Michael Lalagos generally is a pretty shy guy, but last fall this 33-year-old from Schaumburg found himself at the center of attention as he cooked against three other finalists and in front of several hundred people at the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.
The youngest of the contestants, Michael wasn't discouraged that he didn't win that evening.
"I'm grateful that I did it," he says. "It was nerve-racking, but it also enriched my cooking abilities."
Not long after the experience, Michael toyed with the idea of cooking professionally and, at the suggestion of Food Editor Deborah Pankey, he called chef Michael Maddox of Le Titi de Paris, one of the cooking challenge judges. Before he knew it, Michael found himself in a chef's coat prepping vegetables at the restaurant's Arlington Heights kitchen. Chef Maddox encouraged Michael to come in whenever he wanted, which turned out to be about 10 Saturdays over the course of several months.
"I had a blast. I was cutting up vegetables, prepping stuff, working on the line; working eight to 10 hours felt like four hours," he says. "Yes, you're on your feet, but you're doing something! I learned a ton -- the right way to do things."
Michael, an advertising art director, still is not convinced he wants to make the switch to professional chef.
"It's the kind of thing that I would have to be committed to doing 120 percent," he says. When Michael heard about the closing of Le Titi de Paris last month he had a new understanding for the Maddoxs' decision to close.
"There is no family time when you're working 16 hours a day and it's go, go, go all the time. With my job, at least I get time to relax at the end of the day."
So while he's not ready to quit his day job, Michael still gets plenty of opportunities to cook.
"You know you're a chef when it's second nature to want to feed people. Once (friends) know you can cook, they look to you and expect something good."
This weekend, for example, Michael will provide food for an annual fishing trip with friends.
"I'll do some pulled pork maybe; summery stuff. Maybe souvlaki on skewers." Michael shares his chicken souvlaki recipe with us today.
Raised in a large family with plenty of Greek relatives, Michael grew up surrounded with food. He remembers going to the library with his mom when he was a little boy. While the other children pulled picture books from the shelves, Michael led his mom to the cookbook area, where he would find Greek cookbooks to check out.
And apparently, some things never change.
"I still read cookbooks, or books authored by chefs," he laughs.