Meet the Chef: Mike Cooley from Fire and Ice

MIDDLEBURY — Mike Cooley, Fire & Ice’s head chef, hasn’t always envisioned himself in a kitchen. As an undergraduate, he studied English literature and pre-law at Frostburg University in Maryland. But one day, during a dishwashing gig at a local saloon he took to earn some extra cash, the head chef put him on the line. 
“I had worked as a dishwasher for two and a half hours, and then they put me on the line because the fryer cook quit,” he said in an interview this week. “Two months later, I had learned the entire kitchen.”
For Cooley, that was the beginning of it all. Slowly, he realized that his passion for cooking trumped his desire to finish school. He began working 60 hours a week, and eventually transferred to an Italian restaurant, Guiseppe’s, where he learned the true value of food from a Tuscan head-chef who urged him to ‘keep it fresh, keep it simple.’ 
“I just really liked the cooking life, working at night, fast-paced, high-stress,” he said while slicing the fat from a filet of salmon. “You couldn’t really let your mind wander.”
Looking back, he realizes that cooking has always been a passion. At 14 years old, Cooley cooked for his mother while she was pregnant with her second son. Sometimes, he wishes he realized his love for food earlier. 
“If I had realized how much I actually liked doing this, and actually concentrated on it, I could have gone to culinary school right after high school and saved a lot of time,” he said.
When Cooley’s girlfriend, who works for the Parks Department, got a job in Vermont in 2008, Cooley followed with plans to attend the New England Culinary Institute. Soon, though, he realized that swinging a full-time class schedule was unrealistic. In Middlebury, he found Rosie’s diner, where he worked for three years before making his way to Fire & Ice. He took a job as a cook, transitioned to head chef after two years, and the rest is history. 
“I’ve worked in a lot of different restaurants, and I love working here,” he said. “I love working in this area. It combines a lot of fresh, awesome ingredients, and people who come in are really open to experimentation with these ingredients.”
Cooley is particularly excited about a special Thanksgiving menu, made with entirely local ingredients including turkey from Misty Knoll, root vegetables and some killer local potatoes. 
“As far as potatoes go ? and I know potatoes aren’t usually anything that people get excited about ? but the flavor profile of these potatoes is awesome,” he said. “They’re, like, the upper echelon of potato.”
(For those who’d like to try the potatoes on Cooley’s menu, along with the Thanksgiving regulars ? cranberry sauce, stuffing, gravy from local favorites like Lewis Creek Farm, Monument Farms and Cabot Creamery ? reservations are highly recommended.)
Fire & Ice’s normal menu hosts traditional surf and turf cuisine, but Cooley said he’s added touches of Asian and Southwestern influence. On the menu, his favorite dish to prepare is the prime rib. At home, he lives for barbecue. 
“I love slow and low,” he said. “You have to exercise a lot of patience. The fast stuff, like hard sautéing and searing, that’s good, but I really like the slow and low, and letting the flavor develop.”
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