Two years ago, Mike Odette was spending 72 hours a week preparing meals at Sycamore restaurant in downtown Columbia. Every evening was occupied with chopping, searing, tasting, plating and serving.
As restaurant owner and chef, Odette could expect as many as 100 diners each night, tended by a staff of 12.
Eighteen months ago, in a bold move to secure more family time, he said goodbye to the punishing hours of a full-service restaurant.
Instead, Odette now works exclusively as chef at the Central Bank of Boone County downtown, a private dining room for select employees and guests.
These days, he works 30 hours a week and spends nearly every evening at home.
The celebrated chef
Odette, 54, is one of the best-known and most celebrated chefs in Columbia. He has worked in several restaurant kitchens — Sycamore, Café Europa, Trattoria Strada Nova and Booche’s — and he has managed his own cake business, Poundcake Productions.
He launched Sycamore, the restaurant on Broadway known for locally sourced ingredients and rustic American cuisine, in 2005 “on a shoestring budget” as a collaboration with friends.
Four years later, he achieved celebrity chef status when he became a semifinalist for the James Beard Award in the Best Chef: Midwest category.
Then in 2013, Odette accepted an offer to also helm the kitchen at the downtown Central Bank. For five years, he juggled both his positions at Sycamore and the bank until he made his assertive career shift, selling his shares in Sycamore to begin working exclusively at the bank.
One reason was a cancer diagnosis, he said, but it was also a position he’d always wanted to hold. It let him spend time with his kids and be stationed almost solely in the kitchen.
“The demands of the business would take me out of the kitchen,” he explained. “My true love is to be in the kitchen.”
Now exclusively at the downtown bank, his thoughtfully presented lunches help the bank gain a competitive edge and build relationships with clients over blackened redfish, tortellini with country ham and profiteroles with chocolate sauce.
He’s usually home by 3:30.
“As far as measuring satisfaction goes, I’m in a pretty good place right now,” he said.
A relaxed man
When important clients visit Central Bank, they may not be expecting a three-course meal in a gracefully appointed dining room.
In fact, the bank has several dining areas — a small room with an oval table for a group of eight, a dining room that seats 24 and a board room with a massive table that can serve 20.
At 9:30 a.m. on a recent weekday, Odette walks into the kitchen on the third floor with the groceries he bought on the way.
He chops celery and onions, peels russet potatoes, sears jumbo sea scallops, merges wild rice and sausage for jambalaya, throws smoked duck into a gumbo, pipes whipped cream onto a chocolate bourbon, arranges doilies on plates, throws dirty pans in the dishwasher and guides a delivery man to the storage room.
He is the only chef in the kitchen.
“I don’t really feel rushed about doing things anymore,” he said. “I figured this out.”
On this day, servers Hallie Galvan and Fred Binggeli will manage the 14 diners expected for lunch.
While leisurely picking sprigs of parsley, Odette remarks, “This was the kind of thing I would miss doing.”
At Sycamore, parsley would definitely have been handled by someone else.
Other factors hastened Odette’s decision to leave Sycamore. In June 2018, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Although he said he has recovered, it underlined the benefits of a bank job, such as insurance and paid vacations.
The work hours also allow him to spend more time with his two children, whose pictures are posted on the kitchen fridge: Harrison, known as Harry, 12, and Elizabeth, 13.
But he’d still return to the notion of working alone.
“I like owning it from start to finish. From menu planning to washing the dishes,” Odette said.
The making of a chef
When he was growing up in Sedalia, Odette’s mother was the cook in the house. As a home economics teacher, she followed recipes but took shortcuts.
After Thanksgiving, she would grind up leftover ham to make sandwiches that she froze for Odette and his twin sister’s school lunches.
When the lunch thawed, “there was always a little nugget of frozen right in the middle of it,” Odette said.
Because he had an interest in science, his teachers told him he could have a career in it. He tried to get a degree in chemical engineering from three institutions, but when that didn’t work out, he turned to cooking.
He found a job at Café Europa, a restaurant that used to be on Walnut Street, because he needed the money.
“They asked if I had worked in restaurants before, and I said yes,” he said.
He had not.
The cafe’s emphasis on cooking seasonal food was the way he learned about the farm-to-table philosophy. He lives by it to this day.
“I started cooking long before there was anything called farm-to-table,” Odette said.
Next, he became head chef at Trattoria Strada Nova, the popular Ninth Street restaurant that closed in 2008.
“That’s when I really got thrown into the fire,” he said.
He also began traveling to cities like Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco to explore cuisines and experience restaurant “professionalism.” He collected menu cards, some still in his desk.
While Odette was working at Booche’s, with its simple, limited menu, owner Jerry Dethrow told him that the service philosophy was derived from Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
Odette realized then that a restaurant could offer an experience beyond just the product.
Meanwhile, Sanford Speake, a co-worker from Trattoria, had become his friend, along with Speake’s wife, Jill.
“We certainly would get together and generally drink too much and fantasize about owning a restaurant,” Speake said.
Odette’s then-girlfriend, Amy Barrett, encouraged them to take the idea seriously. After years of discussions, the four friends invested in Sycamore in 2005.
It was a busy restaurant from the beginning and earned positive reviews in the press. Several of their staff went on to launch restaurants of their own.
In 2009, the James Beard Award made a “hugely thrilling” entry into Odette’s life when he became a semifinalist.
Sycamore got some attention and more customers, but the nomination also opened-up opportunities. Odette reminisces about a three-day charcuterie workshop in St. Louis where he trained with a Culinary Institute of America instructor.
“I got to sit at the grown-up table,” he said.
At home with his kids
Odette’s favorite memories around Sycamore involve his children, who grew up in the open kitchen. They would often accompany him whenever customers asked to meet the chef.
“It’s a lot easier to walk up to a table and talk if you have a prop,” he joked.
Elizabeth and Harry say they also have fond memories of the “home away from home.”
“When I was younger, they would set up like a crib, and I would hang out in the kitchen with them,” Elizabeth said.
Outside their home in central Columbia, they grow asparagus, tomatoes, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, snap peas and various herbs.
“It’s good to be cooking and know that what you’re cooking with, you grew. It’s kind of a pride moment,” Elizabeth said, echoing her father’s farm-to-table philosophy.
The children say people might believe that food and cooking make up their entire life, but they would be mistaken.
“It’s just like, it’s almost like a hobby, I guess,” Harry said.
Everyone has personal interests: Elizabeth is a cheerleader for West Middle School; Harry plays Dungeons & Dragons; their dad likes to watch birds, camp, canoe and hunt.
When he was dividing his time between the bank and Sycamore, he had little time for his children.
“They get their dad back now,” he said.
Each morning after they get on the school bus, Odette will sit at a table with a pot of coffee. He will watch the birds at the feeders outside his lounge windows.
He will complete a crossword puzzle. And he will write the menu for the day.
“That’s my time,” Odette said. “There’s a nice leisure to it.”