Our local Triangle chefs are so good at what they do, one might assume their journeys to their respective kitchens were dogged and single-minded. But the truth is often quite the contrary. So what does it take to reach gastronomic stardom?

For chef Michael Lee of M Sushi, the path did begin in food service: flipping burgers at a Sonic Drive-In when he was fourteen years old. Lee says he still has fond memories of his time there, among the lady servers on skates and the high school seniors who wowed Lee with their superior burger-flipping skills. And he learned one valuable lesson there that affects his own technique today.

“I didn’t know they made onion rings fresh daily,” he says. “I always liked their onion rings as a kid, and it was cool to find out a fast-food burger place made onion rings from scratch, from slicing the onions to battering them. I remember the manager took big pride in it and was very particular about which onions to use and how to make the batter just right. I was young but realized the importance of making dishes from scratch and having pride in what I do.”

Lee adds with a laugh: “The burger patties were frozen, though.”

Two years at Sonic led to a part-time job at a local steak house and another part-time job as a children’s tennis coach. But it was cooking that brought out his entrepreneurial streak.

Bittersweet chef and owner Kim Hammer also started out in food when she was fourteen, as a food runner and busser at a French restaurant. “I wasand still amhorribly clumsy,” she says. “My boss was a somewhat moody French chef who yelled at me every time I dropped something or got something wrong. The more he yelled, the more nervous I got and the more I dropped. There was an older woman that was the lead server-slash-floor manager, and she was sweet and patient and rolled her eyes every time the chef started yelling. I kind of clung to her skirt and just tried to not screw up too much.”

What could make that tension worth it? “Because the food was amazing, and basically I’d put up with all the screaming and hissing in the world just to eat delicious bread, chocolate mousse, and steak au poivre all the time,” Hammer says. For chefs like Hammer, food was a motivator from jump street.

But for Matthew Shepherd, his journey to Hillsborough’s decadent Matthew’s Chocolates, purveyors of high-end artisanal chocolate and gelato, was far less linear. An expert bowler and an employee at a bowling center, he came close to going pro. Instead, he chose culinary school. “It was a good choice,” he says after a lengthy pause. “I have no regrets.”

After another long pause: “I do regret the Radio Shack job. It was the late eighties, early nineties, and computers were these newfangled things that I didn’t know anything about.”

He continues to rattle off some other high- and lowlights in his career. Honorable mentions go to the incense manufacturing company he once owned and the gig he had at Brink’s, the global financial security and money-processing company in downtown Kansas City, running the machine that wrapped pennies and dimes. His hands were black by the end of the day. “Money is fucking filthy,” he says.

Chef Aaron Vandemark of Hillsborough’s Panciuto is perhaps the only chef in the Triangle with an IMDb page. Once upon a time, he says, “I walked into the loading dock of the Cartoon Network offices in downtown Atlanta and talked my way past security with a résumé that took very little ink to print. An hour later, I had an employee ID and a position as a production assistant. It turns out ‘a person with no discernible skill’ perfectly matched the job prerequisites.” Though it was grunt work, he made a vow “to be humble, to be grateful, to be the grunt they needed me to be. Be the best grunt. Hustle, listen, and learn.”

He did well and could have continued on the entertainment-industry path, but instead, like Hammer, he was motivated by food. Here again, without any previous experience or applicable skill, he moved into the food industry.

“I was a hungry college kid, and I knew that my friends and I could get an employee discount on the [Chili’s] baby back ribs we so loved,” he says. “It bought me enough time to gain my footing, and, twenty years later, I’ve got a great restaurant and an IMDb page to boot!”

illustrations by christopher williams

“I do regret the Radio Shack job. It was the late eighties, early nineties, and computers were these newfangled things that I didn’t know anything about.”