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Thursday, March 24, 2011 06:30 pm

Michael Higgins, the chef as politician

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Higgins in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

“Of all the professions…few people are less suited to be suddenly thrown into the public eye than chefs.” —Anthony Bourdain in his bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential.

Bourdain wrote those words in 2000. His point was that the denizens of restaurant kitchens’ controlled chaos and crazy hours were unlikely candidates for celebrity. But the intervening years have shown that some chefs make great celebrities – and I’m talking about actual chefs, not faux-chef personalities, such as Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee. Not least among those real chefs is Bourdain himself, a self-described journeyman chef. His sardonic wit combined with genuine enthusiasm for real food and off-the-tourista-trail travel have reputedly made him the highest-paid “celebrity chef” in America through his best-selling books, and television food/travel shows (currently on Travel Channel).

Politicians are necessarily celebrities, too: people well-known in their constituencies, whether those constituencies encompass a district, city, county, state or an entire country. But few, if any, chefs have leapt into the political fray as candidates, though noteworthy chefs have gotten involved in politics, especially relating to food issues. A cursory look through the Internet found none that had entered the political fray as actual candidates.

Except here in Springfield, that is.

“What do you think about our buddy running for alderman?” asked Michael Ayers last December when I ran into him in Schnuck’s parking lot. “Who?” I asked. “Mike,” he replied. “Mike,” he repeated when I still looked blank. “Mike Higgins.”

I hadn’t seen that one coming. When anyone asks where I live, my answer is “Springfield,” but I’ve never actually lived inside the city limits. So while I’ve always been aware of Springfield politics and politicians, I haven’t paid as close attention as I would have otherwise. Undoubtedly, though, I’d have known about Higgins, a longtime friend, if I hadn’t been in NYC for several weeks prior. While it initially surprised me, I immediately realized Higgins’ candidacy made sense.

“All politics is local,” said former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Higgins has been advocating local food for a very long time. He’s deeply involved in the Buy Fresh, Buy Local movement. He’s a big supporter of Springfield’s farmers markets, and regularly gives cooking demonstrations there. But even before BFBL and the current farmers markets existed, Higgins was supporting local farmers, and suppliers. I know that personally, because he was a regular customer – the only chef customer – at my grandparents’ organic produce farm in the ’80s and ’90s. Over the years I’ve also had several of those farmers and suppliers tell me – without me asking – how much Higgins’ support has meant to them. It’s fashionable now for restaurants to denote provenance (where the ingredients come from), especially locally sourced items, on their menus. But Higgins was doing so years ahead of anyone else here, and long before most people even cared.

His commitment to local goes far beyond food issues, however, as I found when I asked him about his candidacy.

Why did he decide to run for alderman? “I’ve been involved in this community for a long time,” he says. “And I was looking for someone to bring a little heart and soul to the city council.” Higgins wants to do more for Springfield citizens than just feed them.

“Ward 7 has a wide range of income levels,” he told me. “In my ward, people need their sidewalks, potholes and sewers fixed like they do in other areas.

“I’m tired of seeing the hotel/motel tax applied to other things besides infrastructure, which is what it was put into place to take care of.”

A longtime supporter of local foods, Higgins regularly gives cooking demonstrations at the Old State Capitol Farmers Market.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE


Higgins also wants government support for private initiative: “There’s a lot we can do with MacArthur Blvd. Look at Sixth Street in the summertime – the plantings and people dining outside – it’s beautiful, something that draws people, and that Springfield can be proud of. It became that way because of me and other business owners who got together to make it happen. I’d like to bring that same kind of initiative to MacArthur Blvd. – make it another location that draws people in.”

“As far as being a chef and restaurateur, I think the main advantage that gives me is my sense of having a small, local business – that’s how the restaurant plays into it. I’ve had to look at different revenue streams, and deal with national crises that affect local business, like 9/11 and the banking crisis – and, of course in Springfield, state politics have huge local impact. I have to be able to forecast trends and budgets.

 “In the restaurant business, you have to communicate with the public – your customers – constantly. I need to make sure that regular diners’ longtime favorite dishes maintain their quality (I’ll never be able to take the Beef Wellington off the menu!) while at the same time developing fresh and innovative things for people who want to try something new. You can’t take anything for granted – a restaurant is only as good as its last meal. I tell my staff that our job is not to be perfect, but to minimize mistakes as much as possible – and, most important – to not let mistakes slide.”

Higgins hails from San Francisco, and graduated from that city’s College Culinary Program. How did he get from there to Springfield?

“My first job after school was at the Sahara in Lake Tahoe – that was tough – gorgeous scenery, skiing in my off hours,” he laughs. “I worked every job in every department, and learned a lot.”

His move to the Midwest came in 1981 with a girlfriend who had a scholarship at St. Louis’ Washington University. Higgins became a chef at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. The relationship didn’t last. Higgins was miserable and made plans to move back to California. But three weeks before he was to leave, he met the love of his life, Nancy Howard, a pastry chef. The couple married in August, 1982, and moved to Springfield that September. Higgins had worked in hotel kitchens since his culinary school days, and wanted experience in a stand-alone establishment. The executive chef position at Maldaner’s sounded just right – and turned out to be almost as good a match as were he and Nancy.

Originally it was supposed to be a temporary move. “I always thought we’d go back to California,” he says. “I’d established a good reputation out in Tahoe, and we had lots of opportunities for jobs there. But in the end we always chose to stay here. When we came, we didn’t know anyone. But we got to know farmers like Mr. Stevens [my grandfather] and Ron Suttill. In 1995 the Higgins bought Maldaner’s (the business, not the real estate) from their landlord, Carolyn Oxtoby. So it was pretty clear that they were here to stay.

Still, Nancy’s death in 2004 after a years-long, increasingly debilitating illness gave Higgins an even deeper appreciation of just how much Springfield had come to mean to him: “Blessed Sacrament was completely filled with people – I didn’t know we had so many friends. It was a little overwhelming – it made me realize that I want to give back as much as I can.

“Everything I’ve accomplished, I owe to the support of the Springfield community. This city helped define me – and Nancy. A business – especially a restaurant – owes so much to its community – the only way it can succeed is with community support, and I’ve been lucky to have that. That’s really why I wanted to get involved, to become the alderman for Ward 7.”

Since I don’t reside inside Springfield’s city limits, it might be not appropriate for me to make a recommendation. But I’m going to do it anyway. If Michael Higgins becomes the alderman for Ward 7, I strongly advise that the city council elect him to be in charge of bringing treats to the meetings.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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