A life’s worth of cooking: An interview with Michael Serpa of Neptune Oyster in Boston

Coming from a long line of chefs and cooks, it’s little surprise to discover that
the life of Chef Michael Serpa, of Neptune Oyster in Boston, revolves
around food.

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Coming from a long line of chefs and cooks, it’s little surprise to discover that the life of Chef Michael Serpa, of Neptune Oyster in Boston, revolves around food. Since the age of seven, he’s been exposed to the world of cooking which has instilled in him a sincere pride and passion for the work he does every day. It’s that pride and passion that has helped to make Neptune Oyster one of the hottest spots in the city of Boston.

Michael was kind enough to offer up some time for an interview a few weeks back. During our conversation we talked about his early start with cooking, the pro’s and con’s of culinary school, and one of his favorite food memories.

Foodie Journal: When
was it that you realized that you loved food enough that you wanted it to be
your profession?

Michael Serpa: Well, I started off
working with my family. I don’t know, I guess it’s what we do, sort of. My
grandfather was a chef. My dad still works now as a part-time. He worked
full-time as a chef when he was of age. Two of my uncles also worked as chefs. It’s
the family trade and it was always something that was around. I was always
around food growing up, but it was never something that I figured I’d want to
do. After a while I actually figured out though that, yeah, it’s a pretty good
job. I kind of entered through that.

FJ: I know a lot of
chefs, especially ones that have family members that are involved in food, end
up getting involvement in restaurants early on. Did that happen with you or did
you only start doing more restaurant work once you got a little bit older?

MS: Yeah, it was from a
young age. I remember that my dad had a catering company when I was probably seven
years old. It was down in Florida. He had his regular job, but he did catering
on the side. He would take me and my brother there to hang out while they were
doing all the work so we’re sitting around you know, playing with all the
kitchen stuff that was all around. They didn’t want us just taking up space, so
there we were, six or seven years old, and they’re like, “All right, just peel
carrots or something.” We didn’t really help much, but it at least kept us
entertained for a little bit.

My dad also
had a place down in Florida when I was, let’s see, I was 12. So I’d go down for
the summers with my brother and he had a place, it was like a cafeteria. It was
a pretty big cafeteria for one of the skyscrapers in Miami. I remember being 12
years old, which you can’t really work when you’re 12, legally, doing
deliveries through his office building. I would run those deliveries around and
do all this and help out wherever. Everyone would ask, “Oh how old are you? You’re
so young.” “Oh I’m 14,” and then the next time I’d go back down and I was 13, I’d
say I was 14 and then when I was actually 14, “Okay, now I’m actually 14 so now
I’m legal to work.” [Laughs]

FJ: So it seems like
you’re a fan of the work, even though it can be hard with the long hours. What
is it that really drives you to want to do that every day?

MS: In terms of the long
hours and all that stuff, that’s something you just get used to doing and it
doesn’t bother most people. Like for myself, I feel that I don’t really work
that crazy of hours. I look at my dish guys, my prep guys and my line cooks who
are working 2 jobs, and they’re doing 75-80 hours a week, or whatever. I’m like,
“Well, they’re working harder than me. They’re working more hours than me. I
don’t really have anything to complain about even if I am doing a 12-hour day,
a 14-hour day.”

I do have
a good system where I am now, so it’s not that 16-hour shift,  and all that craziness which I have done
before. It’s just there’s always somebody that’s going to be working harder
than you and probably getting paid way less than you and it kind of puts everything
in perspective. Just be like, “Hey, shut up and be grateful that you get to get
paid to do what you love to do.”

In turn, and no offense to anybody that does
office jobs and stuff like that, but I could not sit down for 8 or 9 hours a
day in front of a computer. I don’t know. It would just drive me nuts.

FJ: Yeah, that seems
to be the same reaction from pretty much everybody I’ve spoken to so far.

MS: Yeah, I mean once you
start … I do very little office work for my job, which is great. When I have to
do some of that office stuff, and I’m sitting around for like an hour looking
at the computer and papers and stuff, I’m just like, “Ugh.” It just drags! 14
hours seems to go a lot faster when you’re walking around and doing [SALT].

FJ: So you did have
the exposure to the food world from a young age, but I’m wondering how did you
make your progression from helping out with your dad? Did you end up going to
culinary school or did you just keep working in restaurants?

MS: Yeah, well my dad and
all my family are originally from Cuba, so I got a lot of exposure to Cuban
cooking, but my dad worked in a bunch of places and learned Italian and French
cooking as well, so I learned a lot with him. I ended up working in restaurants
a lot during my teens. As I got older I got more kitchen work, worked the line.
I eventually got a job at a nice place, probably the nicest place in Redding,
Pennsylvania, which isn’t the dining mecca of the world, but it was a nice restaurant.
The chef there was really into food, and she taught me a lot of stuff that
other places in the area weren’t even talking about. It was more like a legit
restaurant. I learned a lot there.

I did eventually enroll at the CIA. Once I
finished my externship, I figured I’d drop out. I was in New York, which is
what I wanted at the time and thought, “Well, I’ll go back to school, graduate
and then come back and get the same job that I have now.” It’s not like a law degree
or whatever. A culinary degree is not required to be a great chef. Thomas
Keller never went to CIA. He never went to culinary school, period. He’s doing pretty
good.

FJ: Yeah, a little
bit.

MS: I feel the culinary school thing can be both good and bad. It’s good because you learn  stuff and get exposed to tons of stuff and you can see what you like doing and what you don’t. The
obvious downside is that it costs you $35,000 a year to end up making $12 an
hour right after graduating.

FJ: With that in mind,
say I’m a 17 year old kid. I’m interested in food. I walk up to you and say, “Hey,
I want to become a chef.” What would be your advice? Jump into a restaurant or
take a look at culinary school?

MS: I think at that age
it would be good to start off working. If you can work for free for a little
while at a top restaurant, which would be best just because of the exposure to
that environment. If you want a paying job, maybe offer a week or two so they
can see if they want to hire you. Find the nicest place you can that has a good
rep and served good food. Definitely pick a place where they’re not serving
frozen, microwaved food. Ultimately just try to get a job to see if you
actually like cooking andyou’re actually into it before you waste your money
going to culinary school.

When
I was in school, there were probably 75 people that were on the same track I
was. Probably 10 to 15 of them are still
cooking, maybe. Everybody else all spent the same amount of money as me, and to
not even be cooking…  That’s pretty
crazy.

FJ: So my last
question… It sounds like you’ve been around food for just about forever, so I’m
sure you have tons, but do you have a particular food memory that really stands
out to you?

MS: There are tons! What
most of my food memories would be, besides in restaurants, are what my grandma would
cook. My grandmothers cooking at home was what I usually would eat so I just
remember, she would make arroz con pollo, she would make fried pork chops and sofrito
and make the whole house smell like onions, but one of my favorite things we
would get was empanadas. I would make the dough and help roll it out. She would
throw the ground meat together or whatever we were doing and she would fry them
up. The whole house ended up smelling like frying beef. The empanadas would be
all good and gnarly, and she would put them on paper towels to soak up the
grease. They were so good. She wouldn’t make them that often. Maybe every 2 or
3 months we would do empanadas, but they were just amazing.

Michael Serpa is the chef at Neptune Oyster in Boston’s North End, located at 63 Salem Street.  

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