own hometown is his Crispy Whole Red Snapper with Peach Jam and Cane Vinegar Glaze with White Wine Butter Sauce served with Red Rice and French Beans. “Red rice is like a jambalaya base, just rice baked with tomato product. It’s a Savannah thing.”
And what about baking? “Sure I can bake -- it’s in my blood! And I have my parents to thank for a treasure trove of great recipes. But what works best for me is having a pastry chef who can realize my vision.” He goes on to explain, “I like being able to cook from my stomach. Without measuring. You can’t bake like that. My stomach tells me what to do, what it wants, and my response is immediate and intuitive.”
So here he is, on the savory side, doing just that.