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Sycamore head chef encourages friendly atmosphere

Monday, March 16, 2009 | 11:40 a.m. CDT; updated 9:14 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 16, 2009
Mike Odette preps mushrooms with his son, Harry, 15 months, on his back at Sycamore Restaurant on March 10. Odette is one of 20 semifinalists for Best Chef in the Midwest region in the prestigious James Beard Awards, which are known as the Oscars of the food world. “It came along when I really needed something like this, professionally and personally,” Odette said. “It’s really energized me.” The five finalists in each category will be announced on March 23.

COLUMBIA — When Mike Odette cooks, he has four hands.

The smaller pair belongs to Harrison, his 15-month-old son who — although not nominated for a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award like his father — oversees many meals.

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Odette, head chef and co-owner of Sycamore restaurant at Broadway and Eighth Street, is nothing like Gordon Ramsay, the head chef on the TV show, "Hell's Kitchen." Rather, Odette is friendly and easy-going and has learned how to pick his battles.

Odette, who has never been to chef school, is not sure how he managed to snag a nomination for the award, but he's not going to ask too many questions. “They might take it away from me,” he said.

Named the "Oscars of the food world," by Time magazine, the James Beard Foundation Award is one of the biggest U.S. honors a chef can receive. Beard, who died in 1985, was an American chef and food writer, and he was key to establishing an identity for gourmet American food. His foundation's mission, according to its Web site, is "to celebrate, preserve and nurture America's culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate the appreciation of our culinary excellence." 

Odette is one of 20 semifinalists in the "Best Chef: Midwest" category. Award winners will be announced Monday.

“It’s out of my hands,” Odette said. “Between now and then, the convection oven could stop working, and that is the kind of thing that affects us more profoundly.”

As he talks, Odette navigates a busy lineup of office duties, phone calls and preparing the day's carrot soup. Harry, as he's called, watches from a child carrier on Odette’s back while his father feeds a 25-pound bag of freshly peeled carrots into a food processor. When Harry gets bored, Odette hands him a large slice of carrot.

“These are his toys,” Odette said.

Harry's mother, Amy Barrett, works 24-hour shifts as a fire engineer for the Columbia Fire Department, so Odette brings the boy to work. Sometimes, Harry is joined by his older sister, Elizabeth, but on this day, the 2 1/2-year-old is at day care.

When Harry is not strapped to his dad's back, he’s quietly playing with ladles, buckets and Tupperware in a crib. Asked whether he hopes his children will grow up to be chefs, Odette replied, “I don’t know, but they sure are good eaters.”

Having Odette’s children around adds to the laid-back atmosphere of the Sycamore kitchen. The prep staff listens to music while they chop vegetables and prepare gnocchi.

Odette doesn’t believe in running his kitchen on fear. He thinks that each member of his staff deserves equal respect.

“We, as owners, are not that far removed from our employees," Odette said, "In fact, we, too, are employees of our business. It’s not a matter of wanting our staff to like us as much as it is that we want our staff to respect us and be willing to do something a little extra.”

Co-owner Sanford Speake attested to the friendly atmosphere of the kitchen. “I’ve heard people say that it is the best kitchen they have ever worked in,” Speake said.

Speake and Odette have known each other for 14 years. It’s been almost four years since they opened Sycamore with the help of Jill Speake and Barrett.

Walker Claridge, owner of the Root Cellar and bartender for Sycamore, is one of the few remaining original employees. Claridge and Odette met 13 years ago when Claridge was selling produce to Trattoria Strada Nova, the now-closed restaurant on North Ninth Street where Odette had been a chef.

Since then, Odette has used Claridge and the Root Cellar, farther east on Broadway, as a source for local produce. This way, Odette doesn’t have to go through 20 suppliers. Claridge supports Odette’s mission to use fresh, local ingredients.

He said he enjoys working for Odette because of his receptivity to new ideas and pitches for new products. And he has no problem having Odette’s children around.

“This is the same way I am raising my kid,” Claridge said. “It’s hard to separate your personal life from your business life when you are an owner or a manager. But it’s certainly never been a burden for me, and everybody else seems to enjoy them.”

As he spoke, his 3-year-old son, Lushen, stood just behind Claridge, no taller yet than his father's waist.


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